"Levels", Mental Health, Reality, Spirituality, The Ego

The “Unplanned” Awakening

An uncontrollable pull towards higher consciousness is the defining feature of a spiritual awakening. (Actually, the defining moment is the “click,” the actual “moment of waking up” that occurs for reasons I can’t explain. There isn’t much more I have to say about the “click,” at least not right now.)

I’d like to address why I have chosen to use the phrase “higher consciousness.” I’m not a huge fan of a hierarchical concept of consciousness because it immediately invites the ego to compare “its level” to that of those around us. We often want to know where we are on the scale, affirming that we are above some, like our parents and/or annoying co-workers maybe, but below others, like saints and realized mystics. Unless we remain vigilant, visualizing a hierarchy of consciousness tends to reinforce the mindset that we are better or worse than others. The conditioning that goes into imagining ourselves as better/worse than others is very deep-seated, and requires diligence to overcome. There is a lot of habit energy bound up in this way of thinking, so it takes a lot of fresh awareness to alter.

And when we get down to it, pure consciousness is not rooted in ideas of “higher” and “lower;” it cannot be “thought to,” and it cannot be defined. It simply is. All attempts to define consciousness fail immediately and always will, because definitions serve to create something static, and consciousness is not static… except it is, in a way, but also always moving. This thing is beyond both chaos and order; beyond movement and stillness. The experience of it does feel supremely still compared to the frequent inner chatter that often reigns in the mind, but it is also ever-flowing, not inert.

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From Basic Teachings of the Buddha, by Glenn Wallis.

And yet it still feels important to say that awakening pulls one towards “higher” consciousness, simply because that is my lived experience of awakening. When I am really here, I feel unquestionably higher than when I am bound up in habits (higher than before, not “superior to others.”). It feels undeniably better to rise each morning without a hangover, sit down, light some incense, and come back to the home in my heart than to repeatedly harm myself. Speaking of higher/lower in this way is not a moral judgment call, but a statement on how differently we can feel and live. It is about the experience of life becoming richer, more free, and more joyful, versus more trapped, more isolated, and more cravey.

There is suffering and not suffering. There is the feeling of being mired in past events, allowing old events/interactions to haunt us, and there is having personal power right now. If you try both of these experiences on, it becomes very clear which is more preferable, AKA “higher.”

Additionally: without the understanding that expanding our consciousness can result in a better direct experience of life, what would our motivation to do it be? This thing will not get us money. It will not get us fame, power, popularity, or any other tangible reward. It will not even “save the world.” In the beginning, we trust our intuition that there’s something greater than these things to attain to (or else we would never let go of our desires for such things), and there is.

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Awakening can happen whether the unconscious ego likes it or not, and whether or not we went looking for it. The unconscious ego may really, really not like it. The difficulties that can arise when the ego is resistant to its illusory nature, of course, may all be part of what you need to grow, but man, they can also be really rough. You can make things easier on yourself by not denying or resisting that you’ve woken up. This can only happen if we are aware that it has happened to us.

This was one of the main reasons why “my” awakening (which I put in quotes because it is not really “mine” to take credit for) was so incredibly fraught with chaos, confusion, and humiliation. At the time of the “click,” I didn’t even know things like ego deaths were possible. Throughout my education, I don’t believe we ever discussed the possibility of psychosis being thought of as a “spiritual emergency.” The message here is loud and clear: Smart, educated people understand that brain chemicals and genetics are “real,” and all that spiritual stuff is “not real,” or, at best, it’s still “less real” than science. (One of the most amazing and frustrating things about waking up is that you find literally the exact opposite to be true, but, I digress.)

I had meditated only a handful of times, and then stopped, because I wasn’t ready. There were times when I felt heavily bombarded with the reality of death as an abstract idea sometime in “the future,” and this bombardment gave me intense hits of anxiety, usually when I was trying to get to sleep. Still, I somehow always managed to sidestep this thought, get out of bed in the morning, and continue on in life as usual (“as usual” was with great suffering and anger, btw.) Part of this, again, occurred because that’s what I chose for myself, albeit unconsciously: This was what I needed to end up in this exact place right now.

But on a worldly level, it’s been difficult because spiritual/existential matters are are pushed very var away from the collective mind. We don’t sincerely talk about these things. We tend to dismiss them as unimportant and/or avoid them completely. These are uncomfortable conversations most of us shy away from, the result of being repeatedly conditioned to believe that engaging with such thoughts is “heavy,” “morbid,” or simply unnecessary. This is because a lot of us do not understand our own existences, and it feels more important that we take care of our material needs (for many, this is a real concern), and/or more pleasurable to remain caught up in whatever-else we talk and think about. I definitely still fall prey to this temptation, just like I do to the temptation of pumpkin cupcakes.

However, in many parts of the world, material needs are not really a concern anymore. Humans are so far beyond needing to worry about their survival needs, and therefore it follows that our energy should be expended to consider other matters. Why do we not turn towards life’s ultimate concerns once shelter, food, and safety are obtained?

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From Thich Nhat Hanh’s Silence.

The answer lies in that conditioned discomfort with matters of life and death, along with a persistent feeling that there must be “more” we have to get and achieve before we’re ready to pursue things of the existential nature. Our culture is very good at engendering this kind of insecurity and providing us with distractions even if we do feel “secure enough.” It can feel as if we are living in one tremendous practice ground, trying to stave off mindless entertainment and other indulgences left and right.

Many of us do not really feel safe, even if we have plenty of material comforts. We are often on guard about losing our jobs, our spouses, our friends, our money. The truth is that losing these things is certainly possible, and that nothing is guaranteed to us in life. Rather than face this fact and find solid ground within, we usually try to just keep everything on the outside “under control.” On some level, we’re  aware of the futility of these attempts to control life. “We” will not always exist, our jobs may become obsolete, we may get in a terrible accident or contract an irreversible illness, our relationships may become strained and distant, and there really isn’t anything we can do about these things.

And still, because these can be very uncomfortable realities to think about, we avoid them. Or, if we do acknowledge these truths, it’s fleeting and panicky. I’m not suggesting we sit around and ruminate on how we could lose everything anytime, nor that we sit around wishfully imagining how everything could “get better” in life. Both lines of thinking are out of touch with reality, even if the latter temporarily makes us feel better.

We must simply accept the impermanence of everything “out there.” Doing so makes a huge step towards inner stability, which is the only lasting stability we’ll ever find.

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If you (like me) have/had an ego that was/is bound up in being overly-thinky, judgmental, and somewhat damaged, the process of awakening will probably be extremely intense. You’re trying to heal, make intellectual sense of the whole thing (you can’t), and perform daily obligations that suddenly feel ludicrous. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, but that is the nature of an unplanned awakening.

And it should be mentioned that all awakenings are “unplanned.” You cannot sit down with a calendar, plan on meditating for two years and then say “and then, on September 21st, 2019, I wake up.” The mind likes these kinds of “plans,” because then it feels like it’s “doing” something. It is much more unsettling (and exciting) to know that you could awaken at any moment, triggered by almost anything. We may not even experience it in this life, and that’s okay too, because we can still ameliorate our suffering by taking up certain practices. Turning awakening into a planned goal is understandable; the potential for it often gets us “on the path” in the first place. And yet, it is never something we can guarantee.

At best, we can prepare for it, so that the resulting changes are handled with skill and deep awareness.

– Lish

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