Freedom lies outside the pattern of society; but to be free of that pattern you have to understand the whole content of it, which is to understand your own mind. – Jiddu Krishnamurti
I had just turned 18 years old when I began to open my mind to the possibility of awakening. I was asking myself the big existential questions: What did it mean to be human? What is the nature of the self? Is happiness or fulfillment really possible? What is a meaningful life? How are things so inexplicably beautiful, and yet also dark and painful? How do we live in the face of such profound suffering? And why can’t we all just get along?
None of this was covered in high school. In fact these types of questions would likely get an eye roll, from classmates and teachers alike. Which brought up another question; did people not care? Or were they afraid to look beyond our conventional, rote existence?
It was in the teachings of Krishnamurti that I first encountered the concept of awakening. It was clear to me that he understood something that few people truly grasped. I could feel it in his words, he was pointing to something profound and eternal, something that had great depth and relevance.
I began to read Krishnamurti every day, comforted by his harsh critiques of society, which validated my own. Yet I was also challenged by his words, as they threatened my most fundamental comforts; my desire to make something of myself, to be liked and accepted and validated by the world.
Krishnamurti talked extensively about meditation, and I knew the only way to experience what he was speaking to was through the practice. But his meditation instructions felt overly simplistic and ineffective. When I tried to employ his practice of choiceless awareness, nothing much happened. I figured that if I was going to make progress, I needed more support.
So I expanded my seeking. I began to read more Buddhism, which led to formally joining a Tibetan Buddhist group studying and practicing under a Tibetan Lama. I could feel there was so much more to life, and I was getting closer. I would ride my bike through the city, stopping at every used bookstore to peruse the spirituality section, buying any book that looked like it may contain the secret. I wanted to “awaken”. As soon as possible.
It’s been two decades now. A lot of trials and errors, many sincere efforts and getting lost in distraction for what seems like years, reading countless books, having some amazing teachers and mentors…thinking I’m making progress or on the cusp of a breakthrough only to be humbled by the reality of my conventionality. In this time, my perspective on awakening has greatly matured.
Awakening is often talked about as a radical shift in paradigm. A permanent change in our perception of self and world. It always seemed very black and white: either you were awakened or you weren’t.
It felt like an all or nothing game. If I logged all these meditation hours and didn’t get awakened, some part of me thought it would be a waste. Based on what I had heard from various teachers, I figured it took 10-20 years of rigorous practice to awaken. But even then nothing was guaranteed. It was like buying lottery tickets; either you hit the jackpot and you win big, or you don’t and you’re doomed to a life of mediocrity.
I now see that as a narrow and dogmatic view of life that pervades many spiritual scenes. I feel like I was placing my faith in spiritual teachings and teachers, trusting that they had knowledge or insights that I needed, all the while overlooking my own inner wisdom as to how I should actually live my life.
This far-off idea of awakening, with its promise of everlasting peace and fulfillment, was distracting me from waking up to my life as it is.
I now understand awakening as a process of coming more into reality. Apparently at some point there’s a radical shift in paradigm where there’s a figure-ground reversal, a permanent shift in perception that deals a death-blow to our sense of self. Maybe, but I’ve ceased to really chase this. Chasing seems counterproductive, just another way to avoid what’s right here, right now. And all those mystics and teachers and books and practices I’ve encountered just keep pointing to right here, right now.
What’s become evermore clear is that awakening is not the romantic process I’ve built it up to be. It’s more akin to dying, which can be romantic in some ways, I guess. Awakening is letting go. Letting go of our comfort, of our hopes and dreams.
It’s facing the hard truths of life: that we suffer, that everything comes to an end, that we aren’t really anyone or anything of much importance at all. Contemplating these ideas may seem harsh and even crushing at first, but that’s exactly the point. They’re meant to crush “you”, to challenge all the ideas that keep us somewhat stable in the chaos of life.
But there’s also this paradox. Accepting suffering is very difficult, but the more we accept it, the less we suffer. That yes, everything we love comes to an end, but the more we internalize this truth, the more fully we can appreciate each moment. And that we aren’t anyone of much importance, but we are part of something far greater.
By letting go of our hopes and dreams, we can realize the beauty and fulfillment possible right now. But it’s become clear to me that this process is not to be rushed. Trying to move too fast takes us out of the moment.
In my view, a mature approach to awakening is to simply start where we are. To look at our life with fresh eyes. To start to question who we are, and what we really want, and what each moment is asking of us. Not to just believe in this spiritual teacher or that religious text, but to be true to ourselves.
In my life, this meant going back to school to become a therapist. I wasn’t happy, and in fact I checked pretty much all the boxes for depression. Meditation was helping, but only so much. I always had an interest in therapy, always wanted to help others, but I was afraid to go back to school and be a broke student again. Afraid to take on the responsibility of clients, for fear I would be sacrificing my own freedom. But my depression got so bad I just didn’t see any other option for myself.
It turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Becoming a therapist wasn’t easy, but it was meaningful, and that meaning allowed me to overcome the difficulty. It took a while, but my depression eventually lifted. For a long time I was trying to break through it internally, but I actually needed to make external changes in my life and that in turn impacted my internal state. This contradicted so much of the spiritual dogma I had encountered, that external circumstances are irrelevant. But it also validated a lot of the spiritual teachings I’ve encountered, that we are all interconnected and that we need to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves.
Waking up isn’t about following any path or formula, it’s about getting to know who you really are by questioning everything about yourself, honestly and curiously. Not transcending, but embodying. Attuning to ourselves and the world, and trying to find our place in it. Paying attention to and learning from each moment, and responding as best we can with wisdom and care.
*Jude is a CEC teacher, psychotherapist and lifelong student of psychology and meditative traditions. He became obsessed with consciousness and eastern philosophy in his late teens and has been exploring ever since. He shares meditation and healing practices on his YouTube channel.