Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Gradual vs. Sudden Awakening

Almost 20 years after embarking on an earnest spiritual path of meditation and study of Buddhism and other philosophies and approaches to awakening, I’m discovering (okay....I’m a late bloomer) that the old Buddhist debate about gradual awakening or sudden awakening is a big red herring and sort of pointless to debate. The path is both gradual AND sudden.

I’ve been through stretches in my life and my meditation practice (sometimes these stretches can last for years) when it seems like the practice is not really having much impact, and I’m not really growing very much in spiritual terms. Progress towards the ever-elusive goal of awakening, if it’s noticed at all, is measured in small amounts. And it seems like the obstacles encountered along the way and the hot messes and tragicomic dramas in my life are all bigger than any progress that might’ve been made on the path.

But I’ve also been through times in my life and my meditation practice (and these times can be like the 5-day silent meditation retreat I did around my birthday at the start of 2020, or the 14 weeks I spent enclosed in intensive silent retreat and teachings with Pema Chödrön when I  was a monk for two years at her monastery from 2009 to 2011, or they can be like a week or a day or a single instant when you turn a corner and the unexpected is suddenly right there in front of you) when suddenly the energy of life surges forward unexpectedly in a great leap, and in a single moment you feel the huge momentum behind your meditation practice and your dedication to it pushing everything forward so rapidly that it takes you by surprise. You can observe meaningful changes happening rapidly within you and all around you, in your heart and in your mind, in your world and your sphere of influence. Suddenly all these things feel aligned in the same direction, and a jump forward happens.

It may or may not be THE jump forward, like the fabled one the Buddha suddenly experienced the night that (as legends tell us) he sat beneath a bodhi tree and shot forward like a bolt of lightning through all of the many stages of awakening, and by the following morning he was Enlightened with a capital “E” — fully awakened, fully realized, all his personal obstacles and hang-ups and the psychological shadow material that every human being lives and struggles with, suddenly left behind in their entirety, with no remnant of the life that came before except his consciousness and his body and his memories. But now suddenly omniscient, suddenly fully awake, suddenly at one with all of existence, suddenly free of any psychological or spiritual limitations, suddenly all-knowing, suddenly thrust forward into a moment of awakening that actually has no end. Sudden awakening. Complete awakening. Permanent awakening.

That overnight, cosmic, metaphysical leap forward — into a permanent oneness with the very highest mode of consciousness possible for any sentient being — is not something that I've experienced.

But what I HAVE experienced are the smaller quantum jumps forward. The “Aha!” moments on the spiritual path when you do see sudden progress happening, and you recognize that it’s happening suddenly. Who knows, maybe it's because of all the practice you did in years past that you can experience this little forward leap in this moment of your life. And even if this forward leap turns out to have been a small one when you reflect back on it next week, next month, next year, next decade, next lifetime, that forward leap FEELS big when you're experiencing it. It enables you to see, to know that sudden awakening does happen.

So it's not THE sudden awakening — the big cosmic, transcendent, earth-shaking kind like the Buddha’s, with angels trumpeting in the sky and forest animals frolicking in the dewy grass to celebrate the glory of your divine achievement — but, still, it’s something. Something big (or small) has happened, is happening. And it’s happening....suddenly.

The old debate about gradual vs. sudden paths to awakening is a bust.

It’s gradual. AND it’s sudden. It’s both. It was always this way, you just didn’t know it.

But (suddenly) you know it.

February 4, 2020