Commentary on Are You Awake?

Life is not where you think it is,
The stories you act are your dreams –
The pleasure, the pain, the loss, the gain,
Your tortuous self-serving schemes.

It lives in the gaps, when you’re blinking,
“It’s nothing” you think – but it is,
You can’t pin it down with thinking…
The heartbeat of Now could be bliss!


The everyday consensual view of life is a constantly developing tale of ourselves as individuals operating in a world of other people and things, and the changing interactions and relationships between ourselves and this world. Life goes on in this arena: it’s me, it’s my actions based on this view, it’s the story of my life unfolding. Given the reality of these people and physical objects, and my needs and desires, what else could it be?

This way of seeing is actually a view, even though it may seem the only possible one. Our decisions and actions are bound to be based upon it, we are naturally occupied with the way these events play out for us. We’re concerned with when it brings us pleasure, when pain, when we lose or gain – and the manipulations we devise in order to skew it towards more pleasure and gain, less loss and pain. This is the story of our life.

Meditation, on a path of Awakening, can unsettle this whole picture. When there are chinks in the veil of thinking, we are enabled to see that the world we took as real was a world of thinking. We think we know what we are ‘on the inside’, so to speak, we interpret our senses to know what the outside world is – specifically in terms of what it offers to this view of ourselves. All this is a web of thinking – the dream that we were acting out.

The gaps, the times when this is not happening, seem like nothing worth our attention. Direct sensory experience appears meaningless without its clothing of perception, and the relationship this gives it to our sense of self. There’s nothing there we can name with a thought – just the openness, the uncertainty, the changeability, the wordless appreciation, the wonder of it. Any thought we apply will take it straight back into the thought-world which ‘knows’ what things are. This is satisfying in a way, but somehow deadening. The aliveness is in the not-knowing, the way it’s not part of that defined me-and-it-ness.

Like blinking, such gaps are momentary, the merest glimpse which passes unnoticed so easily. At first we don’t see any significance to it, quite the opposite. It doesn’t fit in our scheme of things.

Another curious feature of experience which meditation can reveal is that our past, and our ideas of future, exist only as thoughts – they are the skeleton of the thought-picture we have of life, but in our direct experience they do not exist. Our growing recognition of something other than the time-bound story which we took as ‘life’ allows us to value present moment experience for itself. It is free from the pleasure-seeking, the emotional ups and downs, the suffering which seemed inevitable. We see the potential of a happiness which is not dependent on circumstances, is unlimited by events – it could be bliss.

That ordinary life we took as the limits of reality was like being asleep and lost in believing dreams. To know this truth of now-ness, this open space of pure clarity and sensitivity – this is to be Awake.

The truth to which we can awaken is not something which only exists in the absence of thinking – that wouldn’t be much of a truth. Rather, it allows us to put in perspective our world founded on thinking. Some of our inbuilt assumptions – which we had no way to challenge from within our established patterns of thought – are mistaken. Now we know our thoughts are constructed, we can respond accordingly.

It becomes patently apparent to us that life is more than the story of our ‘dream’ – the fact that the dream was just a dream doesn’t make it a meaningless nothing – after all, what is the dreaming itself?

As the culasunnata sutra points out, the dream is empty of the reality we ascribed to it, of what is other than it – but it is not empty of what it truly is. What would bliss be if nothing were real, if it were not experienced? Even a dream has precise clarity, it has sensitivity, yet it has the openness, the freedom to go anywhere. Like a dream, life is clarity-yet-emptiness, bliss-yet-emptiness. This Dharma-ditty expresses a third turning of the Dharma-wheel, the shentong view.


[Related post: Love’s Gaze]

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