I was reading an article by someone who attended an SN Goenka Vipassana retreat in the Himalayas.
The article was about what it means to be Awake. The author asked us to focus on the breath for a few minutes. If we drift away from the breath into a daydream, or if we’re distracted by something around us, then that means we’re not really Awake since, in those moments, we’re disengaged from the present, and the present moment is all there is.
I disagree and find that conclusion suspect at best. If being Awake means to be constantly, fully aware of and attentive to this moment 24/7 for the rest of our lives, then I think I’ll pass on that… thanks, though. If being Awake is synonymous with being fully present, then every dung beetle—and everyone on meth—is an Arhat.
Relying solely on being present and nothing else is actually a terrible practice. If you never think beyond the here and now, then you’re not gonna give a fuck about anyone else in the world. You’d have to quit your job, stop showering, stop taking medication, and stop doing laundry if you wanted to genuinely live by such a philosophy.
There’s also no wisdom in it, because it takes a few moments for an insight to form. The present doesn’t leave time for anything, not even a single word. The present moment is empty of everything, and not in a Buddhist way, but a nihilistic way. Things exist as processes, the combination of is, was, and will be. There are no processes in the present, just a frozen image of impossible forms. So, we can’t take, “Be present,” to an extreme. If we do, our practice will be dead in the water.
Concentration and Wakefulness aren’t necessarily the same thing either. We aren’t concentrating on the breath so that we can emulate an awakened mind that never has wandering thoughts, we’re focusing on the breath so that we can learn to watch something long enough to see what its true nature is.
Some things are clearly empty and impermanent because they’re so short-lived or clearly an illusion. When we study a lightning flash, a mirage, a bubble, or the blinking light on a night flying plane, we can see its nature quickly. That’s why we don’t get attached to such things or form firm opinions on them.
You never hear anyone arguing about whose lightning strike was better, or whose mirage is more oceanic. No one ever grieves over the death of a fly, snowman, or a gold fish. That’s because we know that those things are short-lived or illusory. We can see it.
But when it comes to ourselves, we have to look a little longer. We’re asked to look at everything we think we are and to see whether it’s empty or not, whether it’s stable or not. Our thoughts, ideas, views, feelings, sensations, impulses, or bodies—none of it’s this great, “I Am,” we intuit because it’s all empty. This I Am we’re hooked on isn’t empty, it’s full of itself, stable, and independent.
Sure, you can put your identity anywhere you want. That’s the neat thing about the mind: you can do whatever, it doesn’t matter. There aren’t any rules, just habits and associations and you can make or break those at will.
If you want to identify as a thought, you can be that thought. If you wanna identify as this body, you can be this body. You can identify as the room, the cosmos, or a lamp and create your own clever rationalizations behind why you’re doing that.
But then you’re going to live subjected to the same laws that govern that thought and rule this body, room, cosmos, and lamp. If you put your identity onto something empty and impermanent, then you’re going to be empty and impermanent as well. The same thing goes for whatever you call, “mine.”
The Buddha didn’t say, “There is no self,” he said that everything we take to be ourselves doesn’t fit the bill. This included the soul because 1) we can’t find the soul anywhere, and 2) if the things we do can bless or condemn the soul, then it isn’t permanent because blessing and condemning both imply change.
So the Buddha didn’t say we don’t have souls—he wasn’t an eternalist or an annihilationist—just that if there are souls, they’re empty and impermanent as well. The same goes for gods, heavens, hells, etc. That means if you’re looking to identify with your soul as yourself, you’re still gonna suffer. This includes some kind of Cosmic Soul, aka, Brahman.
So where can we put ourselves when Buddha pissed all over everything? In a net where even if we say, “I don’t exist,” the Buddha asks, “Then who said that?” There’s an answer, but nothing we could write about. Whatever we put in words about it would just be a stand-in.
At the moment, I’m willing to interpret Buddha’s claim, “I am Awake,” in a literal way. When mindfully seeing the emptiness of his thoughts, feelings, personality, and identities, when tracing them all back to their source, that source is just wakefulness, being conscious.
If I’m in a dreamless sleep or under anesthesia, I’m not anyone. There’s no me, and no world. That means everything depends on awareness. And awareness is just awareness. There’s no black awareness or white awareness, no man or woman awareness. No dog, cat, or rhino awareness.
The contents and capacity of consciousness differ for all beings, but being aware is just being aware. You know this firsthand when the contents drop out and you can recognize another person who’s experienced the same thing. That’s called “Transmission.”
This paints one popular Buddhist scene in a funny way.
Someone asked the Buddha, “Are you a god?”
“No, I’m not a god.”
“Are you this thing?”
“Are you a that thing?”
“Are you a human being?”
“Then what the fuck are you?”
“I am awake.”
What if he literally meant, “I’m conscious, I’m aware. And since everything I’m aware of is dependent and impermanent, that’s the only part of this experience I’m comfortable identifying with since, even as I hear the tide go out, it doesn’t drag this listening away with it.”
At this moment, awareness is the only part of experience that I’m willing to put myself in. That’s not because I think it’s actually unchanging—if it was, I’d never get any sleep—but because it seems unchanging.
If awareness changed as much as everything we’re aware of, it’d be impossible to form the idea of a changeless, independent self. Our lives would be like those picture books where you make the characters move by rapidly flipping the pages.
If there’s one thing I can say, it’s that being Awake doesn’t mean just not having wandering thoughts and living in the present moment. It’s not synonymous with concentration. I’m also beginning to doubt when people say, “He meant that he was awakened to this or that truth,” because that seems clumsy.
Whenever the B-Man described himself, he’d say he was Awake and Unbound. If you study the texts, this isn’t said in a way that makes you think that there’s a hidden, “to,” in there. It’s stated the same way a person might say, “Hi, I’m John Lee.”
It’s like if he had a business card it’d say, “Mr. A. Unbound: World Honored One & Meditation Teacher.”
But you can study this for yourself. Just put your “I Am” into being conscious, or into Being or whatever you call it. Instead of identifying as this body, as these thoughts, or as anything you’re aware of, you can identify as that awareness of the body, and awareness of thoughts.
The way to figure out whether something is empty and impermanent or not is to concentrate on it and eventually lose all distinctions between yourself and it. That’s how you grok something, after all. It’s like when studying the breath. You concentrate on it until that’s all there is, until it’s everything. Then you can see that it comes and goes because you come and go with it. You can see that it’s dependent because you’re dependent with it.
Meditating on something as an outsider isn’t enough. We have to be what it is we’re concentrating on to know its nature firsthand.
So while concentrating on awareness while sitting, standing, walking, talking, eating, or lying down, I am this awareness. Unmoving, silent, open, and clear. The more I focus on it, the more the mind and body harmonize with it. The easier it is to care, to reach out and touch someone, to be held, and to let go. Slower to anger, and quicker to smile. But that’s just an unintentional byproduct. I am awareness so that I can see if it’s the real me or not, or whether it’s another empty phenomenon on its own path of ceaseless transformation.
This requires constant concentration, but still, the mind can wander all it likes. Whether it’s wandering or not, awareness is just the same.