Awakening to the Life of Reruns

Created Mon, May 11, 2020 by
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From the book “Natural Wakefulness,” by Acharya Gaylon Ferguson.

Let’s begin with Natural Wakefulness and its connection with the path of meditation. In meditation retreats over the years, I’ve been asked many times, “Why is it natural to wake up?” After some conversation among the group, circling around the deeper meaning of “awake” as our natural state of being, someone will occasionally grow bolder still and raise a hand to wonder out loud: “If it’s so natural, why do I need to meditate?”

Meditation is the natural path of spiritual awakening. The Buddha discovered a “middle way” of developing our innate human potential, an approach to meditating that avoids the twin traps of trying to force the mind to be still or letting it run wild. Right meditation skillfully joins our basic awakened nature with the practice of gently training the mind and heart.

The word “buddha” means “awakened on.” Imagine that one day, walking among the fresh vegetables of your local farmer’s market, you suddenly see someone with unusual presence — calm, compassionate, clear. What are the signs of this? It might be the graceful way the person moves: body and mind in easy harmony with each other. It might be the person’s gentle tone of voice, the friendly way of speaking to the checkout person. It might just be the bright clarity and steady kindness of the gaze; the eyes can be the windows of wakefulness.

Seeing such a person, we might wonder: Who is this? Where did this wise person come from? How is it that someone could be radiating such peace and sanity in the midst of so much anxiety, aggression, and speed? The most important question we might ask ourselves is: how did this person get to be this way? As soon as we begin to contemplate awakening, wondering about it — where it comes from, how to get there — we are already on the path to enlightenment. Our curiosity is a sign of inner wakefulness uncoiling itself.

The Buddha’s powerful yet gentle presence inspired many similar questions among those he met: “What are you? Are you a supernatural being? Is there a way for us to become more at peace with life, more grounded and open — the way you are? What should we call you?” Smiling, he answered: “I am awake, so you should call me, ‘Awakened One’ — and here is a noble path to your own awakening.”

Natural Wakefulness, by Gaylon Ferguson

Read chapter 1 of “Natural Wakefulness,” by Gaylon Ferguson, at Shambhala Publications.

This name, “Awakened One,” is an answer — but also a question: Awakened from what? Awake to what? Clearly the famous “awakened state of being” involves more than just rising with a yawn and a few stretches from an ordinary night of restful sleep to face the challenges of another day. We are concerned here with deeper senses of “asleep” and “awake.” We are beginning the journey to complete realization by contemplating the meaning of enlightened wakefulness and spiritual sleep.

The first step of true awakening involves realizing our habitual, everyday, walk-around state of being “asleep.” Our distracted, daydream-filled life has been compared to sleep-walking. As we know, sleepwalkers often dream on in relative comfort — until they suddenly bump into a wall or step off a staircase. The resulting “ouch!” experience corresponds to the discovery of what the Awakened One called “the noble truth of suffering.”

Certainly the Buddha’s own spiritual path involved first waking up to his sleepwalking state. Suddenly — with a penetrating glimpse of the painful realities of human life outside the cozy comfort of his parents’ palace, he saw that he had been living in a pleasant dream. The bubble of indulgent life at court was a seductive trap, lulling him into a false sense of security, keeping him from seeing the bright truth of real life. For Prince Siddhartha, recognizing confusion was the crucial first step on the way to enlightenment, a milestone in his journey to complete freedom from confused suffering.

This is the victory cry of the unbroken lineage of awakened ones: there is a path that leads to liberation. We can free ourselves from the automatic, habitual thoughts and emotions that so often bind us into familiar psychological prisons. The good news is that liberation is possible. Our first major challenge is facing the trap of self-imprisonment, for the path to true freedom begins with insight into our routines of self-deception. Our initial awakening is to the sleep state, our lack of self-awareness.

When I moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Seattle for a new job, one of the first things I noticed was how many attitudes and feelings I carried over from the old workplace. Like a turtle with its personal, conveniently portable shell, I transported my own little mental environment around with me all the time, from one city to another. Monday morning I might be introduced to a new employee, Jay, just hired, someone I’d never met before. By Wednesday, having talked some with Jay in the elevator and at the copy machine, he’s beginning to remind me of Tim, my supervisor at a previous job. I’m not really sure what it is about Jay — the way he jumps right in to finish my sentences for me (just the way Tim did)? The way he seems so quick to boast about himself and his impressive family background? (Time also tended toward arrogance.) Soon — by the Friday afternoon office party — and before I even realize it, I am relating to Jay (swerving toward avoidance) mainly based on my irritating past experiences with Tim.

One day, chatting in a way that I later recognized as cruising along on automatic pilot, I begin complaining to one of my friends about this new guy at work, “Tim” — and then catch myself midsentence when I suddenly remember that there’s no one in our department by that name! My thoughts, feelings, and actions in the present are largely based on what I’m carrying over from the past, the earlier work relationship. Sound familiar? This pattern appears again and again, at work and in love, both within the family and in business relationships.

This has very little to do with experience in the present. After all, I’ve only just met Jay, but already I recognize him as a certain type that I’ve had difficulties with in the past. Prompted by this experience of emotional hangover, I move through my day with a slightly heightened awareness of this recurrent pattern. Now I’m noticing example after example of this repeated framing of the present in the long-gone terms of the past. “Here it is again, just like last week’s planning session. Jane is criticizing the whole team, so it’s gonna be one of those meetings.” “She reminds me of Karen, my old friend from college. They have the same wacky sense of humor. Probably we will get to be great friends.” “Here comes another week of predictable hassles with Gerald about receipts and reimbursements.” “I hope my boss likes my work on the new projects as much as he did last quarter.” Clearly, most of my hopes and fears about the future are based on what went well — or badly — in the past. Yesterday, last week, the previous year, the last time we faced a similar challenge — the past seems to haunt the present like the hosts that come back to taunt old Scrooge. Memories accumulate and spread like mold. Soon the mushrooming projections from the past entirely fill the space of the future.

The more I notice this sum of thoughts (mentally carried over from the past) shaping my reactions in the present, the more I feel the pinch of the sleepwalking state. That pinch is the awakening of insight. I’ve caught a glimpse of my internal cage, the tight, mental prison I drag along with me wherever I go. Living inside the turtle’s shell no longer seems so cozy. Even if Jay turns out to be very different from Tim, I will probably mistake many of these differences as just more of the “same old, same old.” I will miss a lot, perhaps most, of what’s new and fresh this moment.

This is humbling: the root of my dissatisfaction is not with others — my partner or the coworkers at my job or the new neighbors. One great Tibetan meditation teacher counseled that seeing bad qualities in others is like looking in the mirror and discovering the dirt on one’s own face. Yet, as humbling as this glimpse of the truth of pervasive distraction and projection can be, it is an insight. I discover that I’m repeatedly tuning in to the replay of mental reruns from similar situations in the past. As a result, my perceptions, feelings, and reactions are often stale and hollow — like the canned laughter of an old television show. Insight lets us see that it’s time to change channels — or turn off the TV entirely.


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