Skip to content

A Universal Theory of Awakening


by Michael W. Taft

Full-blown awakening means to notice clearly that everything you experience is a brain-generated virtual representation arising in working memory. This is known in various traditions as nondual awakening, understanding the nature of mind, and so on.

Your senses gather data about the world around you, as well as your internal state. This data streams to the brain, where it goes through layers and systems of processing. The processed sensory data is then assembled into an ongoing, continuously-updated virtual representation of the world around you and the you in the world. This virtual representation is experienced in working memory, moment by moment. Voilà – the experience of being alive!

Usually this experience of self-and-world (sometimes one longs to be writing in German, which would make this clumsy phrase into a nice, neat noun, something like “selfworld”) is transparent, meaning that we are not aware that it is a representation. We take it to be the real world which we are experiencing. And, of course, there is a real you (a human being with blood and guts) and a real world (other people and animals, plants and planets, and, well, everything) out there. But you have never experienced this real world directly. You are only ever experiencing the brain-generated representation of the world, created from the real world impacting your senses. Furthermore, you have never experienced yourself (the blood-and-guts-being) directly, but only the brain-generated representation of yourself. These representations are woven together, out of multiple streams of sensory data, moment by moment in working memory, into the self-and-world experience.

universal awakening

The Role of Representation

The highest awakening possible is to notice that there is nothing in working memory that is not a representation. All your most intimate thoughts are representations. All your most precious emotions are representations. The feeling of what’s going on in your right thigh joint right now: a representation. The cat on desk, the person across the room, the sunlight on the house plants, the sun itself, are all nothing but representations in working memory at this moment. As representations, they are all equally empty (meaning, metaphorically, just “images” or “fantasies” in the brain) and equally weighted. Like the color, depth, meaning, story, people, and emotions represented in a movie are all just photons on a flat screen, all of reality, all of self-and-world in personal experience is equally a construction presented to working memory (“It’s all one.” “I am one with everything!”)

From this we can work our way down to smaller awakenings, simply by subtracting some part of full awakening. For example, the usual experiences that fall under the umbrella-term “no-self” are simply the experience of the sense of self as a brain-generated representation, but leaving the sense of the world relatively intact as solid and real. Noticing the representational nature of the experience of emotions is responsible for most forms of arhat-like manifestations. Cessations happen when part or all of this representation collapses because the brain temporarily stops generating it. The higher intensities of mindfulness practice are the result of narrowing the scope of working memory to such a small area of sensory experience that its representational construction becomes obvious (i.e. metaphorically, you can see the “pixels” out of which the image is created).

The word awakening, in this case, is a metaphor. Being asleep means that you still experience the self-and-world representation as transparent. You believe the “dream” your brain is assembling. The extent to which the self-and-world representation has become opaque (i.e. you see its constructedness) is the extent to which you are awake. You have awoken out of the “dream” of the representation of self-and-world.

Altruism and Awakening

Most other forms of what is called being a saint or bodhisattva or tzaddik, etc., are centered around a focus on altruistic behaviors which may or may not be based in awakening. While these are a definite good in terms of relief of suffering, they are indicative of nothing concerning awakening. Awakening makes altruistic behaviors much more likely and more effective, but it’s possible to learn altruism on its own—as a set of rules and behaviors—without awakening. Even though it’s highly desirable to have both together, they are orthogonal dimensions.

The ideas about awakening (or enlightenment or liberation) that concern magical abilities are mistaken. The actually-existing world of the human you and the physical world (which you will never know or experience) is governed by the usual laws of physics. There is wiggle room here, however, because our understanding of physics is imperfect. We don’t actually know everything about how reality works, nor can we ever know anything scientifically about how Deep Reality works.

Full Awakening

Awakening, as defined, can be leveraged into many actionable, helpful, satisfying, and useful ends for ourselves and others in the world around us. Noticing the constructed nature of the sense of self greatly facilitates improvements in behavior, i.e. reducing the suffering of self and others. Noticing the representational nature of the world around us can be trickier, because it can point towards a false sense of irreality and lead to all manner of what is known as spiritual bypassing (i.e. I don’t have to care about the world because it’s not real, already perfect, etc.) A healthy version of this full awakening goes in a very different direction, where we realize that our judgments and biases (and indeed all concepts) about others are merely part of or representational construction. There is a real world out there (and in here) to live in, participate fully in, love in, and die in.

Some Notes:

  1. Awareness or consciousness are first-personal experiential terms for what is experienced in working memory. Given the baggage that has accumulated around them, they should be tossed on the junk bin of history. Unfortunately, we are probably stuck with them in normal speech. The scientific term should be working memory.
  2. I’m using working memory as the best-available term at this time. While there are problems with this term too, it’s close enough to be appropriate for an article of this depth and length (i.e. not a long article about neuroscience).
  3. Understanding the sharp differentiation between the third-person concepts presented here and a first-person experience is crucial. If those two get mixed up, total confusion is the result. In other words, the description of awakening offered above is, essentially, dualistic. That doesn’t mean that nondual experiences aren’t possible.
  4. Notice that this theory says nothing about the existence or nonexistence of a deity. Such a question is beyond the scope of any rational discourse. We cannot know anything about Deep Reality.
  5. The statements about the relationship between awakening and compassion have caused sufficient confusion that I will write a separate post about that specifically. TL;DR – Compassion is super important, but different than awakening.
  6. Nothing is true.


Read more like this



cloud photo by Peter McEwen

sunrise photo by Tonmoy


15 thoughts on “A Universal Theory of Awakening”

  1. Profound. Makes so much sense to me. Ive tried to explain this theory I had but could never find the right words…these feel like the right words. Thanks xxx

  2. I’m very much in agree with the way you express awakening. Not because I have experienced it, but because I have independently worked through the science and philosophy and what you’re saying maps well onto what I consider to be the most coherent explanation. I see a lot of Thomas Metzinger influence there and, in my view, he is still the leading theorist in this area. Though of course he relies on others as well, especially Antonio Damasio. The idea of a virtual self model is really useful. Or a virtual self-world model, I suppose we must say! (virtuelles Selbstweltmodell?)

    One of the traditional tropes that I still use is that experience (the representational model) isn’t really amenable to description in terms of “existence” and “non-existence”. Such terms can be applied to the mind-independent world, but not to experience. Something is happening when we have an experience, so it’s not an illusion (i.e. not unreal), but it’s not extensive in space and it is not visible to anyone else so it doesn’t qualify as real either. Experience is causal (moves us around) so again cannot be unreal, but exactly how it moves us around still defies the kinds of explanations would make it “real” (this may change in the future).

    Substance ontologies simply fail to encompass experience.

    It is interesting to both insist on a representationalist account of experience and endorse scientific concepts, particularly “working memory”. There are many in the West who believe, with Kant and Schopenhauer, that we cannot ever know anything about a mind-independent reality. A useful counterargument was summed up by Sean Carroll as “If the blind dudes just talked to each other, they would figure out it was an elephant before too long.” Empiricism is not simply paying attention to the phenomenal world, but also talking to each other about it.

    Comparing notes on experience allows us to triangulate on what is purely subjective in experience (only visible to individuals) and what impacts on everyone in the same way. And it allows us to infer accurate and precise knowledge about the world beyond our senses. Not metaphysical certainty, but maps that offers levels of precision and accuracy better than our ability to measure (and far far better than our unaided senses can detect).

    This is not a Platonic argument. The world beyond our senses, independent of our minds, has no special qualities of being ideal or absolute or anything like that. The world unfolds according to certain patterns (which are different at different scales), and we can notice some of those patterns. It just happens that our senses evolved to detect certain types of qualities of the objective world at the same time as our brain evolved ways to map internal and external states to make homeostasis and moving around more efficient.

    The beauty of the representationalist account of experience and of awakening is that it is completely consistent with such laws of nature as have stood the test of time. And if Buddhism is going to survive its encounter with modernity then this is the least level of coherence it must achieve. I’m not exactly surrounded by people who think this way, so it’s nice to know there are people who do. LOL.

    1. Thanks for your insights, Jayarava. I particularly resonate with the need to agree about the nature external reality. Even if we cannot know anything for sure about deep reality (i.e. we cannot achieve metaphysical certainty) , we sure seem to have learned a lot of very useful stuff about the world beyond our senses. It would be fun to discuss this at greater length sometime.

  3. Here’s another perspective. If everything is a representation, can you absolutely, really know “there is a real you… and a real world… out there?” Descartes suggested this point with the Evil Demon hypothesis. If an evil demon had total control over my conscious experience, what’s the only thing I could know for sure? I can only know that I am aware of being aware. Since “I am” (consciousness, awareness) therefore I can have experiences (thoughts, emotions, perceptions.) Note: I’ve reversed the cogito on purpose. But all experiences are suspect; night dreams are proof the mind can be completely fooled. Prevailing consensus is that consciousness resides in the mind, the mind in the body, the body in the universe. But the reverse is at least worth contemplation: the universe, body and mind all reside within consciousness. Even “the usual laws of physics” exist inside the virtual reality dream of experience, so we cannot use the dream to validate the dream. “A real world and a real you” is an immensely useful construct, but in the context of awakening up, it must be regarded as just another belief to be questioned. Interested in your thoughts… cheers.

    1. I totally understand your perspective, at least in terms of my own practice. However, if we’re to avoid total solipsism, spiritual bypassing, and general sociopathy, in terms of our relationship to the external world, we have to agree that other people and animals exist and are important. The suffering of others is real and matters. It is an immensely useful construct, as you say, but it’s also a vitally important construct to our humanity. To put it another way, I can understand why Buddhism places such an emphasis on compassion as part of awakening, since it’s crucial (in my opinion) that we not become assholes who only care about our own checking out into lala land.

      In general, however, I think it’s simpler than that. Our accounts of the external world have grown more and more accurate over time. Science seems to be describing something with great efficacy. That conversation, flawed as it is, is the one that best fits what seems to be going on “out there.”

      1. Yes, I see your perspective. I suspect the unconscious behaviors you listed could result from an incomplete awakening, where a glimpse of the absolute is seen and attached to. There are lots of people out there who have had real awakening experiences, but stopped progressing because they attached to some aspect of what they realized. That’s not a criticism of anyone, just an observation. And to your point, the spiritual teachers I consider awakened, those that have fully realized “The world is illusory; Brahman alone is real;” also realize “Brahman is the world” and fully dedicate their lives to the welfare of others.
        But my main point is that Science is wonderful, Buddhism is wonderful, materialism is wonderful. There is nothing wrong with attachment to them. But in the context of authentic awakening, all Buddhas must be questioned, investigated and ultimately killed to move forward.

  4. Hi Micheal – Do you consider yourself fully awakened all the time according to this definition, or is this simply the theoretical end of a spectrum that is not actually attainable? If you are not, could you quantitatively and/or qualitatively describe individuals that you think describe the upper limits of awakening? It would be very helpful to me and many other people to have an understanding of what is realistically attainable with dedicated practice. As always thank you for your time and thoughts.

    1. Hi, Nathan ~
      I don’t think anybody is capable of being fully awake to this at every moment. It would make it hard to function properly; to cross the street safely, and so forth. It is possible, however, to be capable to becoming awake to it at any moment you choose. In other words, it’s a choice or an option that’s always available.

  5. Great article Michael. I remember the moment I realized that every sensation I had ever experienced of “myself” was just as constructed as that of the world “out there” (I had realized and made peace with that much earlier). It was quite disorienting.

    I appreciate that you have described the essence of this teaching/ realization more clearly than anyone I have read, so thanks for that. This article has joined the ranks of Singer ‘s The Untethered Soul as a resource for me to refer budding introspectionists too.

    I am not sure if one can be aware of awareness (which you a a reader discuss in the comments section). My introspection / reflection is that one can 1) be aware
    2) think about being aware as you are being aware (or one moment later actually) and 3) be aware of thinking about being aware, but there can be no awareness aware of awareness (that just ends up being ‘1’). What’s your take on this common pointing out instruction?

  6. Psychologist Riccardo Manzotti has provided a pointed critique of the notion of neural “representations,” which also bears intriguing points of contact with Buddhist understandings of causality and non-duality. You might enjoy his series of conversations with interviewer Tim Parks:
    Thank you for putting your ideas out there.


  7. Firs off, I enjoy your podcast, I have benefitted from listening to the many interviews, and I hope to continue to listen for a long time to come! Ok, now I’m going to be a little more harsh with my criticism, as is the nature of critique I guess.

    >”Full-blown awakening means to notice clearly that everything you experience is a brain-generated virtual representation arising in working memory. This is known in various traditions as nondual awakening, understanding the nature of mind, and so on.”

    I can’t claim to have achieved “full-blown” awakening, however, from trying to read what many different ancient traditions all say about this, they do not say it is only the brain that is hallucinating a virtual experience of a physical world, but that all of physical reality “out there” is illusory as well. The awakening is not realizing that your brain is fooling you into a waking dream of a self, but that the whole world is the dream, and the whole world is your self, and none of it is at all material! You can object to their understanding as primitive, superstitious, or supposedly lacking in scientific understanding, that’s fine, but you have to say that explicitly instead of mischaracterizing traditional knowledge through a modern lens. I have come to a different conclusion than yours, one that validates the ancient wisdom and holds suspect the promissory materialism of current consensus science, but I’m at least honest in saying that outright, and I’m also honest in saying that such a claim requires more effort by people who hold it to show the evidence and sound argumentation behind it in light of modern scientific revelations.

    >“As representations, they are all equally empty (meaning, metaphorically, just “images” or “fantasies” in the brain) and equally weighted.”

    This is only true if you’ve been seduced by the false sense of superiority that the modern post-enlightenment objective-based worldview has forced upon us. Just because something is subjective, first person, and only indirectly measurable, does not mean it is empty or “just” x in a brain. These aren’t “just” representations to the person experiencing them, and they definitely are not “equally weighted” given the differing consequences of how each of them play out in the world for that individual. Also, not only is objective reality not superior, it doesn’t even really exist! Philosophically, all objective claims can be folded into inter-subjective ones anyway, but that’s a long aside I won’t get into right now. Furthermore, representationalism and computationalism have been the explanatory frameworks du jour of cognitive science for half a century now, and while they are useful for certain functionalist models of cognition, they are not at all complete or comprehensive. Look at the Gibsonian approach to perception and action for one example of a different, and better iMO, alternative. Lastly, from a transcendent vantage point, when saying that a nondual perspective ultimately sees all representations as equally empty, it’s important to understand what emptiness means. It doesn’t mean empty of meaning, but the opposite, so much abundance of meaning that one form cannot contain it–an infinite number of forms can represent the true underlying meaning behind the unfolding process. The type of dance one does doesn’t matter, but there will still be an appropriate rhythm and timing and pattern to the dancing.

    >”Awakening makes altruistic behaviors much more likely and more effective, but it’s possible to learn altruism on its own—as a set of rules and behaviors—without awakening.”

    Thinking altruism is about following rules and mimicking behaviors is a perfect example of the modern trap of utilitarianism, the only “rational” meta-ethical framework for a materialist metaphysics. This has even led some to form cults around building AIs with such rules programmed into them. Not only is this as impossible as building a perpetual motion machine, it is, more importantly, really missing the moon for the finger. Altruistic behavior is an external reflection of an internal mode of Being, the modern utilitarian calculus is focusing on the surface, which can be useful, but is not the whole. To become truly altruistic one must transform into an embodiment of altruism not just perform the actions. True spiritual evolutionary development is multi-factorial and includes many various pathways one must master, sometimes these are mastered independently, sometimes as a whole, but the whole must be achieved to truly progress.

    >”The ideas about awakening (or enlightenment or liberation) that concern magical abilities are mistaken. The actually-existing world of the human you and the physical world (which you will never know or experience) is governed by the usual laws of physics.”

    It’s interesting to note how these statements are asserted with such confidence and that you don’t feel the need to weigh the probabilistic strength of them, no matter how certain they currently seem to you to be. That’s not common-sense or evidence-based, that’s just hubris. There’s nothing “usual” about the laws of physics except for our limited understanding of them. I can understand raising an eyebrow to many claims of supra-ordinary abilities or people experiencing extra-physical phenomena, at least those that defy our current physical explanations, but to just reject them completely like you’ve done is a symptom of a closed mind, and assuredly not an awakened one. I wonder what someone like Daniel Ingram, who you’ve interviewed more than once, would say to this seeing as he has come forward publicly with claims of experiencing such magical and psi phenomena that are unexplained by physicalist/materialist interpretations of our currently most accepted scientific models. You would have to be, at least implicitly, saying people like him are deluded or fraudulent–just as you implicitly misappropriated ancient understanding of the awakening process to start your post.

    Again, I’m sorry if I’m coming across too critical, but my view is a minority one at the moment and needs a more vigorous push to stay seated at the same discussion table sometimes!

Let us know what you think