The matter of ‘false awakenings’ is a book-length study. Nevertheless it is important to look at, if only because of its wide prevalence. And we’re not just talking about the stereotypical religious nut who believes that he’s seen God and bears a crucial message for humanity. What we’re really talking about are more subtle delusions brought about by altered states of consciousness and related experiences.
False awakenings are often connected to unresolved authority issues. This is because it is the job of a good teacher or guide to point out delusions as they arise in a seeker. But if one resists guidance of any sort—‘I’ll go it on my own’—one is often prone to a type of blindness. We all have blind spots—the biggest one of which is sometimes called our ‘chief feature’. If we can really see and work with our chief feature, we have the possibility of genuine awakening. However a seeker must be ready to encounter their chief feature, because if they see it prematurely, it can have the effect of disturbing them too much and scaring them away from the path altogether. (I’ve personally seen a number of cases of this happening—often accompanied by the former seeker vehemently denouncing the path and all teachers).
In other words, if we are too resistant to guidance, or to receiving pointed feedback, then the chances are good that we will move into denial, or slip into various levels of delusion, and assume that we are further along than we actually are. More problematically, we may even assume the position of guiding others, and inevitably reap the negative ‘cause and effect karma’ when we misguide these others. The question of how to tell if an awakening is valid or ‘false’, hinges to a large degree on one’s willingness to accept some sort of guidance, or at the very least, to stay in relationship with other legitimate (committed) seekers and practitioners of inner disciplines.
This is admittedly a tricky area because all bona fide awakenings are by nature self-realized—they are not conferred on us by another person, no matter how great that other person may seem to be. We have to find the truth ourselves. Yet at the same time, we have to ‘find the others’, the birds of our plumage. We have to guard against too much isolation. We need some semblance of community, however small. Even monks live and meditate together for the most part; even hermits will on occasion break bread with another hermit.
The basic hallmark of false awakenings, in addition to the tendency for them to occur alongside too much isolation, is that they are altered states of consciousness. They are states of mind. Authentic awakenings are not truly states of mind. They are glimpses (or direct realizations, depending on depth) of Reality, that which is beyond delusion and distortion of any sort. Awakening is synonymous with an utter naturalness, the direct and tacit understanding that all things are simply as they are.
The line ‘all things are as they are’ may sound like a standard Zen cliché, but in fact there is no better description of ultimate truth. The awakened mind does not struggle with the universe. That does not mean that it is passive; only that it ceases to reject the unfolding of Reality moment by moment. The Sufi mystic Kabir alluded to this when he wrote, ‘the fish in the ocean is not thirsty’. There is a seamlessness realized between consciousness (‘me’) and the world (‘that’). Deeper realizations yield the insight that there is no true distinction between consciousness and world, just as, in Kabir’s metaphor, it is ultimately impossible for a fish in the ocean to be ‘thirsty’ (except in a deluded state of mind).
False awakenings are always based on some experience that we remain separate from. There is ‘me’ here, and there is this ‘wow’ experience over there. To use a crude analogy: many people like to go to fireworks displays. Standing there, looking up at the night sky, you can see these amazingly colourful and intricate patterns blooming and dissolving continuously, accompanied by loud booming or short crackling sounds. After a half hour or so, when all the fireworks are used up, all that remains in the sky are wisps of smoke, and the show is over. You then leave (perhaps with some photographs of the event). Analogously, ‘fireworks’ arise within our inner field of experience, and then fade away. Most people like them because they are dazzling. They are entertaining, they distract us intensely. But never for a moment are we truly part of what we are witnessing. And so when the show is over all that remains are ‘wisps of smoke’ that soon disperse—memories that within a few days fade, leaving nothing. So what was it really all about?
False awakenings—‘enlightenment experiences’—are very similar. They are, essentially, the fireworks of our inner world (along with related peak experiences, like falling in love, being moved by a great piece of music or art or literature, and so on). They are all fundamentally experiences. To ‘have an experience’ requires a subject distinct from the object or experience that it witnesses. Therefore, any experience requires duality, or separation. All authentic awakenings involve direct insight and awareness of deep inter-relatedness, and ultimately of Oneness, non-duality.
At this point a natural question may arise: if we can taste Oneness, and then lose it, does that not render the ‘Oneness’ just another experience? Can we not simply say, ‘I had an experience of Oneness, but alas, it has gone’? We can most certainly say that, but that does not mean that any separate self (‘me’) truly ‘experienced the Oneness’. It simply means that we had a glimpse of non-duality—Reality—but that the conventional state of mind, the duality of ‘me and my experiences’, has returned. In order to make sense of this, the mind frames it as a memory—the memory of ‘an experience that I had’. But this is not actually what happened. It is just the mind trying to reduce the matter to terms it is familiar with.
Another revealing quality of false awakenings is that they typically get used by the ego to bolster self-image. They easily result in self-aggrandizement, and moreover, a tendency to begin to see others as inferior, as less special. If a person has significant unhealed issues related to self-image, believing that they have been undervalued by their family, by others, by the world, and so on, they can become quite deluded if they use their spiritual experience as a crutch to boost themselves. ‘I may have failed in all these other ways, but now I know that I am superior in this way, which is really the most important way because it is spiritual.’ There is actually very little difference between this sort of view and the insufferable righteousness of many religious fundamentalists.
Often there is a fine line between false awakenings and outright mental illness. This is why it is almost always necessary to accept some sort of guidance, or at the least participate in some semblance of spiritual community, on the path of awakening. It doesn’t matter if the guidance is of ‘perfect’ quality or not (almost certainly, it won’t be); what matters is the demonstration of humility and willingness to move beyond our isolated (‘I’m right!’) view of reality. Of course, there is always some risk involved in being guided on the path (as there is risk involved in anything in life) but such risk is less than the risk of mistaking one’s experiences of mere altered states of consciousness for genuine wisdom and liberation.