Perls describes three levels of awareness: awareness of the self, awareness of the world, and awareness of the intervening fantasy between the self and the world. This intermediate world contains our prejudices and prejudgments through which we view our experiences of everything beyond us. Here we see the world through the labels we give things and the categories into which we jam them. But experiencing the world through categorization, bias, and prejudgment is not experiencing things as they actually are. It is experiencing our thoughts about the world rather than directly experiencing the world.

The distance this provides from the raw reality of things as they truly are keeps us comfortable but out of touch with reality and unaware.

Anthony De Mello, the twentieth-century Christian mystic who has done so much to bring together the spiritual wisdom of East and West, describes this lack of awareness by means of a pithy aphorism. "Life," he suggests, "is like heady wine. Everyone reads the label on the bottle. Hardly anyone tastes the wine."2 Confusing the reading of labels with tasting and drinking the wine is responding to the world through this intermediate zone of thoughts, judgments, biases, and preconceptions. It is mistaking this comfortable place within our self for an authentic encounter with external reality. It is failing to recognize the difference between fantasy and raw experience.

Becoming aware of this intermediate zone empties it by drawing us into the present moment. Suddenly the world is present to us and we are present to it. Suddenly we have moved from our mind to our senses, and through them, we are in more immediate and direct contact with what truly is. This is what Eckhart Tolle calls the power of the now.3 An embrace of the present moment can do something that nothing else can do: it can bring us into the only place where we truly are, the only place we can truly be alive, and the only place where we can truly meet God.

Sometimes, however, we choose to withdraw our attention from the present moment because it is unpleasant or threatening. We have two major options for this form of escape: we can escape to the past through nostalgic remembering and compulsive review, or to the future through anxious anticipation and obsessive rehearsals. Both involve an escape into the safety of our minds. They are, therefore, ways of staying asleep, or if we have had a momentary awakening, of quickly returning to sleep.

This is the reason why awakening and awareness are so vital to the spiritual life. From time to time we may awaken for brief moments of intense emotional experience, but then we quickly slip back into a tangled dreamworld of the intermediate zone between genuine awareness of our self and genuine awareness of the world. The invitation of the present moment is always to awaken, to respond rather than simply react, and to become full participants in our lives.

The Context of Awakenings and Awareness

Each moment of awareness is a small awakening, and each awakening—no matter how insignificant it might seem—can be a doorway to becoming. As an object of awareness, nothing is too small to empower such an awakening. Awareness of anything opens us to the transcendent. This is why awareness is so central to prayer. Douglas Steere describes prayer as "awakeness, attention, intense inward openness." In his view, sin is anything that destroys this attentive wakefulness.4