What It’s Like to “Wake Up?”

Anonymous asks, in response to my last post, Do you think this was a
 glimpse of a higher reality and not an illusion?”

Wow, what a question!  The particular incident I wrote of
was a long, long time ago, so I’m going to draw on more
extensive experience later on when I was doing Gurdjieffian
mindfulness work, rather than trust my memory that much.
  This is going to tax my powers of description.
I’m going to say there is nothing “special” about my
“waking up” for a few moments.  It is quite “ordinary,”
except that, from its perspective, my ordinary,
semi-dreaming consciousness is quite extraordinary.  
I’ve experienced extraordinary altered states back
when I was a subject in psychedelic experiments in
graduate school, when research was still legal, so I have
a baseline of memories of what it’s like to think one’s
experience is really different and extraordinary.  This
kind of “waking up” is not like that at all.
I don’t feel at one with the universe, I don’t feel like I
know new kinds of things, any “secrets of the universe,”
or have any exotic new abilities.
An ordinary life analog would be if you’ve ever had the flu
for a few days.  Your feverish, you ache, you can’t think
very clearly, you just want it all to go away.  You wake up
the next morning and the flu is gone.  Your mind is clear! 
Your perceptions are sharp, the world is real!  You have
all those extraordinary (from the flu perspective)
powers that a “normal” person has, like walking, talking,
thinking.  Life is real and good, the time with the flu was
a mushy, dark time, you’re glad it’s over.  (But of course
you adapt quickly and soon take no particular notice of
your amazing powers to walk, talk, think clearly, etc.)
My experience of “waking up” was like that for many
years.  I mush along – being fine, smart, adaptive,
intelligent by ordinary standards – and suddenly
remember to come to my senses, to “wake up,” and my
goodness, I’m alive!  How could I have stayed in that
mushy state for hours, days, weeks?  Now the contrast
is not so great.  I want to believe it’s because I’m not as
deeply asleep in my ordinary state, but it may be that I
just don’t “wake up” as much.
In what way is this “waking up” really a higher reality? 
The most immediate criterion is that it feels that way,
like the way your waking consciousness feels when you’ve
awakened from a blurry, stupid nighttime dream.  
Have I ever done anything extraordinary while feeling
awake that would be “objective” evidence that I’m in a
higher state of consciousness?  Usually the “waking” is
very brief, so there’s no time to do anything special, but
I often do feel like I see aspects of my immediate
situation that were unclear before.  But who knows? 
And I feel no urge to “prove” anything, the sun is shining,
I’m alive, life is interesting!
Note that I keep putting a lot of words in quotes, like
“waking up,” to remind us that words are not all that
adequate here.  
Is my experience what Gurdjieff meant by “waking up?” 
Probably to some degree, but I remain open to the idea
that there is also some kind of greater Waking Up that I
 don’t have any direct knowledge of.
Interesting questions.....


  1. “I’m going to say there is nothing “special” about my
    “waking up” for a few moments. It is quite “ordinary,””

    I’ve heard other people describe it in the same way.

    In Buddhism, waking up might be described as the cessation of suffering because of the cessation of desire (ie ceasing of attachments and aversions). Do your experiences fit that description, ceasing to suffer, letting go of attachments and aversions?

    I’m just trying to get a sense of what waking up means to you. I think it is a big hurdle today to get, what in Buddhism is part of the eightfold path: right understanding. Especially in modern times, because of our scientific outlook, people have a hard time accepting something unless they can understand it and I don’t think there is a very clear explanation about what waking up is. Right understanding is part of the eightfold path for a good reason: if you understand what it is, you can cultivate the right attitudes to facilitate it.

    Most people who hear about the end of suffering or letting go of attachments and aversions think waking up means being happy all the time, but I think the analogy to pain is more appropriate. Waking up doesn’t make pain go away it changes your attitude about pain. According to how I understand it, waking up doesn’t eliminate emotions it changes your attitude to them.

    As my meditation practice evolved I began to see more and more that my emotions were outside myself, that there was an inner observer with a sense of humor who could see anxiety, depression, anger, excitement, joy and love, as merely sensations like hot or cold. In the summer, I feel hot and I sweat. When I get cut off on the freeway I feel angry and curse. There is an old saying “Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water”. Giving up attachments and aversions also means giving up attachments to nice emotions and aversions to bad emotions. Is it just as apt to say “Before enlightenment worry, joy, anger, and love. After enlightenment worry, joy, anger, and love?”

    Many people start meditating to help with stress or emotional issues and they expect meditation to offer relief. It can be helpful but that purpose is just another manifestation of attachment to feeling good and aversion to feeling bad. If a person is too focused on that, and doesn’t have a wider understanding of what waking up is about, they won’t be open to the possibility of changing their attitude to their emotions rather than eliminating them. So, I think that ignorance, lack of right understanding, can be an obstacle to waking up.

  2. Anonymous,

    It is nice to see that all though you practice a different method than me, you gain the same insights about emotions. For me, practicing makes me face my demons. It can be uncomfortable as hell at times. But it also gives progress and understanding. I’ve realized that it is all about attention. Giving attention to thought patterns or emotions that don’t help me just reinforce them. It doesn’t matter what kind of attention it is. Attention is their fuel. Finding out what not to pay attention to in the mental landscape, and what to reinforce or replace with something better is the trick. But first one needs to understand what is helpful ways of thinking and what is not. Here personal experience is a good teacher (being aware of the subtle reactions of the mind), but also the experience of those that have been walking similar paths before.


  3. “Giving attention to thought patterns or emotions that don’t help me just reinforce them.”

    I agree. I think vipassana is very good, I recommend it, and I practice it in my own way, but everything has it’s own pitfalls and I’ve found it is possible with vipassana to give negativity too much attention looking for a solution and inadvertently reinforcing it or spending inordinate amounts of time looking at something hoping it will go away (like resistance to pain which Charles blogged about earlier) but which is organic not cognitive and the best one can do is give up resistance to it.

    I think everyone has to find their own balance of letting out (observing and understanding emotions) and letting go (displacing negative thoughts with neutral or positive thoughts, or just focusing attention on something else).

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