By: Lama Karl Eikrem
In this text I will be approaching the topic of awakening from a Buddhist perspective. This is because the Buddhist framework is what I'm most familiar with, and not because Buddhism has any special claim to the phenomena of awakening as such. Awakening as defined below is universal in that can happen to people of any culture, age and spiritual orientation. It can come about by applying specific tools, such as the Two-Part Formula for Awakening presented in this text, or it can happen by "accident"; where a practitioner is either using a meditative tool not specifically designed to induce awakening, or that they are doing something completely unrelated to spiritual practice and just happen to spontaneously awaken to the true nature of that which is commonly labeled "I" or "me".
One of the basic tenets of Mahayana Buddhism is that all beings have buddha-nature. This does not mean that all beings carry around something that they can point to and call buddha-nature, but that the very nature of existence, of being itself is Buddha; basic wakefulness. Ironically, this basic wakefulness is so ordinary and obvious that it makes it profoundly difficult to recognise for most beings. But if we look at our surroundings and feel into the very experience we are having right here and right now, the basis of it is always basic wakefulness.
This basic nature of ours has three main qualities: (1) it is self-cognisant; free of any "knower" and "known" and simply aware of itself as timeless presence, (2) it is brilliantly alive; full of richness, positivity and love, and (3) it is perfectly stable; never changing. Furthermore, in being the nature of being itself, basic wakefulness is always-already present. It can never not be, and it can never be different from what is. Thus, recognising and actualising the basic nature of our own being is the purpose of spiritual practice.
The main hinder we have on the spiritual path is what we call the selfing-mechanism. The selfing-mechanism refers to the conceptual filter that confused beings see reality through, and it can be divided into three parts. First of all there is (1) the subject-self; the feeling of being "me", an entity residing within the body, (2) object-selves; self-based thoughts, emotions and feelings, and (3) substrate consciousness; the subtle veils of existential confusion that give rise to self-based mind states such as depression or gross bliss.
The term "awakening" in the broad sense of the word refers to the process of deconstructing the entire selfing-mechanism and awakening to our true nature. Seen this way awakening is a gradual process that moves through several distinct phases until the ultimate freedom from "self-identification" is completely actualised. However, when it comes to the topic of this text "awakening" refers only to the inner shift that takes place in the mind of practitioners as the core of the selfing-mechanism, the "subject-I" is permanently deconstructed. This can be said to be to starting point of the Buddhist Path.
The Buddhist way of deconstructing the selfing-mechanism is through direct exploration of its constitution (Skt. Vipashyana). The basic principle of this approach is to recognise the basic clarity of mind and then bring that clarity to the confusion, i.e. "selfing-mechanism".
The Two-Part Formula for Awakening, as taught in Pemako Buddhism, embodies this principle by first instructing the practitioner to release tensions in the physical body and recognise the basic openness that reveals itself when doing so. When we keep releasing tension this way, eventually we arrive at the recognition of the basic open space that permeates all of experience. But we cannot stop here. It is equally important that we use this basic clarity as a baseline for further investigation into the existential confusion in question.
Therefore, the Two-Part Forumla for Awakening guides us to mentally reaffirm "I, I, I!" or "Me, me, me!" and then study the sensations that arise within the body. These sensations include gross and subtle contractions, uncomfortable feelings, buzzing sensations, movement of energy and so on. Whatever arise within the body-space we simply study the strongest sensation from the perspective of basic wakefulness. This way, we can naturally dis-identify from the sensations of the "I" and study it like just another object of mind.
By alternating between the two modes; (1) relaxing into basic openness, and (2) reaffirming the sense of subject-self, we are able to dig deeper into both modes, seeing the two modes with greater and greater clarity. Eventually we come to a point where the distinction collapses and the "I" is seen to have not substance, no basis in reality. This is what we call (initial) awakening.
While awakening doesn't offer anything new in terms of fancy experiences or abilities, it is absolutely crucial for spiritual practitioners to awaken as soon as possible. Without awakening to the emptiness of the subject-I there is no hope of progressing effectively on the path of deconstructing the whole self-based psyche. Rather, it is likely that the practitioner will unconsciously use spiritual practice to strengthen the sense of self - the complete opposite of what the practice is designed for! - as the "I" attaches itself to every aspect of a life spent in full identification with "me".
As the great Zen master Hakuin Ekaku said,
Anyone who would call himself a member of the Zen family must first of all achieve kensho - realization of the Buddha's Way. If a person who has not achieved kensho says he is a follower of Zen, he is an outrageous fraud. A swindler pure and simple.
Therefore, do not postpone awakening to the way of basic wakefulness!
May all beings be free!