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Awakening: What Is It?

First of all, it’s a word. A label. A concept. It points to something that is nonconceptual and inconceivable, and the word can be useful in pointing to that, but misunderstandings of this particular word can lead to a lot of confusion and suffering.

Awakening is experiential (direct knowing-seeing-being). It is not a matter of belief, intellectual understanding, or the knowledge of second-hand ideas and information. It is direct. Immediate.

For some, it begins as a sudden and very dramatic event, popping the bubble of illusory encapsulation and separation and revealing the emptiness of the “self” we think is inside our head, authoring our thoughts, making our choices, and doing our deeds. For others, it is a very undramatic, almost imperceptible, gradual unfolding, like an ice cube slowly melting in water. Either way, it is always only about NOW – not a remembered past event, a future hope, or some fantasy of forever-after. There may be an event in time when it was initially realized, but that which is realized is timeless and impersonal.

Awakening is the recognition that there is no center to present experiencing, that “I” am not limited to, or encapsulated inside the body—that the body appears in this vast field of aware presence along with the whole universe, and that everything is an indivisible, seamless, boundless whole in which there is infinite diversity and variety, but never any actual separation. Awakening is the realization that “I” is another word for Here-Now, this present-ness, this alive immediacy in which time and space appear, without ever departing from Here and Now. Awakening is falling open into the vast spaciousness, the infinite subtlety of this presence, this aliveness that we are and that everything is.

In some way, these are ALL things we all know already from our immediate, direct, present experience—all of this is completely obvious and in one way impossible not to see. But this undeniable actuality that we do in fact constantly see and experience has been seemingly “covered over” by the conceptual overlay, the map-world created by thinking and conceptualizing, in which most humans live their lives. We are hypnotized by our thinking and conceptualizing. Awakening out of this hypnotic trance can be sudden or gradual, but once these things have been recognized, the illusions of encapsulation, separation and independent agency can never completely fool us again. We can’t ever un-see that bigger, subtler, more holistic view once it has been seen. 

But we can, and probably will, continue to experience many moments (of whatever duration) when emotion-thought, posing as “me,” identifies as the bodymind person, and we feel separate, threatened, defensive, hurt, stressed out over an apparent decision we must make (as if we have choice and could get it wrong), angry at someone else about something they did (as if they had a choice), or upset over personal or world events that we believe “shouldn’t” be happening (as if this could be other than it is). In other words, we will be again seeing through the filter of conceptualization and mistaking the map for the territory. Consciousness will once again be in a kind of trance, hypnotized by the smog of emotion-thought, identified as “me,” feeling fear or anger or hurt, being defensive or aggressive or in some way reactive. There will probably be some recognition as this is happening that we are lost in delusion, but the delusion will have more energy at that moment than this recognition. We will be seeing and acting from delusion and not from awake-ness. And unless we are a very rare creature, to deny that this ever happens is to live in a dishonest fantasy. It seems to be in the very nature of consciousness that it becomes easily attracted, seduced and mesmerized by its own creations. It loves movies.

Any claim of being personally, permanently, always awake is itself a dangerous delusion. An “enlightened or awakened person” is truly an oxymoron. No such enduring person ever actually exists or persists. To claim otherwise is to be lost in the very delusion we are claiming to have transcended. Because who is this persisting “self” that is “always” free of delusion? And how can anyone ever know that delusion will never reappear? And who is it that even cares about being a delusion-free self? There is truly no person at the center of experience, whether the experience is deluded or enlightened, contracted or expanded, pleasant or unpleasant, identified or not identified. “The person” is an ever-changing process inseparable from everything else, like a waving of the ocean—and it’s ALL equally water.

What IS truly irrevocable and ever-present—what cannot be lost because it was never missing—is the ACTUALITY of unicity, unbroken wholeness, thoroughgoing impermanence or no-thing-ness, and the absence of any separate, independent, authoring self with free will and choice. Even the hypnotic trance of delusion is itself an impersonal and inseparable movement of the whole, a passing weather event, with no actual substance or meaning. It is literally no-thing at all. There is no actual self that needs to dissolve, and no actual bondage in which we are ever really trapped. Where, after all, is the delusion of yesterday or an hour ago? It has vanished into thin air. Only thought and memory keep it (seemingly) alive. In that sense, awakening is sometimes said to be permanent because nothing stands outside of it. There is ONLY awake-ness. But this permanence is not a personal attribute or a finish-line somebody crosses once and for all, nor is it some special state that persists over time—it is simply the ever-present ACTUALITY of NOW.

Words like awakening and enlightenment can generate immense confusion and delusion, because they so easily become imagined mythical attainments, always off in the future or back in some past memory, for which the apparently separate self is desperately searching. (And, as has often been noted, seeking is the best way of overlooking.) And then sometimes, these words like awakening and enlightenment become imagined mythical attainments that a person is claiming in order to feel special and important. And all of this searching and claiming is much ado about nothing.

Chasing some idea of awakening or enlightenment is a great way to ignore the living actuality that is presenting itself right NOW, from which “you” are not in any way separate. This present experiencing or awaring presence is obvious and unavoidable. You are not observing it, authoring it, or being pushed around by it. You are inseparable from it, like the waving in the ocean. Being awake right now is nothing mystical or complicated or exotic—it’s THIS, what is, here and now, before you label it, think about it, or try to figure it out and grasp it. It’s the sound of traffic, the bird flitting about in the tree, the taste of tea, colors and shapes and movements, breathing, the sensation of hunger, a conversation with a friend, the check-out line at the grocery store, a pile of dog shit, a good movie, a cup of coffee, a child’s laugher, the caw-caw-caw of the crows, a chocolate truffle, the airplane flying over—just this. The aliveness, the presence, the ungraspable mystery, the unrepeatable wonder that is right here. Sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet. Inconceivable, impossible to pin down, and yet utterly unavoidable and fully present right now.

In many ways, we’d be better off forgetting these words like 'awakening' entirely. But because they do seem to have some use, and because they do continue to show up, I find myself attempting instead to clarify some of the confusion. Maybe this helps, or maybe it just further muddies the already muddy water. In the end, we’re all barking nonsense sounds, much sound and fury, signifying nothing, and to truly SEE that is to wake up (NOW) to the inconceivable living actuality of THIS very moment. And then, magically and mysteriously, words arise…as natural (and as inconceivable) as leaves unfurling on the trees.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2021 --

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