While it is often supposed to be so, awakening is not typically a single shining moment altering everything on one’s interior, in one fell swoop, and then continuing unchanged ever after. Although the transformation classically signals the dramatic cessation of familiar torments (mind-caused suffering, attachment, the mistaking of reality for thoughts about it), for many, awakening sets in motion a further unfolding.
The fuller truth of realization — what it’s like after — is paid insufficient attention by spiritual seekers. This is not surprising, given the prime motivator for seeking awakening in the first place: to stop suffering. All eyes tend to be on the “final” goal, as it promises blessed relief.
Meanwhile, waking up turns out to be the opening of a door, beyond which there can be a great deal of development. To assume (or to attempt to impose) anything like stability is to become stuck — to hold at bay the potential blessings of growing clarity.
* * *
In my own case, the primary transformation announced itself via the abrupt cessation of fear. This occurred in 2003, when I was 50. While I supposed at the time that the radically altered mode would persist essentially unchanged — and while the truth of that has been fundamentally borne out (underlying peace remaining almost entirely unruffled, steady consciousness persisting) — significant developments have occurred over the intervening years, yielding ever-deepening insights and re-forming the orientation to ongoing life.
To love unconstrained by fear or attachment is also, inevitably, to grieve.
There are multiple awakenings.
In addition to being a likely heart-opener, awakening often gives rise to the deepening wisdom and the experience of physicality. It has surely been each of these for me. Nor does radical freedom turn out to be the fabled condition of uninterrupted bliss. For to have a human heart is to love: and to love unconstrained by fear or attachment is also, inevitably, to grieve. Much remained to unfold in my own heart after the 2003 opening.
Things have never held still on the interior, nor do I expect they will. In the face of ceaseless change and growing insight, humility has become a constant companion. We are only (ever) on the receiving end of wisdom, as it arrives. So long as surrender operates (whether you’re awake or not), there is no end of blessings.
* * *
At the time of this writing, I am 69. In all the years since the initial awakening, the single most radically transformative turning point occurred in October 2019. It was acute grief that ignited the vast opening — grief being one of love’s potent expressions, and so a potent opener . . . when unresisted. I could not have dreamed my heart could open farther than it already had. For when fear dissolves, it’s love that rushes in, taking up the “space” once occupied by fear, leaving the heart undefended.
The enormity of the grief that came sixteen years after the primal change was of a magnitude beyond anything my heart had previously known.
* * *
This is the story of the love for a cat. (Although it is no more truly “about a cat” than Moby-Dick is fundamentally the story of a whale.) It’s about the way grief — fully surrendered to — has the power to explode open the heart, beyond whatever its prior bounds may have been. Unresisted sorrow is a doorway to the sweetness of love without limits, and with it, a gratitude beyond fathoming. This is the story of a love so radically taking over as to render the mind dysfunctional.
It was all set in motion by the diagnosis, in 2016, of an incurable disease. My cat would grow steadily sicker. He was sixteen at the time. We had been together all his life. He was dear to me. The diagnosis brought immediate clarity to the shaping of my outer life. Since there could be no predicting the timing of a precipitous decline in my cat’s condition, I would cease scheduling any distant retreats, not wanting to end up being far from home when he came to a crisis point. It was best to avoid the potential need to cancel, last-minute, a long-planned event.
In the time remaining, what I most wanted was to spend my days with him. I would be there to drink him in, knowing the space for that was winding down. He was to live longer than the vet predicted, dying in October 2019.
* * *
While the initial reason for simplifying my life was to be home when my cat came to a crisis point, that motivator was ultimately to become a minor point. Allowing love to “run the show” over the course of his remaining years was to carry blessings I could not have imagined possible.
How I reveled in the sweet ease of our leisurely days together, my life much less structured than before. How grateful I was to be free to accommodate his momentary whim, as when he indicated a wish to move outside to be in the glorious sun, or to curl up in my lap beside the toasty wood stove. So joyfully would I set aside something I’d anticipated doing just then (catch up on email, do a little cooking) when he seemed to want to be outdoors. I allowed him to set the pace and direction of our movements. We would linger in the glorious sunshine as long as his heart desired.
Inside the house, I would sit with him beside the wood stove, where he most longed to be on a chilly day. I’d enfold his old body, lifting him onto my lap and cradling him. He might indicate the desire to have a taste of the avocado his human was just then enjoying, a bit of the sweet corn picked that very morning.
Life grew simpler and simpler. It was love that called the shots: blessing beyond all blessings.
* * *
I never stopped knowing that time was running out. Yet the sorrow of the background awareness of his brevity and looming death in no way diminished the moment-to-moment cherishing.
But time is always running out, isn’t it? Moment to moment, all the years we live. All the while love pulls at us, if only we will pay attention, if only we will yield: love and the urgent reality of now, now, now.
As the months unspooled, devotion and cherishing blossomed to a fullness I had not experienced before.
And so, when the time inevitably came, did grief.
[From a forthcoming book by Jan Frazier]