03/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Awakening from the Sleep of Spirit

There are several forms of sleep:
• The nightly sleep, which gives our bodies and minds relief from the stresses of the day.
• The dream state, which allows our subconscious to communicate our hidden conflicts and desires.
• The sleep of the spirit, which gives us the illusion of safety and separation.

This last type of sleep is the kind that most religions and spiritual traditions seek to address, and from which they try to help us awaken. These traditions know that our limited sense of ourselves as simply physical creatures is, in fact, a sleep state that keeps us from seeing a higher level of reality. And, just as we can awaken from the nightly dream state to physical reality, so too we can awaken to a spiritual reality that is richer, more meaningful, more powerful, and more satisfying than the physical state alone.

What does it mean to awaken to the spiritual reality? I define "spiritual" as,
The experience of a transformative connection.
In other words, we touch spiritual reality when we directly encounter another person, life, and the world, as directly connected through the flow of Divine consciousness, which is the ultimate reality. In that moment, when we are given this glimpse in to the spiritual dimension, we can see that the structures of thought that we believed define reality are merely the mechanisms implanted in us to help ensure physical survival, but are not really who we are in essence.

It is extremely difficult to describe this glimpse to one who has not experienced it, yet spiritual traditions from across the globe agree that this reality exists, and that it is our purpose in life to more fully engage it in order to elevate ourselves, and thereby elevate the world. How this process of awakening occurs, though, is a great mystery. Why do some people have spiritual experiences while others do not?, and why do some people engage the spiritual reality in a deep, sustained way, that leads to growth, while others quickly return to their old ways of thinking and acting? Practices such as meditation, prayer, and deliberate acts of kindness, help us to invite spirit in, yet there are those who have done none of this and have spontaneously awakened, while others practice for years, and remain somehow blocked. The glimpse of spiritual reality seems to be an act of grace - an unmerited spontaneous revelation.

Yet we do have a crucial and active part in spiritual awakening in how we respond to the experience itself. These responses seem to come in two steps, requiring two "yeses". The first comes with the initial encounter - the revelation - when one first realizes the existence of spiritual reality. Here, one is called to say "yes" to this reality, and to commit to following its path. This typically includes a commitment to a spiritual practice and to integrating spiritual teachings in to one's life. Here, one may be tempted to believe that the revelation came as recognition of one's specialness, with the expectation of personal rewards (fame, spiritual powers, respect, the end of confusion and suffering). Taking spiritual revelations personally, in this way, is a typical component of the first "yes" (and you probably know someone who is eager to share his/her "spiritual experiences" as a sign of special status or superiority). This attitude, though, eventually leads to a crisis - to hitting a wall. You may receive all the expected rewards, but discover that these are not satisfying, leaving you feeling depressed. Or you may not receive the rewards, and feel cheated and unappreciated. Or you may even find that life has gotten more difficult since you said "yes" to a spiritual path, and now you feel bitter and cynical. This may feel like a fall from grace, and here is where many people end their spiritual development, because the spiritual path is not what was expected.

But, if you have the strength and courage to stay committed to the reality that was revealed to you at the first "yes", you are faced with saying the second "yes"; to surrendering the images of a "spiritual life" that you created, and to accepting the painful realization that it is not about you - at least not in the way that you defined yourself. This second "yes" is a paradoxical surrender of self because you say "yes" to give up your identification with your lower, ego-bound self, in order to allow your higher, truer self to emerge. Then you begin to see that there is a dimension of yourself of which you had no idea, that you are more than you could have imagined, and that there is a bigger "you" that is in alignment with your soul's purpose. This "yes" is not about giving up ambition or passion, but is about living in the realization that you, like everyone, is a Divine being, placed here for a purpose that both fulfills and transcends your self.

These two "yeses" to waking up to spirit are both needed. The first is the recognition of the reality of the spiritual dimension, and the second "yes" is the recognition that you are not who you think you are, and that it's not about you. These two "yeses" must come in steps, like moving from crawling to walking to running. And frankly, if we knew of the second "yes", very few of us would ever say "yes" to the first. This second "yes" is the most difficult, and is the one that most people (myself very much included) have tremendous resistance to answering fully.

There are those, though, who have answered the second "yes" fully. These extraordinary people may be famous or anonymous - parents, businessmen, political leaders, teachers, religious figures - but they are instantly recognizable. They are fully present to others, naturally look for ways to be of service, feel purposeful, live in gratitude, do not indulge fear, and flow easily with life's inevitable changes. We may feel like sleepwalkers in their presence. And, in fact, we are