Practical Awakenings

By Robert Tolz

I love my aquarium fish, not only for their beauty, but also for what they teach me.

Fish swim with joy. They dart up and down, side-to-side, sometimes even backwards. I imagine that they have no idea what water is and they think they’re flying.

The lesson for me is that we have a hard time seeing and understanding in a complete way the context in which we live, simply because we are so utterly immersed in our surroundings.

Take another, more human, example. A third-grade boy is playing at home. He comes to his mother and asks, “Mom, what’s my other eye for?” The mom, in shock, discovers that her boy barely sees with his left eye.

“How long has this been going on?” she asks.

“It’s always been this way,” the boy responds.

“How come you never said anything?”

“I just thought it was normal.”

The child in this story was me. Sometimes, a child is unable to align both eyes simultaneously. The brain, to avoid double-vision, pays attention to one eye and ignores the other. If the condition isn’t caught soon enough, the brain itself loses the ability to interpret the signal from the non-preferred eye. Third grade is generally too late.

Sometimes we’re simply clueless. We have no idea that the world can be seen differently from another perspective outside of our own skin. Just as a fish doesn’t know what water is, neither does it know what air is. Similarly, a child with a vision disability, oblivious to the possibility of seeing in a different way, doesn’t think to question his circumstances. That’s just how things are.

Even as we examine the similarity between the fish and the child, we begin to see the differences as well. Although the child might never question his circumstances, he can. If and when he does, he starts to awaken. So it is with all of us.

Asking Questions

There is something in us that propels us to ask questions. In asking questions we step onto the path of awakenings. For instance:

  • Have I voluntarily and freely chosen the path on which I walk?

  • When my life comes to an end and I look back, will I be satisfied with what I see?

  • Isn’t it possible that I am not the center of the universe?

  • What is it that I need to learn?

  • What is love?

  • How can I make the world better?

  • What is the meaning of life?

By asking existential questions such as these, we confirm to ourselves that remaining asleep is not a satisfactory life goal. In awakening, we seek awareness, understanding, connection, wisdom and freedom.

If we leave this pursuit as only an exercise of the mind, it remains merely mental gymnastics. On the other hand, when we commit ourselves to bringing this into daily life, we engage in practical awakenings.

In the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” we are told that over the course of 7.5 million years, a supercomputer named “Deep Thought” was investigating “the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.” Its answer to that question was “42.”

The joke is that these big questions cannot be answered with a number, or even with a few words. It is too easy to think that our work is finished if we can produce a concise mental understanding. These and other fundamental concerns require a fuller response, one that may change over the course of time as our understanding changes. The answers aren’t found in words. They are found in how we live.

Awakenings vs. Awakening

In talking about “awakenings,” we wish to differentiate our subject matter from “Awakening” with a capital “A.” We’re not talking about “Nirvana” or a state of “Enlightenment,” which might imply the achievement of some ultimate state of consciousness. Rather, our focus is on those “Aha!” moments in life when we are able to see with greater clarity, those moments when we develop a bit more perspective, context and wisdom.

Most important, these awakenings are part of our process and not an endpoint in themselves. Awakenings are points along our path from which we can draw sustenance, but they are not the destination. We ought to be ready and willing to move past any of these epiphanies to the next point that expands our understanding of ourselves, our relationships and our universe.

The Practical Awakenings Toolkit

We begin to follow a path of awakenings when we start asking questions. Then we need tools to help us walk that path. If we have no tools, we may not know how or where to walk.

There are many tools that can support us. Consider inspiration, community, method, feedback and love, among others. They can form what we might call a “practical awakenings toolkit.”

Inspiration

Inspiration provides us with examples of how and who we can be. If we start asking fundamental questions like “What’s the meaning of life?” but have no clue about what the response to that question might be, then our reaction could very easily be limited to, “What a silly question to waste my time on.” On the other hand, if we become aware of how others have responded, we recognize that the concern is fundamentally important, and what we learn from them provides us with signposts that help us navigate our own way.

Community

Going it alone on this path is difficult. If we don’t find others who think about the possibilities that are of critical concern to us, we have very little confirmation that we may be on the right path. We may wonder whether we are wasting our time. On the other hand, if we find at least one other person who joins us on the journey, then we become energized and more certain in our quest. We can share notes: This works for me; that doesn’t. That road has potholes in it; this path is more direct.

Method

It is immensely helpful to establish a routine that keeps us centered on our path. The almost gravitational effect of sleepiness tends to pull us down from being awake. It can feel that at one moment our inner light switch is in the “on” position, while at another moment that switch has fallen back to a state of sleep. Routine and appropriate exercises help us to counteract that gravitational effect. For instance, a regular, daily meditation practice can punctuate each day and provide a steadiness of purpose that keeps us directed even when external winds might tend to blow us off course. Whatever we can do to keep our hearts and minds engaged is invaluable. The work becomes so much easier.

Feedback

It is difficult to see ourselves as we are. Feedback provides us with information independent of our own subjective perspective. It is invaluable to show us who we are, shining light back on us. Sometimes we receive direct verbal feedback, such as “You are a wonderful, loving human being,” or “You’re always thinking about yourself.” At other times, we can receive feedback in non-verbal ways. For instance, we can look at how we affect the world around us. Do people smile when we walk into a room or do they cringe? What do we see in our wake? Does it match up with who we think we are?

Love

Inevitably, there will come times that the work on the path of awakenings may seem dry and unrewarding. It is precisely at those moments that it is critical to continue on, for part of the path of awakenings is to push past the immediate feeling of dryness and connect with our long-term goal of awakenings. We may be inclined at these times to try to assert our will power, but instead of treating the work like something we are supposed to do, we treat it as something we truly want to do, we convert will power to “want power” – a tremendous resource helping us traverse the path of awakenings, simply because we love the path and its possibilities.

Over time as we walk the path, we may experience that thoughts come to us, we make choices, we express ourselves and we take actions – and all of these become more and more spontaneous and consistent with our chosen direction. Our underlying intention remains constant and forms a foundation upon which all else is built. Instead of waiting to be told what the meaning of life is, we ourselves bring meaning to life.

Awakenings are not merely rational understandings located in our head. They are part of life, located in our entire being.

Let “Practical Awakenings” be a calling for our lives.