Who Awakens? How to Be Free From Your Freedom

Keith Martin-Smith Perspectives, Self-Identity, Spiritual, Spirituality, Video 4 Comments

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In this talk, Keith Martin-Smith dives into some topics of particular interest to those on a spiritual path. While Ken Wilber and others have defined enlightenment and awakening using things like the Wilber-Combs Lattice and concepts like Wake Up, Grow Up, and Clean Up, Keith orients us in a somewhat different way (although we know Keith, and he is well-versed in those Integral maps).

He first addresses the question head on: what is awakening, exactly?

To answer this, he presents the listeners with a Zen koan, or riddle:

Who awakens?

Keith presents his own observations of the awakened state by exploring his experience that “we don’t awaken. Our egos don’t awaken. They can be transformed by the awakening process, but they themselves can’t and don’t awaken.”

He goes on to provide a detailed explanation of consciousness and its highest states (“No matter how glorious, how transcendent, consciousness is always in relationship to something else, even if that something is the godhead.”) and awareness (“Not ever in relationship to anything because it is seer and seen, both”). He goes on to explore that enlightenment and ignorance, and freedom and bondage, are always bound to one another — from an egoic point of view, from consciousness.

Keith says, therefore, true awakening must be one with the bondage of the ego, one with war, one with environmental ruin, one with the horrors of sex trafficking. It’s one with those things, not above them, not turning away from them in sadness, or towards in righteous rage. Awareness is with and is the pain of the world.

He has some fun exploring why most spiritual masters will not answer the question, “Are you enlightened” in a linear or straightforward way, because the question itself displays a profound lack of understanding of the nature of awakening.

Enjoy this discerning dive into the deep territory of awakening.


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Keith Martin-Smith

About Keith Martin-Smith

Keith Martin-Smith is an award-winning author, writing coach, and Zen priest. He is passionate about human connection, creativity, and evolution. His books include "The Mysterious Divination of Tea Leaves", "A Heart Blown Open", and "The Heart of Zen". His most recent book is his first novel, "Only Everything", a novel that explores the promise and the pain of following an artist's path.

Notable Replies

  1. I kind of favor this option. Nobody absolutely needs a guru - but following along the path someone else has already cleared is a heck of a lot easier than cutting a random path through the jungle oneself with neither compass nor map. In the past to follow a Guru meant you only followed that one path, regardless of it other easer paths intersected later on.
    Then at some point if one has an adequate understanding of the terrain and adequate skills to identify better paths from worse paths, or to cut their own path - then yes, they don’t need a Guru.

    Regarding the Listening - I was about to turn it off at the 5 minute mark but decided to listen to the whole thing. He makes some bold statements up front and claims they are universals. His image of Gurus is a common one - but it seems to me to be a straw man. Are all Gurus filled with shadow vices and therefore unable to achieve Enlightenment - or only the Gurus who have made the 9 O’clock news? It’s easy to look at the Gurus we are aware of (because they have public scandals) and define that as all Gurus, while refusing to recognize that there are thousands of Gurus with healthy awakened communities numbering in the millions or even tens of millions.
    Some of these communities may find a solution in his form of shadow work that he recognizes but others do still deal with shadow even if it is not in a way Keith can recognize. It isn’t necessary to “shine a light” on shadow. That is only one approach that is based in logic and a desire to “do” awakening and be in control of the process.
    The books are going to be more appealing to a Western audience from where the west is in it’s awakening process. Most western minds probably are not ready for the methods that I would call more “dancing” with shadows that are based in Mysticism, ritual and symbolism.

    Next is the a view of consciousness, which is based in an extremely western paradigm, where YOU are conscious of the OUTSIDE. Another valid understanding is that there isn’t a you and outside you in the first place, but even if there is, then consciousness is more a 2-way street where you and that which is outside of you become more aware of the dance you are performing together. Sometimes you act, sometimes you are acted upon. Sometimes you become aware, sometimes awareness enters you (aka grace).

    I guess it’s good for me to listen to him with a mind to understand how the modern mind tries to grapple with awakening, lol. It may be more efficient for some people.

  2. I am personally tired of all these discussions and convoluted sentences that try to extract from reason what reason alone cannot give and want my attention time. Too much Yang energy. I’d rather feel. There is paradox, and I am in peace with it. I am one with both pain and joy. And it is sort of the same. At this point frankly, to me, art does it better than reason. A book that, I find, super poetically and powerfully expresses what it feels to be in the ‘sublime paradox of being’ is Love is Everything: A Year with Hadewijch of Antwerp, translated by Andrew Harvey. This Christian mystic makes it quite clear that there’s just Love, and that Love is this voracious power from whom there is no escape - at the same time ecstasy and suffering.

  3. Reminds me of a phrase we often use around these parts — “the next Buddha will be the Sangha”. Which is easy to say, but what does it mean? Does it mean we collapse all hierarchies, devalue authentic mastery, and eliminate the concept of “student/teacher”? I don’t think so, and I would guess most of you would agree. My sense is that it has more to do with:

    a) growing beyond the absolutist idea that a spiritual teacher possesses mastery in all things,

    b) replacing this absolutism with an integral “kosmic address” scaffolding that allows us to recognize the rich topography of mastery within each of us, knowing that each of us can be very well developed in some areas but not others, and therefore we can preserve and nourish and leverage the growth hierarchies within each of us, without falling into the dominator hierarchy traps that are so common in guru-based modes of spiritual training,

    c) creating a community of individuals who have cultivated the epistemic humility required to recognize those areas where each of us can learn from each other.

    Which means that, even within a single conversation, the role of “teacher” can be distributed throughout the individual participants of the conversation, as each participant tries to figure out how and what they an learn from each other. However, this requires a good deal of “growing up”, “waking up”, and “cleaning up” work first, in order to “show up” without the sort of opaque egos that can so easily hijack conversations such as these. I see this as a prerequisite for any integral “community of the adequate”, or else our hidden biases, assumptions, projections, and even typological preferences can prevent us from fully seeing, valuing, and learning from each other.

  4. @corey-devos I completely agree with one caveat

    I think it’s possible to eliminate the position of “teacher”. By and large teaching is more and more being seen as an assisting and facilitating role more than anything else.

    In many situations a transformation can be expedited by what might be called “The Placebo effect”. In this case, the Guru or sect is a placebo that can enable a devotee to expedite a transformation process. It is often easier for humans if they believe someone else has special spiritual mojo and they can do something to make the process faster or more certain, especially in the beginning of the process.

    Another method I can think of is during transformation by Devotion, where the Guru is an Avatar of the divine and facilitates transformation by being easier to access and more easily available to meet face to face than actual God.

    The difference would be if the sect or leader at some point says “Time for you to fly on your own now” or instead tries to keep the devotee in a follower status. Or now in modern times, if the 3rd day of the enlightenment process is completely devoted to upselling the next program for $10,000 lol.

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