(Q) I think I understand what waking up is. I feel it some of the time. But what is happening the rest of the time? How do I stay awake and what happens if I can’t?
(A) So, a quick review: Waking up is subtle for most people. It doesn’t usually arrive with bells and whistles that announce, “You are now awake. Congratulations!” But once you get used to it, the before and after contrasts can be striking and are worth any effort and energy you invested. Waking up is not enlightenment, a weighty word that I refrain from using.
Waking up happens when you notice that one or more things in your life have shifted. The shift(s) are small but noticeable. Most importantly, it feels like the shifts are real and here to stay. A friend once said, “I don’t know what’s happening, but whatever it is I hope I don’t f*** it up.” I remember thinking something along those lines too. It arrives from nowhere, so to speak, so it’s natural for us to think it might disappear just as easily. My friend still thinks her ‘package’ could be picked up and redelivered to its rightful owner. It’s good to have a sense of humor about these things!
Here are a few common questions that don’t have yes or no answers: Does meditation or prayer help? Do I need to choose a specific spiritual path or teacher? Should I visit a sacred spiritual site to deepen my connection with Spirit? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. The best path is an authentic one. It should represent you, not a commercially idealized (or advertised) version of you. No matter what anyone says, you can’t buy your way in with a supersized donation or the right (spiritual) connections.
For most of us waking up just happens. It doesn’t take a near-death experience for us to realize that life has value. We might not need a year’s supply of our favorite pantry item, or a new smartphone every year to prove to ourselves that we will be alright regardless. Hardline beliefs about what life ‘should be’ or ‘was going to be’ like by now begin to soften. Our attitude toward others feels a little less black or white. Spirituality begins to look more like the path we are already on, including its twists and turns and the times we really, really screwed up.
If waking up didn’t look like this for you, no worries. There are as many ways of waking up as there are people. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Sometimes it includes a gnawing dissatisfaction with the repetitive, never-ending, matrix-like effects of daily life – a feeling of being trapped in a maze from which there is no escape, which is why it is sometimes described as waking from a dream into real life. And of course, the pandemic had its own strange way of letting us know this might be a good time to recheck our priorities.
At first, it can look like everything has changed. Once we get used to it, we realize that the world is still basically the same. In fact, it always is. We are the ones who have changed. We might decide to take the world a little less seriously. Today’s dangers and pitfalls will still be there tomorrow, and so will the media whose job it is to announce the news as if it were actually new. Recognizing this, we might notice something different about ourselves.
Our waking awareness is no longer located in our heads. It is all around us – here and there, looking out and in, as you, and as a less limited version of you. Waking up makes the world a little more 3D than usual. I’ll call it 3D+. While this sounds great it’s important to remember that most of the world has some catching up to do. Maybe now. Maybe soon. Maybe not.
Waking up is a humbling experience – no secret handshake, no high-five gestures, no class ring or emoticons. And on a bad day, waking up can feel like waking down. Did we do something to mess it up? Is my new outlook fading? Are waking, sleeping, and dreaming changing back to how it was? Not likely.
The outer world is not a good reminder of what waking up is like, and neither are most of the people we know. If you’ve ever worked very hard to break a habit, like smoking, you may remember that your smoking friends were not as supportive as you would have liked. They liked you as you were. No one is going to force your awareness back to sleep, but friends and family can’t help being who they are, especially if they don’t share your interests.
The Buddhist center I sometimes attend emphasizes the importance of sangha, spiritual friends on a similar path – companions to share the pleasure, practice, and pitfalls of staying awake in a world that is still largely asleep. It helps. I have a few friends I check in with regularly. I would be lost without them.
Staying awake takes practice. Whatever it looks like out there, stay on your path. The path sometimes leads uphill under a scorching sun. Stay on your path. Sometimes it rains heavily on everything you try to do. Stay on your path. The path may not be glamorous, but it is one of the best things to savor on this planet. Some days are filled with more love and validation than I know what to do with.
There is nothing happening the ‘rest of the time’. This is it. Regardless of what it looks like or feels like, this is it. It takes a while to realize that the light stays on even when you think the switch got turned off. In the waking world, everything is you, even the switch. If you forget, feel around in the dark until you find the switch. Turn it back on.