What is the Meaning of Awakening?

Most of us probably remember the famous story told by Dr. Hora about the Buddha, in which he is asked, “are you a god?” He replies that he is not a god. “Well, then, are you an angel?” “No, I am not an angel.” “Are you a guru or holy man?” “No, I'm not even that.” “Well, then, what are you?” “I am awake.”

Like so many Zen stories, this tale is meant to startle us, to alter our usual perspective so that we might begin to question and eventually dispel the lofty, fuzzy notions we tend to entertain regarding the mystical, mysterious, seemingly unattainable state of consciousness known as “enlightenment.”

The Oxford English dictionary defines the word “awake” as “to come out of the state of sleep.” Dr. Hora defined “awakening” as ‘the awareness that we have been sleeping.” We all recognize that the content of consciousness during sleep concerns, in an uncontrolled manner, our mental preoccupations, typically in an obscure, yet sometimes perceptibly symbolic way.

What distinguishes wakefulness from sleep, then, is the potential during the former of exercising dominion over our thoughts --- being aware of them, considering and evaluating them and, ultimately, choosing them. Whether, and the extent to which, we actualize this potential or not depends upon whether and how much we appreciate the significance and potency of thoughts in consciousness.

Further, the spiritual sense of awakening refers to becoming consciously aware of Reality, as opposed to the mundane physical sense of shifting from nocturnal dream illusions to daytime experiences induced by perceptual shortcomings in consciousness. Just because most of humanity continues to be fooled into considering appearances as reality does not excuse us for our continuing self-deception. All such self-deception has a price.

As an example of distinguishing between reality and experience, consider the story told by Michelle Cohen in an old edition of the PAGL Foundation Newsletter. In it, she cited the acute anxiety and discomfort she reported to Dr. Hora that she endured each time she was brought by her husband to a social affair where she knew no one. Dr. Hora asked her whether she had ever been in a garden and observed the flowers acknowledging her. That question helped her to realize the absurdity of expecting others to pay the kind of attention to her that she desired. His subsequent assertion that the healthy way to attend any social occasion was to appreciate the uniqueness, beauty and perfection of each individual we encounter helped her to reorient her thoughts toward the true nature of others. In fact, it enabled her to become appropriate and comfortable in such circumstances thereafter.

So to awaken means to become alert to, discerning of, and attentive to what is real, as distinguished from what merely appears before us. We must first be educated to become aware that experiences are not real, but are just reflections of highly valued thoughts. This is not necessarily obvious, or an acceptable notion to most of us, no matter how much “spiritual” indoctrination we might previously have received.

The next question that arises is: “what facilitates this kind of spiritual awakening, this interest in making spiritual reality our primary objective in life?” Many of us may recall Dr. Hora’s pet response to that query. It was “wisdom or suffering.” We can be drawn by wisdom, or driven by suffering.

Wisdom means that we actually understand and wholeheartedly value the nature and presence of God. This can occur after sufficient study and heartfelt consideration of spiritual ideas and by the grace of God. In other words, it cannot be done, but it may obtain under felicitous conditions.

Suffering is the stimulus motivating us to seek solutions to the problems that grieve us. Without it, there is no interest in searching for answers. Yet most of us remain only committed to seeking relief from suffering. It is only after realizing the futility of the quest for relief that we gravitate to alternative approaches. Hence, it is still the rare individual, one whose stubbornness has been softened by an adequate amount of pain and yet is open-minded enough to appreciate problems as “lessons designed for our edification,” who can transform suffering into opportunities for learning from error. This willingness is essential to making progress on the spiritual path.

(By the way, in regard to pain as an unpleasant but salutary antidote to spiritual obstinacy, I can never forget Dr. Hora’s reply to a student who asked what to do when he was fully aware of the error of his ways and yet insufficiently motivated to change his habits of thinking or being: “well, perhaps a painful illness or disease might be of help.”)

So, it appears that we have a choice: to wait for a more serious affliction to, so to speak, goose us into waking up, or to seek to consciously dwell in an awareness of God’s creation here and now. If we elect to take the initiative, how do we proceed? We have been informed by Metapsychiatry that spiritual values are those that cannot be “done,” that they can, at best, be appreciated.

The clue to understanding wakefulness might be provided by the biblical proverbial recommendation, “commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.” Established thoughts are those inspired by God; they are the blessings we aspire to. To receive them, it is indicated that we must commit our “works” to God. This means that our principal purpose in life must be to manifest God’s will by appreciating, above all other interests, our spiritual heritage. Whenever we succeed in doing so, we are truly, wholly awake!