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Lions Roar : May 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2006 23 IN MY EARLY DAYS as a Zen student I really wanted to know what it would mean to live an awake life. I would often read or hear that living awake meant being “one with our experience.” So whenever I would meet someone who I thought knew something, I would ask, “What does it really mean to be one with our experience?” I never got an answer that made sense to me, so I began to follow up with the question, “When you’re watching a movie, and you’re totally absorbed in it, is that the same thing as being one with your experience?” The answer was always yes. The absorption experience was equated with being totally in the moment. One explanation made it analo- gous to “just chopping carrots,” where there is no separation between you and the carrots. More than one person gave the example of athletes, who are so absorbed in their activities that they enter “the zone,” equating this state of flow with the experience of “no self.” The problem for me was that I knew the experience of being totally absorbed in a movie firsthand, and I knew the experi- ence was not one of being awake. I had also practiced Zen car- rot chopping, and had been an athlete who had experienced “the zone” on quite a few occasions—and in none of these instances was I really awake. It’s true that there was no sense of self, but the “no-self ” experience, when we’re absorbed in activity, can also be a form of what is often described as “wak- ing sleep.” At best, it’s an experience of absorption or con- centration. There’s nothing wrong with these states of mind; in fact, they can foster the enjoyment of artistic creation or athletic performance. However, we can experience these states and still not be truly awake. To romanticize these states with phrases like “being one with activity” is not particularly help- ful. Nor is it necessarily an accurate picture of what it means to be awake. So what does it mean to be awake? First of all, the one- with-activity belief is only one of the myths we have to see through. Another myth is that when you are awake, it’s per- manent. Simple observation of ourselves and others would clearly demonstrate that this is simply not true. But the hope still persists that there can be one magical experience that can somehow change us forever. Anyone who has had powerful “enlightenment” experiences, if they’re honest, will admit that even though these experiences may dramatically affect us, they certainly don’t wipe out our conditioned patterns. To diminish these patterns requires many, many years of prac- tice. Enlightened moments don’t necessarily mean that we are more awake once the moments are over. Quite the contrary, the most pernicious form of waking sleep is believing that we’ve become an awake person just because we were awake for a few moments or hours. In actual fact, “awakeness” is more of a continuum. On the far end of the continuum is waking sleep. It is not an awake state at all, yet we live in this state during most of our lives. The single strongest element of this state of waking sleep is that we are identified, or lost, in virtually everything—our thoughts, our desires, our emotions, our activities. We rarely know who we are or what we’re doing, except in a very narrow or self-conscious way. There is no sense of presence or clarity; in a way, we don’t exist, except as sleepwalkers. The realization that we’re living in this state of waking sleep is often what motivates us to begin practice. Usually, we begin by moving to the next stage on the awareness continu- um, where we learn the concentration mode. For example, we The Art of Awareness Being awake is more than simply being present or “in the zone,” says EZRA BAYDA. It’s a wide and deep awareness that takes a lifetime of practice. ILLUSTRATIONBYLIZAMATTHEWS