Cultivating Awareness

Last week, I asked you if you were really and truly ready to understand what it means to "be woke." Have you been thinking about it? There is no better time than now to wake up from the dreams of delusion that govern the majority of our day to day lives.

Awareness is not automatic. It is not reflexive. It requires attention and cultivation, and a willingness to engage with discomfort as your brain begins to process what it might mean to accept reality. Otherwise, in the name of "self-care", a very broad term that occasionally thinly veils abject self-centeredness, we might be cultivating avoidance instead of awareness. Psychologists report that avoidance is related to anxiety, and that it is quite common. In finance, aversion to reality among investors is known as the "Ostrich effect." Our daily avoidance often amounts to simply numbing out by playing pretend, eating, drinking, rationalization, addiction to work, and refusal to engage with facts over feelings.

Putting things off, assuaging one's own fears with half-truths and platitudes,spiritual bypassing, and related phenomena might seem easier than making the decision to stay alert, pay attention, watch keenly, speak up, and be present for what is happening. Our world is not really set up to encourage us in our awareness. In the age of the Internet, when attachment, aversion, and indifference are merely a click away, we can follow our whims regardless of where they lead us. Our knee-jerk reactions can swiftly lead us down the path of obsession, down the path or avoidance, down the path of rage, or, with awareness, we can step off the intensity express and start walking down the path to enlightenment. 

Cultivating awareness of how, why, and to what we are reacting and responding in stress situations is one step in cultivating overall awareness. Enlightenment is the individual's capacity for total, limitless awareness, which perceives everything exactly as it is. The ability to see what is, and accept the reality of it, does not mean that we should allow oppression and persecution to stand while we bliss out listening to mantras on our headphones and congratulating ourselves on clear seeing; it means that we know what is happening, we know where we stand, and we know that we are ready to take compassionate action as needed to alleviate suffering.

In a universe made of suffering, where we are each veritably soaking in the suffering of our own lives and others, to truly "be woke" is to refuse to turn away from suffering in any form. It is easy to start cultivating your awareness of suffering among people with whom you agree. It is much harder to cultivate awareness of the suffering of the people with whom you rigorously disagree. Plus, when you work to cultivate that particularly difficult awareness, it is possible that you may engage in spiritual bypassing by removing your focus from the reality of their suffering and instead focusing on your own tepid, temporary version of "love and light." That's not the same thing as incisive awareness of the reality of their situation.

When we cultivate awareness, truly, we begin to see that our opinions aren't actually very reliable. We begin to confront the stories we have been told, and the stories we have been telling ourselves. The fact is, lack of education begets suffering, but education itself can also force you to confront unpleasantries and therefore cause suffering. Poverty begets suffering, but so does wealth in that it ripens one for paranoia and greed over time. Loss begets suffering, but so does an overabundance when one is unprepared for it. Pain and stress cause suffering, but so do ennui and boredom and cynicism.

The key to acknowledging the reality of suffering is to acknowledge that all beings, regardless of their circumstances and privileges, experience suffering and wish for that suffering to end. From this point of acknowledgement, we are free to then address the causes of suffering. We can address the suffering of the oppressed, and we can also address the suffering that caused people to become oppressors. We can address the needs of victims, and we can also address the needs of perpetrators, who may be mentally ill, or might have been victims of abuse themselves. We can address the suffering of the poor who constantly experience fear and pain over their basic survival, and we can also address the suffering of those who, burdened with more than their fair share, have become cold-hearted and callous, effectively limiting their ability to participate in the act of being human.

Not all methods of addressing suffering are gentle, and this is why we must assiduously avoid spiritual bypassing, because the alleviation of suffering is not merely about how we address emotions and feelings, but rather is about how we address the causes of suffering. Seizing power from a dictator will certainly make him and his followers feel unhappy, but it will ultimately alleviate his suffering, and the suffering of many others. Sometimes, compassion is a splash of freezing cold water upon the cosy warmth of privilege.


Every day, the world over, millions of people recite their dharma vows:
“I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the dharma.
I take refuge in the sangha.”

According to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, to take refuge in the Buddha is to have an example to look toward. It is not to have a savior in whom you place your faith, hope, and trust. Rather, taking refuge in the Buddha means that you, like the Buddha did over 2500 years ago, acknowledge and abandon the fundamental groundlessness of religious systems that promise you salvation if you look outside of yourself for answers. Second, to take refuge in the dharma is to place your trust in a system of teachings that are not "gospel" but will spark a process of refinement in you, guiding you on a journey deep within yourself that has no visible end. And finally, to take refuge in the sangha is to embrace the fact that there are others on the same path as you, to affirm that all of you are in this process as a community and can support one another, and to acknowledge that each of you is nonetheless fundamentally alone in your own journey.

To take refuge is not to cozy up in the lap of false hope; it is to become a spiritual warrior. It is not a relief; it is a challenge. It is not an invitation to become soft in our compassion, but to temper ourselves in its flames. Taking refuge is a deeply personal choice that one makes for the benefit of all beings, not from selfish motivations or a desire to be coddled by anyone. It is a path of learning to walk on a trail that many have walked before, that many are walking right now, and that many will walk in the future, and yet to still be completely on your own. Refuge is about learning that you are both your own agent of inner solace, and your own strict teacher driving yourself along that path. It is not to pray for ease, but to acknowledge that ease, like struggle, is temporary, conditional, and illusory. Once you have taken refuge, you can no longer lie to yourself about the fantasy of spiritual practice. Instead, you must become aware of the reality of spiritual practice, and surrender to the mystery that it unlocks in your life.

From the article:

"If we adopt a prefabricated religion that tells us exactly the best way to do everything, it is as though that religion provides a complete home with wall-to-wall carpeting. We get completely spoiled. We don’t have to put out any effort or energy, so our dedication and devotion have no fiber. We wind up complaining because we didn’t get the deluxe toilet tissue that we used to get. So at this point, rather than walking into a nicely prepared hotel or luxurious house, we are starting from the primitive level. We have to figure out how we are going to build our city and how we are going to relate with our comrades who are doing the same thing."

Right now, at a very difficult moment in American history, so many hopes are dashed. So many people are feeling a loss of faith in government, in other people, in their own religions, in their gods, in the power of prayer, and in the possibility of a better future. Many people are only just now realizing the impermanent and ephemeral nature of everything they once believed firmly, and are feeling rootless, disappointed, and failed by ways of thinking they formerly held dear. Much of what is emerging in the current political landscape seems bleak at best, outright sinister at worst. In times of such outward disillusionment, a trend toward despondency, anxiety, and depression can take root, causing the conditions that heighten inward delusion and suffering. Times of trial like these can lead to nihilistic attitudes, hardening of hearts, and spiritual suffocation in the quicksand of fear.

There is an alternative view, of course. If you have chosen the path of being a spiritual warrior, times like these can be like a splash of freezing water that creates a moment of awakening. Are you ready to understand what it really, truly means to "be woke"?

During moments such as we are now experiencing, we must look through the eyes of refuge and see that the current circumstances are not the end of us; they are our work. The challenges we face as a national and global sangha are intimately related to the work we now must do within ourselves, for the benefit of others. Now is not the time to seek refuge by hiding under the blankets, numbing ourselves with addictive or compulsive behaviors, or cutting ourselves off from reality. None of these paths are refuge- they are escapism, which is different. These behaviors are understandable, but useless.

Now is the time to actively accept responsibility that each of us, even though we are fundamentally alone and may feel very afraid, must do our best to create circumstances of compassion, sanctuary, and liberation from delusion that will benefit others. We must courageously throw freezing water upon our tendencies to seek the warmth of privilege. We must awaken the parts of ourselves that have substituted feelings for facts all of these years, and curtail the tendency to choose empty platitudes over facing the truth. We must cut through our own delusions with the sharpest blade possible to sever the growth of selfishness and speed the healing of the whole being.

If you would seek refuge, do not seek self-gratification, which leads of ego-centric clinging and aversion. If you would seek refuge, do not deny any part of the ugliness of your own process. If you would seek refuge, forget bliss and reach deep into the discomfort. Though it may seem a paradox, when you do this you somehow become happier, more whole, more calm, stronger, more courageous, and more satisfied than you can possibly imagine amidst your current life of relative convenience in the pre-fabricated illusion of reality you had perhaps hoped would remain intact. Through that door of acceptance of what it means to become a spiritual refugee, which seems so frightening, the only lasting joy that is not contingent upon outside circumstances or delusion awaits you.

While you may not feel that it is appropriate for you to take ceremonial refuge to become a Buddhist in this life, please also remember that the first Buddha was not a Buddhist, either. He just started a protest march that is beyond time and labels, and he has no intention of stopping until all beings are free. You can take refuge in this idea of a never-ending journey toward collective wholeness, the cultivation of your own wholeness as a part of that, and the necessity of ultimately leaving no one behind. If nothing else, you can take heart in his example and the example of so many who have come before you, who have created profound comfort and support for others even in difficult circumstances.

By choosing to open your eyes and see reality for what it truly is, you can become limitless, and your capacity to lend help to others will increase. This is what is needed now.