We’re all in a dream. We take it for ‘reality’, and many of us never question it. But those who take a few moments, even once in their lifetime, to sit down and have a good look at this thing we call Life – those people will discover that something is slightly amiss. Something in the equation doesn’t add up. A little more searching and it becomes evident that most of what we call ‘real-life’ is just a product of human imagination.
When we see this, we find that life isn’t quite as we thought it was. Lacking a proper word to describe it in the English language (we might borrow the word Maya if we’d like a good one), we might start using words like ‘dream’.
How do we wake up from this dream? There are many religions, gurus, and exercises that promise Awakening. But most of them just confuse and confound us! If only there were a simple recipe for waking up from this dream we’re all in! A bit of brown sugar, a pinch of cayenne, some whole wheat flour and milk . . .
But it’s not quite like baking a cake. Although we’re all aiming for a simple result, in the end, we’re all at different places in our lives, and in order to see what Awakening is referring to, each person needs a different approach. We end up in a situation where we all need our own, special recipe that will work just for us.
You’re in the process of creating your own special recipe right now. Everything you do is part of the process. Don’t worry. You’re doing just fine. One could say that the ‘meaning’ of samsara, or regular life – the reason it exists – is to spur us toward Awakening. This idea can help us to see that no matter how our life is unfolding – full of happiness or sadness or anger or pain or abundance or starvation – no matter how our life is unfolding, there is only one truly good thing we can gain from life. And that is Awakening.
Life — A Great Design
There is a Hindu idea that God ‘became’ all of the things we call ‘reality’ – the galaxies, the earth, the clouds and stars, the nuclear bombs and you and me. In this myth, the ‘reason’ for all of this creation is so that God can play ‘hide’ among all the things of creation.
You are in a unique position. You can live out your life staying ‘hidden’, ignorant of your true nature (which is just fine, since in this myth, it’s the reason for all of this anyway), or you can discover yourself – find yourself, and become aware of your true nature.
Will you stay hidden from yourself, or discover yourself? It really doesn’t matter, since God isn’t playing the game to ‘win’. So you can either remain immersed in the illusion, relishing the joys and recoiling against the fears and pains of living. Or you can wake up, see exactly what is going on, and have a great laugh at the whole affair.
Most of us will remain ignorant of our true nature. After all, God designed this game, and it’s a pretty clever set-up. Will we be clever enough to outwit God? The paradoxical answer is ‘no’ – unless we can realize our true God-nature, in which case the game will be perfectly clear because you designed it. This isn’t the ‘you’ that you usually think of — it’s a ‘you’ that (by virtue of another well-designed paradox) is only understood when you discover that no ‘you’ exists.
Of course, this myth is only a story – an idea – and has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual situation. It is, however, a fun and useful method of getting ourselves into a new perspective – a perspective that just might make the following recipe work for us.
Just What Are We Trying to Bake?
To understand this, we have to know what we mean by ‘waking up from the dream’. This is what some people call awakening or enlightenment. But to understand what this is, we have to understand a little bit about how our language works.
An Observation on Language
People often speak about enlightenment in mysterious terms. “Our words cannot describe it”, they say, or “our ideas can never touch it.” The point here is that there is absolutely no way I can write down an accurate description of Awakening. But guess what? This isn’t unusual at all! I can’t actually give you an accurate description of anything! Could I describe what an apple is if you had never experienced one? Could I describe the feeling of a sneeze if you had never had one? Could I describe the taste of Amedei chocolate if you had only ever eaten Hershey’s?
Of course not! We can never capture anything in ‘real-life’ with our words. What we can capture (or seem to capture) with our words are ideas. I can say ‘apple’, and you can invoke your idea of ‘apple’ in your head. Now we’re both satisfied that we’re talking about the same thing, even though there is no actual apple involved. We aren’t tasting it or feeling it or seeing it or smelling it – we’re just exchanging an idea. We like to think this process is accurate, but in actuality, my idea of an apple and your idea of an apple might not match up very well.
This shows us the limits of language. We think that when we talk we’re exchanging meaningful information, but in reality, I’m talking about ideas in my head, and you’re talking about ideas in your head.
Of course, we forget this, and we think that when we talk to each other, we’re referencing ‘real things’. Because of this, we can do some pretty amazing things, like build buildings and give each other recipes for cake. But the flip side is that our misunderstanding of how language works create all sorts of conflict. Indeed, the majority of human conflict arises because of this basic ignorance. Everyone who is ‘dreaming’ is pretty confused, and it shows when you take a look at human relationships, including our relationship with ourselves.
When we talk about enlightenment, it’s much like talking about an apple. Of course, when we want to show someone what an apple is, we can go and pick an apple and give it to them. But when we want to show someone enlightenment, it’s a little different. Why? Because enlightenment is right in front of us all the time. It’s not any certain ‘thing’ we can isolate from the rest of the world, but instead is the whole world itself! So when we try to show someone enlightenment, we’re trying to show them reality.
We can’t go get it and put it in front of their face because it’s already there. We have to sit down with the person and try to point out reality as it is, right now, all around them. It gets complicated because the dreaming person can only think in isolated ‘things’. Whenever you try to point to the totality of reality all around them, they try to make reality into an object.
‘Does it look like this?’ ‘Does it act like so?’ ‘Does it feel like such?’
Soon the person has created all sorts of new objects, and they are trying to behave in certain ways, to experience certain feelings, or to fix reality with new ideas like ‘oneness’ or ‘perfection’. But these are just new things in the human imagination and are no closer to Truth than thinking that reality is a pencil or a glass of beer.
So how do we create a recipe for discovering this ‘reality’ which is all around us all the time? Here, we’ll create a basic ‘skeleton’ recipe. It doesn’t have a lot of extra ingredients, but with a little fleshing out by you, it just might become a recipe that wakes you up from the dream.
What we’ll begin with are two ideas. One we’ll call Desire, and the other we’ll call Ignorance. Understanding these two things will help us to Awaken.
We often think that desire is simple. We want things, right? A yacht, a nice house, and a good-looking mate would be a great start. But in reality, these are only superficial desires, and if we observe our life, we’ll find that we have some desires that dictate the structure of our entire existence.
Most of us, for instance, have a strong desire for security. This is the desire to have things remain the same or to change only according to our sense of ‘better’. Seen in this way, we find that our desire is a very clever set-up to make sure that we don’t Awaken. It’s not that desires themselves are bad, but when we have these desires, our life becomes a desperate attempt to satisfy them. We struggle all our lives to make things ‘better’, and when things get ‘worse’, we fall into despair.
In effect, we are constantly distracted, during our entire lives, by the tasks set forth by Desire. Distracted by Desire, we have no time to concern ourselves with Awakening. We just go through the constant cycle of being pushed around by our desires and then disappointed by them. Over and over and over. Interestingly, we all know (but try to push from our minds) that this whole idea of security is completely pointless since the only thing we’re assured of in this life is death. And probably, along the way, we’ll get old, lose our health, lose our good looks, watch our loved ones die . . .
And yet, we persist in this mad clinging to security.
Our second ingredient is Ignorance. Ignorance is an even more powerful force to keep us from Awakening. We all experience a deep ignorance of what it means to be alive and Awake, and what the reason is for living. In effect, we’re stuck in a game in which we don’t know the rules, and we don’t know the reason for playing. If we seem to be ‘winning’ the game, we get lost in our happiness. If we seem to be ‘losing’ the game, we get lost in our sorrows. If only we could see it was a game, everything would be clear!
The combination of Desire and Ignorance almost guarantees that we can’t awaken from this dream. We get so lost in the dream that we don’t stand a chance of discovering what’s really going on. Even if we think we’ve figured it out, and start getting serious about ‘spiritual’ pursuits, we’re still just lost in the same old game. We are ‘reborn’ again and again in each moment, cycling through the same basic problems.
Let’s Bake the Cake!
Usually, we feel that we must tackle the ‘problem’ (in this case, our dreaming) head-on. We must eradicate desire, and crush our ignorance. Thus begins a fruitless quest to control our life situation. We spend years trying to control our emotions, trying to get in touch with our higher selves, trying to meditate to calm our hyperactive minds. These processes are just like trying to make money – we may very well become rich (or control our emotions, or discover a higher source of wisdom, or quiet our minds), but ultimately, we find that these accomplishments bring us no closer to Awakening than making lots of money. All they really accomplish is to further distract us from Awakening.
Why? Because all of these ‘spiritual’ pursuits are made up of the twin ingredients of Desire and Ignorance. We might as well just attend to making lots of money, for that, too, will bring us a temporary feeling of being ‘on top of the world’.
The key to making the recipe successful is simply to observe our Desire and Ignorance. By simple observation, we see into the nature of Desire and Ignorance, and because Desire and Ignorance can only exist when we’re not looking carefully, they dissolve under our gaze. We don’t have to work for this – we simply observe.
What is this thing called Desire? What does it feel like? If we observe, we’ll discover a sensation – a clinging, desperate sensation (though sometimes very subtle) – that underlies our desires. In effect, we constantly choose to Desire. This is because we believe that desire is necessary if we are to be worthwhile as human beings. Without desire, we believe that human beings would just sit and stare at a wall. Life would be meaningless if we weren’t striving for higher goals and better lives, and Desire is what gives us the ability to strive for these things.
Is this true? Would we simply stagnate if we didn’t have Desire? By simple observation, you can find out for yourself.
What is this thing called Ignorance? This is Maya, and by its very nature, it always turns our attention to imaginary objects and prevents us from seeing Reality. No matter where we look for Reality, Ignorance turns our gaze in the direction of some new object. Then we run off in pursuit of that. By observing this process, we see how Ignorance works and can observe the object-creation process. There is an easy test to see if you are pursuing an imaginary object created by Ignorance. Just ask yourself if you can imagine the opposite to what you are chasing. If you think the world is Oneness, can you imagine a world of Multiplicity? If you think the world is Peace, can you imagine a world of Conflict? If you think the world is Awakedness, can you imagine a world of Dreaming? If you think you are Enlightened, can you imagine a state of Un-enlightenedness?
Reality has no opposites. It has no qualities. If you can pin it down in your mind, you are still dealing with the raw ingredients of Desire and Ignorance.
But hold for a moment! By now we might think that Desire and Ignorance are bad. They’re not. Indeed, the beauty of these ingredients is that they also hold the key to Awakening. Simply by observing them, we can Awaken. Desire and Ignorance are not our enemies – they are the very ingredients necessary for our Awakening. But we have to treat them like ingredients – as necessary as eggs and flour in our cake. They are important things that we must mix into the recipe, and then let the recipe unfold.
We can’t bake a cake if we’re opening the oven all the time. We can’t bake a cake if we keep taking it out of the oven and trying to separate the eggs from the flour. We bake a cake by mixing the ingredients, placing the mixture in the oven, and then letting it do its own thing.
Awakening is just like this. You don’t have to mess around with things or force things along. It will do just fine on its own. Just attend to the twin ingredients of Desire and Ignorance.
Observe them with awareness, and see what your awareness unfolds.
This sensation – of moving into more awareness, and then finding yourself slipping into the ‘auto-pilot’ mode of our usual living – is actually a wonderful teacher. If we look at it, we can ask ‘what does it mean that I feel myself slipping in and out, or moving closer or further’?
Usually, we’ll find that we have created an idea of what we have to live up to – of what it means to be Awake.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this process (of defining Awakening) as we work on waking up, because the desire/interest is what motivates us to attend to awakening, instead of just watching old episodes of CSI.
However, as we move closer to Awakening, it begins to become fruitful to hear that our efforts are getting in the way. Our efforts are always directed toward a goal, and when we hold a goal in mind (however subtle it may be), we’ve created an object at the end of our quest. And this object, since we must define it, must-have qualities. And in the case of defining awakening, we create qualities that we must then live up to.
Often we can be quite convinced that we are ‘there’, and may feel that we dwell ‘there’ for months at a time. But if we can conceive of a ‘not there’, we can be sure that we’ve simply developed a powerful ability to ‘deal with life’ more effectively. This will serve us well until circumstances push us out of our ability to ‘deal’ (in many cases this is not a tragic circumstance, but a lulling one, where things quiet enough that we find ourselves slipping back into unawareness). Then we discover that we’re still engaged in the same process of trying to get someplace better.
When we’re at this point, it’s time to pay attention to our efforts. (Don’t try to cease them, as that just becomes a new effort.) Whenever we feel that we have slipped back into unawareness, it is time to ask ourselves just what ‘unawareness’ is. Just look at how we’re defining one state, then another state, and notice how we’re preferring one over the other. At once, it may become quite comical as you watch your present mind trying to label this-or-that ‘past’ state of being, and you can get delightfully tangled in the whole dualistic mess of it all.
These are the moments when it may snap – when we see that all of this that we’re doing is Awake, and dualism is just a game we’re playing in our heads. When this happens, we can’t find anything dualistic any more, and we come to see that the whole world is enlightened. Indeed, the only place that dualism exists is in our heads. And I mean that in a strictly personal sense – as in saying to each individual person – ‘Dualism exists in only one place in this whole universe. In YOUR head. No one else’s. Just yours, alone.’ Dualism is strictly personal.
If this doesn’t immediately depress us, it can remove us from the feeling that dualism is ‘out there’, a force in the world against which we must do some sort of battle. When we see it’s ‘in here’, we can become intimate with it, and then we’ll see that it, too, isn’t dual. Nothing we can do or think can ever be dualistic — we’re here, right now, fully present in every moment, and there’s nothing we can do about it.