There is a bounty of common assumptions about what it is to awaken, and about what it’s like to live in the awakened “state.” The vast majority of those impressions are mistaken and therefore misleading. Holding such ideas in the head without questioning their validity (often without even being conscious of them) can interfere with the awakening that is trying, in its own way, to occur. Perhaps it would be useful to explore some of these here.
I myself once held many wrong ideas, both before and since awakening. Nor does it appear likely that opening and discovery will ever cease. This applies to each of us, if we remain available to deepening insight.
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Being awake is not primarily about having certain kinds of experiences. Wakefulness isn’t a condition of unending ecstasy. Yes, phenomena such as bliss and out-of-body experiences may be “symptoms” for some who have awakened. These can be secondary effects of the radical change in the sense of what’s real, relating to what “you” are, to what life actually is, independent of any ideas about it.
When the sense of reality dramatically alters, it can be a shock to the system. There may be a loss of bearings. Awakening asks a human being (accustomed to a radically different mode of existing) to make significant adjustments. Each of us is different in this regard. Things must be allowed to take their natural course. Patience is a blessing.
Many suppose that after awakening there is no more pain, that there’s only ceaseless ecstasy.
It’s also critical to understand this: these kinds of “altered state” moments can (and often do) occur in a person who is not awake. The experiences are not typically indications that a person has fully awakened, in a sustained sense. Are they glimpses, hints? Who’s to say? They may be; they may be otherwise. The point is to not make too much of them, to not indulge in earnest (and fruitless) efforts to cultivate them, to get them to recur, or to last.
Of course they feel good! So much better than the angst familiar to a human being. But to go chasing certain kinds of experience is a waste of life. If you notice yourself taking such things seriously, gently remind yourself this is the mind at work. Being awake is less a particular type of experience than it’s simply a mode of being — an orientation to self, to life.
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A common assumption is that when awakening occurs, all of the wisdom of enlightenment arrives on that very day. It’s commonly supposed that inner development stops occurring. Waking up is simply the opening of a door that could not open before. On the other side of that blessedly open door is the possibility of endless revelation and deepening insight — if, that is, the person does not declare “I have arrived.”
Even an awake person can get stuck, or can be subject to their enduring humanness. Legendary are the accounts of apparently awake “beings” turning out to be subject to oh-so-human foibles. We do not stop being human when awakening occurs. (Nor, by the way, does the troublesome behavior of a revered teacher, one who’s been a blessing in others’ lives, necessarily render those blessings invalid.)
How all of this can wreak havoc with the mind of the earnest spiritual seeker.
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The experience of persisting wakefulness is not the same in everyone who awakens. Coming to know reality, to be consistently conscious (that is, to not get lost in thought), takes a wide range of expressions. The variety appears to have at least something to do with who the person has been prior to awakening, which includes the shaping forces of prior experience and conditioning.
Seekers can have the natural tendency to generalize from a familiarity with one person’s story. Perhaps you’ve spent time with a given teacher, or have been immersed in particular books describing how-it-is. Maybe you have a direct acquaintance with a person who appears to be awake. However the ideas of the wakeful condition have come about, a person yearning to be free may naturally assume that “this is how it would be for me,” or “this must be how it is for anybody.” These assumptions may not even be consciously held. Just the same, they can interfere with a person’s direct experience of pure consciousness, causing a moment of clarity and well-being to fail to be recognized for the thing it is: because it doesn’t look or feel like their imagining of what the “state” is like.
Awake people themselves can generalize, assuming “my experience must be like everybody else’s.” I have been subject to this oh-so-human projection, not even aware I was doing it . . . until life, in its ceaseless mercy to open me to the wider truth of things, put in my face the truth: I was assuming another awake person to be just like me, through and through.
Learning does not end when the door opens. Awakening is the beginning of discovery, most of which could not have occurred when the mind was running the show. There is much to learn!
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Why do people wake up, when they do? Some who awaken have never been seekers; some have no idea what’s going on inside themselves, and can be deeply unnerved by the abrupt change. Some who come to radical clarity (among those who’ve longed for freedom) don’t recognize this as the longed-for thing. I count myself among them: it was months before I understood. Why does this happen? Largely I chalk it up to our tendency — so very familiar, so human, so of the mind — to imagine, ahead of time, that we can have the remotest idea of what it would be like to wake up.
It turns out we had no idea at all. It’s just as well to recognize that, if you’re seeking, if you’re longing to understand: the mind simply cannot grasp what is altogether beyond its reach. Best to rest from supposing you know anything.
A person’s noticing of the turning point — the moment the radical alteration is apparently set in motion — can be registered in the heart, the soul, or the body. Or even (are you ready?) in the mind. Eckhart Tolle’s description of the inner event that changed things for him indicates it was catalyzed by a startling observation of his curious mind. (If you have not read this description, it appears in The Power of Now). His is not the only account of an apparently intellect-based catalyst.
There are legions of stories about those for whom extreme suffering (with the exhausted surrender that can follow) appears to have precipitated the tipping point.
In my own case, I have mostly stopped trying to sort out what led to things changing the way they did. At the time I wrote my first book, I thought I knew when and how awakening began. The years have taught me that the truth is likely more complex than what I supposed at the time. Learning never ceases. Nor does opening.
Whatever “part” of a given person appears to have been ground zero for the start of things (mind, heart, body, soul), some who awaken later detect a fuller coming-alive in their other human capacities — components of themselves that had never been free to come fully alive, when the sense-of-self was running things. It helps if they’ve stopped being surprised by the ongoingness of change, post-awakening. There is no such thing as stability.
Whether you’re awake or wish you were, it’s best to not assume the condition always looks the same, or that it would be a certain way for you. If you notice yourself making this sort of assumption, recognize it as just another useless thought. Neither take it seriously nor try to make it disappear. So long as you see it for what it is, it won’t cause trouble.
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Then there’s the impression that an awake person lives at a remove from regular life. That once wakefulness takes over, all the familiar human delights — and sorrows! — melt into unearthly bliss. There is the associated idea that things that mattered before simply cease to compel.
As with all else to do with awakening, there’s a range of what happens to a person’s orientation to familiar life “content” (relationships, activities, priorities). Yes, much will likely fall away, since the majority of what typically compels a person has to do with its giving life (or self) some perceived value. Obligation and habit drive so much of daily life, along with fear and attachment. When all of that has ceased to function in the familiar way (or is ceasing, for its unwinding may be gradual), yes, much will surely come undone.
But does this mean you no longer cherish those you truly love? When love ceases to be knotted up with need and fear, cherishing becomes free to blossom most deliciously. Does waking up cause you to lose your appreciation for coffee, the pleasure of the texture of a certain blanket? If anything, sensory pleasures are more exquisite than ever. Gone is the familiar tendency to hurry past such things to get to something “more important.” Will you still know how you want to vote, in a given election? Does awakening mean you lose all interest in the world “out there”? You may; you may not.
Yes, awake people can be passionate — about many things. We get to keep being people. To have fun! To do work we enjoy. Only now, blessedly relieved of identification and attachment, we’re able to fully participate in life in a way that doesn’t generate suffering. Because we have stopped taking ourselves, or life itself, so seriously. We’ve ceased to undertake something as a means to an end. Gone is the enduring (crippling!) need to give our lives, our selves, “meaning.”
Life for an awake person does not inevitably carry on at an aloof distance from the ordinary. Some have a growing preference for solitude; that is true of me. The point is that each of us continues, in some sense, to be who we are. Features of our familiar selves continue to be in evidence.
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Now comes the most confounding characteristic of an awakened existence. Many suppose that after waking up, there is no more pain, that there’s only a kind of ceaseless disembodied ecstasy.
It’s natural to suppose this: for all our lives, we have wanted to be done with suffering. (Indeed, this is the primary motivator for many entering the spiritual life.) But if a person keeps opening into the richness of a human existence no longer defined by thought, what becomes apparent is this: mind-based suffering is different from the ordinary pain of a mortal existence.
We have long equated our thoughts-about-life with life itself — as if they were one and the same. One of the truest blessings of awakening is that life and thoughts about life are finally recognized as distinct phenomena. We come to see the difference between mind-inflicted pain and the sort that simply is innate to our humanity.
Yes, we will still feel physical pain. Yes, we may “lose our minds,” still being subject to the mental and physical deterioration that aging may bring about. Bodies are bodies. They age; they decline; they die.
Above all else, this: the deliciously alive human heart, no longer cramped by fear or belief, will surely break when grief comes. What human life does not bring loss — and with it, grief? What purer form can love assume than the vast sorrow of a broken heart, granted all the space it asks? For when love and need (like love and fear) are no longer all-of-a-piece, as they were before, then when loss comes, there is no recoiling from the profound pain. Gone is the familiar hurrying grief to an end, or denying it, because it hurts so much to just feel it.
And so the very experience that can bring the most exquisite human pain may turn out to yield (so surprising!) life’s purest gratitude and savoring. My own recent experience with the death of a loved one has led to this: to the most radical opening of the heart a person can bear. This is what comes of complete surrender to grief. There has been, in my post-awakening experience (now eighteen years), no more blessed teacher. Such a revelation! Gratitude that stretches the bounds of what can be contained in a mere body.
And (here’s the best): when the loved one is still here, there is no taking them for granted. No keeping the heart constrained, against the pain of possible loss. No, cherishing is blessedly allowed to take completely over. For something in your oh-so-mortal self knows that nothing lasts forever. So what else is there to do but celebrate — to live! — while living is possible.
What could be more sumptuous than at last to be able to stretch to the full richness, heart and mind and body, of our human endowment? For this is what happens (if we don’t get in the way) with the unfolding of awakening. When the mischief-generating mind has at last wound down to stillness, what remains? Life itself: delight, cherishing, fully embodied (and fleeting) existence, each moment.
And around the edges, something like wisdom and awe, curiosity and marveling. These are the occupations of the clear and unburdened mind, relieved of its lifelong focus on the maintenance of the illusory self.
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Let yourself rest at last from asking How do I get there? It’s enough to simply get out of your own way. Stop trying so hard, thinking you know what you’re doing. Trust yourself to recognize the truth, deep in, when it comes. Discover what it is to be receptive rather than in constant pursuit of the goal. Grow quiet and listen. Hold still. You “know” more than you think you do, dear heart.
What lies deeper than the residue of your conditioning? What has never been ruined? Something in you that’s not identified as a self is able to recognize itself.
Maybe it’s true what they say: that you already deeply know the truth. That you just don’t know it.
[From forthcoming book by Jan Frazier]