Letting Go of Awakening

The Upanishads say that “only once in a thousand thousand years does a soul wake up.” That strikes me as unverifiable in principle, which raises the question: why would the authors say this?

I think there are at least two possibilities, or maybe just one that can be taken either more or less cynically. I’ll start with the optimistic take.

You say that only one soul wakes up every million years because you want folks to stop thinking about waking up as a goal. The biggest impediment to awakening or enlightenment is the notion that awakening or enlightenment is something other than this – this this.

If you tell somebody the odds are overwhelmingly against their waking up, then maybe you can get them to focus on the actions that do facilitate awakening but are actually boring: mostly, noticing that when you’re chopping wood and carrying water, you’re chopping wood and carrying water and noticing it.

When you lean into the ordinary motions of living, and simply notice the grace or light in which it all appears – comes and goes, folds and unfolds, flows and flows – then you are near to the wisdom of the psalmist:

Be still
and know that I am God

It turns out that nobody can teach you to be still, but they can teach you to notice when you’re not still which – if you get curious enough, desperate enough, lucky enough – can suddenly flex into knowledge of God. You say “oh.” You say “oh.”

I think that’s the reason it’s not a bad idea to put the whole “waking up” thing to the side, and just get on with being a kind person in the world – help others, let them help you, don’t get worked up about small stuff, it’s all small stuff, et cetera. That this comes so naturally to us – and makes us so happy – is a huge clue to our fundamental essence.

What’s the cynical perspective on “forget about waking up?”

That’s what folks say when they want “waking up” to be a sign of their spiritual elitism. That’s the language of a priest caste that doesn’t want the hoi polloi soiling the altar. “I’ve got it and you don’t but if you’re deferential enough / pay me enough – I may share a few crumbs with you.”

I’m less enamored of teachers than I used to be, but when I was enamored of Tara Singh one of his insights I most admired was his recognition of the “lovelessness of ‘I get it and you don’t.'” Notice when you’re doing that and then don’t do that.

I felt like that summed up a lot of ACIM energy – Gary Renard and his ascended masters, Ken’s “ACIM is the true Christianity,” David Hoffmeister’s claims to special “white light” experiences, Liz Cronkhite’s “I don’t have an ego but you still do.” That’s all nonsense – or rather, it’s nonsense to the extent it’s held up as having spiritual significance in and of itself. It’s really just more of what happens here in the inside of nothing.

Awakening begets a fundamental equality, a radical sameness, which entails a responsibility to be as loving as the Love which got you going in the first place. This is easier than it sounds because the Love in question undoes identity which dramatically undoes one’s perception of separation. The boundaries of self and other, self and world are waaaay more fluid than we believe.

All of this suggests a possible third reading of that phrase from the Upanishads. I’m suggesting that awakening is a shift in perspective that makes clear there is no body or self to wake up and that everything is just happening, just appearing and disappearing, and that this is perfectly normal.

I am also suggesting that when we see this, we realize we’ve been chasing a ghost, and it was the chase that distracted us from the simple clarity that there is only this: this this.

In other words, you can’t not be awake. You’re awake right now, even if “awake” is experienced as “a dream in which I wish I was awake.” But seriously: no harm, no foul. No worries. Really.

Still, people do get worked up about waking up – they aren’t awake, others are, they want it, they don’t want to want it, what’s the secret . . .

Thus, we might say something ridiculous like “only once in a thousand thousand years does a soul wake up” because we know that there is no such thing as waking up. Or sleeping. So why not just get it off the table at the outset?

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  1. Beautiful, Sean! Thank you for this. This really resonates with me. I’ve also become “less enamored” of teachers lately. I’ve found my favorite one is my 5-year-old.

    I was making him breakfast this weekend and I turned to him and told him, “You know, time is an illusion”, just to see what he’d say. He looked at me with a big smile, and without skipping a beat said “Yup. My waffles are ready!” Leave it to a child to pull me right back to the present moment. 😄

    1. From the mouths of babes!

      Yeah, kids are the holiest of teachers – mine are always bringing me up short, and the lessons don’t get simpler as they age. I feel very grateful – the whole parenting experience is infused with grace and love, even when I’m dragged to it metaphorically kicking and screaming.

      Also, I could resist this: my son and I lived for this scene for many years . . .

  2. Thank you for this. Sometimes it seems like such a long and arduous path is ahead before “I” can get to the awakening moment, especially when in eastern philosophy it is presenting itself as taking so many lifetimes. But I realise I don’t know what I’m talking about 😊

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