Nondual Zen Article:

Awakening and Virtue

nondual title

Awakening and Virtue
by Kathleen Sutherland

I enjoyed the recent BATGAP interview with Ken Wilber (BATGAP, YouTube; April 30, 2018). Although I thought his "map" of awakening and personal growth was too rigid, I found his position that awakening has nothing to do with becoming a better person intriguing.

To some extent this issue is muddied by how one defines awakening. If everyone who has had a profound transcendent experience is considered to have awoken, then I would have to agree with Ken. Most who have such experiences do not have a good cognitive container in which to store the experience and then build upon it. Often they disregard the experience, dismiss it as an anomaly, or, more insidiously, the ego may co-opt and misinterpret it, leading to all sorts of mischief.

But if awakening is defined as having a profound transcendent experience that is seen to reveal the oneness of all reality, and that oneness is understood to be love and the absence of ego, then those who awaken will tend to become more ethical people, with less concern for the self and a desire to help and enlighten others.

In either case, I agree with Ken that awakening does not eradicate our shadow side, and can even make things worse. To become a fully developed human, Ken posits that we must "wake up, clean up and grow up." Not necessarily in that order, but all those stages are essential. Waking up itself will not, for example, necessarily cure you of an addiction, whether that be to alcohol, food or destructive behavior. It can give you hope and motivation to heal from these afflictions, but chances are, you will still have to do the work of abstaining from your addictive substance (or behavior), resolving psychological issues, and continuing to deepen your spirituality.

This formula is quite similar to classic 12-Step support for addictions. Although spiritual insight is a key part of recovery from alcoholism, for example, it is still necessary to learn the coping skills of facing life sober, and to deal with the deep emotional angst that triggered and perpetuated drinking in the past.

Ken Wilber has done a great service to the spiritual community by making this so very clear. For those who have a trumpets-and-angels sort of awakening, many personal problems do drop away (but usually not all). For example, Byron Katie, who had a dramatic awakening, says, "I didn't quit smoking, smoking quit me." I have also heard of awakenings that similarly freed the person of other addictions, or changed a self-centered lout into a saintly being. But most of us don't have a dramatic awakening, and of those who do, many still struggle with their demons or shortcomings.

My awakening three years ago did not solve all of my psychological/emotional/ethical problems (darn!). And the work I've done to stay clear has not resolved them all either. But both the awakening and the clearing process have done much to clean up the character and help it to grow up. I'm less self-centered. And I am more motivated to continue to grow.

But I still must do the footwork. I still work on my psychological issues. I still watch for selfish behavior, and do my best to subdue it. As an addict, I'm still cautious around my Siren substances. I don't drink, and I must maintain vigilance around food, especially sweets.

Just because I still have issues doesn't mean I didn't have a genuine awakening experience. But to remain clear and make my awakening something worth having had, I must continue to improve the character, although not in the sense of making a better Kathleen. The essence of true self improvement is self effacement. The less there is of "Kathleen," the lighter my preferences, and greater my serenity. Character improvement is character diminishment. This is stoked and encouraged by awakening and the clearing process, but addressing our shadow side with practical means, such as therapy, self discipline, ethical practice, addiction recovery, etc. is also essential for most of us.

It makes sense that the character, who is not the one who awakens, will not be instantly transformed by awakening. But a person who works to maintain physical, emotional and spiritual health is less likely to get in the way of what is already and always here for us: absolute freedom.