It is said that a stranger on the road who saw the Buddha was so struck by his calm radiance that he asked him, "Are you a god?" The Buddha replied, "No. I am not." "What are you then?" the man asked. And the Buddha said, "I am awake."
The offering of Zen practice is that we, too, can awaken. But what is awakening?
At a personal level, awakening is a shift in consciousness in which thinking and awareness can be distinguished. For many of us, it is not a single event but a rather a process we undergo. Even people who experience a sudden and dramatic awakening will still go through an integration process in which the new state of awareness gradually comes to inform everything we do and so becomes a natural part of our lives.
When we are awake, instead of being lost in thinking or reactive emotion, we identify with the awareness behind the contents and stories of the mind. Thinking then ceases to be an autonomous activity that takes possession of us and runs our lives. We can see the narratives, opinions, and habits that drive our inner lives, and we can choose to feel and act in a different way. We find we can live from awareness itself, and thinking becomes the servant of awareness.
The Zen teacher Robert Aitken used to say that awakening is an accident, but meditation practice makes us accident-prone. We cannot make awakening happen by “doing it right.” There isn't a tidy sequence of logical steps that leads toward it, although the ego would love that. You don’t have to deserve awakening, it isn’t a reward, and it may look really different from what you imagine.
Once you’ve had a glimpse of this awareness, you know it firsthand. As an old teacher said, when you taste your tea, you know for yourself if it is hot or cold. It is no longer a concept in your mind. You can then make a conscious choice to be present rather than to indulge in circular thinking or emotional reactivity.
With the grace of personal awakening comes a view of the larger awakening of the world. When we see our place in this, awareness of our own responsibility is natural. Opening ourselves to this ongoing awareness and bringing its light into this world then becomes the primary purpose in our lives. Awakening is no longer primarily a personal experience, but rather an expression of our interdependence with all of life.
To put it simply, awakening leads to a wish for the awakening of all beings. We dedicate ourselves to doing what we can to lessen suffering. But we do it in a way that’s humble, personal, humorous, and warm, not grandiose. We find our own particular way to participate in the awakening of the world.
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..