“You can get wet by jumping in a lake, or by walking slowly through the fog.”
– Shinzen Young
(with a nod to Shunryu Suzuki)
What does it mean to wake up? A lot of ink has been spilled on this subject, and every teacher in every tradition has a different way of talking about it, including not talking about it at all, which is probably the wisest tactic. Well: I’ll see your wisdom, and raise you some impulsively spastic premature opinionation!
So: waking up. In part, this can just mean noticing some of the ways we’ve been acting unconsciously. We Devo-robot through life because we need to get stuff done. Otherwise we’d be frozen all day in the yard pooping ourselves and screaming at the garden hoe. Like back in The Day. So we toughen up, we individuate, we learn to tie our sneakers and play the ukelele and get divorced. And all that is well and good except after a while there is a very human tendency to get all rigid and prescribed in our concerns and our actions, to forget that actually reality has no rules (except gravity, thermodynamics and alarming middle-age hair growth). Society has rules, obviously, but reality could give a rat’s ass what you do. You’re born free.
That’s what waking up is, at least for me. It’s gradually recognizing this inheritance and trying to live from that place. Being fearless and spontaneous and light, no longer begrudging your responsibilities but playing with them – choosing them. And to help with this … we practice. We practice in stillness and we practice in motion. We practice our freedom.
But there’s a trick. An old trick – maybe the oldest. As Shinzen often says, to leverage your freedom you need an Archimedean point outside of yourself, outside of the world and the self’s changing circumstances. You need to build a relationship with the only thing that doesn’t change – the raw fact of Being itself. Contemplative traditions tell us there is a timeless and boundless quality in consciousness that we can learn to (re)orient to, that we can allow to infuse our experience. They talk about it in very different ways, and they talk about the path to it in very different ways.
Which brings us back to Shinzen’s opening quote. This process – this process of waking up – it can happen suddenly, or it can happen gradually. When it happens suddenly it’s surprising. These stories circulate in the spiritual scene, for they are rare and dramatic – although less appreciated is that even sudden awakenings seem to be part of a life-long gradual process. For most people, the entire process is gradual. Shunryu Suzuki said “In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little.” Little by little, more awake.