After a climactic night of meditation, the Buddha became fully ‘awakened’ at the moment of sunrise. This word invariably implies a kind of fresh morning radiance in the soul. We imagine an awakened person as having a continuously serene and joyful state of mind.
We all seem to have an inkling of what that state would be like, even if we’re utterly miserable. We can all recollect times when we’ve felt fully alive, and that vision of perfect happiness seems to be within all of us. This implies that you and I, in all our confusion, already know what it is to be awakened. As Plato said, we can’t understand anything unless it is already within us.
So if we know it, why can’t we live it? How many of us live in the brightness of the dawn? Our mental skies are more likely to be overcast than sunny. So is awakening as a permanent state really possible, or is the word just another piece of bait to extract money from lost souls?
Great ideas tend to become stale and corrupted very quickly. People get very rich and powerful talking about God or freedom or morality. To take words such as ‘awakening’ and ‘enlightenment’ at face value can be naive, unless we find ways to bring them back to life. At the very least, we should know what they mean in their traditional contexts.
Here is a crude guide. ‘Enlightenment’ means being able to think for yourself, without reliance on authorities or received wisdom. For Westerners, the word also implies the legacy of the Italian Renaissance, which was the rebirth of human intelligence, imagination and science that ended the Middle Ages. For Buddhists, on the other hand, ‘awakening’ or enlightenment implies ‘Nirvana’, which literally means ‘the extinguishing of the life force.’ In practical terms, a Buddhist saint enjoys the peace that comes from total detachment. Which kind of enlightenment would you prefer?
In the Asian tradition, awakening is seen as a transcendental state untainted by individual perceptions. In effect, an Asian teacher will claim that the truth as he understands it is the absolute truth for all time and for all people. This makes his message very appealing in its paternalistic simplicity: ‘Think like me and you too will eventually awaken.’ This may explain why so few people seem to make it. Striving for someone else’s awakening is a subtle kind of self-loathing which makes it guaranteed to fail.
Western secular thought has largely killed off the idea of transcendental truths. We now see most truths as being heavily inluenced by the mind that perceives them. This means that any kind of awakening we enjoy will always be inseparable from our personality and our cultural context. Our awakening can’t be the same as our guru’s. No matter how hard we strive to be selfless, we can’t erase ourselves from the picture.
Furthermore, awakening is unlikely to be a single moment of cosmic illumination that makes us permanently awake. Any experience, however strong, soon decays and is manipulated like any other memory. Because we are living organisms in constant flux, awakening is more likely to be a process than an enduring state.
Once we realise that our awakening is always personal to us and doesn’t have to be perfect, it also be comes possible! We don’t have to become some washed-out, white-robed saint. Neither is it some remote possibility for a future lifetime, as the Tibetans generally say. We can only awaken in a day very much like today, with all its apparent limitations.
Awakening is all about intensifying consciousness. The mind becomes bright when it is focused, as when you concentrate the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass. The most intense states occur when all your attention is streamlined into the moment. This can happen involuntarily through alcohol, critical illness, intense love or violence or adventure. During these peaks, we may think: ‘This is what it means to be alive!’
Fortunately, there are safer and more durable ways to enhance consciousness. They usually involve the ability to pay attention to one thing to the temporary exclusion of all else. To be awake also means to be conscious of the thoughts, feelings and sensations of this moment – to know what is happening as it happens. The most beautiful times occur when you are also conscious of being conscious: when the mind is aware of its own radiance.
If we think of consciousness as a kind of mental energy similar to the physical vitality of the body, we can understand why it often goes dull. If we scatter our mental energy over a thousand things a day, they’ll all appear foggy. A restless, unfocused mind can’t perceive anything with clarity or depth. Furthermore, habitual worry and physical tension will so drain our batteries that very little juice remains.
Fortunately, there are many ways to make yourself more alive, so let me suggest a few.
Firstly get very good at shedding unnecessary tension during the day. This will conserve energy, if nothing else.
Secondly, learn to focus more deeply on the sensations of the present – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, and the inner bodily senses. This relaxes us and enhances the pleasure of being alive.
Thirdly, focus on and amplify what is beautiful in your life. As you clear the mental junk, there is more space for lovely and healthy thoughts and sensations to fill your mind. They are legion – just to be alive is the most extraordinary experience – and yet they also tend to be subtle and transient. Our usual mental noise and confusion is quite enough to smother them. Even mild anxiety can make the whole world grey.
To be fully alive means to have a careful eye for beauty, and to know how to cultivate it.
Finally, give yourself the time and space to consider the big questions concerning life and the world with complete honesty. We can be happy believing in things that are not real, but awakening is a more grown-up state. I would suggest that life is both profoundly horrible and indescribably beautiful at the same time, and this is probably as true for birds and fish as much as for us. To be alive is eternal delight, as the William Blake said. Yet at the same time, we all live by plunder and carnage, no matter how neatly we package it. If we try to ignore or explain away the horror, we also fail to see the beauty.
If we dull our consciousness of death and suffering, we tend to plod along as if we will live forever, and this can make the mind very gray and dull. We can even deny that death is real by vaguely believing in reincarnation or a future life. If we assume that we’ve got time, even a few more years, then we won’t treat this day as anything special, and yet who of us can be sure of even one more day? Only if we are accomodating towards death, loss and misfortune – those building blocks of Nature – can we fully appreciate being alive.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2005