Waking up entails first realizing you are asleep, or at least questioning whether or not you understand the way things are. You suspect that there is more to this life than the status quo of mundane human habit patterning and cycling. At this point you have a base-level gut feeling that things may not be what they seem, and that you just need to figure it out.
The process of waking up that follows is best explained as a process of disintegration followed by a process of reintegration.
Disintegration is necessary because up until the point of setting out on a path to awakening you feel an intuitive sense of being a separate being in a world which is simultaneously familiar and foreign to you. This sense of separateness becomes utterly unbearable. Going about your life in the usual way, in attempt to fulfill the longings themed around the common sense ambitions of status quo humanity, seems pointless. You feel dreadfully unfulfilled as a result.
Thus, your inquiry into the nature of Reality begins. Whether inquiry is prescribed to you by a teacher or guru or whether it arises spontaneously from the depths of your dread makes no difference. You want to know who you are, what you are, or even more basically – if you are. You want to know if there is an actual purpose to your life, a reason for living. And this procedure of inquiry begins to necessarily dismantle whatever sense of security you once had in your old ways of thinking and being in the world. You begin the process of disintegration – the picking apart and scattering around of all you thought you were and all you believed to be true. None of it holds up, and you feel a mess.
There is a point at which the disintegration process reaches a kind of critical mass, at which point it escalates beyond the point of no return – at least no return in the old sense, in which you could just turn around and forget you ever started on the journey in the first place. But if you’ve reached the point of no return, your awakening is almost guaranteed in this lifetime (barring you don’t physically die before the process is complete).
In hind sight, the best response to having reached the point of no return would be to simply let go and allow the fall to take place. It would be best to just give up and let the process finish you off. But hardly anyone does this. 99% of the time, people will fight tooth and nail to conjure up an old familiar sense of self. You will almost certainly to put tremendous energy in propping up the lie just to try to feel a sense of being secure or grounded, even though you know deep in your bones that this is not your destiny. The driving force of this resistance is none other than fear – primal, pure and condensed.
Fear is never overcome through force of aggression, for aggression is the expression of fear in its most basic form. The only antidote to fear is courage. Contrary to what you may believe about courage, its expression is not emotionless or stone cold. The expression of courage, in its most basic form, is surrender. But again, this surrender is probably not what comes to mind when you first think of it. You probably see a frightened soldier hiding behind a mound of dirt, bullets whizzing by, raising and waiving a white flag. But that’s not the kind of surrender that positions you for awakening. The type of surrender that is the expression of true courage is a willingness to experience whatever comes, eyes wide open, unflinching. When the activity of aggression as the expression of fear is finally realized to be pointless, corresponding to feelings of utter exhaustion, one may – if they are so fortunate – choose to turn and face their difficulties head-on. No shields. No anesthetic. And this is precisely the right move to make. This is what allows the disintegration process to complete itself.
This is not the end of the pain, but it is the end of the old way of relating to it. In your mind you know there is no guarantee of success. There’s no way to know for sure whether you will awaken today, or 12 years from now. But in either case you know that the necessary response is the same. There’s only one option left: courage, surrender, willingness to experience whatever comes. During this final stretch (although you may not even know it is the final stretch) there will be times of peril and times of peace. Sometimes you will feel as though you can get through anything this world (i.e. your mind) throws at you, and other times you wish you never would have undertaken this path in the first place. But you walk on. There’s no going back. The moments of peace along the way provide just enough nourishment to sustain you as you travel straight into the unknown. You can’t see more than two feet in front of you at any given moment, but you are becoming acclimatized to the uncertainty. Your tolerance for ambiguity and mystery is steadily rising. Things are getting better.
The full disintegration comes when you least expect it. No willful act can bring it about. There can be no intention at this point. I’m dead serious about this. Neither can there be intention of non-intention, for even THAT gets in the way. You must simply keep going, welcoming everything that comes on its own terms, until you literally forget that your path has an end point…
And then it happens.
The way it happens, the experience of it, is not the same for everyone, and so there really isn’t any reason for me to describe any particular experience in detail. But when it happens you will know. What can be said about the final disintegration is that it is a dying before death. You will die that day, but you won’t be dead. And having died, you will no longer fear death – at least not for your own sake. When you disintegrate you see that there was never a separate you in the first place. Your complete dissolution doesn’t hinder the Universe, for you understand quite clearly that whatever dissolves and reappears can be nothing other than the same THAT which is both the source and essence of everything. You realize the essential non-duality of the All, and that there is nothing other than the All. In losing everything, everything is gained. In realizing that you are nothing, you comprehend that you are everything, and that there is no in-between. At this point you are no longer sleeping. The eyes of wisdom are flung wide open. You wake up.
But (of course you knew there had to be a “but.” There’s always a “but.”), the completeness of disintegration is not the end of your journey. This is perhaps the most common misunderstanding on the path of awakening. The finality of disintegration is not to be denied, so the newly awakened is not deluded. And yet, there is a tendency of the newly awakened to try to take up residence in the All, to plant their feet in the Abyss, as though their personality could be an adequate expression of the ineffable Reality they realized they are. When the sense of separateness is disintegrated and Reality is apprehended, there tends to be an ever-so-subtle contraction of the remaining tendency toward identification, which is just enough to delude the individual into thinking, “I am the All.” When you first awaken, this will likely occur. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, as it is almost entirely unavoidable. Few, if any, have traversed the path of awakening and not fallen victim to this subtle duality that remains after the disintegration process.
It is here when the recognition of the necessity of reintegration becomes paramount to any genuine and complete teaching on awakening. But this begs the question, what could possibly be the source of the remaining identity-delusion? What allows the self-contraction to remain in this subtle form? You traversed the treacherous path of disintegration, whereby you faced your fears and ended the activities of aggression and replaced them with courage and surrender once and for all!… or did you?
If you know anyone who has awakened and fallen into the, “I am the All,” trap (which, like I said, happens to nearly all of those who awaken), you’ll pick up on some of the dismissive ways they respond to “worldly” concerns. They may appear calm and collected most of the time, and make statements about how they just don’t get why everyone is so upset about the economy, or their sick grandmother, or their tooth pain. Don’t they see that it’s all an illusion? Isn’t it just easier to realize it’s all a game, a drama, a production on the Universal scale, and then to just sit back and watch, unattached? When you occupy this point of view, it feels like you’re invincible. No one can touch you because “you” don’t exist – only “You” exists, which includes you and you and you.
The funny thing is that this position cannot be sustained forever. Your newly inflated ego will become increasingly frustrated with others for not recognizing the Truth. You wish they would just leave you alone, or that they would just snap out of their delusion so they would stop bothering you. And it’s here that, if you’re lucky, you’ll notice that you are once again resisting life as it shows up for you. You are expressing an unwillingness to experience whatever comes, which is the expression of that same cause which put you through so much misery in the first place… Fear. You thought you had rid yourself of fear, which is what allowed you to take on this new Universal point of view as, “I am the All.” But a seed of fear remained, and now it has grown into another obstacle that must be dealt with in order to reach a truly complete and unshakable awakening.
It is only natural for you to think that if this subtle fear-based duality remains, this calls for further disintegration. You will likely opt for attempting to go through more of the same. This makes sense. But, the path of awakening is such that it doesn’t have to make sense. You must accept that the process of disintegration has truly come to an end (because it has), and that there is only one way to finish the job. That is, embarking on the path of reintegration.
To travel the path of reintegration you must allow yourself to care. You have to find your raw, unconditioned tenderness and vulnerability and refuse to cover it over. You must allow life to touch you. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, this is the most necessarily activity at this stage. In allowing yourself to care as a human being cares, you directly face your fears pertaining to going back into a life that resembles what you thought you had escaped from. But there is no escape. There never was.
So, while the path of disintegration was the path of, “Not this, not that. None of this,” the path of reintegration is, “This, and this too. All of this.” You must return to your body, to your human relationships, to your job, your spouse or significant other, your kids, your neighbors, your daily chores and responsibilities, and you must do so with fully engaged presence. It will hurt at times, and it will be pleasurable at times. You must learn to let go into pleasure as well as pain. You must allow yourself to get attached, to have an opinion, to have wants and needs. In doing so, you will be scared that you are simply putting on the same old chains that bound you to a life full of suffering and despair, which you set out to escape from in the first place. But you will not know the difference between where you started and where you will find yourself again until you walk the path.
The funny thing about reintegration is that it doesn’t stop. The process becomes more stable, in that you learn to settle into the flow of life, and your existence is experienced as the expression of both the Universal and the personal, eating together, playing together, sleeping together. It doesn’t ever truly end because there is no where you can fix a position in this Reality. There is only opening, and presence, and participation. And that’s why you hear the most profound teachings describing the most seemingly mundane experiences as being undeniable expressions of awakening. Ryokan:
If someone asks what is the mark of enlightenment or illusion,
I cannot say…….wealth and honor are nothing but dust,
As the evening rain falls I sit in my hermitage
And stretch out both feet in answer.
It’s true that the process of reintegration following disintegration leads to the stabilization of a natural, ordinary awakened state. But there is a danger in disclosing this information, and there’s a clear reason why some traditions and teachers have elected to remain silent about it. The reason is simple. So simple, in fact, that I might suppose that it’s implied in the context without any further explanation. It’s too important to miss, however, and so there is a strong motivation to share it with anyone who may not be picking up on it, or perhaps just doesn’t want to believe in the truth of it. There’s something of a moral imperative of the awakened to shed light on the dubious errors in judgment made both by awakened individuals of less sophistication, skill, or care, and also of those who will have a difficulty beginning the journey on the right foot due to the confusion that arose due to hearing too much, too soon.
This trap, which is set at the very start of the path by teachers or authors of books (many of whom are well meaning, no doubt) is the idea that for the person who has yet to undergo a path of disintegration, there really is no path. The teacher might tell you, “You are already enlightened. There’s nothing to do. There’s nowhere to go. The path just leads to more seeking and suffering. The path is the problem. Avoid the path forever and you will be awake forever.” And that, my dear friends, is complete and utter bullshit.
Yes, Reality is the way it is. It has always been the way it is. The root cause of our errant perception of separateness is ignorance of the truth of Reality. But you can’t transform by simply hearing a description of what the end result is like, anymore than you can read the menu instead of eating the meal and feel that your hunger is truly satisfied. If you’re going to wake up, and to really apprehend just what it means to be integrated, whole, and ordinary in the most profound sense, you need to embark on the journey of disintegration first. You must die-before-death before you can be reborn for the last time. Only then will your human life realize the expression of the truth that this is how it has always been.
I’ll close this essay with Master Dogen, who sums up the entire path of awakening, including disintegration and reintegration, in the opening lines of his Genjo Koan:
As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.
[Sam: Before you awaken, you are better off having a view like the one stated above.]
As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.
[Sam: The culmination of the disintegration phase brings this into clear apprehension.]
The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.
[Sam: We move from disintegration into reintegration, coming back the mundane, which is now also anything but.]
Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
[Sam: In other words, the final result is not static. There is always engaged activity. There is always a choice.]
I sincerely hope this essay is helpful for those at all stages of the path. If anything, it may help you not to sabotage yourself along the way.