What Does It Mean to be Awake?

What’s the first thing you do each morning?

People answer that in a lot of different ways: get out of bed, open my eyes, go to the bathroom, check my phone, get dressed, eat breakfast, turn on the light, on and on.

All of that’s inaccurate. The first thing we do each morning is wake up. We can’t even say we do it though, since it isn’t on purpose. Waking up is something that happens to us whether we want it to or not.

So everything else we do, everything else that happens throughout the day, is built up from that foundation. If we weren’t awake, we wouldn’t be doing any of it, and we wouldn’t be aware or conscious of any of it.

One straightforward aspect of practice is: just be awake. Stick with that fundamental basis of experience.

The mind switches out being awake for being a fuck ton of other things. “I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m me, I’m a parent, I’m a worker, I’m driving, I’m eating,” and so on. That causes suffering because whatever we put after that I am is empty, it arises from and changes with the situation.

Suffering is what happens when we want an “I am” to stay or go, when we want it to not be dependent on the circumstances. Reality can’t meet that expectation, and neither can our dreams and fantasies.

But we don’t have to trade awakening for something else if we just don’t add anything to it or try to take anything away from it.

Instead of thinking, “I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m lonely,” we can go with, “I’m awake,” and then that’s what we’ll be. Then everything else will happen in that context, it’ll be what’s experienced with awakening. When we’re hungry, tired, or lonely, those will just be appearances, not who or what we are.

Because we’re not that, we’re just awake. Even the “I am” is something extra, something built on it. With that realization, 99% of our up close and personal suffering vanishes, and we can work with the remainder in effortless, skillful ways since all the I-me-mine garbage related to it is gone.

You’re awake, so be awake. These days, that’s really the only teaching and method I can, in good conscience, endorse. But that might not be enough. It wasn’t for me. I had to have Illumination crack me open first.

Sometimes, before just being awake, we have to figure out who it is that’s awake. All we need to do is ask, “Who’s awake? Who’s awake? Who’s awake?” all the while knowing it’s us, but unsure about why it is that that’s not enough.

We can carry that inquiry with us throughout the day. “Who’s awake? Who’s awake? Who’s awake?” and feel it gather intensity and momentum. You start to feel it in your bones like an electrical current.

Then, out of the blue, something will seem to give, and it’ll be obvious: I’m awake.

Some traditions diverge here. A few say you should pick up another inquiry, stick with the same one, or investigate other practices like observing the mind. A few Korean teachers I’ve studied say that, after you experience Illumination, then you’re done, you don’t need another inquiry or meditation practice, you can just live the life that’s in you.

To me, all shoulds and shouldn’ts we apply here are dogma. There’s nothing you should or shouldn’t do, those are both judgments, not truths. You’re just awake, that’s all. Everything else is secondhand.

Now you can pick up another inquiry or gong-an, you can study philosophy or practice guanxin, you can take the vows and put on the robes, but you don’t have to. You could also just go back to your regularly scheduled program and never give Eastern wisdom another thought.

There’s no right or wrong answer, no right or wrong way to live. Being awake isn’t right or wrong, good or bad. Awake is just awake. What you do or don’t do with it is up to you to figure out, no one can make that choice for you, not even the situation.

One thing I noticed is that I tried to have a repeat performance of waking up. I kept seeking another orgasmic insight that was beyond words. After three years of fucking about, it struck me that once is enough. There’s no need for me to keep trying to polish the mirror when it’s really bright open space.

So even though there’s no absolute good or bad, chasing after more Illumination isn’t helpful. For me, it was quite harmful, actually. So, once that lightning bolt goes flashing through you, I recommend not chasing it. It’s already illuminating each moment of your life, so there’s no need to go running after it.

Take care.

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