the practice of waking up

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One of his students asked Buddha, “Are you the Messiah?”
“No,” answered Buddha.
“Then are you a healer?”
“No,” Buddha replied.
“Then are you a teacher?” the student persisted.
“No, I am not a teacher.”
“Then what are you?” asked the student, exasperated.
“I am awake,” Buddha replied.

When we wake up to the here and now – we wake up to life.

Far too often we live in a sort of trance, mindlessly going through the motions and playing out the scripts that have been handed to us by family, society and prior conditioning. Or, we have become slaves to our passions to the point where too much of our experience is characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.

Yes, you may be aware that this is exactly what many spiritual teachings and practices have sought to remedy over the millennia. But “knowing” that is not going to help you; it is still up to each of us to reorganize and reprioritize things in our lived experience. Waking up is not something we can simply read about and then expect to have in our lives. It is something that must be practiced.

repetition is the mother of learning

We need to “wake up” not once, but over and over again each day, as a habit of the mind and as a relentlessly repeated exercise of our capacity for creative imagination and spontaneity. In this way, we crowd out the tendency to sleepwalk through our days; this is the shaping and re-shaping, the conditioning and re-conditioning of our minds that we need in adulthood.

Why do we need it?

Because (as I argue elsewhere) – existence requires of us that we learn and grow throughout life.

attitude adjustments

When – on a regular basis – we adjust our own attitudes and refocus where and how we are directing our attention, we create the conditions whereby we can take ‘the next right action,’ rather than automatically following some predetermined script. Our approach to life becomes more proactive and less reactive.

It is easy to forget – but it is absolutely true – that how we are participating in life in this moment has an impact on how we will be experiencing life in the next moment, and how we are participating in life today deeply conditions how we will be experiencing life tomorrow – and so on. Failing to face our fears today will make them harder to face tomorrow. The momentum that goes on in our minds, in our hearts and in our lives is undeniable.

being and becoming

Throughout life, human beings are in a continuous process of becoming, and so the thoughts we repeatedly think, the conversations we repeatedly have (with ourselves and others) and the actions we repeatedly take all add up to significantly influence the quality and the direction of, well, everything.

Life happens in an ongoing flow of moment-to-moment experiences that build upon each other. Commenting on this idea, John Dewey writes:

“…the principle of ‘continuity of experience’ means that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after.”

In other words, experience creates the ground for further experience. Thus, all our efforts toward learning and growth are not only valuable in their own right, but they are setting the stage for how we will feel, how we will function and how we will live – later today, tomorrow, next week and next year.

We do not need (nor can we create) a single extraordinary ‘light-bulb experience’ that will clarify the meaning of life or chase away life’s pain and suffering. No, instead what we need is relentlessly repeated (small and ordinary) experiences whereby we re-focus our attention and energy on the here and now and bring ourselves back into the present moment. Centering ourselves is a priceless activity that helps us – over time – to see everything differently and to make smarter decisions in our lives.

your daily practice

The benefits of a daily practice are beyond words. And, what is needed is not some elaborate belief system, nor any kind of layered bureaucracy. What is needed is simply a repeated return to your own experience, coupled with your best attempts at maintaining an open mind and an open heart.

Thus, at least six or seven times today (or more, if you can), take a moment to breathe deeply into your belly/diaphragm, and ‘check-in’ with yourself, by silently asking:

  • What is going on with me right now – what am I feeling?
  • What am I reacting to and where is my mind taking me?
  • What thoughts and worries are coming up for me today – what are the major themes?
  • What do I need to do right now, today, to take care of myself and to be of service to others?

When we practice waking up in this way (prioritizing self-care AND endeavoring to be useful to others), we shift into a conscious/creative mindset. The difference between this and the sleepwalking we usually engage in is substantial. It literally affects everything.

to wake up is to remember

Many years ago as an undergraduate, my double major was in religion and psychology. A certain professor in the religion department decided to take our class (I think it was called ‘Mysticism’) to a Hindu temple in Queens, NYC. About twenty or so of us gathered around a statue of Shiva, and we marveled at the many hands, the jeweled ornaments, the blue radiance, and the breathtaking design. At the base of the statue was a nasty looking character that Shiva was stepping on. As the professor lectured about the symbolic meaning of different aspects of the statue, one student pointed at the character under Shiva’s foot and asked, “Who is that?” In all my youthful over-confidence, I was certain that the professor would say that it was the Hindu version of Satan, that fallen angel who seeks to cause suffering and destruction in the world.

In his matter of fact way, the professor said, “Oh, that’s the demon of forgetfulness; to conquer him, we need to REMEMBER more often.”

“Remember what?” another student asked.

The professor smiled, raised his arms toward the sky and said – “to wake up!”

one response

  1. Kenny Christensen says:

    Hi Chris,
    I cannot tell you how glad it makes me feel to read what I have just read above.
    Many years ago in what almost seems like another time or dimension two young men set upon a quest of questioning everything and pursuing authenticity.
    I know it was and has been tough at times but it fills me with joy and thankfulness to see what this endeavor has resulted in.

    The Path is not hidden or hard to find
    The Path is everywhere…. wake up and walk it.

    Best wishes

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