The science of awakening

What awakens us? 

Everyone is alive, observing each other and everything else, posting what they think of each other and the events happening in every layer of existence – from the personal to the collective. But if we could do a random check and everyone would be still, how many of us now who are alive would be aware of our own selves observing others and our own thoughts? Would it be such a drastic conclusion if we said that the living world we are immersed in – noisy and abuzz with activity – is actually largely asleep? 

I do not yet have a worldwide study to back up my conclusion of how many of us around the world are not "awake."  But I can tell you that science has defined "awakenings" to be always positive, connected, and unafraid of the uncertainties life always has. In an awakening, it suffuses you with compassion, gratitude, and a perception of life that is distinctly different – better – from what you had before. It is an awareness that you are not the center of the universe or even of your own life (since you really do not control it for the most part), but that is really the nature of things and you make peace with that. 

Awakenings do not inflame tragedy or sorrow. Awakenings get you to a level that transcends your sorrows, fears, and frustrations. They may not always last but it will change you – at least for the moment when you experience it – enough to get you through the rapids of those moments that drown the oxygen of hope in you. But the world, as it feels like now – configured by tribal politics, economically ruled by a handful, sensationalized by 24-hour news, and reshaped and diminished by human-made climate change – seems to be a world that is not just asleep but dozing off.

But what could awaken us? I came across scientific research that tried to confirm previous studies on what are the triggers for awakenings. The top triggers that came out of that study were psychological turmoil, nature, spiritual practice and spiritual literature, in that order. 

Psychological turmoil includes grief from loss, tremendous stress, combat, or depression. These triggers make up over 30% of all the triggers that came out of the study. These are triggers that no one intentionally seeks but any of them will happen to each of us at any time in our lives. Of course, the longer you live, the more chances you have of experiencing joys as well as pains from these psychological turmoil. When I lost someone I deeply loved when I was only in my 30s, the experience installed a neon switch in my head for being "awake" that I would be ashamed to ignore even if I wanted to. For over a year, I took long drives by myself, visiting old graveyards and reading what was inscribed on tombstones. I consciously made an itinerary to get to know death across time, across the lives of strangers, and across distances. That awakened me from the crushing sorrow from the death of a beloved. 

Nature as a trigger refers to encounters with nature. The first time I saw up close a sperm whale dive down with its tail above water for us who were on a very small boat to witness was such a profound experience that we all went silent till the time we got to the shore. We all considered that as a religious experience that transformed us permanently and awakened us to the value of other lives other than human life. It is how I felt when I went to the desert and watched coyotes, scorpions, or a sandstorm come and unleash its power. It is definitely how I felt when I laid myself down on the roof of my car in that desert one evening, and all the stars apppeared during that dark sacred night, with many of them "dropping" as if on cue, like strands of light from a giant hanging tapestry of luminescence. 

Practices like yoga, meditation, and prayers during retreats also trigger awakening. Spiritual practices here do not include the mythical ones such as claimed apparitions or miracles. The study confined itself to spiritual practices that were accessible to ordinary life and not the subject of controversy when it comes to the truth of the claims. I think this is also why we normally look to people who practice these things as a matter of course in their lives (meditation masters, the religious) for life advice. If these are known triggers for awakenings, their way of life gives them a sort of fertile ground to be "awake," or at least to recognize if they have been "asleep.” If this were so, should people who are engaged in spiritual practices as the center of their professions be held more responsible to be more "awake" than the rest of us?

The last main trigger seems to be spiritual literature. In the study, spiritual literature referred to audio or video materials that are spiritual in nature. Again, this is not necessarily religious material, but material that uplifts your mental state. For me, it has always been books except religious books – long novels, as well as thoughtful books on scientific discoveries and what it means to be human. Novels are so multi-splendored. They behoove me to see people in their many lights, across time and distances, and through many emotional seasons. For many people I know, religious text does it for them, and I can also understand why that kind of anchoring could tap the self to awaken. 

What was most significant about the study is that the most awakening experiences happen outside of spiritual practice or engagement with literature. Awakenings, according to the study and other previous studies it cited, happen spontaneously, in the context of everyday life, with all the slings and arrows that are part and parcel of life. This is why do not be so hard on yourself if you engaged in a retreat or a spiritual practice during Lent and you still feel "asleep." Science says you are more likely to feel the kick to awaken in life outside those overtly spiritual engagements. 

In the study, it was found that the duration of an awakening lasts from a few minutes to a few days, but  the aftereffect of an awakening has left most of the ones who experienced it with a desire to recapture it. More importantly, it moved many of the "awakened" ones to a have a shift in perspective and values. Some felt frustrated that it could not be sustained. But to those who experienced negative aftereffects, maybe one could say that the nature of being "awake" is that you are also "asleep" some of the time. It takes a lot of mental muscle to be "awake," so maybe the "snooze" button is a part of being "awake" the best way you can, in the best times you have to be, to have the best life.

One of the best current pieces that characterizes this shift in perspective and values is David Brook's recent essay in the New York Times. Here, he speaks of experiences that point to the number one trigger for awakenings in the study: psychological turmoil or failure (of expectations of self, others, of life etc). He also speaks of what the journey looks like when you have been "awakened," and this is what he calls the "Second Mountain." I urge you to read it and think about which mountain you are ignoring, looking at, or actually climbing.

The best chances to awaken us lie in the days after what we consider "Holy time." Science found that to be true, but it is up to you to know if it is true for you too. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at