Awakening is a beginning, not a triumphant conclusion. There might be the impression that once awakening has occurred, nothing remains to happen — to develop, unfold, blossom. This could not be further from the truth.
What does it mean to wake up? What actually happens? Something causes a kind of “relocation” of awareness from where it’s habitually been to an entirely new perception of reality. It’s as if the eyes being looked through are not the ones used before. As though you’re in an altogether new landscape. No longer in the thrall of thought and emotion, with life (not the mind) appearing to be the cause of suffering, your prior identification with the familiar conditioned self feels insubstantial. What now feels real is . . . the now itself. “You” do not seem to have a substantial existence apart from momentary life.
If there is a journey of sorts, it only begins at awakening.
Yes, there might have been fleeting glimpses of this “alternate reality,” in the time prior to the comprehensive change, in which the truer awareness could be felt to come . . . and (alas, ultimately) to go. With real awakening, there is a palpable experience of stability, this alternate sort of perception having become the norm.
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It’s natural to suppose that if a person stops suffering, if identification with thought and the conditioned self relaxes into stillness, nothing would remain to happen. The end of suffering is, after all, what motivates many on the spiritual “path.”
Why is that word in quotation marks? There is the enduring impression that a person needs to change, to get somewhere, in order to stop suffering. As if there were a great distance to traverse between here and there. Yet when awakening occurs, it becomes obvious that this was here all along. That it was only the layered-on illusions of reality that kept it from being seen and fully inhabited. “You” did not change, did not “evolve” from unawake to awake. All that’s happened, really, is that what seemed real up until then — your familiar self, subject to the tyranny of mind and emotion — has now come apart. While the spiritual mind might have supposed it knew all of this before, its truth has now become embodied.
Awakening is an undoing, a letting-go — not a getting somewhere, due to arduous effort.
John O’Donohue once said, “If there were a spiritual journey, it would be only a quarter inch long.” If you have the impression of being on a lengthy, arduous path, you’re taking the long way around. Unnecessarily. But it sure does feel like there’s no other way. Until it becomes obvious that a vast amount of effort is unnecessary. It’s more a radical releasing that’s wanting to happen. A gentle opening of the eyes to what’s always been right here, just beside the real-seeming illusion.
If there is a journey of sorts, it only begins at awakening. Imagine that.
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One way of accounting for the why of the ceaseless unfolding that results from waking up is this: a human being simply might not be able to bear, to process and incorporate, all that’s to come, were it all to occur at once. A person has, after all, been long accustomed (likely for decades) to that other way, the one in which the mind held sway, in which its impressions of reality have been mistaken for life itself.
The simple truth is that before waking up, a person has not fully lived. Coming alive in that radical, thorough way is a shock to the system. It’s a whole new world, and while you’re delighted (and relieved!) to be there, it does take some getting used to.
Yet nature seems to be kind to us in that it allows plenty of space for the blossoming to occur, for revelation to be integrated bit by bit. A person does, after all, continue on in the familiar human life, with people and work and fun, the world being its same self in significant ways. Whatever comes about after waking up gets incorporated in the context of ordinary daily experience. An awful lot of learning, of adaptation, must occur.
So long as someone newly awakened doesn’t cling to an impression (possibly carried over from prior belief) that “this is it, this is how it will be now,” much more awaits.
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It is not possible (nor would it be wise or helpful) for any one person to declare that “this is what happens after awakening,” as if what occurs is the same for all who awaken. The observation can be made, for instance, that coming-to-life in the fullness of our human endowment appears to take place in mind, heart, and body. Wakefulness can take expression in the form of wisdom, love, and a juicier physicality.
A human being is blessed, originally, with the capacity for clear-eyed seeing, boundless tenderness, and animal delight. Yet it seems not everyone who awakens will experience these developments in equal intensity.
For a given person, the emphasis may be initially on one capacity over the other, and the timing of subsequent developments appears to have its own wisdom. None of which we’re in charge of, or could hope to predict. We’re just going along for the ride, marveling at it all.
Even to presume to divide a human being into those three capacities (mind, heart, body) is of course reductive. Yet most anyone who’s living a human life will attest to recognizing the rough equivalents of these “parts” of themselves, prior to awakening and after.
What occurs post-awakening may have something to do with a person’s nature and experience, observable prior to the turning point. For instance, someone who’s lacked particular bodily awareness, pre-awakening, may notice that afterward, the sense of physicality may not be felt to blossom until well after revelation in the heart and/or mind has occurred. This can be the case, for instance, with one who has a history of trauma.
The expressions of wakefulness are endlessly varied.
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I have been reluctant, for the most part, to say much about how it’s been with me, not wanting to create the impression that “this is the way it is,” as if my own experience could be applicable to another. With that as a caveat, I can offer a little about my sense of what’s happened in my life . . . so far. Which is to say, I’m well aware there is surely more to come. Seventeen years into the adventure, I’ve learned to be surprised by nothing, to assume nothing in the way of stability.
My wish in sharing this personal account is simply to offer a sense of how waking up begins a way of being, only setting in motion developments that could not have occurred before. I mean to gently dismantle the widespread impression that there’s nothing left to happen after awakening . . . only the fabled “dwelling in bliss,” possibly at a remove from Regular Life.
Some have said that enlightenment is what becomes possible after awakening. The two are not synonymous. The light surely does grow brighter, as things go on.
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In my life prior to waking up, it was mostly emotion that ran the show — desire, fear, the ceaseless search for fulfillment. While I reveled in intellectual things, my mind was also the generator of much trouble.
Imagine my surprise, then, when after the quiet descended, and the now became all that felt substantial, the primary evidence of development seemed to occur less in the heart than in the mind, in the form of blossoming clarity. It was as though the mind, having at last been relieved of its habitual mischief-making, were now able to marvel, have insights, make connections. None of these revelations came via ordinary thought. They arrived in utter stillness, absent effort or clinging. One light after another came on, having to do with people and life in general, and also illumining my own life experience, ongoing and prior. Nothing looked as it had before. Everything was new, even if it had to do with a long-ago past, a lifelong pattern.
With the dissolving of mind-based emotion, my heart had grown entirely soft and welcoming. Whereas before my interior had been animated by resistance and a driving desire, now gratitude and allowing were the order of the day. It seemed the capacity of the heart to open beyond its previously-felt bounds carried with it a profound quiet, love taking on an indiscriminate, almost impersonal quality.
I had long reveled in the physical life, delighting in the natural world, in animals, in various forms of passionate intensity. Yet all of it had been tainted with the fear of death and loss. And always there’d been the identification with things like my appearance and physical well-being. With the dissolution of the fear of life’s ending, a new world had opened in the experience of the body, of the surrounding physical reality.
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As the years have gone by, following the extended period of the clear mind opening wide, the body and the heart have seemed to have their focused times of unfolding, of coming more fully alive. Exceeding, you might say, their previous capacities, all carrying much in the way of revelation.
Once the experience of being in a body has become disentangled from fear, and the identification with the body has dissolved, it becomes possible to discover anew what it is to be embodied — for the physical self to revel in its utter animalness. I have never experienced my animal nature as vividly as in recent years. The deepening is conspicuous, even though there’s been a lifelong enthrallment with living creatures, the wild and beloved pets alike. The senses are more acutely attuned than before, more richly capable of savoring. Nowadays I revel in all kinds of physical activity — brisk walks, stacking cord wood, kayaking. In my late sixties, I can say I haven’t felt this full of vitality since I was much younger.
I’m certainly aware of the ongoing diminishment that inevitably comes with aging, always taking care not to push myself beyond what’s truly comfortable. Even as I enjoy the body’s vigor, I hold my aging self in tender regard. I take good care of it, attuned to its limitations, aware that as time goes on, it will continue to diminish in its capacity. The body is, after all, built to eventually come apart, and finally to stop.
As for the heart, it seems to have assumed center stage over the last few years. As if discovering the exquisite boundlessness of love in its various expressions, most notably cherishing and gratitude. Grief too has been in the picture, markedly due the death of one deeply loved. Yielding fully to that sorrow has exploded the heart with a quality of sweetness I cannot begin to describe. Grief being (of course) one of love’s most potent expressions, gratitude is its natural companion.
Did you suppose there was no pain post-awakening? That absent detachment and fear and clinging to belief, the heart would never know the pain of loss? Oh, but the capacity of the fully open human heart to “feel the pain” of the hurting world, or of an individual person (or animal), is well beyond what it was previously. And who would want it to be otherwise? When the perceived boundaries between self and other have melted into insignificance, how could a person not feel for others?
Yet among the liberating discoveries, post-awakening, is the latitude available to conscious awareness, the realization that consciousness can be “directed” or withheld. So (for instance) if the world holds enormous difficulty — viral, climate, political, personal, or otherwise — one need not “live” there ceaselessly.
Prior to awakening there is mind-caused suffering. But always there is the plain alive-feeling pain that may come with a loss like death, mortal life being a condition of ceaseless change. But unlike with self-inflicted suffering, this pain is a spontaneous response to life itself. There is no attempt to resist, only to allow. Even as it hurts, there is peace. Aliveness.
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Surely it’s become apparent that much of the conscious inner exploration that occurs prior to awakening has its kindred expression after. Which is one of the reasons I’ve felt moved to share these things: to show that the before and the after may have more in common than a person might suppose.
A telling distinction can be seen in the way the prior explorations tend to be “held,” vis-a-vis how it more likely is after. Before, there may be the tendency to be self-critical and vigilant, with the attempt to enact change, perhaps to avoid or deny. Whereas after awakening, it’s more a plain noticing, an allowing of what’s happening — all on its own, in its own time and way, without the familiar attempt to manage (or even to understand) what’s happening. Each new development is infused with a peaceful well-being. Knowing it all to be momentary.
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Before awakening I wanted life to go on and on, not only because I feared decline and death, but because I was desperate for more time to finally “get it right.” Since things changed, I can say I’d be happy to die any time, the now being plenty of life. At the same time, I’d be delighted for the adventure to continue.
Some years after I stopped hungering for more time, I noticed myself — nevertheless — feeling moved to pay more attention to priorities, realizing I didn’t have forever to do a thing that wanted doing. Like going on a travel adventure with my son, who was newly sober. Like joining a choir I’d longed to sing with. Life’s brevity and uncertainty seemed to have made a fresh impression on me. After all, who knew what change might be on the near horizon? Maybe I wouldn’t always be able to go on such a trip with my son. Make hay while the sun shines became the guiding force shaping my days. Many things were set aside, along the way, with nary a regret.
Around the same time, I noticed a blossoming tendency to take good care of my body. This came as something of a surprise, given that I’d long since stopped identifying with it. Yet when death ceased to be the enemy, it was perhaps inevitable that I would come to hold the embodied vessel in tender regard. The body is, after all, one of the vivid ways the now is experienced.
For I did — I do — love this life.
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The decades we’ve each merely existed (not truly lived) have reduced us to pale versions of our rich potential — all of it, most poignantly, in the name of “survival.” When awakening occurs, it at last becomes possible to fully assume the blessings of our innate endowment. We discover what it is to be utterly alive, to deeply engage with the dear world we occupy. This is a process, a gentle but persistent enlarging of what we’d ever imagined possible for ourselves, for one another.
It is something to behold.