A Terrible Joy: The Smallest of Meditations on Awakening in the Spiritual Life

A Terrible Joy: The Smallest of Meditations on Awakening in the Spiritual Life March 18, 2022



I was talking with a friend and she mentioned a teacher I’ve heard of once or twice. An American who kicked around the spiritual scene, had some sort of awakening, and is now on what some call the “guru circuit.” Second hand what she teachers doesn’t sound off to me. My friend was talking about a practice she invites. It’s based in a fairly common practice called body scanning. The tiny twist she offers is to invite the person doing the scanning to pause and place the center of their consciousness at that pause. At an ankle. At a knee. In your left bicep.

I don’t know for how long, or how significant this is for that teacher. But I was kind of taken with it. In Zen people are sometimes invited to place the consciousness, one’s awareness in the Hara. Hara is basically the solar plexus. Close enough. The shadow is that one can think that’s where the consciousness is supposed to be seated. I like the idea of experimenting with placing one’s consciousness in their left big toe. For a bit.

It invites disruptions of our sense of self. And, that’s a good thing. I suspect it has its own problems, such as confusing what is basically a thought experiment with the great and intimate shift that is awakening. People often take brass for gold. Always have. And, I suspect for as long as our gang of monkeys are around it will continue to be the case.

But the good thing in it, that thought experiment, that relocation of one’s consciousness, as I notice it, is that it points to the naturalness of the awakened state. And the universal aspect of it.

And this is such an important point. Awakening is available to all.

And it happens in all sorts of places, to people in all sorts of conditions.

With that what will an awakened life actually look like? On the other side of the various practices that invite us? Well, what I see is that it is a bit different for different people. We are the product of causes and conditions, after all. And so, life itself is the project. Awakening in this life is the project.

And this is so important. It is found not going over, not going around, not going under our lives. But, always, always, going through this very life. This one. Why I do like the experiment of trying to see the world from one’s left bicep. For a moment. The real deal, the thing, the place, the moment we’re invited into, that the practices are inviting us to fin, is experiencing the life of the universe as your life. My life. Our life.

And with that, it’s always about intimacy. With that any measurement of awakening can only occur by looking at the whole of a life where birth and living and death are not separated. So. Awakening and the intimate way are not different.

Our awakening which can come as enormous disruptions of what we thought was true, or can be a simple unfolding, takes different shapes. But it has marks. It becomes a generosity with ourselves and others. It becomes clarity with ourselves and others. It becomes curiosity with ourselves and others.

And other things, as well. We begin to discern how it really is true that we are all intimately connected. Form and emptiness are not one and not two. Our dreams begin to tell the truth. And, with that, that our deaths, and the deaths of those we love, is not the final thing we think it is within the illusions of our isolation. Within our awakening it still painful, but there is a mystery that is experienced at the same time as a terrible joy.

I think of my life as it has been. I look at the life I have left. I sit. Stiffly, awkwardly, I bow. My hands and back hurt. Arthritis beginning to reshape my fingers. I offer incense with those hands and chant the sacred texts.

And yes.

It is a terrible joy.

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