Q. “Jeff, why don’t you emphasise the story of your own awakening? Are you implying that nothing has changed for you? Surely the only reason you can talk the way you do, is because something fundamentally shifted in your life? Surely, years ago, when you were suffering from extreme depression, you wouldn’t have spoken the way you do now?”
A. I don’t emphasise the story of ‘my awakening’ these days simply because I have less and less interest in holding up any image of myself, including any image of myself as ‘the awakened one’ or ‘the enlightened teacher”. What I am doesn’t seem to need any image. It is full and complete in this moment, fully engaged with the realities of present experience, without any reference to what did or didn’t happen in the past.
I can’t deny the past of course. I can’t deny that something has profoundly changed here, but at the same time, there’s no need to cling to that story, and use it to separate myself from others. There’s no need to constantly remind you of my story. There’s no interest in separating myself from you in that way. There’s no interest in proving to you how awakened I am. The story seems so irrelevant in the face of the wonder of this moment.
So, on a relative level, of course there is change and transformation, but there’s no need to cling to the story of that in order to give myself a conceptual identity. And on an ultimate level, what I am, as consciousness, has never changed and cannot change. It’s the ocean, deeply at rest, deeply at peace no matter how the waves chop and change. It has no interest in awakening. It doesn’t know enlightenment or non-enlightenment. It has no interest in holding up any story about itself.
This is the gorgeous paradox of awakening. Change and no change at all. (And of course, ultimately there aren’t two levels, ultimate and relative, but it’s a helpful way of pointing, as long as words are required.)
I spent years holding up an image of myself as ‘the awakened one’ without even realising it. Endlessly telling the story of ‘my awakening’ to myself and to others, both explicitly and implicitly, and not realising that it was yet another attachment, another dream.
I’ve met many people over the years who see themselves as awakened, and tell story after story about their past glories, about their life-changing transformation, about how perfect their lives are now, about how wonderful everything is for them — but in secret, of course, in their private and unseen moments, they are still suffering in their lives, still feeling stuck or unfulfilled in their relationships, still at war with others, not deeply at peace.
This goes for students as well as teachers. Nobody is immune from this spiritual bypassing. The truth is, who cares if you awakened yesterday? Who cares if yesterday you recognised your true nature? Who cares if yesterday you had a profound realisation of the ocean? What about NOW? THAT’s where all the juice is.
You saw the ocean yesterday? Wonderful. But can that ocean be seen in these waves? Can you recognise who you really are in this moment? Can you be at peace now? Why cling to a memory of yesterday’s awakening?
Yes, if we are truly interested in the end of suffering, we must go beyond all personal stories of our own awakening, all images of ourselves, all our boasts and claims about our own evolution, to a deep and radical acceptance of this moment. Awakening is the easy part. Holding onto a story of yesterday’s awakening is the easy part. Telling stories about your past is the easy part. Being ‘nobody and nothing’ is the easy part.
The real adventure begins when you’re willing to lose all stories, including these stories of your own spiritual transformation, your own specialness, your own purity, and be totally naked in front of life. The real adventure begins where all personal specialness ends.
Life’s real invitation is this: Find that which is always deeply at peace, even when things fall apart, even in the midst of pain, or fear, or sadness. Discover that which is always at rest, even when your partner comes home and says something that hurts you. Even when someone you love dies. Even when someone disagrees with you. Can the deepest acceptance be found in the pain? In the sadness? In the hurt? In the grief? In the anger? This is life’s constant invitation, however ‘awakened’ you think you are.
Yes, all your ideas of yourself as ‘the awakened one’, or ‘the special one’, or ‘the one who never suffers’, or ‘the enlightened teacher’, or ‘the nobody’, or ‘the fully evolved one’, or even ‘the one who knows’, will crumble in the face of life, in the face of this moment exactly as it is. Life will wake you up from the dream of your own awakening, for what you are is beyond all such dreams.
Yes, life is so fiercely loving and compassionate that it will destroy every image and leave you naked as a newborn baby, naked as the day you were born. Naked, and radically open to all experience. Naked, and present to this moment. The image is humiliated. And what is left is total humility in the face of life.
And so ask yourself this:
Who would you be without your story of your own awakening?
Burn, baby, burn!
~ Jeff Foster The Ever Present Embrace of Life