I’ve studied various “inner paths” to finding happiness. These paths differed and occasionally contradicted, but often they had striking similarities. One such similarity was the claim that people are asleep and need to wake up. This struck me as odd, and I would intermittently muse over this. In this article, I will offer my take on this. In particular, I will explore the following questions. First, what am I supposed to wake up FROM? Second, what am I supposed to wake up TO? Third, how do I wake up? Fourth, do I really need to wake up? Finally, I will offer some concluding remarks.
Waking Up from What?
What am I supposed to wake up from? Aren’t I awake right now? I think the key to the answer is in the purpose of the path: happiness. Additionally, sleeping is often a metaphor for being on auto-pilot. With those two in mind, I am supposed to wake up from all the things that cause pain. Since these paths say my thoughts cause my pain, it means I’m waking up FROM all those painful thoughts tied to reactions, beliefs, clinging, worrying about the future, comparing an idealized past with a vilified now, and so on.
How do these cause my pain? Take an example – let’s say I’m cut off in traffic. It takes about 5 seconds for the event to happen, but how long and intensely I suffer depends on how I react to it, interpret it and — most importantly — how long I think about it afterward. In short, I can suffer anything from no pain to days of pain (or more!), and it all depends on me. All of life falls in this pattern. Even serious events depend on my interpretation and choice to cling. For instance, the “aftermath” of life-changing events is often nothing more than my comparing my new life with “the good old days” before the event happened.
Waking Up to What?
What am I supposed to wake up to? Often, these paths claim it’s reality, but I disagree. First, from what I read about the mind, it’s doubtful I can ever really know reality as the mind is involved even in what appear to be acts of “pure perception”. Besides, how can I ever know if I’m experiencing reality since all I know comes through my senses and mind? Second, how do I know that this path isn’t just installing another layer of interpretations instead of or in addition to the ones I have? Third, what’s so special about reality that I want to live in it? No, I would say I am not waking up to reality, but to happiness. Whether this happiness is due to being closer to reality or more beneficial interpretations is irrelevant.
How Do I Wake Up?
How do I wake up? Well, like dealing with any other habits, I have to be aware of them to stop them. Since these patterns permeate life, this means I have to be aware of life, or in short, to live in the now, to focus on what I am doing. Interestingly enough, simply living in the now with no further action can make me much happier. Why? Because most of my pain is due to thinking about the past or future, and my focus on the now takes my mind off that. In fact, many paths simply state that to be happy, I should try to be present as much as I can. Nothing more. This is so central that entire books have been written on this.
Must I Wake Up?
Must I wake up? Must I live in the now? I’ll start with an anecdote.
A while ago, I got bitten by an interesting puzzle. I was fascinated and spent at least a week preoccupied with it. I would think about it in traffic, while standing in line, while sitting at home. It was my happy place. Not only that, but I was affected less by irritations because I was less interested in what was going on outside my head. Things would happen and I’d easily let them go as this compelling puzzle was waiting for me.
Was I awake? I was definitely absent-minded, but I was also happier and less bothered by events than when I lived in the now. What’s more, this was easier and more natural than trying to live in the now. However, how did this affect me in the long term? I think for the better, but I’m not sure. The point is that there are other objects of focus other than the now, and they may have some advantages. However, before choosing them, it may be good to ask the following questions:
- How long can I stay in this state (whether on this or other intellectual contemplations)?
- Would this strengthen my clinging to thoughts and thus cause pain when I leave my reveries and start focusing on the outside world?
A key to happiness is to let go of pain-causing thoughts, the greatest of which is thinking of the past or the imagined future. This is more easily done if something else to pay attention to is found. This is where Waking Up comes in. It’s somewhat of a misnomer, but it’s a pithy way of pointing to a productive object of attention: the now. However, other objects may be substituted, depending on the temperament of the individual, provided one understands the possible pros and cons of the objects involved.
At the end of the day, happiness isn’t about what I focus on, but what I do NOT focus on.