This is how my mom would wake my brothers and me when we were little: She’d turn the light on in the hallway, enter the room quietly, place her hand softly on our heads, and whisper, “Wakey wakey.”
This is how my dad would wake us: He’d stand tall in the doorway, flip on the overhead light, and speak in a theater-voice: “Rise and shine, me lucky lads! You’ve never had a better opportunity!” And on some days, the alternate line: “Wake up! Tee-tee! The world’s on fire!”
Waking up is a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. We’re sleeping, we’re clueless, we’re susceptible to lies, we’d sell our very birthright for a bowl of porridge or crucify the Beloved and not even know we’d done it. And then we awaken, are awakened. Abruptly or gently. To reality, to truth, to ourselves, to God.
The Buddha is said to have responded to a series of “Who are you?” questions – “Are you a god?” “Are you a healer?” “Are you a teacher?” — with the answer: “I am awake.”
And Christians, today, on the first Sunday of Advent, heard Paul saying, “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep,” and Jesus imploring us to “Stay awake.”
Most of us are ambivalent about being awake. On the one hand, being awake means we experience the height and breadth and depth of Love in all things – all things — and are One with it, which is a-maz-ing. But on the other, being awake means we also experience the suffering of Love, the heartache and bodyache of Love, in all things — people, animals, plants, air, water, soil – and it becomes impossible to ignore, and that – be honest – is kind of a pain.
Being awake is a mixed bag in this way, too: the face we wear for the world becomes unnecessary and un-wearable. This is a liberating and exhilarating experience, for a while, anyway. Until suddenly it’s not, at which point we feel exposed, vulnerable, and ashamed, and want our mask back.
One consequence of this ambivalence is that being awake, like everything else in the spiritual life, is not a permanent condition. We wake, we sleep, we wake again, we sleep again. I’m awake some of the time, I think, at least to a degree, but I’m also facedown and drooling on my desk a lot.
Being awake is a bit more do-able and sustainable in the company of others who are awake. It seems to help to be among people (and other creatures) who are curious, humble, truthful, rooted, reaching (trees are rooted and reaching), grateful, grieving, brave, embodied, mindful, powerful, delighted, amused, clear-eyed, and open-hearted.
And most of us know the things that support and sustain awakeness. Walking in the woods. Reading a sacred text. Throwing a ball back and forth. Offering kindness and hospitality. Experiencing some work or moment of art. Moving intentionally towards brokenness, suffering, and injustice. Eating a meal with someone you love. Making love with someone you love. Traveling someplace you’ve never been. Returning to someplace sacred. Being thankful. Playing with children. Making music, hearing music, dancing, or engaging in some other form of worship. Praying. Meditating. Laughing. Sweating. Making something.
There are times we need a high-alarm wake-up call like my dad would deliver. Opportunity’s knocking! The world’s in trouble! Let’s go!
But a lot of us got one of those on November 8, I think, and for a while we might need a mother to wake us. We need to wake up, for sure, and get up. The world is on fire, and we need people who can work with fire, people whose nervous systems are regulated and voices are smooth and who know how to use themselves as instruments of peace. This is so hard to do, to move toward fire without my own hair catching fire, too. But we need a few less linebackers waiting on the ball to be snapped and a few more singers waiting on the downbeat.
Last night Jeanine and I watched a documentary about the musical Hamilton, which I hear is highly underrated. There’s a moment in the film when Lin-Manuel Miranda says this: “I’m just trying to keep my eyes open and live it as slowly as possible.”
That’s it, isn’t it? Keep awake. And slow down.