I had so many responses to my last essay, “You are the boat”, that I wanted to tell you a bit more about what I know about the phases of spiritual awakening. And of course, talk more about the boat!
The metaphor of a kayak navigating the rapids and how it relates to spiritual awakening first came to me when I learned to kayak about 15 years ago, just after finishing chemotherapy for cancer at age 32. I was going through an intense physical, emotional and spiritual crisis and was looking to understand more about why all of this shit was happening to me. At that time, I had an epiphany where I finally understood the idea of myself and the boat as two parts of the same being — my human self and my spiritual self. My understanding of the other phases came later, as I deepened my spiritual practice.
There are four phases of spiritual awakening in this metaphor. Progression through these phases takes you from being ego-bound and unable to escape your own suffering all the way to understanding that you are both everything and nothing (the manifest and unmanifest) and that, in fact, there is no “you” there to suffer through anything at all.
So, let’s go through the phases, one by one.
Everyone got your kayak ready? Got your paddle? Got your desire to be one with the universe?
Excellent! Let’s go.
When you first learn to kayak, you’re constantly flipping over and it’s hard to control the direction of the boat. This is phase one – where our emotions and belief systems about the world feel out of control, just like the kayak. In this phase, life seems unpredictable, unfair and it feels like no matter what you do, there’s always someone or something that gets in the way. Maybe your boss is really difficult or you’re always rehashing the same fights over and over with your partner. Maybe you just can’t get a break and it feels like the world is against you. There’s also an internal struggle going on as well, and you often worry about what other people think of you or how they will react to your choices. You worry about if you’re good enough and fear people will see through you. Life feels uncertain and precarious and like you’re stuck on this emotional rollercoaster where trauma and drama keep happening in your life, over and over.
Phase two is when you start to learn to control the boat. You learn how to steer the boat right and left, how to back paddle to slow down, and how to shift your weight so that the boat goes where you want it to. In this phase, you’ve learned some emotional regulation skills so that when you feel like life is going off the rails you can do something to “control the boat.” This could be tools like deep breathing, guided meditation, or going for a walk. You’ve been to therapy or learned how to do some thought work, like Byron Katie’s The Work and can now understand that you shouldn’t believe everything you think. You’ve done a lot of work to address the trauma in your past and look at how your thoughts, behaviors and choices come through that lens of your trauma response. Life seems calmer now and you understand that while you can’t control much of what happens to you, you can control how you react to it.
Phase three is when you realize that successfully making it through the rough rapids isn’t about trying to control the boat much at all. It’s about learning to listen to the boat and follow its lead. The boat is designed to float, so if you react to what the boat wants to do instead of trying to control it, you’ll make it through with much less effort and a sense of partnership with the boat. This is when you start to understand that you are a spiritual being having a human experience. There are two parts to you – the human self (passenger) and the spiritual self (the boat). Once you let the spiritual self lead the way, life becomes a whole lot easier. In this phase, you’ve had some experiences with ego dissolution through meditation or with plant medicine and you’ve come to understand that you have a soul or spirit. You also understand that the idea of “you” as a separate being is just a temporary illusion you’re experiencing while you’re incarnated here as a human. In this phase, intuition becomes much stronger and you have a good sense of your “spiritual compass” or karmic area of study you’re supposed to explore during this lifetime. There’s also often a sense of comfort or peace as you deepen your awareness of universal consciousness and know that as an eternal being, you are always safe and nothing can ever really hurt you.
Finally, we get to phase 4. At this point you’ve realized that not only are you both the passenger and the boat, you are also the river. And the rocks. And the trees. And the birds and the wind…. You are everything, all made of the same stuff, the unmanifest made manifest. This is when you’ve reached enlightenment or awakening. At this point, you can easily access a blissed-out state of feeling connected, and all feels right in the world. Even when things are going “wrong” you see that there is a rightness there. You accept all as right and good because if it’s happening, it has to be right and good. There is equanimity to joy and pain and everything in between, it all loses its meaning other than, “it is”. In this phase, there’s a heightened level of intuition and an opening of deep reservoirs of compassion and love for everything around you. Once you understand that you and everything outside of “you” is the same thing you understand that all there is to do is be love, emit love, and receive love.
Is there a phase 5? There could be! At my point in this journey, I’ve only been able to experience these 4, but I know that I am an ever-evolving, ever-changing being and I don’t yet know what I don’t know.
It’s important to note that these phases don’t necessarily go in order and that we often cycle through the phases depending on the day, our mood, our past experiences, and so on. We can also be in one phase for months or years before we experience the next one, and many people never go past phase one or two in this incarnation. This is as it’s supposed to be, there is no here that is better than there, it all just is as it should be.
I’m curious — tell me how you’ve experienced these phases. Where are you and your boat today?