“Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.” – Dōgen
Every morning at 6:30 – actually, 6:39 if snooze counts (and it does), I wake up, feed my cat, make a small cup of coffee, open up Zoom, settle in on my cushion, and wait for 7 o’clock. A few of the usual friendly faces arrive on-screen, one by one, from wherever-they-are, we silently wave and smile ‘good morning’,and wait together. We’ve become so familiar it’s easy to forget that there’s a huge chunk of world separating most of us, and that we’ve never met in person. When the clock on my phone turns over to 7:01 (giving a minute’s grace period feels appropriate, for some reason), I strike the bell three times and we sit in silent stillness, just like we have every morning since March 2020.
By the end of the hour, two or three more people will have joined. Maybe one or two will have left. There might be a couple of new faces, or someone might return after a long absence. It’s comfortably casual but fiercely committed: people waking up (or staying up late, depending on the time zone), showing up to be there for each other, to get support for their practice and to give it. That’s what it’s about! Waking up to meditate. Meditating to Wake up.
As the Buddha is said to have told the Venerable Ananda – “the sangha is the entire path”.
There have been long stretches over the past 2 years of lockdowns and isolation when I honestly couldn’t tell why I was still doing it. There were weeks where I was spending as much time immobile on the couch during the day as I would spend sleeping in my bed at night. The conditioning and stories about my self were all as vivid and immovable as ever. So why was I still getting up every morning to meditate? I had totally lost track
In times like these, having support and resources in place is crucial (and sadly can be particularly challenging to connect with). A sitting group, an understanding friend, a therapist, meditation coach, exercise routine, some small-but-meaningful self-care practices (I’ve discovered that waking up to clean dishes and an empty sink really feels good!). I was fortunate enough to have access to all of the above, which helped me ride out the storm instead of dropping practice altogether, and getting stuck in it in a way that could become a bigger problem.
Wake up? Wake up from what? Wake up to what? What does it mean to ‘wake up’? Allow me to take a stab at my own definition – just for kicks – based on my limited experience and training:
If we welcome and pay attention to what’s happening in sensory experience, the experience of separateness reveals itself to be part of the activity of absolute non-separateness.
Or something like that.
Some refer to the separateness as ‘delusion’ or ‘illusion’. Fair enough, although sometimes I worry those labels might prompt people to discard the idea of a self altogether. We might have an intellectual understanding of ‘no self, no problem’ and let that belief override our actual experience. So when we are suffering, we deny our experience – because if there is no such thing as a self, who could possibly be suffering? This is spiritual bypassing, and antithetical to ‘waking up’.
On the flip side of that, we might find that we’re so skeptical of spirituality (whatever that word means or implies) that we tune out or shut down at any mention of transcendence or no-self. As a result, we don’t investigate our experience if it questions or conflicts with our identity or beliefs about self and world, . So we might miss opportunities for insight and growth, not only on the cushion, but in daily life.
Something I really appreciate about a mindfulness-based approach to practice is that it is so open and comprehensive, allowing for all experience – however contradictory they might seem, logically – to be complementary: transcending self and refining self, experiencing the world as both empty and fulfilling, having equanimity with experience while also generating intention and nurturing positivity, applying effort in our practice while riding the effortlessness of awareness.
One night, a few months ago, I was walking along Bloor Street on my way to have a beer on my friend’s porch (with my friend, of course). I was feeling good – energized about getting outside and looking forward to catching up with my pal. I decided to do a mindfulness practice in motion, focusing on the spontaneous expressiveness of walking – the feeling that walking was just doing itself. This brought a lightness and liveliness to my movement which gently spread throughout my body until there was a sense of unified fluidity throughout my senses. I looked up and noticed the Paradise Theatre, and as my eyes met the lights of the marquee there was a sudden jolt. It was as if the light from the marquee instantaneously expanded to absorb everything – like, the world – and I collapsed into it.
It couldn’t have lasted more than two seconds – likely even less than that. I reemerged feeling like some kind of reset had just happened. There was a surge of tingling throughout my body, and a slight aftertaste of fear, and I was giggling. the way I might giggle after getting off of a roller-coaster. The energy of the fear was enjoyable – even funny – now that the perceived threat (whatever it was) had passed.
When I arrived at my friend’s, we opened our beers, and checked in with each other. I told him what had just happened, probably as a kind of disclaimer in case my behaviour was off, as I was still feeling decentred.. But everything was fine. We talked, laughed, joked, as always. The only difference for me was that everything felt a bit lighter, a bit more spacious, and a little quieter. There were moments when my attention would be pulled deeply into the sound of a car alarm, or the glow of the street light, or the silence. Aftershocks, I figured…
A couple hours later I was walking home, noticing how strange yet utterly ordinary everything seemed. Everything was just happening, flowing freely on its own. The difference – as far as I could tell – was that there was less me gumming up the works. I tested this observation by trying to conjure the usual me by thinking of some familiar complaints, or recall some personal issues that had felt unresolved. I tried to make some thing of them, of me, but it wouldn’t stick. It felt like trying to make a sandcastle out of dry sand – it would just fall apart and dissolve back into the everything.
By the time I woke up the next morning things were pretty much back to normal, maybe with a slight afterglow. This, like anything, like the rough patches, was just an experience; no more, no less. It was cool, weird, interesting, relieving, an opportunity for insight and a lesson in the power of equanimity and curiosity, but still just an experience. I wasn’t trying to hang on to it or recreate it, or make it mean anything about the nature of reality (thankfully – that would be a good recipe for suffering!). I just did what I did every other morning. I fed my cat, I made a small cup of coffee, opened up Zoom, and settled in on my cushion.