In this blog, I want to touch on the topics of waking up and living well. Each involves its own kind of practice – and its own kind of awakening.
What are the two kinds of practice?
One is the practice of radical (fundamental) awakening. This is waking up to the nature of nature, to who and what you really are (and are not). This is the Practice of presencing the Mystery – the nondual, the Tao, and the many other names it has been called.
The other is the practice of living our life better, and it involves becoming aware of some of the characteristics of our unique story (reality, dream) so that we can learn to make better moves, so that we can have better outcomes. This is the traditional realm of psychotherapy and coaching. The kind of awakening needed here is the awakening from the (too narrow) story of our life.
Neither kind of practice – or awakening – is “better” or “worse” than the other. The Mystery, the nondual, after all, excludes nothing.
I’ve touched on this topic from a different angle when I wrote about the three “levels” of experience (everyday self, the unconscious realms, the absolute). Waking up in the fundamental sense is the plumb line straight to the Absolute. It is a radical awakening from the illusion of the narrow “self.”. Waking up from our life story (for the purposes of living a more satisfying life) involves us in the intermediate unconscious realms. We must discover which stories speak to us, and which views of the world help and which hinder us in the pursuit of living well (whatever that ends up meaning for us).
Being alive means that we have a narrative (or perhaps more accurately, a narrative is happening). We all have our own schemas (beliefs, assumptions) about ourselves and the world. And those unexamined assumptions limit what we perceive and what we do. Let’s have a look now at the kind of awakening that helps us live our lives better.
Waking up from our unique trance –
for the purposes of living well
We often have wishes, desires, dreams, and goals for ourselves. But we commonly run into complications as we try to realize those desires or goals. Why? Perhaps it’s anxiety about being seen for who we are or want to be. Perhaps it feels like people are not supporting us, or that they are resisting and fighting us in the realization of our dreams. There are many forms these experiences can take, and they are related to unconscious stories we hold.
Most of us are very familiar with the result of this relatively unconscious process. That is, we tell ourselves we want something (e.g., to find or build a better job, have better relationships, exercise more, maintain a spiritual practice), but then over and over we find ourselves just doing other things.
It’s also common to have perceptual barriers even to discovering what we want. But, I don’t KNOW what I want! This can be related to our history with family and culture, and the unconscious conclusions we’ve drawn about what is possible for us. Some people, for example, stop wanting, or stop looking for a better future because somewhere along the way, they concluded that they can never get what they want. This is a schema that will over and over lead to a reflexive turning away from looking for what we want, or will interfere with committed action to realize what we want to realize.
Note: It’s important to have understanding and compassion for the conclusions that we’ve drawn based on old experiences. We want to be careful not to beat ourselves up for having those schemas that limit us.
To build a more satisfying and fulfilling life, we need to discover and work with unconscious barriers or identifications we have (and we all have them). That is, we must awaken to the unconscious beliefs and inner conflicts we have that limit our perceptions and actions. We need to wake up from our unique trance, i.e., the beliefs about (1) our self, (2) the world, and (3) our relationship to it.
Let’s say someone who grew up in a family where there was a lot of physical and/or emotional danger. They may have discovered that being quiet and relatively invisible was a useful way to survive and navigate that early environment. They may have concluded that (1) they are small and powerless, (2) the world is dangerous and will hurt you if you show up, (3) not speaking up or expressing the self openly is a safer/better way of being in the world. This is, of course, only one schema that could evolve from an early dangerous environment. These kinds of schemas are typically unconsciously identified with. That is, people don’t see them as schemas. They just know that this is how things are.
You can appreciate, however, that someone who has this unconscious narrative about self and the world might bump into trouble as they try to identify and take steps to realize their dreams of a better life. They might want to build a business, or pursue a particular career, but an inner conflict is created when their desire to build something new bumps up against their sense that the world is dangerous and will hurt you if you show up (as yourself). Voila. We procrastinate, find other things to do, get distracted, spend endless time thinking and preparing – but nothing actually changes in our life.
Coaching and therapy provide a good venue for discovering our own passions, our own path with heart, and our own goals while also helping us uncover beliefs about self and the world that interfere with the realization of those desires.
Let’s have a look, now, at the other kind of waking up – a more fundamental awakening.
Waking up to the Mystery –
to realize the nature of Nature
Waking up from our unique dream (beliefs about self and the world) gives us some distance from that story such that we can try on new behaviors, experiment with new beliefs, and discover a different (better) experience in our life.
If I can see, hear, and name the story (our belief about self and the world), I have a chance of getting free from it. One hundred percent unhooking from the story is not a requirement to begin making new moves – for us to begin having a different experience of ourselves and the world.
This process of unhooking from our story is “waking up” in a very useful and practical sense.
There is, however, a more fundamental kind of awakening. It involves waking up to what is beyond any story we might have about self or the world.
We awaken in this more fundamental sense as we inquire into everything that masquerades as this narrow self. For example, we know we are not only our role as a parent or partner, or child. We are more than that. We are also something not limited to our physical sensations, or feelings, or thoughts, or memories.
In the practice of self-inquiry (a practice aimed at this more fundamental awakening), we inquire over and over into how we experience the contents of our consciousness (i.e., what we see, hear, feel in our minds). If I know I’m having a thought, then I cannot be that thought. This process of inquiry continues as we examine particularly sticky repetitive thoughts. Examples of sticky beliefs are: I’m powerful/weak. I’m smart/stupid. I’m loving/unloving.
Diving deeper and deeper into this kind of inquiry can bring us face-to-face with very core processes with which we’re identified – e.g., the meaning maker, the do-er or will-er, and even the seemingly separate observer of it all.
We examine everything that is conditioned to discover the unconditioned.
Often, this kind of Awakening only becomes interesting to us as we realize that the things we thought would make us happy are either repeatedly out of reach, or we get them and realize they don’t make us fundamentally content in any way.
There are different practical approaches to discovering the unconditioned, the Mystery. They typically involve inquiry, radical acceptance, finding our way to natural awareness, and so forth.
Open and nonjudgmental awareness is a necessary tool in both kinds of awakening
Note: In this current discussion, what I mean by “awareness” is the practice of being present with our experience without trying to change it, aka mindful awareness. By the way, here’s an article on the practice of mindful awareness.
Mindful awareness is (1) awareness, (2) of the present moment, (3) without judgment.
Mindful awareness is a practice that serves both kinds of awakening. The place where things begin to “diverge” is the purpose that mindful awareness serves.
As we aim toward living life better, mindful awareness serves several useful ends. Mindful (present-centered) awareness helps us unhook from the contents of our minds. That is, mindfulness helps us to see thoughts, feelings, reactions, judgments as just what they actually are – thoughts, feelings, reactions, judgment. When we are not mindful, we are immersed in those thoughts, feelings, reactions and judgments – and we just believe that’s the way things are. It’s not, “I’m imagining they’re trying to disempower me by ignoring me, and I’m having the feelings of hurt and anger” Instead, it’s “They’re trying to disempower me by ignoring me” and we react angrily. It is reality for us.
Mindful awareness helps us reduce reactivity to thoughts and feelings. We don’t try to get rid of or change those thoughts and feelings. Rather, unhooking just helps us have a more open (even caring) stance toward our experience, and thus gives us more freedom to see and do things differently.
Mindful awareness also helps us with emotional regulation. We learn we can have feelings and that we’ll be OK. We learn that we don’t need to immediately fix feelings or change what is happening to try to immediately feel better. For example, we can just have our anger – and not rush to make the other person wrong, or insist they understand why we are angry.
Mindful awareness helps us uncover schemas/beliefs that hinder or limit us in our quest for a more satisfying life. As I have the intention to see/hear my thoughts without rushing to act on them or to modify them, a dawning can occur where we see the repetitive thoughts and patterns that lead to more unhappiness. For example, when I have the intention to work with my angry driving behavior, mindfulness can allow me to see/hear the repetitive sense that the world is competing with me or trying to take my space. It’s the immersion in – and unquestioned reality of – the experience along with the my reactively competing back that keeps the pattern repeating.
We might also see schemas that keep us focused on agendas instilled in us when we were younger (e.g., success means this), or that met the needs of others (e.g., if you do that, a parent will be unhappy with you).
When we can see our patterns, we can try on different behaviors and not feed the old pattern.
In these – and other ways – mindfulness serves the ends of living well. That is, it serves the purpose of living a more satisfying and fulfilling life.
As we aim toward a more fundamental awakening, mindfulness helps us stay present in the face of all experiences that show up wanting to draw in our attention and energy. As noted earlier, waking up in this more fundamental sense involves waking up to what is beyond any story we might have about self or the world. However, it takes fortitude to stay present through all of the things that want to pull us in to the thought stream and pass for reality.
In short, toward the ends of living better, we engage mindfulness to unhook from particularly troublesome thoughts, feelings, beliefs, reactions, and judgments that interfere with our ability to act in constructive ways that will help us cultivate a more fulfilling life. Toward the end of awakening to the Mystery, mindfulness is continually engaged so that all experience is seen through, and particularly those experiences that masquerade as a separate self. We go all the way to the end.
What makes the difference? Intention.
Do we want to make our lives better in ordinary ways (not a bad thing, by the way), or do we want to practice the ultimate medicine to discover what is beyond all striving?
Now here’s an interesting conundrum. The practices we use to build a better life are not the Practice that is needed to radically awaken. The difficulty emerges as we try to storm the gates of heaven with the tools we use to build a better life. That is, we believe we can know more, think differently, or do something that will help us target and acquire this fundamental awakening.
If we’re the kind of person who is good at doing things (fixing things, solving problems), we have the sense that “just more effort” will crack open the door to the Mystery. Or if we’re thinkers, we read and analyze more to try to “get” to the Mystery. Or, if we’re heart-centered people, we believe the Mystery must be some kind of exalted feeling, and we pursue that.
But we cannot grasp the Mystery through a better or more sophisticated idea (e.g., I just need to know Oneness). We cannot embrace the reality of the Mystery by focusing on a feeling (e.g., calmness, joy) and trying to sustain it. We cannot batter down the gateless gate with our will or by applying pressure to the contents of our consciousness (e.g., I just need to make myself let go).
Seeking this kind of fundamental awakening is at the core of many psychospiritual traditions.
Coaching and therapy have not traditionally been concerned with this fundamental kind of awakening. Though, in current times, there is definitely an interest on the part of some coaches and therapists to integrate such practices into their work. Transpersonal psychologists have given attention to both (1) the intermediate realms (personal unconscious as well as collective and nonordinary experiences), as well as (2) practices that point to the Absolute.
If you have these kinds of interests, it is valuable to know that the therapist or coach who is working with you on making your life better or more successful also has appreciation for this kind of practice. E.g., when you talk about an experience of “no self,” it’s good to know this experience isn’t automatically pathologized!
In addition, if this kind of fundamental awakening is of importance to you, then it can be helpful to work with a coach who has some understanding of which particular beliefs/schemas are especially sticky for you. This is where coaching for living well, and coaching for a more fundamental awakening are not necessarily different!
Of course, there may well be a time when you devote yourself very thoroughly to the task of waking up from all stories and beliefs. It’s nice when a coach can make that turn with you.
Please feel free to contact me here if you are interested in coaching to live better – if you need help clarifying what your want, how to get there, and discovering and working through the barriers to success.
Do also feel free to contact me if you want a coach or therapist who has space for your interests in waking up in the more fundamental sense – who can help you remember your intention to do so, and who understands the intersection of the agendas of waking up AND living well.