I’m Jacob Gotwals, and this is Spiritual Awakening for Geeks, a show for independent spiritual explorers who seek peace of mind, better relationships, and a more meaningful life. I call this episode "Awakening to the Extraordinary." In this episode, I’m going to be talking about the relationship between the spiritual, the religious, the sacred, and the extraordinary; I’m going to describe spiritual awakening as a cycle of sensing, pursuing and integrating the extraordinary; and I’m going to be talking about what kinds of problems can arise that interfere with this cycle and what we can do to avoid those problems.
This is going to be another take on something that I wrote about (and talked about) in the very first episode of this podcast; that first episode was called "The Call of Awakening," and you can find it at jacobgotwals.com/the-call-of-awakening. In that episode, I talked about awakening as a journey that changes our life patterns; I talked about the cycle of awakening in terms of our life patterns, and how awakening affects our patterns of living. This is going to be another take on that cycle of awakening; instead of talking about how awakening affects our life patterns, I’ll be talking about how awakening relates to the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The Ordinary and the Extraordinary
The way that I got thinking about this was, I read a chapter in a book by a religious studies professor named Ann Taves. She talked about what the religious, the spiritual, the sacred and everything like that, what all those things have in common. This is something that I’d been thinking about for a while. It’s clear that religion and spirituality, the sacred—they all have something in common—but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that is. She did a pretty good job of that, in my opinion. She said that what they all have in common is a focus on what she would call the special or special-ness. There’s something special, something unusual that we turn our attention toward when we’re involved with the religious, the spiritual, or the sacred.
That something special, I like to think of it as the extraordinary (versus the ordinary). It’s not just ordinary, it’s special or extraordinary. And there are other words that get used that have similar meanings—like the perfect (versus the flawed), the great (versus just okay), truth (versus illusion), clarity (versus confusion), or the ultimate (versus the relative). All these words point us toward something special, something extraordinary that we’re turning our attention toward when we get involved in religion, spirituality, or the sacred.
Here’s an example from Tibetan Buddhism. One of the ideas in Tibetan Buddhism is Dzogchen—the great perfection. This is one name for something extraordinary. Notice that it’s not just okay—it’s great! And it’s not just pretty good—it’s perfect! It’s the great perfection. These words are pointing toward something that is special, something that’s extraordinary; something that’s set apart from ordinary life, from the ordinary things that we normally attend to. I’d like to suggest that everything religious, spiritual, or sacred is based on something set apart as special or extraordinary.
So then, what is spiritual awakening? I like to think of spiritual awakening as a cycle having three parts. In the first part of the cycle, we sense the extraordinary; in the second part, we pursue the extraordinary; and in the third part, we integrate the extraordinary. I’ll be going into more detail about each of those three parts.
Sensing the Extraordinary
Let’s start with the first part of that cycle, sensing the extraordinary. This is where we sense that there’s something unusual, something extraordinary, something special that we want to turn our attention toward. We orient ourselves toward that extraordinary thing. We turn our attention toward it. We don’t necessarily know what it is yet. We can’t necessarily make sense of it yet, but we just start turning our attention toward it. We sense it and turn our attention toward it.
In that first episode of this podcast which I mentioned earlier, I talk about the call of awakening and I define that as a compelling feeling that invites us to leave our familiar life patterns, to explore the unknown and the unfamiliar. In terms of the extraordinary, the call of awakening is a feeling that we may get when we’re in the presence of the extraordinary. The extraordinary calls us to attend to it, to explore it. It orients us away from the ordinary and the mundane toward the extraordinary.
In this first stage, in this first part of the cycle of awakening, the extraordinary doesn’t necessarily make sense. In fact, it, it probably won’t make sense in the context of your normal worldview. You can’t make sense of it intellectually—at least at this stage. If you could make sense of the extraordinary at this stage, it wouldn’t be extraordinary! It would just be ordinary. You’d be able to understand it. You’d think, "Oh well, that’s what that is. It’s that thing." The fact that you can’t do that is part of what makes it extraordinary. Because of this, the extraordinary must be sensed intuitively. We can’t think our way into it.
This is why meditation is such a common route to connecting with the extraordinary. Meditation de-emphasizes thinking. It takes us out of our patterns of thinking and opens us to more of an intuitive sense of things. It helps us get in touch with our sensations and our intuition. And that helps us get in touch with this intuitive sense of the extraordinary.
In my own life, here are a few examples of times when I’ve sensed something that seemed extraordinary to me. These were experiences that felt magical and awe-inspiring.
As a child, I loved thunderstorms. I found them really beautiful and majestic, and there was something for me that was extraordinary about them. I couldn’t really explain what that was. But definitely—they caught my attention. That sense of the extraordinary in thunderstorms helped me turn my attention toward thunderstorms and storm chasing. As an adult, I don’t really do that so much anymore, but I still love storms. I just don’t chase them anymore.
As an adolescent, I can remember being in art history class and looking at pictures of gothic cathedrals, and there was something special, something extraordinary that I noticed. Again, I couldn’t explain exactly what it was. Those cathedrals, I’m sure, were designed to to be inspiring, to be awe-inspiring; to point our attention towards the extraordinary. And they did that for me. That helped me turn my attention toward religion and spirituality—at least a little bit—as an adolescent. I grew up in a family that was not focused on religion or spirituality. Well, I guess maybe a little bit focused on religion. My mother was a Unitarian Universalist and so there was a little bit of religion in my life growing up; but not much.
As an adolescent, I started listening to music. Certain pieces of music were inspiring to me, really caught my attention, and almost transported me to another mental realm. So, I found certain pieces of music to awaken something extraordinary in me, and that helped me turn my attention toward songwriting late in adolescence.
As a young adult, there was a book that my grandfather gave me called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas R. Hofstadter. That was quite a book. It really awakened something in me, turning my attention toward consciousness, awareness and artificial intelligence as a young adult.
Later on, as an adult, when I heard Marshall Rosenberg’s vision of a world with more compassion and less violence, there was something special about that for me, something extraordinary in his way of thinking. That turned my attention toward his self-help practice, Nonviolent Communication.
Later on, when I was reading Ken Wilber’s descriptions of spiritual states and stages in some of his books, that was pretty inspiring for me, too. I was aware of something extraordinary that he was pointing toward. And again, I couldn’t explain it. I had not experienced it, necessarily, although I could intuitively sense that there was something there that was important for me to explore. That helped me turn my attention toward spiritual groups and spiritual practice soon after that.
So again, we’re talking about this first part of the cycle of awakening, sensing the extraordinary and orienting ourselves toward it—turning toward the extraordinary. Those are some examples from my life of where I sensed the extraordinary and started turning my attention toward it.
Let’s look at some problems that can happen around this stage. What happens if we fail to sense the extraordinary? Well, if we don’t sense the extraordinary, we never even make it into this first part of the cycle of awakening. Our life gets stuck in a state of perpetual ordinariness, and life may seem dull, uninspiring, or meaningless. I know there have been times in my life where that’s how life felt—dull, uninspiring, meaningless—and those were difficult times. I think we need some sense of inspiration, some spark of something extraordinary to make life exciting, interesting, and meaningful.
What is it that can stop us from sensing the extraordinary? One thing would be too much focus on the ordinary. When we have too much work to do. Our work, at least the kind of work that most of us do, is, by nature, ordinary. We get good at something, we study it deeply, we practice it, we get to the point where we fully understand it, we get pretty good at it, and that becomes our livelihood—and that’s fine. But if we spend all our attention on things that we understand almost completely, there’s not much time left over for things we don’t fully understand. I think it’s important for those of us who are interested in awakening—who feel drawn to awakening—to try to organize our lives so that we have some spare time, some time left over for pursuing whatever it is that we want to pursue, without having to worry about how it’s going to earn us income.
Another thing that can stop us from sensing the extraordinary is when we have too much stress or interpersonal conflict in our lives. Interpersonal conflict and stress can be exhausting and all-consuming. We have to be at least a little bit relaxed and open in order to sense the extraordinary. We can’t do that when we’re too stressed out. We need some free time—some relaxed time—in order to be able to do that.
So in summary, this first part of the cycle of awakening involves sensing the presence of the extraordinary and turning toward it.
Pursuing the Extraordinary
In the second part of the cycle of awakening, we start navigating toward the extraordinary and we learn to recognize it. Usually, this is through spiritual study, spiritual practices, and spiritual groups. I call this second part of the cycle of awakening pursuing. The first part was sensing the extraordinary; now we’re pursuing the extraordinary.
Remember, in the first part of the cycle (where we’re just sensing the extraordinary), that part is almost completely intuitive. We’re simply sensing the extraordinary and orienting ourselves toward it. We can’t really use our intellect to help us do that because the extraordinary doesn’t fit in our familiar worldview.
In the second part of the cycle of awakening, the intellect starts to play a role, because to be able to recognize the extraordinary, it must be named; we have to have some kind of name for it. That name helps us direct our attention toward it. It puts the extraordinary in some kind of a conceptual framework or map that helps us find our way toward it.
Usually, we use maps created by others—maps that might be handed down through spiritual traditions. But we can also create our own maps if we don’t have a spiritual tradition to help us out. We pursue the extraordinary through spiritual study, and that means basically studying some kind of map that helps us pursue the extraordinary, helps us navigate toward it. Also, through spiritual practice, we use those maps to navigate to the extraordinary and recognize it.
Spiritual groups can provide a social context for this kind of spiritual study and practice. They can be very helpful and important as we’re pursuing the extraordinary.
Here are some examples from my life. In my mid-thirties, I pursued the extraordinary through Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices; I was involved in a Tibetan Buddhist sangha and did a lot of study and practice in that tradition for a while. That helped me navigate toward the extraordinary, toward the particular form of the extraordinary that I was after, and eventually helped me learn to recognize some extraordinary qualities of subjective experience and the extraordinary absence of an experiencing subject. If you’ve practiced in that tradition, or a similar tradition, you may know what I’m talking about.
In this part of the cycle of awakening, where we’re pursuing the extraordinary, what are some problems that that might arise? Well, what happens if we fail to navigate toward the extraordinary? Then we never make it into this part of the cycle of awakening and we may get stuck in just sensing the extraordinary. That could be okay. I think that sensing the extraordinary is better than not sensing it. It’s a step toward awakening, and it could provide some kind of inspiration or meaning. But it can leave us feeling like there’s further to go, like there is more work we could do. We could get closer to to the extraordinary—and the way to get closer to the extraordinary is through the second part of the cycle of awakening, where we actually start pursuing it.
What if we never recognize the extraordinary? We may start navigating toward it in spiritual groups or using spiritual practices, but what if we never quite recognize the extraordinary? Then we get stuck in what I would call perpetual following. We may be perpetually following a teacher or a tradition, where the extraordinary is somehow embedded in that teacher or embedded in the tradition. If we never learn to actually recognize it for ourselves, we end up perpetually following others. That leaves the extraordinary perpetually external to us.
To summarize where we’re at, the first part of the cycle of awakening was sensing the presence of the extraordinary and turning it; then we’ve been talking about the second part of the cycle of awakening, where we start pursuing the extraordinary—navigating toward it and learning to recognize it.
Integrating the Extraordinary
After we’ve had some experience navigating toward the extraordinary and learning to recognize it, we can enter the third part of the cycle of awakening, which is integrating the extraordinary.
There are a few kinds of integration that we might do here. We can do a personal integration of the extraordinary; that means just making the extraordinary your own—coming to your own understanding, your own internal sense of the extraordinary.
Then there’s a social integration we can do, as well, where we return to ordinary life, bring the extraordinary with us, and start sharing it with others. As we integrate the extraordinary into ordinary life, the extraordinary becomes a little more ordinary—then we’re primed to start the cycle of awakening over again, sensing a new form of the extraordinary.
This sense of returning to the ordinary and bringing the extraordinary with us—integrating it into the ordinary—is reflected in a traditional series of paintings called The 10 Bulls or The 10 Ox-Herding Pictures in Zen Buddhism. The 10th picture is called Return to Society, where we take something extraordinary that we’ve realized, bring it back to society, and share the gift of that with others.
A couple of examples from my life, of this integration part of the cycle of awakening. After I’d participated in Buddhism for a while, I eventually had a sense that I’d gotten what I was after. I’d been looking for something, and I’d found it. So, I started moving off in my own directions, and I stopped calling myself a Buddhist.
A decade after I left Buddhism, I started this Spiritual Awakening for Geeks project. I started writing articles on meditation and spiritual practice, I collected those articles into a book on meditation, and I started this podcast. All of this writing and speaking is part of my own process of personal and social integration of the extraordinary.
I’ve been sharing my perspective on awakening. This is not just a repetition of maps that I learned earlier—although, certainly, I’m grateful for all the maps that I learned in my spiritual study and practice, in Tibetan Buddhism and in other traditions. But, in this project, in Spiritual Awakening for Geeks, I’m presenting my view. I’m not positioning myself as a spiritual teacher in any particular tradition; I’m just giving my take on things. That’s not to say this is the best way or the only way to do this, but this is how I’m doing it. It’s my way of integrating the extraordinary into ordinary life and sharing it with others. And that’s meaningful; it’s fun, it’s one of the most challenging and exciting things that I do in my life these days. So, thanks for listening.
Another way that I’ve been integrating the extraordinary into ordinary life is in my work as a psychotherapist. In that work, I don’t teach about mindfulness or insight or meditation or anything like that. I help people heal and grow in other ways. But, I’m sure that my psychotherapy work benefits from all the spiritual practice that I’ve done in the past. The things I’ve perceived as an extraordinary and the things that I’ve pursued, navigated toward, recognized, and integrated into my own being—all of those things show up in how I interact with my clients as a psychotherapist. I’m sure that my clients benefit from all of that work. They can benefit from it without having to understand or even sense or recognize what it is that I’ve done in terms of my own spiritual practices. I don’t talk about Spiritual Awakening for Geeks at work. Most of my clients and colleagues are completely unaware of this project and my spiritual life—and that’s fine.
In this third part of the cycle of awakening, where we’re integrating the extraordinary, what are some problems that can arise? Well, what happens if we fail to integrate the extraordinary—if we fail to integrate it personally into our worldview, into our personal perspective on things? Then we end up perpetually stuck in other people’s maps. We may end up perpetually repeating other people’s views on things—and that’s not such a bad thing, necessarily, but I think sometimes we can attach a little bit too much significance to particular maps. I think it’s important to remember that the spiritual maps, the conceptual frameworks that we use to navigate to the extraordinary, those maps aren’t special themselves; it’s not the maps that are extraordinary. The maps are just used to navigate towards something extraordinary. They just point to something special. If we give those maps too much importance, sometimes the maps can become frozen and they can stop evolving—and that can be problematic.
If we don’t personally integrate the extraordinary after we’ve learned to navigate toward it and recognize it, again, we can end up perpetually following others. We can put our teachers on a pedestal, just like the maps. It’s not the teachers themselves that are special or extraordinary; it’s something that we get through our relationship with our teachers. And if we don’t recognize that and personally integrate the extraordinary intro into our lives, we can fail to fully realize or integrate our own power; we can fail to become fully empowered, ourselves.
If we fail to socially integrate the extraordinary, others don’t get to benefit from the journey that we’ve taken. We might be awakening, but society and others around us don’t get to benefit from that.
If we fail to allow ourselves to return to the ordinary—if we fail to integrate the extraordinary into the ordinary—we can start holding ourselves as extraordinary. This can lead to a form of narcissism, where we start feeling like we are special—like we’re better than others. We hold ourselves separate from others, and we use the extraordinary to prop ourselves up, to make up for our own perceived deficiencies. This can support a false sense of superiority that separates us from others and damages our relationships with other people. Unfortunately, I think this shows up often in spiritual teachers. This is a common problem for spiritual teachers that I think I’ll be talking more about in the future. This is related to a tweet that I tweeted last week where I said, "it takes courage to be ordinary." It takes courage to stop riding on the extraordinary and just be an ordinary person, to just allow ourselves to be ordinary.
In summary, the first part of the cycle of awakening is sensing the presence of the extraordinary and turning toward it; the second part of the cycle is pursuing the extraordinary, navigating toward it and learning to recognize it; and the third part of the cycle is integrating the extraordinary, which involves personal integration, social integration, and returning to the ordinary.
The Cycle of Awakening Continues
After we’ve completed that cycle, what happens next? After you’ve been through all this once, what seemed extraordinary at first, now seems a little more ordinary. That’s not to say it’s not important; it may still seem important, but it’s been integrated into our worldview. It’s been integrated into ordinary life, and it becomes present in ordinary, everyday life.
So what happens next? Well, now you start to see more that’s extraordinary. You start to sense different extraordinary things. You sense that there’s more to explore. At least that’s been my experience. The cycle of awakening can start again. There’s not just one awakening; I think there’s many. You know, there’s this idea: "Do all spiritual paths lead to the same destination?" I don’t think so. I think many paths lead to similar destinations, but I think there are a lot of spiritual destinations. There are a lot of extraordinary things out there to pursue.
In my own life, there are plenty of extraordinary things that that feel just a bit out of reach for me. A few examples would be life energy, intuition, psychic abilities, magic abilities, the things you hear talked about in some of the spiritual traditions—about what happens to people once they start realizing some awakening. I’m not saying that I’m there, that I’m so far along in my own spiritual path—but I’ve made a little bit of progress. So there are things I can sense now that I had absolutely no sense of decades ago. I know if I put my attention on cultivating these things, I’d probably be able to pursue them and navigate toward them, just like I did with other extraordinary phenomena in the past. And I don’t think there’s ever an end to this. I have a feeling it just keeps going—more and more extraordinary things to pursue. And that’s kind of exciting, in a way.
Just because I’ve explored some aspects of the extraordinary, I don’t feel like that makes me special or better than anyone else. It’s just that there are certain paths I’ve taken, that I put energy into, and I’ve gotten certain results and gotten certain perspectives. I’m glad for that, and I want to share it with others.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of the extraordinary and how it relates to awakening. I guess that’s it for this episode of Spiritual Awakening for Geeks. Thank you for joining me in in my process of getting a little bit more competent in podcasting and sharing these things with you.
You can find show notes for this episode at jacobgotwals.com/awakening-to-the-extraordinary, where you can also post your comments. You can also subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date on what’s happening at Spiritual Awakening for Geeks; you can do that at jacobgotwals.com/newsletter—and, if you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a free electronic copy of my book on meditation. If you’re enjoying this show, please rate it and review it on your favorite podcast directory; that helps the show rank higher so others can find it more easily.
Until next time, this is Jacob Gotwals, wishing you many encounters with the extraordinary, in all its forms.
Religious Studies professor Ann Taves suggests that what we have in mind when we think of the religious, the spiritual, the sacred, and so forth, is specialness. See: Robert A. Orsi. The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies (Cambridge Companions to Religion) (p. 58). Cambridge University Press.
I describe the call of awakening and a different take on the cycle of awakening in my article: "The Call of Awakening."
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter.
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
Ken Wilber’s descriptions of spiritual states/stages: see The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development.
The Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures in Zen Buddhism. See the tenth picture: Return to Society.
- Sign up for my newsletter.