essays

What does it mean to awaken?

In June of 2019, I had an awakening experience that served as the capstone of my life until that time. I have written about this experience here.

In response to this, I began publicizing my life more than I had previously. I suddenly felt the wellspring of confidence that it is to be bounded by God, and I wanted to share, share, share with others. I interviewed on my friend Danny Mazur’s podcast, created my first spiritual teaching video, and interviewed and began a partnership with my friend Kyle Hilding.

mountaintopview-540x280And yet I did not feel that this was the end of my path. Upon having my awakening experience, I felt that my life was essentially over, feeling what Ram Dass describes in one of his talks as having reached the “top of the mountain.” That is, I felt that I had seen the whole of life and existence, knew that they were perfect, and knew that there was absolutely nothing I needed to do, be, or achieve in order to fulfill my purpose. Peace was attained.

And yet I still had a life to live. It is sort of like the Manchester by the Sea scene in which Casey Affleck’s character has accidentally murdered his children, and then the police officers let him go. He hasn’t committed a crime, so why should he spend time in jail? Horrified, Affleck’s character strips a gun off a police officer in the station and attempts to kill himself. How can he go on with life, knowing what he’s done?

This may seem like a dark analogy, but the similarity is that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life now that I had reached the “top of the mountain.” As Ram Dass says, it sort of feels like the rest of life is a chore or irrelevant, knowing what we now know.

Except Ram Dass also discusses how mountain climbers then come down from the mountain, stepping back into the mix that is life. And here, we observe suffering everywhere we look: everyone we meet, sometimes including ourselves, is hurting. How can we help these people? How can we help ourselves? How can we help people glimpse the greatness visible at the top of the mountain, while at the same time meeting them where they stand?

This disposition invites an entirely different view of what awakening, itself, is. Is awakening the journey of one man, woman, etc up the mountain? Is it a sort of achievement which, once reached, brooks no further tasks? Or is it a collective process that is never, in fact, attained?

thich-nhat-hanh-art-of-dying-well-nation-2This final question gestures toward the notion of interbeing pioneered by Thich Nhat Hanh and recently popularized by the American author Charles Eisenstein. In interbeing, we know that who I am is in fact intimately connected to the identity and status of every other being on the planet. That is, in some sense there is no individual to climb the mountain.

For instance, I think of myself as a writer, teacher, and spiritual person. I am also white and a male, North American, and 29 years old. I am engaged to be married.

Well, how can there be such a thing as a writer if there are not also plumbers, film directors, and firefighters? How can there be a teacher without students, but also computer technicians, nurses, and doctors? How can employment itself exist without unemployment? How can the spiritual person exist without the atheist, or the traditionally religious person? How can the white person exist without people of other races? And so on and so forth.

And so, from the perspective of interbeing, what I am is literally the consequence of comparison and contrasting with beings of other identities, other forms. There is no self without the other. Even if I perceive the other to have some “negative” quality, such as being mendacious, I cannot possess the opposite of that quality without having contrasted myself with that person. And so is there such a thing as being purely “good”? Isn’t “goodness” a function of contrast that ultimately blends in with its opposite, evil? In a world deprived of evil, goodness, too, would disappear.

This notion of interbeing is important because it tells us that the work of awakening never really ends. This is concomitant with the notion of awakening practiced by some Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama. In this version, awakening is never achieved until all beings awaken, which in a sense means that no beings have awakened until awakening is total. From this perspective, even the Dalai Lama is unawakened. How? He remains connected to other beings in a maximal diversity of states, some of them completely unawakened. And so the Dalai Lama’s fate, his dharma, is bound up with theirs.

This is the mixture that brings us to appreciate everyone with whom we interact, including the uninitiated, the “asleep.” From this perspective, that person always becomes an opportunity to further our own awakening, by helping that person, too, to awaken. There is no enemy. There are only opportunities for the collective awakening that is always in process and, ultimately, is our only goal.

Have I been to the top of the mountain? I suppose so, yes. And at the top of the mountain, I saw that all was right and good with the world. I saw that everything was as it was supposed to be. I saw that eventually, all beings would awaken and the world would know absolute peace; this was guaranteed. At the same time, I saw that it did not matter if we failed to reach this state; the world’s “rightness” was not contingent on any performance, any event.

Screen Shot 2020-07-02 at 11.17.10 AMAnd yet simultaneously, there is a different perspective from which I have not reached the top of the mountain. Because, there is no “me” to stand up there. There is no individual; there is only the reflection of other individuals, a form of delusion or projection based on comparison and contrast with those individuals. It is as if the entirety of our reality is a hall of mirrors, and the only lasting truth is the “light” that illuminates it. That light pervades all beings. Rather, that light is all beings. Because it is be-ing. There is only the light; there are no individual beings to “exist.”

Furthermore, there is no mountain. There is nothing to achieve! Even the person who appears to us to be entirely asleep, to be suffering… That person, too, is an aspect of the brilliant light which illuminates this universe, this plane of existence, if only seen in a different way. We have myriad strange and fascinating ways of presenting to ourselves. Of presenting ourselves to ourselves. Of posturing so that we ourselves can ogle, can discover who we are.

This post is an invitation to awaken. It is an invitation to see that you already were awakening, or differently put, that you already were awake. And furthermore, so was I. We are all in this together. We are uplifting one another, moment by moment, generation by generation, in order that we can inhabit the promised land of world peace. That world already exists within us: there is no mountain we need to climb. And yet, climb we do, climb we must, for we are human. Life is a process. Awakening is a process. Time is the vehicle that allows us to experience one another as we skitter along this path.

Life is never over. There is always more to do. And yet, our being is not in the doing. We do not need to climb the mountain in order to certify ourselves of anything. Perhaps we climb simply because it is in our nature. Climbers we are; and that is okay.

With love,

Jackson

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