"Awakening" in Buddhism, Cognitive Science and AI


  • The awakened mind is "consciousness seeing itself"

  • Awakening in Mahamudra = wisdom + compassions

I do not like the term awakening. Sam Harris does not use it, too. is overloaded with spiritualism, elitism, and all kind of weird connotations. But as it is frequently used, I can´t get around it and I want to define what I mean when I use it.

For a start, there are 1000 definitions, so, there is no agreement at all between traditions and teachers.

But, to simplify, I will start from the commonality of two specific experiences I had. Both were "certified" to me as a kind of classical awakening experience by luminaries of meditation. Here and here.

General definition of awakening (for me)

Awakening is a shift of perspective

The core of the classical awakening is pretty simple. Awakening is a fundamental shift of perspective. It is not an increase in factual knowledge or emotional maturity or wisdom or ethics etc.

Instead, awakening is an experiential awareness that the world as we normally experience it is something that does not exist "out there", solidly and self-existent. Instead, the world of inner and outer phenomena is something that appears to us in our consciousness. This includes even our sense of Self, which we no longer take as "real" but as an ongoing construct. Awakening makes us aware that we fabricate our own world.

The transitioning to awakening can be a high-impact transformational event

There are two ways in which one could understand awakening: as a purely intellectual insight, and as a high-impact transformational event.

Of course, one can intellectually understand the concept of awakening. There is not even a need to meditate on this: one can read contemporary cognitive science and philosophy literature, and that´s ok.

And then, awakening can be realized as or through a moment of awakening, that will leave an indelible impression on the entire personality. At this moment, there is a sense of "realizing" the abstract thought through a series of perceptual changes, for example changes of the visual system. I have described such a moment here as my own (psychedelic) experience.

Please note: I make no claim of "being awakened". All I say is that there was a specific experience that had the characteristics of awakenings as described in some variants of Buddhism.

The details of this type of experience may differ - but the commonality is the deep "realization" that awareness is.

A more detailed definition of awakening

The classical awakening experience brings about three major changes.

Cognitive: the world is experienced as a mirror / construct / fabrication

The world, including and in particular the self, is no longer taken as a "reality out there". Instead, it is experienced as a construct, a fabrication, a screen, a mirror, a dream. In Joscha Bach´s terms, it is a mode of experience where one is aware that one looks at a representation of the world; that one is in a story that is being written in real-time by the mind. One experiences the word as mirror or Self. Listen also to Henry Shukman.

Attitude: one gains equanimity towards everything

One gains a feeling of equanimity, or even of dis-interest, toward everything that arises as a mental event in the mind-stream. One experiences them all as equally valid expressions of the mind itself. There is less attachment and grasping for experience to have specific characteristics. There is a reduced tendency to classify everything as good/ bad etc. There is less of the normally incessant judgemental activity in the mind.

Emotional: one gains compassion for others

A clear moment of awakening (in this sense) is the realisation that this is what we all are: consciousness reflecting itself. I like Shinzen Young´s statement: "For a moment one knows how it feels to inhabitate everyone´s mind". And if this experience is visceral enough, one never forgets this moment. It´s a present of instant empathy with everyone. In Mahamudra, the true measure of the awakened mind is not wisdom: it is compassion.

The appearing world as a construct in modern science and philosophy

There is now a fundamental agreement in cognitive science, neuroscience and philosophy that we never experience reality as it is.

Instead, we experience reality as a model, or a simulation, a mental construct of whatever is out there.

Whatever reaches consciousness is processed through an incredibly complex and multi-layered system of perception, sensation, cognition, emotion, memory etc. Or, even more unintuitive, consciousness is a user interface like a screen, and objects are icons on it,

Just to name a few leading examples, where the titles are indicative of this theory

Reflexivity and AI

I had pointed out the reflexivity of awakening through the concept of "consciousness becoming aware of itself". This raises the question in which sense an AI can "awaken".

Joscha Bach, a leading AI researcher, sees in reflexivity the core of a potential "awakening to consciousness" of General Artificial Intelligence engines:

The system paying attention to its attention - that's the loop over which we wake up (Joscha Bach, ca 0:56ff).

He sees the insight that we live inside a model, a representation of the core of what cultures defined as enlightenment.

Or, expressed differently in computer terms:

Meditation is a way of getting access to one's own source code (Joscha Bach, ca min 2:03:00), this way having debug access to one's mind.
When you look at the World, can you decide to look at qualia or at representational states? And it turns out you can . There is a particular way in which you can look at the world and recognise its machine nature, including your own.

Contrary to Bach, I do not believe that one really "gets access to one's source code". One does not look deep enough, and what is the equivalence of computer source code in the mind anyway? Joscha Bach gives no explanation, but regardless of that it is a nice metaphor.

Metaphors for the awakened mind in Buddhism

In classical Tibetan Buddhism, this moment of mind reflexivity ("mind meeting mind") is described by various metaphors: for example

  • Mother meeting a long absent son

  • Two people from the same country meeting in another country and immediately recognising each other

  • A mirror held up to a mirror to recognise itself

  • And my favorite: a man and a women who love each other, meeting in secret to make love.

This reflexivity also underlies the famous "Lion´s View" metaphor by the Buddhist poet / philosopher Milarepa, read here in a wonderful rendering by Jayasara Samaneri.

Simultaneous mind as a characteristic of being awakened

A related term in Mahamudra Buddhism is "simultaneous mind". It describes a particular feature of the awakened mind, a way of experiencing.

The awakened mind is simultaneously aware of the open, unlimited, timeless space of awareness and of the arising mental events. These are called the event perspective and the mind perspective.

The term signifies that the mind´s awareness and its manifest events literally "arise together" in each moment of experience". Another way to say this is to say this is the the mind´s awareness and the events of ordinary consciousness form an inseparable pair, and that the perception of duality is erroneous (Daniel P Brown, Pointing out the Great Way, pos .%).

There is no experienc-ER. There is just experiencing. The sense of Self drops away.

How can "awakening" occur?

In general, such as shift of the entire mind-system can happen in a few ways:

Out of the blue

An out-of-the-blue experience with an instant personality transformation apparently happened to Byron Katie. She describes it in "Loving What Is"

As a result of meditation

Awakening can happen through meditation.

One of the most effective ways to lead people into such experience are pointing out instructions: precise or metaphorical instructions for certain mental operations to shift a perspective. Daniel P Brown´s book "Pointing Out the Great Way" is devoted to this teaching style.

Keith Dowman in "Dzog Chen Non-Meditation" , a bit tongue-in-cheek lists such types of pointing-out-instructions:

The pointing out may be the vocal expression of someone who knows; it may be a poetic or literary formulation; or it may be derived from a samaya substance that opens the doors of perception.

Clearly, the samaya substances are psychedelics.

As a psychedelic experience

This is how I experienced it through Ayahuasca. Such experience, normally LSD or psilocybin, was the starting point for many a Buddhist spiritual teacher career in the sixties, including the famous Jack Kornfield.

My own interest in Buddhism was "awakened" through this experience.

As a result of a body-based practice

In particular, breathing techniques such as holotropic breathing may radically change perception.l

As a religious experience

Many people have experienced such state through a religious epiphany.

Are all cognitive scientists awakened?

The constructionist view as proposed by some variants of Buddhism is actually the current state of cognitive science, and held by many luminaries of AI.

"The weird thing is I don't have an identity beyond the identity I construct" ( Joscha Bach 0:52)

Are therefore all cognitive scientists awakened? At least according to my definition, not.

They know, even created, the concept . But they had no full experience that shook them appropriately with this insight. They usually still live in a world where objects seem to be real, identify with their thoughts, and feel to be a separate Self at every instance. There is a gap between knowing and being.

Obviously, cognitive scientists can meditate, or they can take psychedelics which might bring their everyday experience into full alignment with their science. And of course, many do. In particular those who research at the boundaries, namely those who study the effects of psychedelics. Most of them have personal experience with such compounds, even if not all of them say so publicly, for career reasons. Not yet, at least.

Does nothing exist at all outside of mind?

Hang on: am I saying that nothing really exists? No. There is something real out there, we just cannot know what it is. There are just too many things: we can only perceive in aggregates (Bach).

We run everything through our sense apparatus and cognitive system before our brain, boxed into a dark chamber, and tasked with running our body, begins to form models, concepts, categories, concepts, stories, theories etc.

As a side note: of course, even "things" like our senses, neurons, nerves etc are, in this perspective, not the "real" foundation. In a sense, we make them up too.

We don´t even know what consciousness is, and yet we experience it every second. But we are pretty sure it exists. It´s actually the only thing we can be sure of, if one follows Sam Harris.

Once awakened, always awakened?

Not necessarily. The special moment where mind meets mind in a particular way is an important moment in intuitive, self-evident insight, but it is just that: an experience, a moment.

When it happens, it is usually called a taste of awakening. It may have an enormous momentary impact due to the seismic ontological shift (or, transformation into an ocean of awareness of awareness ). But whatever is experienced is just an experience. It arises, stays and passes away. At least for the large majority, like me.

Then what?

Then, one has to do the work to stabilise it, first as repeated experience in formal meditation, using various methods, and then by carrying the new type of awareness (or, base of operation) into everyday life by practicing. I prefer to practice when I get triggered (aka known as karmic traces back then) by my partner. Relationships are the so-called contemporary heroic path, according to Daniel P Brown. He learned from Ram Dass: "if you think you are awakened, spend a week with your mother".

Does awakening mean that one sees reality as it is?

This is a much loved phrase by meditation teachers. But it is misleading. We will most likely never see reality as it is.

The only sense in which this is true is this: an awakening moment (the one of the spectacular sort, be it through meditation or psychedelics, ) gives one a view of the reality that there is no reality as we knew it.

Are all awakenings phenomenologically the same?

No. There are various individual differences,as well as differences at the root of different meditation systems.

As an example of the latter, Daniel Brown states that the Indian Yogic and the Buddhist experience "differ right down to the level of meditative experience in samadhi" (MMS,p 639):

While the Indian Yogic experience of time is continuous (an unbroken stream), the Buddhist experience is granular: as "mind moments" making up a chain of very short events.

I have no explanation for it, but it seems, that my psychedelic experience, without the slightest conceptual previous exposure to either form of meditation, resulted "naturally" in the Buddhist form.

Big awakenings and small awakenings

Awakenings can come in different "sizes": small and large. Maybe XXXL.

The small ones are temporary and usually called "a taste of", or "a glimpse". They give a momentary view of a different perceptual world that will vanish.

The big ones are crushing and overwhelming, perhaps changing one´s life in an instant. For example, Byron Katie´s moment when she became unconscious and "woke up" as a different person was an XXXL awakening.

A kind of micro-awakening is demonstrated by Sam Harris, when, for example, he uses the snap of a finger to direct awareness back to awareness for a very short moment, a finger snap, in one of his daily meditations.

Is one a better person after awakening?

Not necessarily. It really depends. However, from personal experience I would say this: the moment of "mind meeting mind" gives one a sense of unity, of interwovenness of all instances of awareness across the planet (or wider). Or, as Shinzen Young put it above, one has a moment of inhabiting everyone´s mind.

Thus, the sense of being separate and having to fight for oneself may be weakened. One may begin to see everyone as awareness of the same type as the awareness one had become (even if for a short moment).


This experience may actually lead one to become more considerate, forgiving etc. In short: compassionate. In Mahamudra, awakening is indistinguishable from compassion. A key text describes it like this:

The essence of awakened awareness is a single thread of compassion [extending through all existence]....that remains unshakeable and unwavering (The Six Lamps, p. 185).


However, in particular if this "awakening" happens through a psychedelic experiences, it may also lead to a certain grandiosity. Psychedelic states are often suffused with perceived relevance and significance , with a sense of sacredness and emotional depth. All of this may give the experiencer a false sense of superiority, specialness, having received a mission etc. Many of the old authors warn against this. Here an example.

An alternate description by Dr Daniel P Brown

My definition of awakening is of course only a very simplified and abbreviated version.

The following quote from the last parts of Daniel P Brown's dissertation is better understandable, of course, when one has read the entire work leafing up to it. I still wanted to give an impression.

The long quote provides an insight into the more advanced stages of meditative practice where reality dissolves entirely, and is no longer the relatively stable set of objects and relations.

"An enlightened yogi has perfected his "self-awareness". This awareness is embodied in the very structure of his existence. That structure is called Simultaneousness. He correctly views his body - mind and the entire universe as nothing more than a vast interconnectedness. In an ultimate sense, this vast system of interrelatedness has no substance. Nor do the interrelations interact in a causal sense. Existence, ultimately, is unborn, and empty of any substance. Yet, in a relative sense, activity seems to occur. For the enlightened yogi, who embodies the simultaneous view, this activity is described as "naturalness". The relative structures must also seem to occur, through which natural activity manifests its own spontaneity. Thus, the body, mental continuum, and sense systems must also seem to exist in a relative sense.
They are however put-in-order or rearranged. His body/mind is an aggregation of the five Skandhas, but no self can be found within these Skandha. The body is merely an "artiface", whose activity occurs in an orderly fashion within the energy channels. Each of the six sense systems is composed of a sense object, organ and perceiver. These exist only in interrelation to one another. They exist when spontaneous activity occurs. but only in a relative sense. The former perceptions of the world appear like dancing emanations. The seemingly various events become calm immediately as they occur. The mental continuum is known to be a vast interconnected system of potential formations, each of which can only be specified in relation to something else. The underlying assumption is that relative activity, naturalness, when coupled to the ultimate, emptiness, will transform the inter- relationship of body mind cosmos so that it becomes the embodiment of wisdom. "

Appendix - three definitions by Shinzen Young , Culadasa, and Daniel P Brown

Here are other definitions of awakening or enlightenment by three major meditation teachers. I take the two terms as synonymous because they essentially mean the same, just with different nuances (listen to Culadasa).

Shinzen Young

From Shinzen Young, I like the aspect of this definition that awakening is freeing of the mind from its normal constraints of the Self. The duration of the video snippet is 2 minutes 11 seconds.

Elsewhere, in his neuro-science informed researcher mode, he amusingly compares enlightenment to

"a functional epileptic seizure that's actually more pleasant and more to the point than the normal mode of functioning" (Minute 1:34:30)

Culadasa (deceased)

From Culadasa, I like that he is extensive, patient, precise, neurologically informed, and humorous. I also like that when younger he sat in prison and nearly murdered another inmate on order on of a mafia don in a drug related crime.

Or, on Soundcloud

Of course, from the deceased Culadasa I appreciate his personal comment to my experience that he gave shortly before his death:

Andrew Newberg

Newberg, B. [Big Think]. (2016, May 8). The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, with Dr. Andrew Newberg | Big Think [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol0RuS1Y2Gs&feature=youtu.be

Daniel P Brown (deceased)

From Daniel P Brown´s description, I like the accuracy and precision of his description, both from the mind perspective as of the event perspective.

Dr Daniel P Brown, talking about the subjective experiential awareness of operating from an "awakened" state. He focuses on two aspects:

(1) From the mind perspective: what is my "basis of operation"? Am I operating from individual awareness, or from the whole (ie, am I watching the ocean, or am I the ocean watching its waves?).

(2) From the event perspective: what are the sensory and perceptual properties of what is emerging as mental event - e.g. brightness, or sacredness.

I can confirm from my own experience that he is not talking spiritual gobbledigook but that he gives an accurate description of a particular shift of mind.

The video is preset to start at minute 51, but it´s worth listening to all of it.


Joscha Bach

"Artificial Consciousness and the Nature of Reality". Joscha Bach on the Lex Fridman podcast


"Nature of Reality, Dreams and Consciousness" . Joscha Bach on the Lex Fridman podcast #212


Joscha Bach

Joscha Bach on Michael Taft´s Deconsctructing Yourself podcast: "What can AI tell us about the human mind?"


Lisa Feldman Barret

"How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain"


Lisa Feldman Barret

Lisa Feldman Barret on Sam Harris "Making Sense" podcast


Daniel P Brown

Daniel P Brown on the "Sacred Sundays" series (Youtube), on "Taste of Awakening"


Daniel P Brown

"Pointing out the Great Way", 1986


Mike Crowley

"The secret drugs of Buddhism"


Crowley´s book is the parallel to a book on the possible origin of Christianity in very early psychedelic cults - see Brian Murarescu


reply to my question on awakening, June 2020, Patreon Q@A


"The Mind Illuminated"


Soundcloud playlists


"What is Enlightenment?"

A full record of 6 days


Autobiographical series on Youtube

https://youtu.be/kn050yBN37U (part 1)

Jeff Hawkins

A Thousand Brains


Jeff Hawkins in "The Brain Science Podcast" with Ginger Campbell


Donald Hoffman

The Case against Reality


"The Case Against Reality" , on the After On Podcast, updated version


"The Case Against Reality", on the Tim Ferris Podcast, 2022.04


Donald Hoffman on Ron Reid´s "After On" podcast ("Reality Isn´t")


Daniel Ingram

Dangerous and delusional? Guru Viking Podcast


Matthew Johnson on Lex Fridman Podcast

Lex Friedman Podcast


Thomas Metzinger

"The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self"



The Lion´s View metaphor, read by Jayasara Samaneri (first few minutes only)


Brian Murarescu

"The Secret History of Psychedelics", In Lex Fridman podcast #211


Andrew Newberg (Neuroscience)

Newberg, B. [Big Think]. (2016, May 8). The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, with Dr. Andrew Newberg | Big Think [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol0RuS1Y2Gs&feature=youtu.be

Terry Real


Benny Shannon

"The Antipodes of the Mind. The Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience."



Henry Shukman, on Tim Ferris podcadlst

On Tim Ferris Podcast, on "Awakening" : min e 16:40


Interesting Engineering



"The Six Lamps"


Tapihritsa was an 8th century Tibetan monk

Shinzen Young

"What is Enlightenment?


I have to say, that I wrote my piece before listening to Shinzen Young, and he condenses my post very well!

Shinzen Young, Chelsey Fasano, Dr Jay Sanguinetti

Ep86:Bliss, Enlightenment, & Friston Ian Physics



The psychedelic science of pain