How One Wakes Up

How can we describe the process by which one Wakes Up? I sketch what I take to be a fairly standard process below. Is it the only way? Of course not. But does it account for many stories of enlightenment? I think so.

Many Small Glimpses

A glimpse can be said to a brief “seeing” of our Real Nature. The teaching, therefore, often points to (a) the interval between two thoughts or feelings, (b) the time just before falling asleep, (c) the moment upon waking up and before ego arises, (d) the state of non-thought when dumbstruck with wonderment, and so on.

Daily seated meditation can readily reveal “many small glimpses.” Each glimpse is not only a taste of our True Nature; it’s also an appetite whetter that encourages us to dive deeper in order, as Zen master Dogen put it, to find the “one bright pearl.”

Satori or Nirvikalpa Samadhi: Sudden Awakening

Zen accounts in particular provide ample evidence for sudden awakening. To paraphrase Dogen, mind and body drop off–and what remains?

A glimpse, however significant this may be, is not to be confused with satori, this flash of Waking Up. To illustrate, if only obliquely and post facto, what satori or (what is the same thing) nirvikalpa samadhi is, we can do no better than to quote at length from the famous account of Sri Ramana’s sudden awakening, which occurred when he was just 16-years-old:

It was quite sudden. I was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of my uncle’s house. I seldom had any sickness and on that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it, and I did not try to account for it or to find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt “I am going to die” and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor or my elders or friends; I felt that I had to solve the problem myself, there and then. [cf. what Zen calls “the Great Matter of Birth and Death.”]

The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: “Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? “This body dies,” and at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word “I” nor any other word could be uttered. [Ramana engages in spontaneous Self-inquiry that’s combined with pranayama.]

“Well then,” I said to myself, “this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the “I” within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means that I am a deathless Spirit.”

All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process. “I” was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centered on that “I”.

Sudden awakening effects a profound paradigm shift: I am not, nor have I ever been, this bodymind; I am what I have always been: Pure Spirit or the Self.

Post-enlightenment Sadhana

A huge problem can set in upon sudden awakening: some feel that they are “fully baked” when they are not. Traditions like Rinzai Zen can offer the practitioner more koan cases so as to enable one to cut through any remaining “taint of enlightenment.”

Without any prodding, Sri Ramana naturally engaged in post-enlightenment sadhana for at least a couple of years. He moved to Tiruvannamalai where, as he tells it here and there, he sat for hours and hours in the deepest silence and, in so sitting, was able to allow Divine Grace to work its magic.

And what magic, brought about through post-enlightenment sadhana, is thereby worked? The bodymind slowly becomes a keen instrument for nothing but the Divine Will. We might say that there are now no more samskaras (or ego tendencies) or we might say that there is no more prarabdha, that is, no more karma to be lived out.

This is true, that is, complete liberation. Wonderful biographies of Sri Ramana’s life (one being Arthur Osborne’s Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-knowledge) show with what grace, ease, sweetness, love, and intelligence he met all who came to sit with him.

He saw none as other than the Self. And before the body fell off, he said, “They say that I am dying but I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here.”