Skip to content

Awakening & Psychological Growth


by Michael W. Taft

Awakening and psychological growth are largely orthogonal. While one can definitely help the other, they are entirely different things. You can be very awake and still be a total asshole (as well as anxious, depressed, conflicted, avoidant, etc.). From my viewpoint, awakening is just the beginning of the path, and nothing like the end.

Waking up will not solve your psychological issues—which unfortunately is exactly what most people think it will do and are looking for. It will not automatically make you nicer, or make other people like you more. It won’t solve your depression, your obsession, or your narcissism.

You only need to witness the seemingly endless parade of fallen gurus—men (mainly) who have clearly achieved high levels of realization, and yet are still slaves to their flawed personalities—to see the truth of this statement.

Psychological Growth Is Very Important

That said, awakening will make any psychological work you do much easier, because you will be unattached to various habitual ego states. But these don’t often just change on their own. You still have to do the work.

Because we are social beings, entirely embedded in an intersubjective context, the psychological changes you make may be more useful, important, helpful, and ultimately meaningful than the awakening itself (however clear).

From this viewpoint, the work you do to be a kind, helpful, loving, decent human being is much more important than your individual awakening. Awakening may only be important in as much as it helps you to do that.

Gone wrong, awakening just exacerbates your psychological flaws. The worst thing that awakening can do is to make you convinced that your mental fucked-up-ness is somehow helpful and/or some kind of deep teaching for others.

So, by all means, strive for awakening. It is a good thing. But understand that even when you get there*, it is only the beginning.

What do I mean by “awakening”? Find out here.

Listen to this podcast with Tucker Peck, and this one with Culadasa, to learn more about meditation and psychological growth.

* And, yes, I know there is no goal, nothing to strive for, etc. etc.

photo by Anissa Wood

12 thoughts on “Awakening & Psychological Growth”

  1. So, why do you think that the Buddhist tradition usually portrays the awakened as ethically perfect and ultimately happy? If you are right, they must have known this to be untrue.

    1. Usually Buddhist practitioners also follow the path of sila, morality training. By the time they become awakened, they have likely become better people as well, even if it’s not directly connected to the cognitive changes.

  2. From Awakening & Psychological Growth by Michael Taft,

    “Waking up will not solve your psychological issues—which unfortunately is exactly what most people think it will do and are looking for. It will not automatically make you nicer, or make other people like you more. It won’t solve your depression, your obsession, or your narcissism.”

    In buddhism, awakening in general, is defined as familiarisation with the empty or selfless nature of mind. It is true that little familiarisation leaves much of the self-based terrain alive and this can and does lead to mistakes and problems, even scandals and traumas, unfortunately. It is little or too little familiarisation (or too little awakening) that is the problem here, not that buddhism, as a philosophy, wouldn’t work or “go all the way”. I am a fan of Western psychology but I do think that if taught and applied correctly, buddha dharma doesn’t require support from it. Having said that, I don’t recommend stubbornly sitting (sticking with one’s chosen method of dharma) with one’s problems if there is no indication of both awakening and psychological growth.

    Buddhist methods vary and teachers’ understanding of their own methods and ability to pass it on varies greatly. Even something very basic, like the meditative exercise of following of the breath or the meaning of taking refuge, can be taught very differently, which affects how the students learn and internalise it. The differences in learning can be vast depending on the method and the teacher, even if the theory is the same. Someone can be a teacher from a highly considered tradition, such as vajrayana, but be a poor practitioner and not much of a teacher, while a dedicated practitioner and skilled enough teacher from a lower vehicle can make his or her students advance and transform significantly. On the other hand, a vajrayana teacher, who is familiar with the natural state and sees into the underlying principles of practices, can make his or her students progress very fast. So, the questions of method as well as pedagogy are very important, as is the level or depth of the teacher’s awakening.

    To have use for dharma teachings, one has to acknowledge one’s own confusion, or suffering caused by a sense of me-ness. Without this discontent one has no need or motivation for practice, and doesn’t see the point of it either. On the other hand if one acknowledges one’s confusion, and immaturity because of that, it feeds one’s motivation to practice for one’s own liberation for the sake of all beings, as it is taught in mahayana. But if you get your belly full from one or two shifts, possibly become a teacher, or a worshipped guru who has comfortable life with money and services, your growth stops there. It stops the moment you become satisfied. More importantly you only understand a fraction of what buddhism points to with emptiness or nature of mind. While anyone with one or few shifts can understand something of emptiness, only a fully awakened one, a buddha, really knows it. This leads to a whole another discussion but I’ll try to stick with the topic.

    The Heart Sutra states, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. Confused self-based (samsaric) mind is realised to be empty of self. “There is no one here! Woohoo!”. Once this realisation expands to cover most of one’s mind, one’s training takes a different turn, that of becoming a human being again, instead of remaining as transparent, colourless and formless emptiness. The thing is that emotions don’t go away or stop with realisation of emptiness but instead of them causing selfing, they become expression of the natural state. Because one has solid ground in the empty nature of mind, emotions and expressing them becomes an embodiment of one’s awakening. It is OK to feel hurt, vulnerable and angry, that is the training here and really it is all part of the same training as before. In this way, one becomes healed as a human, instead of remaining a human-shaped non-human who has no self or emotions. This is, of course, if one has human traumas. Not all do but I think many attracted to dharma or spiritual teachings do, because once again you need suffer to have use for dharma.

    But I think that in many cases there simply isn’t enough familiarisation with the natural state, i.e. insight is insufficient, to get to the stage of emotional healing.

    Hope this is useful.

    – Kim

    1. While there’s a lot I agree with in your comment, Kim, I think that your position that “Buddhism doesn’t need support from psychology” is both incorrect and actually harmful. You seem to be coming from a “true believer” position, which I feel understanding compassion for. But such religious fiction is inexcusable in the light of the many scandals that continue to rock Buddhism at the highest levels, year after year. And, of course, it’s the very same vajrayana teachers who you tout as so advanced who have perpetrated the majority of the crimes and misdeeds. Such horrific tragedies will continue to be utterly predictable until we come clean and admit that there is no such thing as a “perfect master” or a “perfectly enlightened being” outside of religious fiction. There are only flawed human beings with more or less deep understanding of their own minds, and who can manifest more or less kindness to others. Best of luck to you, Kim.

  3. “From my viewpoint, awakening is just the beginning of the path, and nothing like the end.” I would suggest that being orthogonal dimensions its inconsistent to say awakening is the beginning of the path, though I get you seem to be speaking to Buddhists who think its the end. If I had to choose between the two, I would rather be friends with an moral person who has worked through most or all of their emotional conditioning and history and is not awakened, then an awakened person with a bunch of baggage.

    A clinical anecdote; I have had very ordinary people with no spiritual training or practices spend anywhere from 3 months to a few years doing their clearing work with me and who then spontaneously report “spiritual” experiences – non-dual states while playing the guitar, moving into bliss states while doing the dishes, suddenly volunteering to help at soup kitchens or teaching English as a Second Language. And this is all without us ever discussing “spirituality” in session.

    So it seems you can begin and end with either dimension, but the Buddhist traditions emphasize Awakening first (though in the context of the 8-fold path which is very different than the Western version of Buddhism from what I understand).

    1. “I would rather be friends with an moral person who has worked through most or all of their emotional conditioning and history and is not awakened, then an awakened person with a bunch of baggage.” Good point, Doug.

  4. I agree with Michael that human / psychological work is absolutely necessary, but I think Kim is also right in saying that the Buddhist path is complete without input from Western psychology.

    Doesn’t nondual emptiness manifest in duality as love? Is the work of 4th path not integrating one’s understanding of emptiness back into duality, which opens the heart leading with love, compassion and service to others?

    One can certainly attain great insight without purifying all of one’s bad habits, but eventually if the bad habits are seen as empty and one’s heart opens through this integration, it seems that eventually one cannot help but be freed from these habits that are harmful to others. The problems seem to arise when one reaches a certain level of insight and thinks they are “done”, when they have not allowed the insight to integrate and penetrate the rest of their life.

    1. The method you’re describing—seeing bad habits as empty—is precisely the way to get snared by them. Seeing them as empty relieves the suffering caused by them but they still manifest externally as bad habits. That’s one of the ways awakened people can really screw up in life. The emptiness of bad habits doesn’t excuse the damage they do to others. You have to go back in and actually resolve them the hard way, rather than simply see them as empty, in order to truly clean them out and clean up your behavior.

      1. That would be only seeing the results of one’s harmful actions as empty. What I am referring to is insight into the habits themselves… seeing the dependent arising of the habit, the pattern of how and why your mind is doing it. Of course seeing how it happens might not stop it right away but the more you can see it, the less you are wrapped up in it and the more ability you have to change course.

        Of course this assumes one still wants to become a better person. One can get stuck in a nihilistic, nothing matters viewpoint which prevents one from continuing to grow and progress on the path, but I think you would agree that this is just a trap and not any sort of endpoint. Someone who only lives in emptiness and acts like other people in the world don’t matter has not mastered the path… they still need to come back to duality and live in both worlds at once.

        1. They don’t need to do anything. Psychological work is something that can be advisable when operating in the empty daily life as it preferred by most humans to have less psychological problems and these psychological problems often become something that can get increasingly uncomfortable and often easier to deal when emptiness is realized but psychological work and realization of emptiness are not the same nor thus one necessarily follow from the other as buddhism makes it often seem when they classify enlightenment as realization+ no more psychological problems aka the arhats in Theraveda, and then in Mahayana the bodhisattva ideal of that compassion arises necessarily from realization and great compassion with psychological perfection aka buddhahood and then also the addition of unusual abilites especially seen in Vajrayana. Ethical conduct is something that can increase wellbeing in general whether there is realization or not. Compassion (defined as wanting to help others. Not the definition of right and/or appropriate action as this is often used as a way of ethically gaslighting people in Buddhism when realization and ethical conduct are seen as inseparable.) does tend to arise for most caring humans when suffering based on certain illusory phenomena is noticed in people. But bringing about wellbeing trough ethical conduct and compassion is not the same as realization nor thus one necessarily follow from the other similar to my point about psychological problems.

Let us know what you think