Literature of Awakening

Zen Ox Herding Entering Marketplace

Zen Ox Herding Entering Marketplace

Meditators often talk about ‘awakening’, so it typically arises in meditative contexts, dressed in religious and spiritual garb. Even today’s secular meditators inevitably use a distinctively … ‘niche’ language.

I like exploring how we speak about awakening in wholly other contexts. If awakening is a real thing, if it denotes a real insight, a potential human orientation towards experience (Michael Taft wrote a useful piece on what awakening is here), then it surely occurs widely, across niches.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks’ once reflected on his life with an expression of what I can only imagine is a relative of awakening in terms refreshingly accessible to all who share in the human experience:

"I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure."

To really feel this way in our bones, day in and day out, while we’re stuck in traffic, while our jobs don’t feel meaningful enough, while bills loom, while we feel lonely and lost, or elated and joyful, what more could awakening be than an ever-present gratitude for the startling fact that we’re here at all, awake to life, awake to the storm of complex sensations rather than asleep in nothingness, and equipped with a high-powered consciousness like a microscope enabling us to contemplate our being here, rather than nowhere.

Annie Dillard, too, marks these moments of wakefulness, like church bells ringing in the dark:

“What a marvel it was that so many times a day the world, like a church bell, reminded me to recall and contemplate the durable fact that I was here, and had awakened once more to find myself set down in a going world.”

When I first read that passage I wrote this little essay/poem in a fury. This, for me, is a more relatable literature of awakening, a more accessible and worldly canon of adepts and their wakeful writing - Dillard, Sacks, Alan Watts, Thoreau, Emerson, Borges, Whitman. It is writing that performs what Denise Levertov calls the function of poetry:

Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”

This is a literature of awakening, the written word’s pursuit of helping us awaken, however briefly, from our anesthetizing loops, the games we play, the roles we slip into that lull us into forgetting not only the incomprehensible fact that we’re here, but that we know we’re here.

Awakening, if it exists, is a black box opaque to everything but first-hand experience on the inside. But again, if it exists, it exists in all spheres of human experience. It is approachable from any angle, any context, any perspective. It isn’t exclusive to meditators, but a potential latent in all permutations of human experience (and perhaps not only humans, as this article on animal cognition suggests).


This is an excerpt from the Mind Matters Newsletter: