I believe in people defining their own awakening. You know what feels most important and urgent to you in life. Validating this, rather than adopting someone else’s ideas of what life should be like, is simultaneously much more realistic, allows you to arrive in your experience more and is a far more powerful catalyst for change.
The first thing I do when working with people is to help them explore their intentions around their practice, and to talk about what awakening might mean to them, if that is one of their goals.
I do this using this exercise – it’s incredibly simple and makes a huge impact on people and their practice! I cannot recommend doing this enough.
When I am coaching people I ask people to complete this exercise before we first talk. We will go through this during the first session, so that we can both get clear on what matters most to the person I am coaching and the direction they would like their practice to go, rather than assuming that either of us know this already.
This process of sharing, witnessing and reflecting is invaluable.
It’s also worth just doing this exercise on your own to reflect on your practice.
1. Set a timer for 2 mins, then write a list of all the best things you have gotten out of your practice to date. Don’t filter just let it flow out. The timer is to help you avoid overthinking.
2. Set another two minute timer, this time list your biggest challenges in practice and in life. Again, don’t overthink just let it all flow.
3. Look at this list of intentions. Choose three words that you would most like to cultivate in your life and through your practice.
You may want to spend some time thinking about what those words mean, looking up their definitions and thinking about how they could manifest in your life.
A lot of this information will be subconscious in us – we won’t be aware of the things we have found most beneficial or challenging in practice – so just going through the process of writing it out is in itself invaluable.
Also, with everyone I’ve ever done this with, what they have shared has been quite wildly different. No two people are the same and recognising and validating the unique way that you approach practice and life are important for you being able to find and embrace your path.
When I am coaching people I use this initial conversation to identify areas that we can work through together and to recommend practices that will be most engaging and fruitful.
Setting intentions is like planting seeds. When we see it this way, we buy ourselves some space to let go of grasping onto fixed ideas about practice and can hold our intentions lightly as a long-term vision.
If we keep our intentions in our hearts and minds and show up for our practice, we will get there eventually. Like allowing a garden to grow, it needs time.
This can be very liberating. For example, if you chose the intention ‘ease’, it may be that you actually need to go through some incredibly challenging stuff in order to cultivate ease in your life. The seeds need the rain and the sun to be able to grow.
There is also a sense of trust that we don’t always need to rationally understand why we are doing everything all the time. Intentions free us up from having to have a fixed idea of what we need to be doing right now or where we need to get to in life.
We can be headed in the direction of our intentions while allowing ourselves to trust our gut and to follow the winding road that life can be. Making space to enjoy the journey, weather the difficulties and change our plans inline with the flow of the Universe.
All of the intentions on the list are framed in a non-dual way. One of the powerful things about this is that the intentions aren’t something that we’re trying to ‘get’, ‘have’ or ‘be’ in any fixed way. It’s more like we are cultivating that aspect of life, giving it to people around us and appreciating it when it arises in experience in some way.
For example, ‘softness’ could be something that we are cultivating in ourselves but it could also be something that we appreciate when we see it in others or when we come across it in the world. It is an intention to engage with that aspect of life.
Rather than seeing ourselves as competitors to others and wanting ourselves or the world to be different, this framing allows us to appreciate these qualities when we experience them, whether they come from us or outside of us.
This exercise helps me focus on which practices will be most helpful for people.
You can use this to reflect on your practice in this way too. What are the practices that are most likely to cultivate more of what is good, help you overcome your challenges and move in the direction of your intentions?
The practice recommendations I make and the work we do will be highly personal for each person, depending on their goals and how this fits in with their wider life.
These are some really simple things that are about attitude to practice that seem to come up a lot and help people orient to practice in a healthy, whole-hearted way.
Low Floor, High Ceiling
This is firstly about releasing any self-judgement of what counts as good practice. I was told that someone had meditated every day for 30 years – the way they did it was by counting it as a meditation if they sat on the cushion for even one second.
The biggest barrier to practice is often starting, so working with people to reduce this barrier tends to be very helpful.
It can also release a load of self-judgement. Meditation is hard and feeling good about ourselves for doing it, rather than bad about ourselves for not always doing it perfectly, is a much better place to be coming from.
There’s also room for plenty of ambition and desire in practice and life – stoking the fire of where you would like it to take you and what you would like to contribute to the world can be incredibly powerful and liberating. While making sure that this is coming from a place of self-worth, rather than other people’s expectations of you.
Life is hard. Just recognising this fact is so important. People tend to be really hard on themselves, especially people who are self-aware enough to want to practice.
Finding some practices and rituals that are supportive, resourcing and come from a place of care for ourselves is so important.
My favourite one is meditating in the bath. You could also meditate on eating some delicious foods, or going for a walk in nice nature. Whatever feels nourishing to you.
Finding something that feels joyful rather than punishing is super helpful for making practice engaging. An example could be finding someone who does guided meditations you like.
Or my absolute favourite recommendation is meditating to music. This can be a deeply transformative and insightful practice that is full of joy. Finding time to lie down or sit with some music that you have chosen and paying attention to what it brings up for you, is the best.
Beyond validating each of our own inner definitions of awakening, there is clearly some level of agreed experience of what awakening is.
I would be careful of taking other people’s definitions and descriptions of awakening too seriously or too literally. Everyone’s experience is different and awakening is often described in language that is poetic and unclear.
It’s easy to put someone on a pedestal and believe that their experience is somehow fundamentally more profound than the one you are having, especially if you take people too seriously.
From my experience, my best description for awakening would be being able to be present with things as they are, without closing our hearts or resisting aspects of experience.
This includes everything from the basic groundedness of our emotional responses to integrating more mystical aspects of reality into experience.
If things feel more sincere, clear and open this is generally they sign that they have been fully awakened in us.
A deep awakening will involve letting go of at least some aspects of control in life. Letting go is often described as a sort of letting go of something. I think it’s better described as letting go into something.
It’s like you’re arriving deeply in your experience whatever that is, whether it’s sadness, joy, interconnection, embodiment, non-duality, impermanence, lack of control or whatever else you find in there.
Lack of control, when it arrives in the right environment can be a relief, especially during pleasant moments, but it can also involve a lot of existential dread, especially around the realisation of our limited capacity to do anything other than bear our deepest pain and weather our biggest storms.
I’m a firm believer in the phrase, ‘hold on to what you need to hold on to, until you are ready to let go’. The image that comes to mind is like monkey bars – keeping moving can be the main thing to stop us getting stuck in a dark night situation. Finding ways to express what is inside of us, rather than marinate in it, is the key.
Finding a supportive environment to interact with is the best thing you can do on the path. The connection and meaning that this can provide are invaluable.
I don’t think it’s helpful or healthy to talk about the path as being the route to the end of suffering. It is my experience that the path of true awakening can make life harder in many ways, but hopefully in the long run more rewarding.
It is more like cultivating a capacity to be present with the full rich experience of life. Your unique life. And then sharing that capacity with the people and world around you.