By David Benner
I wonder if you have noticed how much of life you go through as a sleep walker on autopilot. The central message of spirituality is that we need to stay awake and we need to learn to see.
In Sanskrit, “Buddha” means “the awakened one” and awakening from the womb of sleep is the central goal of Buddhism. It is said that soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on a road who, noting the peacefulness of his presence, asked if he was a god. The Buddha said he was not a god. The man then asked if he was a magician or wizard. Again, he said he was not. When then asked what he was, the Buddha answered, “I am awake.”
Awakening is equally important in Christianity. The Bible is full of encouragements to look, see, listen, and attend. Think of Jesus healing the blind, or urging people to rise from their slumber and stay awake. He taught that when our spiritual eyes are healthy and discerning, our whole body is full of light. And he used the most radical of all possible words to describe this ascent from unconsciousness and sleepwalking. He described it as being born again.
The gift of awakening and learning to stay awake is what we all need because while we may awaken for brief moments of intense emotional experience we quickly slip back into a tangled dream of somnambulistic fog. Most of the time we live as mindless robots. The invitation of full-orbed personhood is an invitation to awaken, to respond rather than simply react, and to become full participants in our lives.
Awakening is not a goal to pursue. It is, however, a gift we can receive. But to do so, we must deeply desire it and prepare ourselves for it.
All spiritual practices are, in one sense, preparation for awakening. Their purpose is not so much to awaken us as to increase the probability that we will notice the invitations to awaken that we receive every day of our lives. Every time we notice something, every moment we are truly present, we receive invitations to awaken. The problem is that we quickly slip back into sleep – into living our lives on automatic pilot.
But, while we can’t engineer awakening, we can learn to stay awake more of the time, noticing and responding to the invitations to awaken that we receive. Awakenings are always accompanied by an invitation – and with the energy to respond to that invitation. When we choose to respond to the invitation, we offer our consent to the grace of awakening and each time we do this we find ourselves more awake. This, then, helps us notice when we fall asleep and it helps us to awaken more quickly when we do so.
Learning to stay awake is learning to listen to our hearts. Contemplation (or meditation) is the most powerful way to do this because it softens our attachment to our thoughts by helping us learn to notice and release them, and as we do this we sink deeper into our being.
Since the heart is the fullness of the mind, it is a good idea to begin by noticing what arises in our minds.
Hold gently whatever contents of consciousness you notice, reminding yourself that you are not reducible to your thoughts, feelings or whatever else that flits across your consciousness. This detached noticing is the doorway to our hearts. We step through this doorway when we pay attention to what arises in our hearts in response to thoughts, emotions and other mental contents.
Heart pondering leads us beyond the thoughts and emotions we notice by making us aware of invitations to respond to whatever is arising within us. Responding to what arises in our hearts is the way we offer our consent to the grace of awakening. And the more we offer this consent, the more we become truly awake.
Keep watch this day for invitations to be drawn into the present moment. Ponder in your head and heart what you notice. Allow it to fully absorb you, even if just for a moment. Then notice what arises in response to this, and the invitation and energy to respond to it that always accompanies heart invitations. Then offer your consent to this invitation by responding as you are led by the Spirit moving within your heart. This is the path to inner awakening.