What is an Awakening Experience?

These are my notes for the Facebook Live video to Yogi Sadhana group on 6/27/2016.

I hope you will join me for Jann Forde’s workshop on September 10, 2016. 

I had an Awakening experience when I was 19 years old. Today I’m going to tell you about that experience about how it changed my life and some thoughts about how we as yoga teachers can create an environment for our students to come to that moment of Awakening on their own. I want you to pay attention especially to the descriptions of how I experienced time, how I experienced physical sensations, the way that I interacted with people, the way they responded to me, and the way I conversed with myself. I am going to close with one simple exercise you can do with your classes to give them the opportunity to truly listen to another person. It’s easy to set up and a profound experience for many people.

When I had my awakening experience, I was a sophomore at Tulane University in New Orleans I had a private room that year. The private rooms of that particular dorm had a monastic simplicity. There was a bed, a desk, a closet and a few storage bins all in a truly ugly shade of brown. I also had a sliding glass door that opened onto a balcony that overlooked the quad of the business school.

One fall morning I woke up much earlier than normal, before the sun rose, probably around 5 o’clock. I woke up and I was wide awake. It was a familiar feeling. It felt like when I was a little kid and I would wake up and immediately be  wide awake and ready for the day to start. The feeling also seemed new because when I was a little kid I didn’t have an adult consciousness, so I had that familiar childlike sensation of of being wide awake but also a feeling of being completely in an adult consciousness at the same time, which is what was new.

I’m always filtering my experience through language. In my head, I speak to myself in complete English sentences. That day the way that I talked to myself was different. To distinguish my normal way of talking to myself from the way did in that awakened state, I’m going to say that the way that I normally speak to myself was my head voice and the way that I was speaking to myself that day was my heart voice. The feeling of the head voice I think we can all relate to. It’s that sense of almost like that angel and devil on your shoulder. There’s a sense of doubt in how we talk to ourselves, or at least in how I talk to myself normally. When I’m having a conversation with someone, I compare myself to them. I often feel superior or inferior. I often second-guess myself.  This heart voice that was new to me but also familiar was confident, assured, and it felt like the whole universe, something bigger than me, was speaking through me but it also was me. It wasn’t that I was hearing God as something external to me. I was participating, but my sense of me was so much bigger than normal.

So I woke up and there’s a dialogue going on between my head voice and my heart voice.

The head voice is saying, “what’s going on here?” and the Heart voice is saying “This day is going to change your life.” so just imagine it’s 5 o’clock in the morning, I’m in my monastic dorm room, I wake up, I’m wide awake and there’s a more powerful presence telling me this day will change your life. And then there’s that other normal, everyday voice. It’s like “you are so full of yourself.” However this heart voice was unlike my normal voice where there’s a back and forth. It was confident and it was refused to be belittled. It said, “no this day is going to change your life,” and there was no question about it. Then my head voice switched and said, “Why is this happening,” and the answer was a popular beer commercial at the time, “why ask why.” I just went round round with that like that. Why is this happening? How could this be happening? but the confident voice, that heart voice, made it clear that there would be no value to pursuing the question of why and that I was wasting this beautiful opportunity getting caught up in something that would not yield any answers.

I went down the hall to take a shower. It was still quite dark. The hall was lit only by the dim night lights. I remember that all of the sensations that day were vivid, almost like I was on ecstasy or LSD. I took a shower. I was absolutely absorbed in the sensation of water pounding my skin, dripping through my hair, of my fingers touching my scalp as I massaged in the shampoo. Then I came back to my dorm room, and put on a beautiful outfit, of the nicer ones that I had that I could wear to school. I carefully did my makeup. I could feel the feeling of that waxy eye crayon smooshing against my skin as I was putting it on, and the feeling of my fingers touching my skin as I rubbed in the rest of my makeup. It was a  particularly tactile day.

Now the sun was beginning to shine. The day was dawning. I sat on my balcony to watch the sun rise over the business school. Today I would say that I meditated, but at that point in my life, I had no training in any kind of meditation or spiritual practices. I sat down and I watched the sun rise. During that meditation it was her like I downloaded an instruction manual for life and there were a number of specific things that I was, it almost felt like instructed on but I still was part of that, it wasn’t coming from outside of me. It was coming from me, just this bigger, much bigger, sense of me. The one memory that really sticks in my mind as a core teaching is looking up at the sky and watching the clouds scudding across the sky. It was a beautiful day. The sky was blue with just a few of those fluffy little clouds floating around.

I watched these clouds and I thought, “We are like these clouds. The little clouds appeared to float separately, but really the force of the wind pushed all the clouds along together. Just like the clouds, we think that we’re responsible for our own selves, but in fact we’re we are more connected than we think. We are part of something bigger.” Those of you, who are students of Erich Schiffman probably think that teaching sounds very similar to his teaching about the wave in the ocean where he talks about how we think that we are individual waves looking at each other from an attitude of separation, and then we sink down and we can experience our deeper, more connected  ocean nature. It is  a part of the reason that I was attracted to his teachings was that he was restating in a different way what I had been given as a teaching during my Awakening experience.

I stayed in an awakened state for the entire day. After meditating, I went to class. Whenever I go somewhere, I am always worried about whether I will make it on time. That anxiety was gone.I knew it was taken care of. I did not need to control my own time. So every person that I met along the way, I gave them my full attention. I didn’t check my watch. I wasn’t trying to come up with something clever to say while I appeared to be listening to them. I knew that I didn’t have to plan my conversation. I would know the perfect to say when it was my time to speak. I gave everyone my full undivided attention. Even if I was with them just a few moments saying hello, I was fully present. The word that really sticks with me is LISTEN. I just listened and that was another theme of the day, a theme of listening

I went to this class that I hated, which was a class on Milton. I was at the time an English major. The English department at Tulane was filled with people from the Greek system who were cheating their way through. I’m the kind of person, when I go into a class I like to be the best. I’m that  student who sits in the front row and raises her hand and I know the answer. I’m stuck in this class with a bunch of people who are not reading the book which is one of the greatest books ever written, Paradise Lost. I’m in the classroom in an altered state that is whispering to me, “Listen.” No, they aren’t saying wise things about Milton. But, they are expressing themselves. They were expressing their human feeling. I did not feel smarter than them, and therefore I did not feel distant from them. I felt connected. I felt humbled. I listened. And I also did not feel less than them. There were a lot of kids at Tulane who grew up with a silver spoon in their mouths, and I did not.  I often felt inferior to them. But on that day, I saw they were all just people trying to connect.

At the end of the day, I went back to my dorm room. There was a string around the quad to prevent people from trampling the newly seeded grass. As I was walking back to my dorm was trailing my hand along that rope. As I said, it was a very tactile day. I was feeling the rough rope under my my fingertips. When I got back to my room, I had not been there very long before there was a knock on my door. There was a girl Jenna who lived two doors down from me and she said, “I have never thought I wanted to be your friend ,but I was watching you walk toward the dorms, the way that you were trailing your hand along that rope that made me think that I wanted to get to know you. She and I spent the next hour talking. This is another aspect of being awakened, your presence is perceived by others. People are attracted to you. As a teacher, you have a responsibility to be a presence to your students. Meditate before class. Get big. They can see it.

After Jenna left, I thought I would talk to my boyfriend who was at Columbia University about my amazing day. But I’m still in an altered state of mind, so instead of telling him about my day, I’m listening. As I’m listening to him I’m I’m hearing that he he doesn’t love me. I mean he’s not saying that, but he is talking about things that I’m not interested in. I realize he doesn’t care about my day, even though it was remarkable. I broke  it off with him and I never got back in touch with him again. I mean I saw him again later on in my life but I never was attracted to him or got back together with him. Sometimes I think that is why I had that experience, in order to break up with him, It was one of the first times in my life where I was tuned in to myself and my feelings without feeling like I was being judgmental about them. I wasn’t angry at him. I just knew that he could not be what I wanted at that time in my life.

After that first day, the feeling diminished and by the end of the week, it was gone altogether. It did eventually change my life, but not immediately. When I started taking yoga a year later, I could feel a milder version of that awakened state after every class. It was the first time I had some ability to create an awakened state consciously. And because my experience was so clear and so strong, I knew that I was supposed to practice yoga and become a teacher, a very good one.

So let me unpack some of the things that happened during my awakening. Number one is that there was a new voice of voice that seemed larger than me. This voice had a sense of confidence and a sense of humility. Number two, there was a feeling of connection to other people and to the universe. A sense of being plugged into a bigger system and a sense of familiarity with every person that crossed my path. This is what yoga literally means, union, to yoke. That feeling. Three,  there was an altered sense of time. I did not experience my actions as a timeline, but there was a more a global sense of time. I was moving through time there, things were things that were happening sequentially, but I did not need to worry about taking care of that movement. Then fourth and last thing was other people can see it. People are attracted to it. You have a presence

I rarely spoke about this in my life. It is new for me to speak about it openly part of the reason that I never did I thought I was worried that I would lose that sense of humility which was the fundamental thing I felt. I was afraid that people would think that I was better than them because I had this mountaintop experience that I’m sure many people have never had. However, I’ve met a lot of people who have had similar experiences. What happened to me was a totally normal experience even though it is an extraordinary experience.

I want to give you an exercise you can have your students do that is a great way to get them to experience listening in the way that I did on that day. The exercise comes from Kripalu yoga. It’s easy to teach.

You have your students pair of and sit facing each other. You have a stopwatch or use the stopwatch app on your phone. One person is the talker, the other the listening. Set the stopwatch for two minutes. Usually you give them a prompt to talk about, like, tell the other person about your day. You can get more personal and emotional with the prompts as the class gets more comfortable with each other, but in the beginning just keep it very general like talking about your day. The person who is talking has the floor. The person who is listening is practicing just listening with their full attention on the other person. After the exercise is over they cannot give advice, they can’t even nod their head in agreement. They just listen without trying to be an audience for a story. Just listen.

This can be a tough exercise for people. For the talker, there is a tendency to run out of material after about 30 seconds. They think they will talk forever, but it’s so odd to not have someone nodding and responding that often they just cannot keep up talking. You can give them something to say when they run out of material, like, “I can’t think of anything to say,” and tell them to repeat that line until they think of something. They also really want a response from the other person. You have to get them to notice that. To pay attention to how they want to tell a story, how they want to create a response.

For the listener, they powerfully want to give advice. They want to nod. They want to shape the story through their interaction. And they can’t. So you have to get them to just sit and listen without wanting to give their reaction. Usually you switch the listener and the talker after the exercise is over and a lot of times the person who was listening a minute ago is now the talker and will use the first part of their talking time to give a response to the other person. You want them to notice this desire.

Also people will tend to break into conversation and stop the actual exercise, so keep firm control over the room and make them stick with it. Again, get them to notice it.

I invite you to share in the comments for other ideas for creating some of the elements of an awakened state with your class participants.

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