I saw the phrase recently on a t-shirt: Wake Up. The t-shirt is part of a fundraising initiative to help bring the message of mindfulness to youth worldwide. Wake up. It’s a powerful phrase, isn’t it? It can come in gentle, like a loving caregiver whispering their slumbering loved one awake. It can also come in like the bratty sibling who flings open the curtains, jumps on your bed and slams pot lids together until you open your eyes. Either way the phrase perks you up. You become conscious, alert and engaged with your circumstance. And yet, so often, we live as if we are asleep. We engage in behaviours that numb us out. Not enjoying the sensations that course through us as we experience certain thoughts and feelings, we aim to banish them from our personal domain, only to discover that, over time, we feel less and less until, nothing at all.
I started to really work with the idea of waking up about a month ago when I decided to stop consuming alcohol. There was nothing particularly distressing about my enjoyment of the substance. I would come home at the end of the week, pour myself a drink, and sit down with my loved one to talk about the day. The ritual was comforting and the taste of the drink was pleasant. But always, in the background, there was a certain disturbance. There was the fear of becoming an alcoholic like my father. There was the knowledge that alcohol contains no nutrients and, therefore, is useless to the body. What’s more, it is poison to the body. Even more threatening to me was the fact that alcohol converts directly into sugar, a frightening prospect for someone who has diabetes running on both sides of the family. How much of a risk was I willing to take? Apparently quite a risk. Week after week I would continue with the behaviour, strengthening the habit.
It wasn’t until I started working with petitions before and after my practice – May I be happy…May I be healthy…May I awaken – that I started to feel deeply unsettled. May I awaken? How awake was I feeling? Practice after practice I would utter the words. Week after week I would drink, and suddenly I noticed that I wasn’t feeling awake at all! Alcohol, upon consumption, was dulling my mind. Now I was getting concerned. Upon reflection, as I drank, I would feel more and more as I did when I was overtaken by depression. My mental faculties were clouded. I felt as if I existed in a bubble; I could see the world around me but I couldn’t directly connect. I couldn’t connect with my environment and I couldn’t connect with my loved ones. I wasn’t really there. My capacity to corral the energies of thoughts and feelings diminished, so I found myself riding the tumultuous waves of mood swings, and uttering words I would never otherwise speak. The monkeys had taken over the circus and I was nowhere to be found.
This week, before class, two of my students were talking about a difficult situation. One student said, “It’s enough to make you want to drink. Just make it aaaaaaaall go away.” I’m not sure what my face did, but it elicited a response, “What? What are we supposed to do? Just skip tra la la down the road all happy all the time?!”
No. Not in the least. But the invitation is to wake up. To wake up to the searing sharpness of life. To the pain and the ugliness. To the things that scare the shit out of us. To the things that confuse and distress us. To the things we’d much rather go blind to. Why? Because, as Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma:
While numbing (or compensatory sensation seeking) may make life tolerable, the price you pay is that you lose awareness of what is going on inside your body and, with that, the sense of being full, sensually alive.
We cannot pick and choose our numbness. We cannot say, “Oh, hey, I can’t stand the sensation of anger so, you know, block that out but keep the rest.” No. If we make the decision to go to sleep, we go…to…sleep!
A year ago, at this precise time, I was standing in the Critical Care Unit as my step mother-in-law lay dying. That time is burned in my mind as one of the most agonizing, profound and beautiful times of my life. Nothing will call you to awaken like death. We need that contrast, the complete extinguishment of vitality, movement, connection, uniqueness to show us what it means to be alive and to live.
I don’t know about you but I want to live! And if living means I have to endure the sharp pains and the distressing bits, well, I will buy the whole package, because it’s all precious and beautiful in some way or other, even if we can’t see it right now.
I won’t be the sibling who tears back the curtains and scares you awake. Life will deliver enough of those messengers to you and to all of us. Instead, I will be the soft whisper: Wake up, friend. Come. See? Look at all that’s out there. Isn’t it grand? As my dear friend reminded me once, “We’re a long time dead.” Come. Live with me.
*raising my jar of tea* May I awaken. May you awaken. May all living beings awaken.
May we be free! 🙂
All my love,