18. Awake Is Not A Super-Attainment

Q: Robert, when you speak of being awake, what exactly do you mean? Is being awake the same as being enlightened or self-realized?

A: To be awake is not some kind of super-attainment, but only the liberty to be at ease with oneself, and to live step by step without making a big deal out of anything or attempting to become something.

This relaxation cannot happen when one’s mind is filled with second-hand concepts about “reality.” So “awake” means being naturally present without perfectionistic striving and without chasing after what others claim to have attained. This is totally ordinary, but being ordinary does not seem to have much appeal to those whose minds harbor fantasies of “transcendence,” which, coming from Latin, literally means climbing beyond what one actually is presently, as if one actually could.

Q: Thanks, Robert. I love it, love it, love it. When I came across your words, my mind had been involved in thoughts of shared organs and organ transplants, since I just had one myself. And then I read this about the ordinary. Many are the times that I wanted nothing more than the next breath. That’s a lot. How all of this has changed my experience of living is beyond words. During the tribulations of organ rejection and healing I asked for nothing more than being able to manage the ordinary chores of cleaning my hospital room and carrying my own dishes. Such ordinary acts, when finally I could perform them, seemed to pierce the mundane, and became my savior. My personal savior!

A: Your words about being able to carry your own dishes remind me of the story about the student who asked, “Master, what is enlightenment?”

“Have you eaten?” inquired the teacher.

“No,” said the student.

“When you have finished,” the master replied, “wash your bowl.”

Q2: Just this morning something showed itself and seems to fit in here. For months now I have been watching a house finch that comes each morning and flies against the window, pecking at her reflection in the glass. She sees her reflection and must believe it is real. She flings herself against the glass and pecks at it over and over again. Of course she will never find resolution because what is reflected is not real. This I see is what I do when I peck at my own “reflection” unmercifully as being not enough. This “not enough” thought is no more real than the reflection of the finch in the window. It is seen and felt as real, but is not real.

A: On the level of self-help ideas, I can follow your train of thought about how self-judgment is like pecking at a reflection, so that’s OK, but I am not sure about actually distinguishing the real from the not real. That is quite a different matter. After all, what is the criterion? How can I really know what is real and what isn’t? In various spiritual traditions, most notably Vedanta, one version of which seems so trendy nowadays among non-duality buffs, the difference between real and unreal is laid out by definition: the so-called “Supreme Being” is defined as real, and the world is only illusion, or at best “relatively real.” But just declaring that one thing is “real” while another is not accomplishes nothing. Who, after all, stands apart from all this to be making such assertions?

Giving credence to doctrinal declarations about “reality” only deepens one’s engagement in the blind acceptance of authority that is part of the trance in which many humans spend their entire lives.

If one rejects tradition and dogma entirely, and puts no faith in the claims of purported “masters,” what remains is one’s own perceptions, thoughts, and feelings which are neither “real” nor “unreal,” but simply exist.

I don’t know what is real and what isn’t. Perhaps everything is real in one way or another, or, if the word “real” refers to some fixed objective materiality, perhaps nothing about the way humans experience the world is real. Everything one thinks that one sees could be a dream or a computer simulation for all one really knows. All we have to go on is one particular, localized, momentary human point of view after all — one’s own point of view. Anything beyond that is hearsay, borrowed from the conjectures of other human beings. I do not indulge in hearsay.

Perhaps my work in psychotherapy influences me here, but I see little value in dealing with psychological hang-ups by subjecting them to a “real/not real” judgment protocol. In my experience, no matter what one might want to believe metaphysically, experience feels real enough when it’s happening, so on what basis can one deny that it is real? And dealing with pain, either physical or psychological, by claiming that it isn’t “real” seems more like dissociation, which is a symptom of mental illness, than like an indication of “awakening.”

That reminds me of the story of the student who was walking along with his aged teacher, expatiating upon all he had attained: “Master,” said the student proudly, “having come to an understanding of the Tao, I have realized that this world and everything I see and feel is purely illusory. I now fully grasp that the thoughts and feelings that used to trouble me so much exist only in my mind, only in my imagination.

This babbling continued in the same vein until finally the old teacher could abide not one word more. He took the student by the shoulders and kicked him hard right in the shin.

“Ow, ow, ow,” cried the student. “Why did you do that?”

“How’s that for imagination?” asked the teacher.

So I’m not interested in explaining things away or pretending that they are “all in my mind.” If faced with the kinds of doubts about not being enough that you describe, the most useful response I know is this: “OK. Perhaps I am not enough, but right now this is all I got, so hang in there, babe.” The point here is not about you personally, but about how “spirituality”— particularly the kind that imagines separating real from unreal—is no substitute for basic sanity, and can even be an impediment to basic sanity.

Q2: Ah, the truth in the words strike several spots. That you would even question “what is reality” is so refreshing. Actually, you have such a light touch that it seems you aren’t actually questioning, but just looking at it. Yeah, who is to say?

That makes me want to dance. I’ve been tangled up in my old teacher’s comments about reality. The simplicity of your words brings mist to my eyes. The self-acceptance of “I’m not enough.” Well this is what I got, so keep on keeping on.

That is so perfect, thank you, Robert. You always nail it. Now I have some dishes to wash.

Q3: Amen—a breath of fresh air in the ever-rising sea of techniques to achieve temporary states. I am so happy to return here and to find, as always, not one word about mindfulness practice, tapping, diksha, reiki, chakra-balancing, dietary regimens, new forms of yoga, or a thousand other earnest but limited forms of striving for what can be only temporary relief. Relief from what? Often just the annoying sense of imagined separation that gives rise to a nasty itching to achieve spiritually.

The culture of spirituality often seems to be unconsciously mimicking the culturally embedded work ethic. At times it stinks with the odor of correction, of punishment and discipline, as if some all-pervasive “original sin” must be neutralized or counteracted through better and better mindfulness practices or whatever else seems promising to the perpetual seeker.

A: Yes, the concept of original sin is a horrible imposition upon human nature. That term comes from Christianity, of course, and refers to the supposed “fall of man” occasioned by Eve’s temptation of Adam, a clear case of blame the woman. On that score not much has changed: the benightedness of misogyny continues to hold sway over humanity even today. It seems absurd that this is so, but there it is.

However, the idea of original sin, even if that particular terminology is not used, underlies not just Christianity, but much of, if not most of, what is called “spirituality,” which assumes, in one way or another, that one’s present condition is somehow flawed, but can be corrected by following a “path” (subtext: a path that leads back to the “Garden”). Such ideas are what I meant by second-hand concepts about reality.

You won’t find me talking about “mindfulness practice” because I assume that we are not in kindergarten here. Most of my readers by now have experimented for better or worse with meditation and other similar practices, and would not be asking these questions if “mindfulness” really got them where they wanted to go. There’s nothing wrong with being mindful if that means attention to what is occurring in each moment, but that procedure — the practice of so-called “mind fulness” — has nothing at all to do with being awake, and the two should not be confused. One may try to be mindful, but no one can try to be awake.

As far as we know, everything we see, feel, and think is temporary, fleeting, and entirely transient. Like the drunk who famously just wanted the world to stop moving, we may try to impose some version of permanence upon that transiency. That’s what “spirituality” aims at—attaining, in a world of impermanence and mortality, something “permanent” such as the so-called “deathless” state, or union with a god who is by definition permanent.

Awakening means dispensing with those fantasies entirely. It means the end of accepting other people’s words about ultimate matters as if they were “truth.” When the fever to attain something permanent comes to an end, and one finds oneself instead flowing along with everything else in the universe, permanent or not, one is awake, I say.

As for the other items on your list, I have discussed magical thinking often, and won’t repeat all that here. I think you have it right, “relief from what?” If you have a headache and believe that tapping on imaginary meridians can cure it, fine. Perhaps it can. If you believe that someone can balance your chakras, or that repeating a mantra will lead not to self-hypnosis, but transcendental understanding, fine by me. Knock yourself out. But all that has nothing to do with the simplicity to which I am pointing.

In a conversation last year, my friend, Salvadore Poe, said, “This is utterly simple, yet somehow ordinary being seems to elude almost everyone.” I agree. Awake is very simple. In fact, it seems to be too simple for those who would prefer to climb an imaginary hierarchical ladder of spiritual attainment leading at last to “enlightenment,” at which point, they believe, all suffering will cease.

That, I say, is nonsense. Does anyone actually imagine being completely immune to physical pain or indifferent to grief upon the loss of beloved companions? A state like that is not “awakeness,” but the neurotic detachment of a fearful, self-hypnotized mind.

As far as I know, living has no “purpose.” One finds oneself alive in a world of living beings, never having asked to be here, nor having had any control of the circumstances of one’s birth, one’s family, one’s physical and mental limitations— none of it. Having been dealt that hand of cards, the freedom of simplicity means doing whatever one does—whatever seems appropriate in each moment—while enjoying those thoughts, feelings, emotions that seem enjoyable, and enduring those that feel difficult. That’s life. Any “spirituality” that denies this is nothing but pure escapism in my view.

As to where all of this leads, I like the way Alan Watts put it:

“When you dance, you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room because that’s where you will arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance . . . We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.”