When a person wakes up, what is it they awaken to? And what do they awaken from?
Awakening is about discovering the nature of what is real — what inside you is unchanging. It’s coming to see how there’s an underlying truth that’s apart from the compelling sense of who-you-are.
If waking up matters to you, please realize it has nothing whatever to do with spiritual self-improvement. Allow yourself to rest from tortured attempts to “do better,” to be vigilant. What awakening is about has to do with something much more essential than perceived spiritual shortcomings. The ego does not wake up.
Yet it’s surely possible to awaken to the mind-invented nature of the self. And to come at last to rest in the part of “you” that’s real and changeless.
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What is your self made of? When you contemplate yourself, what does that encompass? Allow the lens of looking to become as wide as it can open, taking in the fullness of your sense of who you are. See if you can simply look, without agenda or judgment.
If waking up matters to you, please realize it has nothing whatever to do with spiritual self-improvement.
- Your history, particularly the experiences that have significantly shaped you
- Perceived strengths and liabilities
- How you identify yourself
- Your present circumstances (including any “problems”)
- Things you believe to be true or essential, including perceived needs
- Ideas you have about right and wrong, good or bad
- What stirs anger in you, or fear
- How you see yourself as better or worse than others
- What you long for
- The sense of success and failure
- What you feel when you look in the mirror
- Your orientation to your own death
As all of this comes into view, allow it the space it needs, without assessment or recoiling. As the lens takes it all in, if you notice yourself avoiding, or becoming self-critical (or self-congratulatory), simply notice that too.
Now gently observe the changeable nature of these features of your sense of self. (Was it all this way when you were a little kid? Do you imagine it will matter on your death bed?) Or if you detect some consistency about yourself that feels essential and enduring, see if you derive a sense of identity from that. Allow yourself to question the reality of such a thing. Did your mind produce it?
If what initially appears to be real in you has any quality of good-vs.-bad, this is an indication that it’s the ego-devoted mind that’s gone looking for the real. All the familiar self is capable of detecting is more of itself. This is a valuable thing to observe operating. Learn to never trust any of its findings as “the truth.”
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Ask yourself this: What in me is real — in a way none of these changeable things are? What is not subject to conditioning, to mental filters?
What is it in a human being — in any of us — that is unchanging? That’s unaffected by experience or belief? This something is without preferences. It has no age; it’s the same now as it was when you were three. Nor is it different from one person to another. (Imagine that.)
Here’s the juicy question at the heart of it all: By what means is the real detectable? What do you use to sense it? And how does that differ from thinking?
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Yes, the radical transition surely is like awakening from a dream. This likeness gets deftly tossed about in spiritual circles, with all of life — the self — being dismissed as “just a dream.”
Yet have you noticed how this “knowing” doesn’t seem to alter the felt reality of what typically absorbs attention? How it doesn’t stop the dream from recurring? You may suppose you’ve known for a long time about the dream of the self. But until awakening, you’ve known it only in your head. If getting it with your mind was of real value, you wouldn’t continue living in the dream as if it were real. The purely mental “knowing” about the dream is not to be mistaken for the visceral recognition that comes with awakening.
To be sure, there is value of a kind to the mental comprehension of self/life-as-dream. It can start a person questioning appearances, noticing assumptions, wondering what’s real, what’s mind-generated.
When you wake up, you know the truth of the dream from the inside of you, not courtesy of the mind. It “dawns,” like it’s brand-new. It’s felt in the body, like warm sun on the face, like the touch of finger to skin. It’s known.
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Consider what the spiritual life might fruitfully consist of. Note your own orientation to inner exploration.
As you explore the fullness of the real-seeming self, you do not need to exert effort to change any of it. In fact, if you engage in any attempt to improve the self, as an imagined way to come closer to awakening, you’re only dignifying the self, underscoring its perceived significance. By working on yourself — trying to be more compassionate and less judgmental, to stop believing your thoughts — you’re merely amplifying the felt substance of the “you” that never was real in the first place. The whole thing exists entirely in the mind — including the wasted effort to spruce it up.
Instead, allow the self-observation to be entirely restful. Simply see that you have a tendency to believe your thoughts, to engage in self-improvement. Relax all exertion. Keep your eyes open. This is more a matter of curiosity and observation than a search-and-destroy mission.
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Along the way, ask What is doing the seeing? What inside you is capable of looking at the whole thing, as if from outside it? Clearly it’s not ego-devoted thought doing this. We’re back to that juicy question. If the real cannot be detected by the ordinary mind, what in us can recognize it?
It’s consciousness itself. Plain awareness, without agenda or preference. It’s what can see your self operating, absent any distress or wish to improve.
Consciousness is the only thing that’s real and changeless within you. All the rest — the living self, what happens in life — is what happens “within” consciousness. Some of it’s even fun. And yes, some of it hurts.
It’s good to assume, as you go along, that the extent of the real-seeming self is significantly “bigger” and more deeply rooted than whatever you’ve realized previously. Continue being curious, open to seeing whatever is there. Allow the lens to get bigger and bigger.
Along with the growing clarity about the not-real stuff, the matter of what is real may surely dawn, in its own sweet time.