By relating the effects of his own spiritual awakening, Atalwin Pilon offers assurance for those similarly lifting their cloaks and discovering their true identities.
A number of people have asked me “What is life like after an experience of transformation?” I can’t tell you it’ll be the same for everyone, but I do know how it went for me.
What a mystical experience feels like
Spiritual lingo doesn’t really make sense until you have had some sort of mystical experience. And before I had mine I felt huge resistance against people who spoke about “becoming whole,” “coming home,” “dropping the self,” or “a deep letting go.” But after my own experience I realized that these terms actually make a lot of sense (and that the majority of the self-proclaimed spiritual people who use them still don’t know what they are talking about).
Have you ever discovered you were doing something the wrong way for a long time? Do you know the feeling of discovering that your car goes much faster when you take it off the hand brake? Have you ever been so drunk that you wore your right shoe on your left foot and vice versa for quite a while before you got it right? Or, for the men, do you remember that moment where you finally figured out how those mysterious female genitals worked and you became a stud overnight? In all these cases you feel huge relief and the newfound situation feels natural. The invisible “something” that was bothering you has fallen away, and all of a sudden it becomes very clear what was wrong. Things flow again. Your ignorance is revealed and replaced by awareness. All of a sudden it becomes hard to imagine how you could have been so blind in the first place. You think back and think it’s hilarious.
Dropping the Burden
The experience of awakening is similar. What dominates is this feeling of huge relief, the feeling of having dropped an enormous burden. But what makes it strange is that what is dropped is the once so-solid idea of who you were as an individual: your identity, your sense of “I.” It is literally unimaginable. During our whole life we developed and nurtured all kinds of characteristics that benefitted us in some way or the other. Other characteristics we tried to get rid of. We hid them, suppressed them, denied them. Or we didn’t develop them at all. This way we have been weaving the cloak of our identity since childhood.
We wear the good characteristics outside ourselves and hide the bad characteristics inside. The cloak is our unique survival mechanism, our protector and channel for self expression. Because we always have been wearing it, day in and day out for as long as we can remember, we become completely identified with it. We are our cloaks, no doubt about it. We are always comparing cloaks and judging cloaks of others, and we are never truly satisfied with the shape, color, and size of our own cloak but will always justify why it looks like it does.
What happened to me was that one day, for some reason, my cloak was ripped from my body. I screamed. For a brief moment I felt extremely threatened and vulnerable. I thought I died and, on some level, I did. It was litterally painful, as if what was removed so violently was literally a fabric glued to my own skin. In that moment it was also inevitable that I realize that “I” was not the cloak. Of course this was a stunning revelation. I realized that the cloak had been functioning as armor, a facade, an image, and a straitjacket. Now I was naked. I realized I was everything that I believed I was plus everything that I had tried not to be. All the opposites integrated. It made me feel whole and complete for the first time in my life. There was nothing lacking, nothing wrong with me. The tough part of “becoming whole” is realizing that you have been “everything” all along, also all these things you have been so desperately trying to deny: weak, stupid, dishonest, yellow, and, especially, afraid. Afraid to be what I already was: imperfect. But the relief was enormous: I would never, ever again need to deny being something that I already was.
With the relief came also a deep mourning, manifesting as a flood of tears. Everything became clear. I had woven and worn the cloak for good reasons. I had been rejected, denied, and emotionally injured; all the wounds I had once covered up with the cloak were still there. There was a child under there that felt not loved, misunderstood, ugly, powerless. I had never met that child before. That child was me. The cloak was the strategy I came up with not to feel the pain of the child. By keeping the child covered up I had been keeping myself covered up. The cloak had been keeping the child trapped, locked up and lonely. Now I felt incredible sadness about what I had done to myself, but also immediate forgiveness and liberation. I knew I would never, ever betray myself again.
Now, let’s answer some questions.
1. Is it hard to maintain this new state of awareness?
Yes and no. It’s not hard because it is impossible to fall back. Once you find out how to operate your car to make it drive properly and smoothly, there is no reason or temptation to drive with the hand brake on again. And if it happens by accident, you notice immediately. But yes, it takes an effort and practice not to fall back in old pitfalls. The cloak wants to slide back on, but now as a new and improved version. What also has become very clear is that your identity is not fixed and has a tendency to solidify. So you must keep moving. But on the other hand, once someone has tasted the revelation of moving up one stage, he is filled with desire to see what comes next. Keeping yourself moving is not a burden but an appealing journey.
2. What changes the most?
So many things have changed dramatically and at the same time fallen into place. Probably the most mind blowing change in perspective is that you are not who you think you are. Your ego-identity is not a given but an ingenious illusion built around fear. Being able to see the fear makes it also possible to see the love and makes us able to take love-driven decisions. You don’t have to frantically prove to yourself anymore that you are without certain features you don’t like or find embarrassing. You own them all. That makes it impossible to feel different from or better than somebody else. Believe me, this was huge for me. The realization that we are human beings and that therefore nothing that is human is alien to us* anymore is a very humbling one. One of the side effects—not wanting to hide your humanity anymore—can be perceived by others as new, different, and courageous behavior, but it feels quite natural.
* This is a famous quote from the play Heauton Timorumenos written by Publius Terentius Afer (195/185–159 BC), known in English as Terence, a dramatist of the Roman Republic. The orginal quote reads: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I find it fascinating that this man had, approximately 2179 years ago, the same insight I had. It seems what was true then is still true today.
3. How do other people react to transformation?
I don’t know what people say behind my back. And I was definitely not embraced as the new Messiah when the transformation happened. I believe many of my close friends didn’t know what to think, and they all acted according to their individual cloaks: some were protective, some worried, some skeptical and some curious. But over time most people reacted very much like how a girl would react to her boyfriend’s shift from making well-intended attempts to skillful love making: a bit surprised at first at but able to get used to the unexpected improvement quite easily. Even when people think the story is weird they don’t have problems with somebody who has become friendlier than before.
4. Do people also react negatively?
Hardly. I lost no friends and I feel that all the relationships with people that mattered to me have deepened. What might have helped is that I’m from Amsterdam and that most people I know are educated, tolerant, and open-minded. On rare occasions, openness will provoke hostility in somebody who is very guarded. Sometimes some girl’s boyfriend will become unfriendly or arrogant out of insecurity. Sometimes a person doesn’t understand why I go on meditation retreats so often and implies that I’m lazy. Sometimes somebody insists on making the statement that he/she has more important things to do than work on something as futile as “opening your heart.” But the far majority of the people think it is cool stuff and can feel that it makes sense, just like wearing your right shoe on your right foot makes sense.
5. What are the down sides of transformation?
Nowadays I’m well in touch with doubt and insecurity, but before my transformative experiences I was in almost complete denial of these emotions. For a long time I really felt that my view of the world was the right view and that all the others were just not getting it. I have brief moments where I want to be “normal” again and would like to feel again the overconfidence I used to have. I admit I have good memories of the moments where I felt on top of the world (albeit my own little world). Becoming more sensitive, more aware of the needs of others, and less selfish, makes decision-making more complex than when you just care about yourself. Waking up to the suffering of all sentient beings, including your own, adds a quality of sadness and rawness to your life, which can be beautiful, but is always sad and raw.
6. Is it safe?
This last question has not been asked to me literally. But all the other questions I’ve heard a lot, and they came up again with the introduction of my blog. So I find it fair to answer them. But please also see that all these aforementioned questions come from fear. Once we are invited to take off our cloak we first want to be reassured that it’s safe to do so. But the whole idea is that we leave our comfort zone. Not leaving your comfort zone before you have reassured yourself thoroughly that the next destination is super safe isn’t really daring, is it? So yes, it is safe. But no, it doesn’t feel that way at all. It is very scary to go beyond your habitual patterns. But do it anyway. All in all, it just feels more alive, more human. It feels like—here comes the kicker—nothing special.
Originally appeared at Basic Goodness.