It’s traditional to pin down a precise definition of what your subject is before you go on about it ad nauseum, but generally the more I practice the less comfortable I feel with pinning down what awakening is in a snappy soundbite.
As a quick exercise, imagine a spiritually awakened person, or rather, let what your concept of an awakened person come to mind. This might take the form of an image of an utterly serene Zen monk, some narrative about the unimpeachable virtue of a Christian Saint, or just a vague notion that whoever this awakened person is, they’re definitely smarter than the average bear.
It is definitely the case that practice has made changes to how I think, feel and behave. You have to practice with something, be that your thoughts, feelings, actions or perceptions, and so awakening can’t be separate from them in the end. It would be disingenuous to say I haven’t felt the benefit, and ungrateful at the same time. However, from the high church approach to practice, as it were, any improvements in your life are merely collateral damage. I’ve never met anyone who claimed to have perfected any human endeavour – though, saying that, I’ve also met some gently amazing people. This is because, if I’m being strict, awakening doesn’t seem to be about anything conditional whatsoever in my book.
Everyone who practices, I’d argue, knows intuitively that awakening is about something perfect, transcendent, divine, absolute, beyond, heavenly, complete, finished, incorruptible, infinite. ‘Unstained and unstainable’ is one of my favourite quotes. But what literally exists that is any of those things, and how can it? Contemplative practice therefore, with our barking mad logic, is that which contacts something that doesn’t exist. The fun begins here, another avenue that rational thought says must come to a dead end- and yet we keep bloody trying. There’s the feeling that when we see it, we’ll know it.
It is therefore useful, as an exercise, to think of awakening in terms of what it is not. If you’re the overly logical type, this can be just as helpful as sitting down on a cushion and watching your breath. This is because it points to the fact that you’re hoping to get something conventional that you crave out of your practice, and none of those things are ‘unstained and unstainable’ in themselves. What are you still hoping will save you?
The phrase via negativa has been used as a way of philosophising about a non-conceptual God that is beyond our understanding: not existent, not limited, not located, without human characteristics. This is a way of pointing towards the unconditioned- what cannot be understood in analytical terms, lacking characteristics, but only perceived. And again, if you’re wondering how you can perceive something without characteristics, I refer you to Him Upstairs who is having a good laugh and hoping you’ll join him.
The various traditions have their own ways of referring to this non-thing. The Buddhists talk about the Deathless, Christianity the peace that passeth understanding, and the list would go on but I’ve gibbered on long enough…
Practice questions Have a think about the following questions. Notice your immediate responses. Chase down the answers.
- Would you do a spiritual practice that got you nothing?
- Who do you think you will be when you’ve awakened?
- How would you know a person was awakened if they didn’t show any special qualities?