In Depth History of Our Work
Trillium Awakening™ educational offerings and coaching services are informed by principles from the Waking Down teachings, and our history begins with the pioneer of that work.
In 1991 Saniel Bonder followed an irresistible inner prompt to leave his guru, Adi Da Samraj, the beloved teacher he had followed for nearly 20 years. Saniel had been a principal writer, editor, and leader within Adi Da’s community, yet found himself in distress and crisis toward the end of his involvement. He struggled with the loss of integrity he experienced as spokesperson for a community he increasingly perceived as dictatorial and dysfunctional. He was also distraught that despite many years of dedicated effort, the spiritual awakening he had so passionately sought had eluded him.
In the weeks that followed his departure, Saniel despaired of being able to fulfill his dream, as his guru had declared he would be doomed to “hellish karmas for lifetimes” if he ever abandoned his practice of guru devotion. Nonetheless, he met a fellow traveler who encouraged him to “grasp the means of his own realization.” Saniel understood this to mean that he couldn’t make himself awaken through effort and willpower, and that he didn’t need to be a lockstep follower of any program or guru. What would be right for him would emerge synchronistically, and he need only be alert to, and follow, such opportunities.
That’s exactly what happened as Saniel began to encounter a variety of interesting people who became his informal teachers during the following year. Much to his surprise, in December 1992 he suddenly awakened: he realized his infinite nature, and awoke to non-separateness with all phenomena. He later called this shift the “second birth,” because his experience of the deep unity of spirit and matter marked a profound rebirth and renewal of his entire being.
A significant quality of Saniel’s transformation was its tantric nature. Although sexual intimacy was a precipitating factor in his awakening, the shift itself was tantric in the radical sense of “nothing excluded.” From the very beginning, Saniel was clearly directed to embrace all aspects of himself, including the wounded and broken places he had previously managed to suppress or override through meditation and service. Later, he vigorously supported his students in exploring and integrating these realms.
Many descriptions of awakening are written in the honeymoon phase that typically follows. They speak in glowing tones of how peaceful or exalted realizers feel, how balanced and free of stress and self-concern. These idealized accounts, devoid of the angst of human existence, can be very inspiring and certainly whet the appetite. Who wouldn’t want to be free of sorrow or pain? Saniel himself experienced this early glow in his own awakening. Yet over time, it became obvious that period was just the tip of the iceberg, and the post-awakening period of integration held the real juice and challenges. It was there Saniel found his greatest need for skilled assistance.
After the initial rush of his awakening, Saniel encountered his brokenness—all the unhealed aspects of his psyche and life. Like most spiritual seekers, he had hoped that union with the infinite would confer permanent ease and grace. Instead, he discovered a momentum to his patterns of conditioned thinking, reacting, and behaving that persisted and soon reemerged. But all was not lost: he also realized that the spacious presence of his conscious nature beamed light like a laser into those dark corners, fostering healing and integration.
Moreover, Saniel discovered that in the very act of radically accepting all of himself, and being deeply seen and met by others, something magical began to occur. The rough places—the self-critical and judgmental voices, attitudes, and reactions—began to soften and ease. He found a new capacity to appreciate the beauty and grace of life, right in the midst of the pain and frustration that co-exist. He came to life by coming to life.
Before long, Saniel discovered that his practice had a certain “contagious” quality, as others around him also began to awaken to their divine nature and, simultaneously, fell deeply into their human experience. Saniel’s transmission—the tacit communication of his realization through gazing meditation, conversation, and writing—seemed to catalyze the specific quality of embodiment: bringing the divine down into intimate and direct contact with the stuff of human life.
It was an exciting time; Saniel’s students were directly realizing their hearts’ desire to awaken to the fullness of their divinity, as well as experiencing oneness with all life. But it was also quite a challenging period, as they had to face the same reckoning as had Saniel; their human lives were not magically transformed, and their areas of limitation and pain were not suddenly eliminated. Some encountered deeply wounded parts. On one occasion, a disgruntled student arrived with a bowl of lemons, and said to Saniel, “Thanks a lot for giving me a lemon of a realization!”
Nonetheless, Saniel and his friends were discovering very important truths about embodied awakening—revelations that were not clearly presented in traditional teachings. As a group, they sensed that something new was underway, and that it was unique to our historical and cultural context, and perhaps unparalleled in human evolution.
Ma-Tam Temple Of Being
In 1996 Saniel and his future wife, Linda Groves, established Ma-Tam Temple of Being (named after a mountain Saniel loved in Marin County, California) as a non-profit organization chartered to bring his work into the world. In 1998, he published his first mainstream book, Waking Down: Beyond Hypermasculine Dharmas.
Saniel and his students were forging a new path, which he aptly named “Waking Down in Mutuality” (thus distinguishing it from “waking up”). While standing free of any direct lineage or spiritual tradition, the work incorporated elements of Eastern spiritual traditions that revealed the nature of Consciousness, while also drawing upon the healing wisdom of Western psychotherapy. All this was rooted in a contemporary spirit of democratic participation and free expression in mutuality. Students attending Saniel’s early gatherings discussed their lives and their awakening process, while he offered gazing meditation, open conversation, and the simple joy of being together. Over time, this group of pioneers forged a remarkably satisfying and heart-full way of being that included levels of wholeness, intimacy, and freedom of expression far beyond anything they had previously known.
Soon after they began to awaken, Saniel designated his advanced students as his fellow teachers: Van Nguyen, Sandra Glickman, Linda Groves, Hillary Davis, and Jen Mayol were all part of that first wave, followed by Deborah Boyar, CC Leigh, and Krishna Gauci. Saniel explicitly recognized these former students as colleagues rather than subordinates, in further differentiation from his own former teacher’s approach. Before long, this next generation of teachers were also discovered to be ‘contagious’ with their transmission, and in turn helped their own students awaken to divinely human embodiment. More and more folks were awakening quite directly—many within a couple of years instead of the decades (or lifetimes) that other paths had affirmed were necessary.
In 1997 Ted Strauss organized the first Waking Down Weekend in collaboration with Saniel and other teachers, and in 2000, the Transfiguration Retreat, a week-long intensive, was held in northern California. These workshops and retreats proved extremely catalytic for people’s awakening process, and weekend workshops and longer retreats became regular offerings. In 2001 the first teacher certification training was launched.
The Waking Down Teachers Association (WDTA)
Ma-Tam Temple of Being had been conceived and organized as a vehicle for Saniel’s work. As more and more teachers were trained and the movement grew, the limits of an organization structured to support a single teacher became increasingly apparent to Saniel and the other teachers, many of whom wished to operate autonomously. Saniel agreed that an organization of teachers of mutuality should be owned and operated by the teachers themselves. In 2004, he led several attempts to come up with a new way of organizing that would distribute power more equitably, which didn’t yet lead to a comprehensive new structure.
In February 2005, Saniel and the other teachers authorized CC Leigh, Krishna Gauci, and Ron Ambes to craft a workable solution. As “Interim Advisors,” they worked intensively to design an organizational structure for the work of the teachers’ collective. They determined that a democratically-based association of peers would best serve the growing number of awakened, self-actualizing, autonomous teachers, and in May 2005 the Waking Down Teachers Association was incorporated as a 501(c)6 non-profit professional association.
As a professional association, the WDTA was chartered to help raise public awareness of the work’s offerings, as well as provide mutual support for its members in their work as autonomous teachers. All teachers, including Saniel, were equal members of the WDTA with equal voting privileges. They agreed to abide by the association’s ethics policies and participated regularly in monthly mutuality support groups.
Since 1997, at Saniel’s request, the Waking Down in Mutuality teachings had been cooperatively developed through the collective efforts of its teachers. When the WDTA was formed in 2005, Saniel reaffirmed that the organization and its members were now joint stewards of the “core dharma” (the foundation principles of the teaching).
It’s not unusual for spiritual teachers to form organizations to support and promote their teachings. It’s also not unusual for such organizations to suffer growing pains, or even devastating breaks, when leadership shifts and changes occur. But what was unusual was the smooth transition from a leader-run organization to a democratic structure where all parties operated in respectful mutuality with one another, as occurred in the Waking Down Teachers Association for many years. We consider this a truly remarkable achievement.
For more than eight years after the 2005 redesign, the Waking Down work flourished, and became increasingly known throughout the world. This was a huge testament to Saniel’s willingness and dedication to honor and empower every teacher as his colleague in birthing a new approach to awakening in the midst of ordinary human life. It was also a testament to the teachers who walked their talk by participating in mutual support groups, upheld strong ethics agreements, and made room for everyone to discover and express their unique voices. This level of integrity provided a refreshing counterpoint to some of the excesses of past and contemporary spiritual teachers.
Despite the surface functionality in the relationship between Saniel and the WDTA, undercurrents simmered and erupted from time to time, reflecting the inherent “genetic” differences of a founder in relationship with a collective of teachers. These longstanding tensions called for resolution in January 2014, when the WDTA used its established grievance process to address Saniel’s conduct in light of its longstanding ethics policies regulating teachers’ expression of anger and power. In March 2014, Saniel declared his intention to relinquish his WDTA membership. In May 2014, he & Linda Groves-Bonder applied privately to register the terms “Waking Down®” and “Waking Down in Mutuality®”, for which they were granted trademarks several months later.
For over a year, the WDTA and Saniel & Linda engaged in confidential negotiations to craft an agreement designating the WDTA as Saniel & Linda’s sole licensee authorized to use the terms “Waking Down” and “Waking Down in Mutuality” to brand its teachers’ work and course offerings. On June 6, 2015, Saniel, Linda, and their attorney terminated negotiations and indicated that the WDTA should rename itself and its work within a reasonable transition period.
The Trillium Awakening Teachers Circle (TATC)
Teachers were initially disappointed by this communication, which arrived only a week before we gathered for our 2015 retreat. Yet the closeness and resolve of our circle was immediately apparent, and within a short time, uncertainty faded and enthusiasm emerged for our future together.
During the retreat, teachers clarified their understanding of the unexpected termination and its implications. Many feelings, reactions, and ideas were aired, and a wide range of options and responses were considered. On June 16, 2015, a vote was taken, and 33 teachers unanimously chose to rename our organization.
The name Trillium Awakening was selected to describe our educational offerings and coaching services on December 10, 2015. Our organization, formerly known as the Waking Down Teachers Association, is now the Trillium Awakening Teachers Circle (TATC). We remain a professional association of awakened, self-actualizing, autonomous teachers, chartered to help raise awareness of Trillium Awakening offerings and provide mutual support for our members. Although our name has changed, our commitment to serve those drawn to our work – from newcomers to “old timers” – remains steadfast. We are fully dedicated to supporting the divinely human journey of awakening and integration.
We offer much gratitude to Saniel for pioneering the work that led us to a cordial parting of the ways, and wish our entire community every blessing as we individuate and move forward in offering Trillium Awakening services.
The Institute of Awakened Mutuality (IAM) (dissolved as of 2021)
In 2005, the Interim Advisors were mindful that ongoing training of new teachers was important, and identified the need for an organization to safeguard professional standards for teachers. With the explicit support of the newly formed WDTA, several members stepped forward that year to launch the Institute of Awakened Mutuality (IAM), a 501(c)(3) educational non-profit corporation; they included Ron Ambes, Deborah Boyar, Hillary Davis, and Krishna Gauci .
IAM was chartered to offer Trillium Awakening educational courses and retreats based on the core teachings codified in 2005. IAM offered trainings and ongoing support for advanced students, many of whom later became mentors and then teachers. IAM dissolved in 2021, and the Trillium Awakening educational courses are now managed by the Trillium Awakening Teachers Circle.
The Community Network (dissolved as of 2017)
A third and very important aspect of this work was our community of practitioners. The Interim Advisors envisioned a semi-autonomous Community Network that would represent and address the needs of the community. Early organizing attempts were enthusiastic though short-lived. A new iteration of the Community Network emerged in 2013, and has undertaken several key projects on behalf of the community. The Community Network was dissolved in October 2017.