Many things keep us content with our small selves and block us from becoming all we can be. None, however, is more important than the fact that most of us go through life as sleepwalkers and, even after a moment of awakening, tend to quickly drift off once again into a sleep of self-preoccupied oblivion and of a mindless robot shuffling through a somnambulistic fog. This is the reason spiritual teachers have always taught the importance of awareness. Hasidic Jews tell a story of a young man who approached Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael one afternoon. “Rebbe,” the young man asked with great seriousness, “what is the way to God?” The rebbe looked up from his work and answered: “There is no way to God, for God is not other than here and now. The truth you seek is not hidden from you; you simply do not notice it. It is here for you if you will only awake.”
This is the truth that has been proclaimed by all the great Christian mystics across Christian history. And it is the truth taught from cover to cover of the Bible. In his Areopagus sermon, Paul declares that God “is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27–28). God is closer than our next breath. Job even reminds us that not only is God the source of each breath, but each breath also is God’s breath (Job 27:3). How much more intimate could our relationship with God be? God is not absent. It is we who fail to notice divine presence. It’s all a matter of awareness.
A great variety of experiences can serve as the messenger that brings us an invitation to awareness and offers us the potential of an awakening. Unfortunately, however, we usually evaluate these events negatively and, instead of welcoming them, do everything we can to ignore, minimize, or avoid them. In general, anything that produces significant internal conflict, a disruption of meaning and self-coherence, or a sense that our way of being in the world needs to change—any such thing has this potential to awaken us. Some of these emerge from the circumstances of our life. A divorce, major financial reversal, death of a spouse or child, natural catastrophe, or a business failure can all contain a hidden gift of a potential awakening. Many people speak of a significant and valued change to the course of their life following such unwelcome events. Sometimes these changes are limited to behavior or lifestyle, but deeper transformations of self are also possible when one moves beyond simply trying to get back to how things were before the crisis.
One of the most powerful invitations to awakening comes from journeying with other people in relationships of intentional love. Rather than regarding love as a feeling, we need to start thinking of love as an action. Intentionally committing to journey with others in love is a commitment to consciously choose to express love. This commitment opens us to the possibility of awakening because living in such a way calls forth who we really are. The more intimate the relationship, the more it will inevitably present us with opportunities to awaken. The most important of these invitations to awaken are associated with the tensions that necessarily form a part of any relationship. Our default response to these tensions is annoyance (fight) or defensiveness (flight). Awakening demands quite a different posture. It demands hospitality to the tension or conflict and presence to your self and the other.
Conscious or intentional love also involves an expectation. Instead of looking to the relationship primarily for either gratification or shelter, we can learn to welcome its power to wake us up in the areas of life where we are asleep. This approach puts us on a path. It commits us to movement and change by showing us where we most need to grow. Embracing relationship as a path also gives us practice in learning to use each difficulty along the way as an opportunity to connect more deeply, not just with a partner, but with our own aliveness.
A commitment to live in these sorts of loving relationships is probably the most accessible of all means of awakening. It is available to anyone who is in any form of relationship. Such relationships do not need to be romantic or even ongoing—although the more ongoing and the more intense, the more opportunities the relationship will present for awakening. The bottom line is not the ‘who’ but the ‘how’: the direction of the energy flow. On a path of conscious love the energy is always radiating outward; it is never self-defended or congealed. The how is a path of love. It is love that allows one to move from defensiveness to openness, and it is love that allows people in a relationship to stay present and open to each other when they otherwise would want to either attack or run and hide. It is love that allows partners to work their way through inner logjams that would otherwise normally take much longer to resolve.
Awakening isn’t transformation. But it is the doorway to transformation. The approach to this doorway is noticing that we need to awaken and how quickly we drift back off into a somnambulistic fog even after we do so. This is why Jesus so often urged his followers to awaken from their stupor and be attentive. He gives us the same invitation.