Waking Up or Waking Down?

By Lisa Ernst

I’ve been reflecting lately that “waking down” is a more descriptive phrase for the process of awakening than “waking up.”

A friend and I recently visited a small lotus pond a short distance from my house. The plants in early February are dead but still quite visible. The leaves, stems and pods endure and are surprisingly hardy. My friend had never seen lotus plants in winter and observed how they visibly “go back down into the mud.” The stems break and turn down, along with the leaves and pods that rest where the water and mud meet. These dead plants nourish and feed the mud that supports the lotus when it comes back to life in spring.

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Few photographers document dead lotus plants; we normally see only images of the gorgeous and prolific flowers of summer. Since discovering this nearby pond, I’ve made it a point to visit and photograph the lotus plant in all seasons. Especially in winter, the well known phrase, “no mud, no lotus,” is on full display as the lotus plants so visibly turn down to the mud. We humans too, if we wish to awaken, need to turn our awareness down into our hearts, our bodies, right into the messiness and muddiness of our humanity.

Thich Nhat Nahh said, “When we learn how to suffer, we suffer much, much less.” In this way, we don’t escape to an idealized version of waking up and overlook what is right here. My own years of practice have led me down into my body and heart again and again, finding lovingkindness and dharma wisdom through resting in the midst of everything that is present, rather than seeking a special place where everything is pristine and perfect.

Often during meditation retreats I read Pema Chodron’s lovely, short piece called “Waking Down to Bodhichitta.” Here’s the reading:

“In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth instead of reaching into the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it. We move toward it however we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhichitta. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die.”

I observe in many meditation students a tendency to try to wake up through subtly pushing away what feels incongruent with their narrative of spiritual awakening. They primarily try to avoid the very muddiness that is inviting them into their lived experience. Even long-term meditators often do this. When this happens, their center of awareness mostly rests above the body. My work is to gently guide them into settling their awareness enough to include their bodies, hearts, emotions, nothing left out. This practice often leads them to the wisdom they’re seeking elsewhere.

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“Waking down” practice imbues our physical and mental tension and vulnerability with a quality of compassionate space. This process initiates a deep unwinding, no matter how closed off it may have seemed when we were attempting to wake up.

On reflection, we may realize this practice of waking down is the most obvious thing in the world, yet not so easy to do. Why? Because settling awareness down inevitably leads us to whatever level of armoring and vulnerability we live with as human beings.

Embodiment starts with the capacity to rest in an unarmored, open state. This unbound presence is essential to “waking down” to our wisdom, our compassion and ultimately, our unbound awareness. There is also power here, a capacity to see and respond to life skillfully.

This remains a lesson I re-learn again and again.

“I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my blood pulsing within me. My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.”
― Hermann Hesse

 

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