Many years ago, while reading P. D. Ouspensky’s book, “in Search of the Miraculous,” about the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, I “woke up.” I’ve never had the words to describe it adequately, and I suspect it’s not possible to describe something like it adequately in words, but suddenly I was in a state of mental and perceptual clarity in which it was obvious that my ordinary state, in which I had already spent decades, was dim, muddied, only a half-alive way of existing.
This relative awakening only lasted a few seconds, although it made an indelible impression that there was a way of living and being aware that was exceptionally important. I call it a relative awakening, relative to my ordinary state, because while it was a very vivid and awake state compared to my ordinary, normal consciousness, undoubtedly the most alive state I had ever been in my life up to that time, I have no idea how it compares to the alleged awakeness of people like Gurdjieff or Gautama Buddha. I suspect I had just touched the lower reaches of what might be possible.
This moment of awakening led to many years, right up through and continuing through the present, of studying and practicing Gurdjieff’s teachings, aspects of Buddhism, many varieties of personal growth methods, etc., trying to wake up for more than a few seconds at a time. It turned out that it wasn’t at all difficult for me to become relatively awake, the difficulty was in remembering to bothering to do it! The habitual, automatic nature of my mind was (and, I must say, is) simply so powerful, and my life is generally satisfying enough, that I spent and still spend most of my time in ordinary consciousness, what I’ve called consensus consciousness in my technical writings about this. I did slowly get skillful enough in becoming more awake to the present moment to write several books about the process of waking up and how to do it (****), to teach an introduction to mindfulness and awakening to graduate students once a year at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now renamed Sofia University), and teach an introduction to it in a web workshop a couple of times a year (http://www.Glidewing.com).
Knowing how satisfying it can be to feel more awake, and believing it makes me more capable of living a good life and being helpful to others, it amazes me (too damned often!) of how “asleep” I can be in ordinary consciousness, and create numerous instances of useless suffering as well as being less capable in what I do.
This morning I had a simple and very clear illustration of that. I needed to go to the post office to return a defective computer CD drive, and was planning to go afterwards to my Tai Chi Chih class. I was ready to leave for class earlier than I expected, though, so my wife suggested I go to the post office first, it probably wouldn’t be crowded, and I could leave off my package in a few minutes. So off I went.
I got the post office and there were several people ahead of me in line. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “I’m taking a chance that I will be able to do this and not be late for class, but it won’t really matter if I’m a few minutes late for class anyway. I can practice being more present, more awake here as I wait in line, watch people walk by, etc.”
Fifteen minutes later the line had not moved at all, and I found that over and over again, when I sensed my internal state, I was frustrated and restless. I might be more awake for a few seconds, and then my “Hurry up!” and “Poor me!” attitudes took over my mind. I was terribly important, I didn’t want to be late, it wasn’t fair that the person at the head of the line had so many time-consuming things to talk to the clerk about, etc., etc. I could feel my body tensing up, my mental energy being captured in useless worrying. Added to my useless suffering, was some suffering which was useful, namely my embarrassment as I realized how stupid I was being from the point of view of someone who is good enough at being present to teach others how to do it! Shameful!
I finally gave up and went off to my Tai Chi Chih class.
Normally I am fairly centered in the present and mindful of exactly how I’m doing those various Tai Chi Chih exercises, and is both good physical exercise and good exercise in being present, but I was definitely off today.
After class I went back to the post office. The line was even longer, but it moved much faster this time, and, determined that I was going to be present as much as possible, I was much more so. So it was far less stressful on my body, and my mind. One more demonstration of the value of mindfulness in the middle of ordinary life.
And just to rub it in, when I handed my package to the clerk, she told me I could just leave packages with that kind of return label on the counter, I didn’t have to wait in line….
How many times do I have to have that lesson repeated before I make mindfulness more of a habit than getting carried away in my automatic thoughts?
There is a small gain, of course, that I have another instance of my useless mindlessness to share with students when I start to worry that they are getting too elevated an idea of how mindful I am! 😉