As I see it, awakening is a process—a process that we all participate in. Part of that process is a powerful feeling that we all have from time to time; this feeling serves as an invitation to move forward on our spiritual path. I call this feeling the call of awakening. By learning to recognize this feeling, you can become a more active participant in your own process of awakening.
In this episode, you’ll learn how to recognize when life is offering you an invitation to awaken, and you’ll learn how to respond when you receive such an invitation. You’ll also learn what I mean by awakening, and you’ll learn how awakening is related to mindfulness, insight, and evolution. I’ll start with a story about how and why I left the software industry 15 years ago.
Leaving the Software Industry
In my 20s, in grad school, I wasn’t thinking about spiritual awakening at all. I did have a dream, though: I wanted a software development job in Silicon Valley. Eventually, I got that job, and through a lot of hard work, I gradually learned how to survive and thrive in a multinational corporation. The company I worked for felt like an elite club with lots of benefits.
Eight years after joining the company, I found myself staring at a resignation email I’d just written. If I were to send it, it would end my job—and, most likely, my entire high-tech career. I decided, “I’d better let this sit for a few minutes before I press send.”
I started thinking about everything I was about to let go of. I’d be letting go of a big investment in education; I’d be letting go of all the relationships I’d built in eight years with this company; I’d be losing a lot of income and benefits; I’d be letting go of a project I’d been working on for years; and I’d be letting go of my professional identity.
My employer and colleagues had become like a home and a family to me; leaving them would mean letting go of all the safety, security, and familiarity of home. I’d be wandering into the unknown and starting a whole new journey. Why would I even think about doing this?
Back in grad school, money had been tight; I hadn’t even owned a car, and I’d wanted a career that would earn me a decent living. But, over the years, I’d accumulated some savings, and by now, earning more money didn’t seem so important.
That project I’d been working on for years? I didn’t feel like it was having much impact. This had been okay while saving money was a priority, but at this point, I was starting to feel like I was wasting my time.
As a teenager, computers had seemed magical and exciting, and I’d been passionate about coding. In college, my passion for programming had started dwindling. By now, in my 30s, I’d gotten more interested in other things: songwriting, photography, and meditation. I could still code, but I wasn’t passionate about it anymore. That put me at a big disadvantage compared to my peers. Of course, as a first-line manager, I’d been heading away from coding for years and into management. But, as I looked up at the mid-level managers above me, I knew this wasn’t a club I wanted to join.
I’d grown a lot over the course of my career, but over the last few years, my growth had slowed to a stop. My job had become uninspiring and tedious. But boredom, alone, wouldn’t have been enough to make me take the leap to leave my corporate home and family. So, what else was going on?
Discovering Spiritual Practice
Four years earlier, during my morning commute, I turned on the radio and heard an interview with a psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg. Everyone around me in Silicon Valley was focused on business and technology, but this man’s worldview seemed to be organized very differently; he seemed to be focused on cultivating empathy and compassion. I felt magnetically drawn to learn more about his self-help practice, Nonviolent Communication.
I soon got involved in the local community of people who were learning Nonviolent Communication. One day, I noticed that one of my mentors in this community had a Hindu statue in his home. I’d grown up valuing science and humanism, so I had a healthy suspicion of religion—but my respect for this mentor allowed me to consider, for the first time, that Eastern spirituality might have something important to offer.
At first, working in Silicon Valley had been my dream, but I’d gradually been growing disillusioned with the Valley. I couldn’t seem to get a date there and I missed thunderstorms (which we hardly ever got in the Valley). Also, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be in high tech forever, and I didn’t want to try to live in the Valley—with its high cost of living—without my high tech salary.
So, six years after I’d arrived, I left again. Through a corporate fluke, I was able to keep my same job while transferring to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I connected with the Nonviolent Communication community there, started making some friends, and bought a house. I eventually hooked up with some people who were planning to start a Buddhist-influenced elementary school. I was finally feeling like part of a community—a community focused on something important and meaningful to me.
Soon after moving to Albuquerque, I discovered the work of Ken Wilber, who had written extensively about transpersonal psychology. He seemed to understand the language of science, and that made it possible for me to trust him. He became my first guide to the world of mysticism; I devoured his books and interviews, and I started spending more time meditating.
My employer had a sabbatical program, and after working there for seven years, it was time for my sabbatical. Finally free of the daily responsibilities of my work, I did a lot of meditating, and I went on a weekend retreat at a beautiful Buddhist meditation center in the mountains. I remember sitting in the main hall of that center early one morning, meditating. At that point, I recognized—with tears streaming down my cheeks—that I didn’t want to go back to work. I just wanted to keep meditating. I knew this seemed important, but I couldn’t explain why.
A week later, my sabbatical was over, and I soon got some news from my boss: “We’ve decided you’re going to have to move back to Silicon Valley.” That’s when I started writing my resignation email.
So, here’s what was going on for me as I considered sending this email. Sending it would be a move away from boredom and tedium, and that was appealing. However, more importantly, it would also be a move toward something. I was feeling called with great emotional strength toward meditation, community, and creating a more meaningful life. It wasn’t a sure bet that any of these activities would pay off; pressing send would mean leaving the safety, security, and familiarity of home and taking a leap into the unknown—and that was scary. What do you think I did? I sent my resignation email and launched myself onto a whole new journey.
The Call of Awakening
What was up for me, that morning in the meditation hall? What was that feeling that was calling me away from home, away from the familiar, and into the unknown? I call that feeling the call of awakening.
It was the call of awakening that I felt when I turned on the radio and found myself magnetically drawn toward the work of Marshall Rosenberg for reasons I didn’t fully understand; it was the call of awakening that led me to devour the work of Ken Wilber in an attempt to make sense of mystical states I didn’t understand and hadn’t experienced; it was the call of awakening that I felt when I recognized that my mentors had something I wanted that I couldn’t clearly describe; it was the call of awakening that led me to leave Silicon Valley and create a new home for myself in the Southwest; and it was the call of awakening that helped me get clear that making time for meditation was more important to me than continuing my career—even though I wasn’t sure where meditation was taking me. What do all these experiences have in common? In each case, I felt compelled to move toward something unfamiliar for reasons that I didn’t fully understand. In each case, I ventured forward into the unknown—and in each case, my life became more meaningful as a result.
Let’s define the call of awakening. It’s an experience—a compelling feeling that calls us on a journey toward growth, healing, and self-transcendence. It’s like a compass that leads us toward a more meaningful life. It’s also an invitation; the call of awakening invites us to leave our familiar life patterns. It invites us to explore the unknown and the unfamiliar. It’s a call toward adventure.
We experience many desires; most of them are not the call awakening. So, how can we recognize the call of awakening and distinguish it from other motivations? The call of awakening leads us into the unknown, toward something unfamiliar. In the context of our familiar life patterns, the call of awakening doesn’t make sense; it invites us to let go of our familiar patterns and move toward something new. Because it doesn’t make sense—and because it’s often destructive to our familiar life patterns—the call of awakening may be disturbing. We don’t understand it and we can’t explain it, yet we still feel compelled to follow it. In my case, I had no idea why meditation had suddenly become more important to me than my career—and, yes, this was somewhat disturbing—but also exciting.
The call of awakening may sound far out, but it should actually be very familiar. I’m sure you’ve already experienced it—probably many times. Every time you’ve felt motivated to face the challenges of healing, growth, or self-transcendence, you’ve sensed the call of awakening.
Following the Call
As we follow the call of awakening, we encounter challenges. These are the challenges that have held us in our old patterns—until now. For instance, after leaving my job, I faced many challenges; a big challenge was finding meaningful work that I was good at, outside the world of high tech. If we’re able to face and overcome our challenges, we get both wiser and more capable. With our new capabilities, our old, more limited patterns of living are no longer appealing to us; we abandon them, and our life evolves into new patterns that better serve our values. Our life becomes more meaningful as a result. In my case, it took many years, but over time I gained new skills that allowed me to start making a living as a psychotherapist. I’m now thoroughly enjoying this work, and I doubt I would ever go back to working in software development.
Awakening goes in cycles: we sense the call of awakening, we leave our familiar patterns, we encounter and overcome challenges, and we settle into new patterns that better serve us; then, eventually, we sense the call of awakening again. This cycle of awakening seems closely related to the concept of the hero’s journey, a story format that shows up all over the place in novels, TV shows, movies, and more. In the hero’s journey, a hero receives a call to adventure, leaves home, experiences and overcomes challenges, and returns home, transformed. I believe the hero’s journey is such a common story format because it’s so closely related to the cycle of awakening and because the cycle of awakening is such a deep source of meaning and value in our lives. Personally, I like thinking of awakening as a journey or an adventure, and this shows up in many ways throughout my work.
Since following the call of awakening changes our patterns of living, it’s disruptive. It disrupts our own life, the lives of others we’re involved with, and the systems in which we’re embedded. Because of this, as we start to follow the call of awakening, we may encounter resistance from those who don’t appreciate this disruption. For instance, after I sent my resignation email, it was probably a good six months before I actually left the company; the company gave me plenty of time to change my mind. My manager warned me that if I left high tech for any length of time, it’s doubtful that anyone would ever take me back.
Following the call of awakening doesn’t guarantee that our life will improve or get easier; in fact, as we follow the call, it’s likely that life will get more challenging. For this reason, the best time to follow the call of awakening into a big life change is when your life is relatively stable and secure like mine was when I left my job. As it turns out, I greatly underestimated how long it would take me to find another stable source of income, so having some savings turned out to be really important and helpful.
We don’t have to follow the call of awakening. We can also ignore it. However, when we ignore the call of awakening, we must pay a price. We continue to repeat our old, familiar patterns, which grow increasingly dull and drab. We lose touch with the spark of life and start to feel as if we are dying a slow death. I’m familiar with that feeling; I had it several times over the course of my high-tech career. It’s a feeling of being trapped, because the longer we stay in our old patterns, the harder it gets to leave them.
Following the call of awakening tends to make us not only wiser and more capable, but also more compassionate; here’s why. As we follow the call of awakening, we leave the home of our familiar patterns. As we do, we encounter the unfamiliar, in its many possible forms: unfamiliar people, places, ideas, and values. Something strange happens as we encounter and engage with the unfamiliar: it starts becoming familiar. What once seemed foreign starts becoming understandable. Through personal engagement with what was once unknown, we become personally invested in it. What was once separate becomes a part of us. In my case, I went from being suspicious of meditation to spending countless hours practicing meditation and writing about it.
As our level of understanding and personal engagement grows, so does our capacity for empathy and compassion. Earlier in my life, I viewed people who meditate as strange folks who were not to be trusted; now, I view them as friends and comrades.
Spiritual Awakening and Evolution
So, as we follow the call of awakening, we tend to become wiser, more capable, and more compassionate; in other words, we evolve. I call this kind of evolution spiritual awakening. Spiritual awakening, as I define it, is evolution toward greater ability and propensity to serve the well-being of all; it’s evolution toward greater empowerment and greater compassion. It’s not an event; it’s a process. It’s not just for spiritual superstars; it’s something we’ve all been doing, off and on, all our lives.
As we follow the call of awakening, we don’t just evolve as individuals. As we awaken and our patterns change, that affects everyone around us and contributes to the evolution of society, as well. For instance, when I chose to follow the call of awakening and leave my job, that eventually led to the creation of Spiritual Awakening for Geeks—which is now having at least some impact on you. So, the call of awakening can be viewed as a call toward both individual and societal evolution. Given the current state of our world, I believe we need all the evolution we can get.
If we listen to it and follow it, the call of awakening leads us each on our own path of awakening. Each of us takes a unique path through life, and each of us has a unique path of awakening. However, some of our paths are similar, and similar people tend to get drawn toward similar paths. The fact that you’re here suggests that your path may be similar to mine.
Those of you who are familiar with Buddhism may be wondering how my definition of awakening relates to mindfulness and insight. I view mindfulness and insight as important capacities that some of us may feel called to cultivate. However, for me, awakening encompasses much more than mindfulness and insight. I view awakening as an ongoing process of evolution that isn’t limited to—or defined by—the cultivation of any particular capacity.
We’re each unique, and we each awaken in our own unique way. For some of us, cultivating mindfulness and insight is an important part of our spiritual path. For others, it’s not. And that can change over time, as it did with me. Earlier in my life, I had zero interest in meditation, mindfulness, or insight; then, when the time was right, I became very motivated to explore and develop these capacities. I trust the call of awakening to call each of us where we need to go at the appropriate time.
Before I wrap up this episode, I’d like to review some key ideas that I’ve talked about. But first, here’s a quick disclaimer: I’ve found these ideas helpful and I hope they might be helpful for you, too—but I don’t view them as absolute truth. They’re just one perspective.
With that in mind, let’s review. The call of awakening is a compelling feeling that invites us to leave our familiar life patterns to explore the unknown and the unfamiliar; it calls us on a journey toward growth, healing, and self-transcendence. When we follow the call of awakening, we tend to evolve, becoming both more empowered and more compassionate; I call this kind of evolution spiritual awakening. Awakening tends to go in cycles in which we sense the call of awakening, we leave our familiar patterns, we encounter and overcome challenges, and we settle into new patterns that better serve us; then, eventually, we sense the call of awakening again. I call this the cycle of awakening. If we listen to it and follow it, the call of awakening leads us each on our own unique path of awakening; similar people tend to get drawn toward similar paths. As you let these key ideas soak in, I hope you might be asking yourself this: do you hear the call of awakening? Where’s it leading you next on your spiritual journey?
Spiritual Awakening for Geeks
Let’s start wrapping up this episode by placing this show in a broader context. This show is part of a project called Spiritual Awakening for Geeks; you can learn more about it at jacobgotwals.com. I created Spiritual Awakening for Geeks for people who walk a path of awakening that’s similar to mine.
In future episodes of this show, I’ll be exploring awakening from many perspectives. I’ll talk about ideas I’m playing with and experiences I’ve had. I’ll start with more talks like this one, and eventually, I may include some conversations with other people, too. I can’t tell you exactly what I’ll be talking about because the fact is, I don’t know. I’m going to try to keep things fresh and focus on what’s catching my attention in the moment. If this sounds interesting, I hope you’ll join me.
I’d like to mention a couple other geeky spiritual shows that some of you might like. I recently discovered Michael Taft’s show Deconstructing Yourself. This is one of my favorite shows on spirituality. I appreciate Michael’s focus on mindfulness and metacognition and his smart yet sensitive interviewing style.
Vincent Horn’s show Buddhist Geeks is another one of my favorites. This show has gone through quite an evolution. Years ago, when I was exploring Buddhism deeply, Vincent was interviewing a broad range of Buddhist teachers. I found these interviews really helpful in allowing me to sample and zero in on the teachers and teachings that resonated with me. More recently, Vincent seems to be directing the show toward a broader range of topics; it seems less focused on Buddhism now, which is fine with me.
I’m also grateful to Vincent for organizing the Buddhist Geeks conferences. I attended a Buddhist Geeks conference in 2014 which is where I met Kenneth Folk, who played a key role in my cultivation of insight on my own spiritual path.