What does awakening mean? Well, if you read very much about it, it apparently means very many different things to people. For some, it is the beginning of the journey to embody a recognition of the truth that allows suffering to subside and dissolve. For others, it is the end of that journey. This is probably the case because an experience of awakening often feels so profound and life-altering that it simply “must” be the end of the journey which confers upon the awakened one a kind of Ph.D. in enlightenment studies.
I prefer a more simple definition. Quite simply, it means realizing the truth about yourself—the truth about everything. There is no guarantee that that realization will stick with you or that you will be able to live that realization, only that you will have that moment of awakening in which you recognize the illusory nature of “you.” And, by illusory, I don’t mean fake or false, but, rather that you are not the solid and permanent identity that it often feels like you are. That identity is just a kind of mask and armor that you’ve learned to habitually throw up between you and the world, because it seems to keep you safe. What it really does is keep you from feeling. I recognize, for instance that there are certain conventions appropriate for certain situations. At a business meeting, for instance, when asked who I am, I don’t drone on about how there is no real me here, only the temporary screen upon which we all get to project an idea of “Tom,” even though that is certainly true. Instead, I am more likely to just provide the kind of information that convention suggests they are looking for. The practice of embodying an awakening for me is provide that answer without taking it too seriously. To hold “Tom-ness” very lightly.
The “you” that you “think” you are—that mask and armor—is an identity (an artifice) constructed of thoughts. To puncture that balloon of constructed identity it is helpful to identify three aspects of that constructed self. There is the recollected self, the anticipated self, and the evaluative self.
The recollected self is the part of you that is attached to the past. If I ask you a question about yourself, you are most likely answering from the recollected self. You might tell me your name or your job, or a few choice historical anecdotes. But your name is not who you are. It is what you remember that someone once called you. All the details of your life are simply the thoughts you are having in this moment about a past with which you somehow identify. Neuroscience now suggests that when we think we are remembering an event, we are actually just remembering the last time we remembered it. This is why memories are so fickle and plastic. This is why three people present at the same event can remember it so differently and be so certain they are recalling correctly. Everything you think you know about yourself is constructed from the thoughts of the recollected self. The practice for me is to hold those memories, which I formerly considered so solid and permanent rather more lightly. Where I used to defend my memories steadfastly, I’m now more likely to question them.
The anticipated self is the part of you that is attached to a contemplated future. The anticipated self is always either afraid of or anxious about what will or will not happen in an imagined future. Will I get what I want? When will this end? How will this work out? Will I get hurt? Will it last? Even though the future never arrives, because any future we could possibly experience is only ever experience-able in the present, we sacrifice a lot of energy over it.
The evaluative self is even more tricky because it is that part of you that seems to be in the present. The evaluative self isn’t satisfied with simply being with what arises in the present moment but is constantly absorbed in judging experience. The evaluative self is consumed with evaluating experience as it arises based on preferences that reinforce a separate identity. When a spiritual teacher advises you to be in the present moment or fall in love with what is arising or at least stop arguing with what is, it is the evaluative self that jumps in and says, “I’ve got this—I know how to be in the present moment.” The evaluative self says “yes, I’m liking this bit of what’s arising,” or “no, I don’t much care for that bit.” Meditation is a great practice for becoming more aware of the evaluative self. Most people find that it is actually not the thoughts we have that carry us away, out of the present moment, but the thoughts we have about the thoughts.
We come to think of our thoughts as being who we are, but this is not true. This psycho-trinity of recollected, anticipatory and evaluative selves constructs an identity and we come to believe that identity is who we really are. Inquiry can take us deeply into the truth of who we are. We can so fall in love with this moment—the shape and form and substance of what is arising that the constructed self is undermined and loses meaning, but, while this is simple to do, it is not necessarily easy. The constructed self can feel very solid and intractable. We believe we are bound by time, stuck in a “now” hell that can never live up to a future or past golden age. But time is just an appearance, a convention that supports an identity that is seldom actually present in the moment. Between our recollections and our anticipations and our judgment of what we find arising, we live in an illusion.
Awakening is what happens when there is a rend in the fabric of that illusion—when the constructed self dissolves, leaving only the timeless sense of awareness and presence. What you do with that awakening experience is up to you.