The Most Important Step in Waking Up
By Deepak Chopra, MD
Every spiritual tradition, East or West, speaks about waking up as an essential part of progress on the path. Whether the goal is God, enlightenment, or the experience of bliss, it is blocked because almost everyone is asleep. But the injunction to wake up is vague and clearly not meant literally — we think we are awake unless we are asleep in bed. It’s very important, then, to clarify what it exactly means to wake up.
The simplest explanation is this: You are asleep when you aren’t paying attention, and you are awake when every moment is conscious. By truly paying attention, everything in the world “out there” shifts. In one of his lectures the spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti point to a mountain on the horizon and told his audience, “If you could really see that mountain, you would see something very different from what you perceive it to be right now.”
What he meant is that seeing isn’t done by the eye; it is done by the observer. Change the observer, and what is seen (or heard, touched, tasted, and smelled) will automatically change. We’ve all experienced this looking at a sunset, for example. Its beauty is meaningless if you are looking at it with indifference or feeling depressed. Beauty, it turns out, isn’t in the eye of the beholder but in the awareness of the beholder.
To turn inattention into attention is the one and only step needed to proceed along the spiritual path, and if you don’t want to think in those terms, it is the one and only step needed in order to wake up. To make this practical, let’s consider two opposites: reaction and response. The difference between them is all-important. A reaction is automatic if it repeats the same reaction you’ve had in the past. If a plate of spinach is put before you, you instantly know if you like or dislike spinach.
A reaction has several advantages. It instantly informs you about your likes and dislikes. It requires no second guessing. It allows your day to unfold in a familiar pattern. But reactions have a huge disadvantage. They are unconscious, and the more you rely on your automatic programming, the deeper asleep you are. There will be little that is fresh, new, and surprising in your personal reality. When someone says, “I hate surprises,” this reflects a dependency on reactions, a kind of self-defense against anything possible threat or unpleasantness.
Response is different, as we are defining it here. It is a considered reflection, a new and fresh stance. Instead of reacting immediately to a plate of spinach, you keep an open mind, taste it, and respond. There is a little bit of uncertainty. Maybe you will like spinach one day but not the next. Yet if you take a step further, there are more important things, such as how you respond to other people. In relationships discontent is created when you know your partner so well that everything is predictable, and the things you dislike keep being repeated over and over.
But in reality what is repeated over and over is your reaction. If you had a conscious response, there would be no repetition, routine, or boredom. Nothing mystical or even spiritual is involved. Think of how you as a parent responded to a newborn baby. Babies have a very limited range of behaviors, yet a loving parent is transfixed simply gazing upon her own baby. The bliss being felt is triggered inside, just as seeing a mountain in a fresh way occurs inside.
We can carry this another step further. Being open to whatever happens next is part of living in the present moment, which is something we hear about on the spiritual path. But in and of itself, the present moment isn’t special. What is special is the consciousness you bring to it. The ideal state of consciousness has the following qualities:
It is open and unafraid of uncertainty.
It is restful and alert at the same time.
It permits the flow of a creative response.
It serves as the gateway to bliss, love, and joy.
You were designed to enjoy any experience with these qualities. The reason you don’t experience them is due to what in Sanskrit is known as Vritti, or mental obstacles. Therefore, any step you take to clear away a mental obstacle brings you closer to the ideal state. On the other hand, when you react on autopilot, you allow Vrittis to dominate; you surrender to being unconscious.
The first and most important step in waking up is always the same. You have to want to. A new mother can’t wait to see her baby. It is her fondest desire. So waking up follows the path of desire. Start being conscious of the experiences you want to have. In everyone’s day there is room for joy, beauty, creativity, play, kindness, appreciation, sympathy, and affection. These are desirable experiences by any measure. The reason that “Stop and smell the roses” caught on is that it encapsulates the whole thing: Pause and let positive experiences register on you consciously.
To get serious about waking up, a lot of pausing is needed. Anytime you catch yourself saying, doing, or thinking “same old, same old,” catch yourself. This is the pivot point. Either you stop permitting a set reaction or you don’t. The spiritual path never gets more complicated than this simple choice. By pausing, you suspend your unconscious response. Then you allow a fresh response to enter. It’s a matter of intention, which isn’t as abstract as it might sound.
You already know how to give the benefit of the doubt to someone. You suspend judgment and let the situation unfold a little on its own. For example, in a store, perhaps the salesperson doesn’t immediately pay attention to you. You don’t know if this is rudeness, indifference, being distracted, or overwork. So you wait until you know the right way to respond. Every situation in your day is like that, but with a positive expectation. You pause to see how much good will result, and if you practice at this, you will soon discover that everyday reality is a superficial layer, a thin coat of paint that reveals underneath the flow of bliss-consciousness that all the sages and saints talk about.
In a word, changing reaction to response is the most crucial step in arriving at any higher value and all spiritual experiences. The potential for transforming one’s personal reality lies right here.
DEEPAK CHOPRA™ MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His 90th book and national bestseller, Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential (Harmony Books), unlocks the secrets to moving beyond our present limitations to access a field of infinite possibilities. For the last thirty years, Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution and his latest book, Total Meditation (Harmony Books) will help to achieve new dimensions of stress-free living and joyful living. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.” www.deepakchopra.com