I realize that I often mention this Awakening word as if it were obvious what I am talking about; it is much bandied about these days, but what does it really mean?
I can say here a bit about what it means from my own perspective as, whilst not presuming to be an expert, I do have some first hand experience from my own life and that of my awakening friends, students and colleagues. It will be what wants to be said today as I allow these words to come through, and on another day I might describe it differently as there are so many ways to come at this and many many aspects to the process which I will most probably not even touch on this time.
In my own experience so far it has been something like this:
I am slowly waking up from the dream of who I thought I was to who I really am which is not a thing; it, or I, is/am indefinable, unformed, ever changing and yet ever present in the midst of this body, this mind, this personality, this life story. Not defined by any of this and yet touched by it all.
For as long as I can remember, I thought I had some idea of who I was and what life was all about and yet I knew something was profoundly missing and out of kilter. I felt displaced and had a sense of being on a search for something which never felt satisfying. I was looking for healing, for completeness, for happiness, for peace. And sometimes I would experience these things and then they would slip away and remain elusive; the more I sought them, the more they seemed unreachable in any reliable way.
Perhaps the most profound lesson was the dawning realization that nothing I was seeking could be satisfied in the world of experiences. (I was searching for myself, and it is increasingly obvious that I am not an experience – or a series of experiences – but the one who experiences all of life).
This has taken years to take root in me, and still sometimes eludes me in all kinds of subtle ways. It is possible to see it, recognize it, and almost immediately find oneself back in the quest to reach certain feeling states as if feeling a certain way, or experiencing a certain thing, were the goal. This goal is based on two principal motivating factors. The first is simply a desire to feel good, at rest, open, alive and connected – and to avoid feeling bad or unpleasant feelings. In a way this is simple and also to some degree natural. Any creature would rather feel good than bad. And the desire to feel good will mean evolving many complex ways of planning, hoping, imagining or doing what we can to ensure our lives unfolds in such a way to make such feeling states more attainable. (However successful or unsuccessful these attempts are).
The second is more complex and more insidious. And that is to do with identity. I want to be the kind of person who feels at ease, peaceful, purposeful, connected, alive, etc. I need these states in order to feel good about myself, to feel confident about my place in the world, and to gain the respect, love and admiration of others in my life.
This is tricky. Because it is very easy to delude oneself. I want to do good in the world and be part of the solution rather than the problem; I have always wanted this ever since I realized at a young age that things were seriously out of balance. I wanted to be – in chronological order – a nurse, a missionary, a vet, a saint, an effective political activist, an avatar… And part of this comes from a very pure and real motivation from my heart, to bring a force of good in a broken world. The tricky bit, is that this is – mostly unconsciously – entwined with a narcissistic need to be seen as a good, valuable person of huge integrity (especially by myself). One of the many difficulties here is that my identification with the need to be all of this, means that I will be unwilling to see, let alone fully feel, all the aspects of myself which are out of integrity – which are arrogant, hateful, punishing, dissociated, sloppy, needy, etc. And I will be therefore unwilling to fully take responsibility for the more shadowy aspects of my humanness. If a lot of my energy is being used to shore up the identity I am determined to uphold, it is going to be very hard for me to see what is hiding underground in my psyche in a way which can support it to transform. I will tend to nurse a deep sense of self hatred – more or less consciously – because deep down I know full well that all the ‘good’ stuff is balanced in at least equal measure by the ‘bad’ stuff. And if I have a strong inner critic (which most of us do whether we are conscious of it or not) it will bounce me out of myself again and again. If I am telling myself I am bad for thinking or feeling this or that, it is going to be more or less impossible to have enough space or compassion to see myself in a more spacious way and actually take stock and address whatever disturbance is afflicting me in such a way that I can meet any underlying need, and show up with any kind of maturity. And if my behavior is out of integrity, and I am dealing with a fierce inner critic, when someone addresses me on it, I will tend to either cave in, in a vocal or unspoken expression of my failure and self hate, or I will become defensive or both. I will only be able to take responsibility in a mature way, if I am able to see my own behavior, recognize the effect it has on the other, and relate with any remorse arising with some ‘space’. (This will also by effect make me less liable to judge others for their imperfections.)
So what enables me to have more space, and to not get over-identified with either a perfectionist self image or that of a failure, both of which are by definition experienced as separate from a bigger whole?
SPACE: I believe it is necessary to have a direct experience of a ‘space of being’ which is not defined by any of the roles I play and is not defined by my body, my mind or my feelings. To experience what it is, however fleetingly, to simply be here without being fixated on anything, available and in connection with a greater beingness. This can be experienced as shockingly different from ‘normal’ reality, or a very subtle shift, depending on where I have been living from prior to that. In other words, if I find myself very lost, disconnected, isolated and/or obsessed by anything, and I suddenly land where I actually am, I am likely to drop out of my obsessive mind and open to a dimension of being which is very different. There will be a sense of peace, simplicity and vividness to experience which is palpable, and in direct contrast to where I have been. There will be sense of resource which naturally allows me to meet whatever life situation I find myself in, even if I don’t consciously know how to do that…
If I have not strayed so far from a more natural state in the first place, the shift will be more subtle, and sometimes not even recognized.
I have witnessed myself and others have dramatic shifts from one moment to the next, as they drop whatever it was they were identified with and found themselves waking up from a ‘dream’ (or recurring nightmare) into a reality which is inherently restful, happy and connected. This is paradoxical, because I could find myself at rest and happy in an experience of agitation – in other words, being at rest does not presume that I am all of a sudden totally relaxed and blissed out (although I might be). I might be full of adrenaline or stressed out but with no resistance whatsoever to that state, and in that there is peace. Not perhaps the peace my searching mind thought it should or could be experiencing, but a profound peace, which is not dependent on any particular feeling state.
I have also experienced, in myself and others, a gradual slowing down of the search, a relaxation of internal effort, and a slow reclaiming of a more natural state of being. This is less dramatic and it is easy to miss the fact that this can be more reliable – certainly more digestible (if less impressive) – because it happens slowly and without any fanfare. The more dramatic shifts often come with an extreme level of bouncing from state to state; the further you fall from a state of identification to the natural state, the more likely the sense of crashing. So people can swing from states of bliss and peace to being utterly lost in their internal dramas, desperately seeking the peace again, dissociating altogether and veering wildly in what, on a bad day, can feel a bit like going mad… It’s a Jekyll and Hyde situation where depending on where someone is landing from one moment to the next they are like two different people. Quite confusing to be around!
But whether it occurs gradually or dramatically, to experience this space of being gives some confidence. Not the confidence associated with being successful in the world or liked by other people, but the confidence that who I am, is not separate from the rest of existence, and is actually not dependent on whether I am ‘good’ or ‘bad’. That on a deep level who I am is not perfectible, is not in need of healing or changing in any way. That although there may be all kinds of difficulties in my body and psyche, and much to integrate on different levels, the essence of who I am is already complete, already at rest, and already in love with all that is. Knowing this – not as an idea, but as a knowing which has been experienced directly – gives enough confidence to be able to safely face into all kinds of neuroses and shadowy aspects. And it is the fact of being able to face these and feel them in the body which allows them to transform. Not taking it all totally personally helps. The fact is that being human means that each one of us holds vast potential and also huge reservoirs of wounding, and capacity to do harm. If we think we are beyond that, we are most probably deluding ourselves. And it is personal and very particular to each of us, of course, but it is also not personal. It is collective, and borne of generation upon generation of confusion, separation and trauma. Which is why, integrating all of this is no mean feat. And also there is no end point. There is no point when one day we will finally have sorted everything out. It seems that there is a continual process of evolution which is without end.
I often think of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus who took on the sins of humanity to save the world. What if each of us needs to face into our own personal crucifixion in order to find resurrection – we need to face the pain of humanity, the lostness, the cruelty, the selfishness, the need for power and pleasure at whatever cost – we need to know all of these in ourselves, rather than presuming it is all only out there. We need to realize that we cannot transcend anything until it has fully been felt. And that our capacity, willingness and readiness to feel it all, is the greatest gift we can offer to ourselves, all of humanity and the rest of creation.
Sometimes people ask me, why is it this way? Why do we have to feel so separate, or lost, or afraid of life and death?
You could say it is because of early life adaptations and the way we have created a kind of facsimile of who we really are in order to be loved, accepted, or even noticed in the world. Or it is because we are swimming in a cultural stream which is run by social, economic and political forces which need us to be constantly searching for more. Or that the momentum of history has been such that through on-going wars and invasions of all kinds, we are all traumatized (even if we haven’t experienced such things in our lifetimes, but second hand through parents and grandparents) and therefore living in a constant state of nervous system arousal. You could say that our very education system means children are brought up to think that training the mind in certain prescribed ways is the most important thing there is, and that academic achievement is more important than the capacity to love. There is a lot I could say and many have said about this.
But what strikes me is that our extraordinary capacity to live as if we were separate from the rest of existence; to live in dissociated mind states and view the world in terms of us and them, means that when we do come home to a more natural state and actually bring through more of our potential as human beings, the effect of this level of consciousness is profound and very powerful.
I see my little granddaughter who is 6 months old. She is in the natural state. She is present, experiencing each moment as it arises. She has no limiting ideas or beliefs to cloud her perception of life. However she is also a baby and does not yet have the capacity to recognize that she is an independent being in her own right. She does not have the maturity to understand what is happening in any coherent way or make sense of the world. She loves, and opens love in others because it is her nature to do so, and it is delightful. And at some point in the not too distant future she will need to differentiate, to define herself and separate from the state of oneness in which she dwells. This is natural and developmental. She will need to go through phases in which all she sees is her own wants and needs and she cannot have any empathy for anyone else. If she is not made wrong in this or forced to have empathy before she is ready, she will most probably then develop a natural empathy and slowly find how to live in a world in which she exists but also others exist and that this needs to be negotiated. She will need to experience, at times, as we all do, what it is to feel afraid, alone, separate and disconnected. And then – having known all of this – she will I hope some day come back to a natural state of being in which she has compassion for what it is to be lost because she has known it, and yet has found her way home again.
Perhaps there is little value in being found if we were never lost. It is our very capacity to stray so far which makes the homecoming so precious, valuable and potent, as stories across the ages point us to. I sense that the energy which is unleashed when we step back into the stream of life is so potent that it can move mountains. Even if our direct experience of this may be subtle.
And given what we are facing on a planetary level, I believe nothing less is going to make much difference.