Waking up from Awakening (with some help from Thoreau)

Awakening is not waking up from a long slumber or a dream. Paradoxically, awakening is the dream that we are actually trying to wake up from. Awakening is a shapeshifter and comes in many forms. Some call it nirvana. Others call it “oneness” or “interconnectedness”. Most do not even know how to define it or what it really means, but they trust that whatever awakening is will bring them deep peace, calm, equanimity and acceptance.

Awakening, then, is a proxy. It is a proxy for the most fundamental immaterial things one wants but currently does not have. So when people say “I want to awaken”, what they really mean is they want to abide in a certain state of being, whether it be deep calm, unconditional love, or complete and utter freedom from suffering.

And therein lies the trap of awakening. If there is one thing that the meditative journey teaches, it is that there are no such things as abiding states or forms of being. Everything is transient and ever-changing. Nothing stays forever. There is nothing to grab unto. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is no permanent cessation of suffering. There is no way out of the human condition, which generally includes a certain amount of joy and fulfilment, but also inevitably brings forth a good deal of sadness and sorrow.

To keep chasing after awakening or abiding peace or calm is to refuse to bow down to these essential facts of existence. It is to negate the brute fact that nothing is permanent. It is to deny the undeniable truth that suffering is baked into this mysterious unfolding that we call life. In an oft-cited passage from Walden, the great American poet Thoreau encourages us to “live deliberately”, which means to meet head on “the essential facts of life”. While Thoreau does not list the essential facts of life, it is indisputable that these facts include not only happiness and gain, but also heartbreak and loss.

So how to proceed if awakening is a pipe dream, an illusion? How to move forward if chasing peace and quietude serves only to highlight how at war we are with our noisy selves? A first step would be to understand that there is no way to live this life without enduring whatever amount of cosmic pain this impersonal universe throws at us. The pain is a given. So too is the suffering and the sorrow. We can’t make suffering permanently cease, regardless of what some sacred texts may tell us. There is no way out of this but through.

What we can do, however, is learn to react with kindness, dignity and aplomb when confronted with the inevitable pain and loss that will be thrown our way. We can bring ourselves to understand that our suffering isn’t personal. To understand that, as the saying in Spanish goes, “there is no evil that lasts for a hundred years, nor is there a body that could endure it”.

So next time there is suffering and loss in your life, do not ask how you can put an end to it. Do not try to awaken as a way of seeking its permanent cessation. Instead, when you are in the midst of loss and sorrow, bring to mind Thoreau’s wise observation that only “fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land”. Then see if you can come to understand, along with Thoreau, that “there is no other land”, because “there is no other life but this”. Suffering then becomes our crucible, our teacher. Then we can finally open up to Thoreau’s invitation to learn what suffering has to teach, so as to not “when [we] come to die, discover that [we] had not lived”.  


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