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How to Awaken

When you clicked on that title, were you hoping for a set of instructions, a magic path, seven easy steps? Can we notice that the question itself, how to awaken, is result-oriented and seems to presume that awakening is not already fully present, that it is presently lacking, that it is something we might find, attain or accomplish in the future?

The great Zen Master Dogen famously said that practice is not something we do in order to become enlightened, but rather, practice is the expression of enlightenment. Every moment of practice is enlightenment. And practice is our whole life, as it turns out.

Am I suggesting that there is no such thing as awakening, enlightenment or liberation, or that there is no difference between being lost in delusion and being awake? Not exactly! I'd say there is a palpable and undeniable difference in how they feel and how they move in the world, but there is also a way in which there is no difference at all because both are inseparable expressions of what is, this awaring presence here-now.

Very importantly, so-called awakeness can only be realized (made real) right now, in this very moment. It is the suchness of this moment, the aliveness right here, right now—the sounds of traffic, the taste of tea, the red car, the yellow school bus, the sounds of laughter, the barking dog, the train whistle, the smell of a fart—just this! Exactly this! Just as it is!

If you are thinking about it, trying to figure it out, looking for it or trying to get it, you are overlooking the utter simplicity of present experiencing, just as it is—this unvarnished, indescribable, unresolvable, ungraspable, ever-changing hearing-seeing-awaring-breathing-sensing-thinking-being that is unattainable because it is already here. It never stays the same for even an instant, and yet, it never leaves Here-Now. If you are trying to have (or not have) any particular experience, you are missing the fact that every experience is it. Even the trying and the seeking are movements of this same indivisible intelligence-energy, momentary waves in this ever-changing ocean of experiencing, as impersonal as the weather. There is actually no way not to be here now! But it can certainly seem as if something is missing when the attention is hypnotized by the thought-stories. So, what to do?

Listen to the sounds of this moment, whatever they are (traffic, birds, voices, wind, refrigerator hum, chain saw buzz, deep silence, whatever is showing up). Hear all this without the labels—the labels may pop up—but let them go and just listen to the pure sounds themselves. Feel the sensations throughout the body (all the subtle tinglings, vibrations, undulations, contractions, expansions, sensations of heat or cold, pain, tension, whatever is here). Feel these without the labels (such as “pain,” “tension,” “anxiety”) and without the storylines (such as, “This is the backache I’ve had for the last five years that will ruin my life if it gets any worse” or “This is unbearable”). These labels and storylines may pop up, but is it possible to let them go and simply feel the bare sensations themselves as pure sensation? Feel the breathing in the same way, without trying to control it or change it—just let it be however it is and be aware of it. Simply be the happening of this moment, effortlessly, simply.

Feel the sense of presence, the knowingness of being present. Notice the awareness in which everything is appearing. Feel the spaciousness, the openness, the aliveness of this awaring presence. Notice that whatever time of day it is, it is always Now, and that whatever location shows up, it always shows up Here. Feel (sense) into the vastness, the boundlessness of Here / Now, this timeless immediacy. Notice that Here / Now actually has no beginning or end, no edges, no limits, no place where it is not. Notice that there is no boundary between “awareness” and “the taste of tea” or “the sound of traffic.” It is one whole, infinitely diverse but undivided and inseparable, ever-changing and yet ever-present happening.

Feel into the deepest core of what you mean when you refer to “I”—prior to thought and memory, prior to everything learned second-hand (such as your name, gender, age, occupation, nationality, life story, and so on). Before all that, what are you? What is “I”? You know without a doubt that you (as this awaring presence and this present experiencing) are here. Feel deeply into that knowingness that I AM. Just feel that, sense it, explore it. Don’t think about it or try to get anything out of this exploration, don’t try to make something happen. Just feel the simple sense of being present, alive, aware.

Thoughts may pop up (they probably will), storylines may arise (they probably will), the fog of emotion-thought may thicken and the Siren song of desire may arise (wanting some result, wanting certainty, wanting the answers, wanting something more, wanting enlightenment, wanting things to be different, wanting the chain saw noise to stop, wanting to feel peaceful, wanting the thoughts to go away, wanting a cigarette or a drink, wanting, wanting, wanting). It’s not unlike that scene in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus has his men plug their ears and tie him to the mast as they pass by the island of the Sirens—those creatures whose mesmerizing voices were known to lure sailors to shipwreck on the rocky coast of the island. Our stories, beliefs, old habit patterns and identities are like those Siren songs, and they can be very strong, sometimes irresistible, as can the forces of aversion. It’s as if we fall briefly under a hypnotic spell. What to do?

Simply notice that this is happening. Notice the allure. Notice what’s pleasurable in it; notice what’s not. Notice the suffering. Notice the whole happening of desire and aversion. Observe how it works. Don’t fight it or try to get rid of it. Instead, allow everything to be just as it is in this moment, desire and resistance and uncertainty and upset and agitation included. Don’t resist what shows up or chase after something else. See if it is possible to hear the thoughts that pop up without getting immediately hypnotized by the headlines and sucked into the storylines. Instead, see if it is possible to hear the thoughts the same way you might hear traffic sounds or bird songs. And if you do get temporarily hypnotized and caught up in these storylines, when waking up happens, as it does naturally by itself, don’t judge yourself for having been caught up, don’t take it personally, don’t hold onto it or give it meaning—simply let it go and gently return to the (nonconceptual) simplicity and immediacy of bodily sensations, traffic sounds, breathing, and so on, sensing the spaciousness and the subtlety of this awaring presence, being the listening silence that you always already are.

Action can and will happen as needed. Attention can focus and narrow as needed, but perhaps in can focus without hardening, grasping or fixating. Notice that however the attention moves, it doesn’t ever actually disturb the vastness or present-ness of Here-Now in any way. Awareness is ever-present, the groundless ground of every experience. Don’t take that as a belief, but stop and check at any moment—is awareness here? You’ll find that it always is. Here-Now is ever-present. It is also ever-changing and will naturally feel different in different moments—you talk to children, teach a class, do your taxes, perform surgery, undergo surgery, work on the computer, drive a bus, visit a friend, care for an aging parent, organize a protest march, talk things out with a spouse or a housemate, attend a difficult business meeting, go on a week-long mediation retreat—each of these experiences will have a different taste, a different texture. You will plan for the future and learn from the past in appropriate and functional ways—no problem with that—and it all happens Now (past, future, planning, remembering). Sometimes you feel expanded, sometimes you feel contracted. Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes sad. Sometimes full of energy, sometimes tired. Nothing needs to be different from exactly how it is. None of it is personal. It’s like the weather—ever-changing.

If how it is in any given moment seems problematic, instead of immediately resisting how it is, shine the light of awareness on it—turn to meet it fully—open to it—explore the nature of whatever it is you are finding problematic, unacceptable or undesirable. Explore it not by thinking about it or analyzing it, but by looking, listening, sensing, feeling, awaring.

It can be immensely helpful in this never-ending awakening journey Here-Now to make time every day to sit quietly doing nothing, just being. I recommend this. And then throughout the day, when it occurs to you and the opportunity arises, simply pause for a moment and listen to the sounds, feel the sensations, be knowingly present as the boundless awaring presence that you are. This can happen anywhere—at work, on the city bus, while walking or eating a meal. Even as you are talking to someone, both as you talk and as you listen, see if it’s possible to also be aware of sounds, sensations in the body, breathing, the sense of presence, the listening silence, the stillness, the whole happening of the moment. You may find that this changes how you talk and how you listen. You may find that the sound of traffic is exquisite and interesting, and that “the same old route” that the bus takes every day on your way to work is actually never the same way twice, and that the most ordinary things (city blocks, warehouses, backsides of building, parking lots, burger joints, and so on) are miraculous and amazing when you are actually seeing them.

But don’t worry if it doesn’t seem miraculous or amazing. Just let it be however it is. If it seems dull and boring, get interested in what “dull and boring” is actually like beyond the pejorative labels.

And don’t be caught in some idea that you “should” or “must” do any of this “all the time” or “perfectly.” Don’t evaluate how well you’re doing it. Those thoughts about progress, and success or failure, and getting somewhere are all coming from the perspective of the imaginary separate self. “Am I awake yet?” or “Am I as awake as so-and-so?” are questions referring to a mirage-like “me” that can never actually be found. Awakening is waking up from the thought-sense of being that little, separate, encapsulated me. And that waking up is NOW, not yesterday or tomorrow or once-and-for-all or forever-after. It’s always NOW.

The most important realization you can have is that it is always Now. Awakening is never about the next moment or the last moment. It’s always NOW. That doesn’t mean that (relatively speaking) there isn’t a kind of evolutionary process involved, a gradual unfolding and deepening over time, but that process only happens Now. And the “next step” is never any better or worse than this step. Each step—each moment—is complete unto itself.

Waking up doesn’t mean you forget your name or lose the functional sense of boundaries and location that are needed to survive. And yet, paradoxically, when there is no thought-sense of being somebody, the person is set free to be the truest, most genuine expression it can be. You are no-thing at all (all there is, is emptiness or impermanence), and you are EVERYTHING (because it is all a holographic interdependent boundless whole), and you are a unique and unrepeatable wave in ocean of life. You can only imagine that you have left Here-Now, that you are lost or lacking.

There is no end to this awakening journey, no finish-line, no final conclusion. There is no such thing as after Now or before Now—there is only Now, and yet, there are ever new subtleties, ever new discoveries, ever new challenges. Every moment is new and fresh—it has never been here before. The universe begins anew in each moment. Enjoy!

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018 --

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