What Does It Mean to be Awake?

Suffering is what happens when we want an “I am” to stay or go, when we want it to not be dependent on the circumstances. We want, “I’m lonely,” to go, and, “I’m loved,” to stay. Reality can’t meet those demands, and neither can our dreams and fantasies. But we don’t have to trade awakening for something else if we don’t add anything to it or try to take anything away from it.

By John Lee Pendall

What’s the first thing you do each morning?

People answer that in a lot of different ways: get out of bed, open my eyes, go to the bathroom, check my phone, get dressed, eat breakfast, turn on the light, on and on.

All of that’s inaccurate. The first thing we do each morning is wake up. We can’t even say we do it though, since it isn’t on purpose. Waking up is something that happens to us whether we want it to or not.

So everything else we do, everything else that happens throughout the day, is built up from that foundation. If we weren’t awake, we wouldn’t be doing any of it, and we wouldn’t be aware or conscious of any of it.

One straightforward aspect of practice is just be awake. Stick with that fundamental basis of experience.

One story in the Pali Canon has a dude asking Buddha, “Are you a this? Are you a that?” Buddha just keeps saying, “Nope.” Finally, the guy asks, “Well, what are you?” Buddha replies, “I’m awake.” Now, when I first read that story, I thought he was pointing to something kind of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey. Some kind of mystical—maybe even omniscient—state of mind.

Then, years later, I reflected, “Ya know what’d be funny? If he literally meant, ‘I’m awake,’ as in, ‘I’m conscious, I’m aware. I’m not sleeping or a rock.'” I giggled at the idea until I looked around. Then it hit me that that’s probably exactly what he meant. “What are you?” “I’m awake.” After that, the traveler basically said, “Yeah, okay… see ya later, weirdo!” and that’s when Buddha decided to take another approach to teaching the Dharma.

Just being awake is a very subtle, elusive practice, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep at it. It also seems anti-climactic on the surface. Emptiness and the Four Noble Truths are a lot sexier.

The mind switches out being awake for being a fuck ton of other things. “I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m me, I’m a parent, I’m a worker, I’m driving, I’m eating,” and so on. That causes suffering because whatever we put after that “I am” is empty, it arises from and changes with the situation.

Suffering is what happens when we want an “I am” to stay or go, when we want it to not be dependent on the circumstances. We want, “I’m lonely,” to go, and, “I’m loved,” to stay. Reality can’t meet those demands, and neither can our dreams and fantasies.

But we don’t have to trade awakening for something else if we don’t add anything to it or try to take anything away from it.

Instead of thinking, “I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m lonely,” we can go with, “I’m awake,” and then that’s what we’ll be. Then everything else will happen in that context, it’ll be what’s experienced with awakening. When we’re hungry, tired, or lonely, those will just be situations, not who or what we are.

Because we’re not that, we’re just awake. Even the “I am” is something extra, something built on it. When we’re not awake, there’s no “I am” or “I’m not.” With that realization, 99% of our up close and personal suffering vanishes, and we can work with the remainder in effortless, skillful ways since all the I-me-mine garbage related to it is gone.

You’re awake, so be awake. These days, that’s really the only teaching and method I can, in good conscience, endorse. But that might not be enough. It wasn’t for me. I had to have illumination (insight) crack me open first.

Sometimes, before just being awake, we have to figure out who it is that’s awake. We have to see for ourselves that “I am” and “I’m not” follow from awakening, they don’t precede it. All we need to do is ask, “Who’s awake? Who’s awake? Who’s awake?” all the while knowing it’s us, but unsure about why it is that that’s not enough.

We can carry that inquiry with us throughout the day. “Who’s awake? Who’s awake? Who’s awake?” and feel it gather intensity and momentum. You start to feel it in your bones like an electrical current or a pending orgasm.

Then, out of the blue, something will seem to give, and it’ll be obvious: I’m awake.

Some traditions diverge here. A few say you should pick up another inquiry, stick with the same one, or investigate other practices like observing the mind. A few Korean teachers I’ve studied say that, after you experience illumination, then you’re done, you don’t need another inquiry or meditation practice, you can just live the life that’s in you.

To me, all shoulds and shouldn’ts we apply here are dogma. There’s nothing you should or shouldn’t do in life, those are both judgments, not truths. You’re just awake, that’s all. Everything else is secondhand, we can take it or leave it.

You can pick up another inquiry or gong-an, you can study philosophy or observe the mind, you can take the vows and put on the robes, but you don’t have to. You could also just go back to your regularly scheduled program and never give Eastern wisdom another thought, but—once again—you don’t have to.

There’s no right or wrong answer, no right or wrong way to live. Being awake isn’t right or wrong, good or bad. Awake is just awake. What you do or don’t do with it is up to you to figure out, no one can make that choice for you, not even the situation.

That said, one thing I noticed is that I tried to have a repeat performance of illumination.

I kept seeking another rocking insight that was beyond words. After three years of fucking about, it struck me that once is enough. There’s no need for me to keep trying to polish the mirror when it’s really bright open space.

So even though there’s no absolute good or bad, chasing after more illumination isn’t helpful. For me, it was quite harmful, actually. So, once that lightning bolt goes flashing through you, I recommend not chasing it. It’s already illuminating each moment of your life, so there’s no need to go running after it. You might, however, want to find someone to verify that it was indeed illumination and not just a trip.

“But being awake is another situation. We’re not awake all the time. So that can’t be what the Buddha meant.”

Awakening and nibbana aren’t the same thing. Nibbana is the endless absence of all affliction; awakening is insight into the true nature of things. Nibbana is blowing out the candle of affliction; awakening is lighting the lamp of wisdom. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Arhats have entered nibbana, but they don’t experience awakening insight; Bodhisattvas have experienced that insight, but they haven’t entered nibbana.

Buddhas are both—awake and free of affliction.

I don’t talk about nibbana because I want all of us to be Buddhas. Traditionally, the way to do that is to wake up first, and then deal with your shit. The desire to Wake Up (Bodhicitta) is a vital part of awakening and inquiry practice. Without it, we just kinda spin in circles.

But, desire is an affliction, so if you stumble into nibbana, you won’t even have the desire to Wake Up. The candle of pain and suffering is what we use to light that lamp. Can’t do that if we blow it out first. Also, attaining nibbana is a huge pain in the ass. You practically have to be a monastic to do it.

“So, I should ask, ‘Who’s awake?’ Not do anything else?”

You can do whatever the fuck you want. No shoulds. You can learn and practice mindfulness, counting the breath, etc. Can read through the whole Buddhist Canon and practice patience and generosity. It’s just that it’s all gonna be an uphill battle if you don’t realize that you’re starting the journey at its destination.

You’re already as awake as you’re ever going to be. Nothing we do can make us shine any brighter or dimmer than we are right now.

“Well, that’s kind of disappointing.”

What’d you expect? 72 virgins in a private jet? The plus side is that that jet will break down, but being awake is something you can rely on for the rest of your life. It’s always there when you need it, always reminding us that we’re not the situations we’re in, we’re not the pile of traits, habits, and characteristics we identify as. We’re just awake. This is something very beautiful and subtle, and everything depends on it.

Take care.

Being awake isn't right or wrong, good or bad. Awake is just awake. ~ John Lee Pendall Click To Tweet


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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