Waking up as metaphor

Leaf, Autumn 2002 by Edward Dimsdale

Reflecting on this leaf from the bodhi tree–a symbol for bodhi, literally “awakening”, and Buddha, also a symbol–the awakened one…The image of waking up is one that definitely resonates for me. I like the gerund form, because it suggests an ongoing process.

And when we really think about the metaphor in depth, we’re going to sleep and waking up all the time, literally at the very least once every day, and figuratively many, many more.

There are a few elements of this metaphor I’d like to explore. In particular, I’m interested in the whole spectrum of consciousness or, at least that which lies between waking and sleeping. I practice a fair amount of lying down meditation, and it gives ample opportunity to really explore this. I’ve also found that the moment of waking up each morning is such a critical opportunity for interest and awareness–elements whose presence, or lack thereof, create the conditions for our life.

The tag line for this blog is “exploring living by dying to every moment”. Since going to sleep is also a metaphor for death, it’s not such a stretch to say that we are indeed having glimpses of death in every moment of being unaware of awareness, in every moment of being lost in our stories, in every moment we take ourselves to be the object of awareness, and most certainly when we fall asleep. So, as we slip out of waking consciousness, we also have a tremendous opportunity to be fully intimate with that experience. Thinking about waking and sleeping in these terms brings in a lot of energy and interest for me. I don’t think it’s uncommon for people, especially practitioners, to want to be conscious at their moment of death. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen working with the dying, that is a pretty tall order. Then again, just because someone is asleep or heavily drugged, doesn’t mean consciousness is not there. The best thing we can do to ensure our conscious death, from my perspective, is to ensure our conscious life*. Thus embracing each and every one of these transitional moments as a sacred opportunity for learning.

Waking up on the wrong side of the bed is a relatively apt metaphor. What it really means is waking up with a wrong attitude. On my last long retreat, I wrote about the experience of awareness actually allowing for a complex mix of attitudes to be known within mind moments of waking.

30 Dec 2010

So much happening in the mind upon waking up this morning. It’s become habit to recognize attitude right away–fascinating how it shifts and changes, probably as dream thought content fades and new content emerges. Realize there’s a felt sense, a feeling tone and mood even before thought identified or concept given to it. Often disorientation (confusion), sometimes disappointment (aversion), also craving quite common…Certainly being vigilant has a lot of power, as the shifting, transient nature of the attitude attests when checking, checking.

Most of the time, of course, we aren’t checking at all. We wake up, we might feel like we’re dragging, not wanting this or that…but we continue making the motions and don’t take the time to really be intimate with the experience. It becomes so automatic, and then we carry all those attitudes over into our day and our relationships unconsciously, so to speak. I have the luxury now, as I did on retreat, to actually attend to this experience. This crucial entry into awakeness. It’s not that the attitude is inherently “wrong”, as in bad, must get rid of, but when it’s something that’s not seen for what it is, not known at a more conscious level, it can certainly be pernicious. Whereas welcoming it, making it transparent, can have the opposite effect. (For more on the power of attitude–and one way of thinking of right attitude is neither wanting nor resisting– and waking, see “Allowing and being it”.) And so, if we think about waking to each morning as a metaphor for our whole experience of life and ultimately for our entire spiritual practice, and actualize it throughout, we have a real opportunity for transformation.

I’m interested in how sound consciousness plays such an important role in this metaphor, particularly of waking up, as well. Meditation periods often start and end with a bell. We wake to the sound of a gong or to an alarm clock. As awareness strengthens, there’s an ability to watch the sequence to some degree–where hearing comes in, where waking comes in. In another conversation with a fellow yogi, we discussed knowing the moment of falling asleep and the moment of waking up. He said that if he fell asleep knowing the very moment of that shift in consciousness, then, the following morning he would also wake up knowing. I didn’t ask what he thought about continuity of awareness through the sleeping state. I wonder. Sayadaw has said, and I’ve certainly directly experienced this understanding at times on retreat, that consciousness actually arises before the gong or alarm clock sounds. At times of quiet and really sharp awareness, I would find that with each timed sitting, the awareness of the period’s end would arise just before the sound of the bell–no sooner, no later. It’s fascinating. It brings to light how much is being registered, all the imprint of the mind in these different states of awareness.

This also ties into the idea of a conscious process. For matters of convenience, we say that when we are asleep, or anesthetized, etc., we are “unconscious”, but of course, experience is still happening and therefore making contact with the sense doors. So what makes consciousness conscious? Making a sort of effortless effort to be there as we enter into sleep and as we come out, we can see the subtleties of these various levels of wakefulness. There are times when I really drop into my body, and get very concentrated on sound or sensation, and sometimes there’s a sort of twilight consciousness that comes with that peaceful state, a feeling of “melting into the floor/bed”. I wouldn’t say I’m sleeping but I also wouldn’t say I’m awake. That’s not the ideal state, clearly, because there’s a dull awareness there and probably no real potential for insight, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Perhaps it’s a form of numbing. Jason Siff claims that this kind of sleepiness could actually be considered pre-Jhanic samadhi. Hmm…

In any case, exploring the full range of consciousness and being interested in how it shifts and changes, and where understanding or clear seeing emerges, where attachment comes up, where delusion reigns, how easily we identify with our story of ourself immediately upon waking–it helps put it all in perspective. It gives a nice framework with which to understand the continual process of awakening to this moment-to-moment experience of life.

* After the fact, realizing I should thank Stephen & Ondrea Levine for putting the conscious living, conscious dying phrase in my consciousness!

Leave a comment


  1. ebe

     /  March 8, 2011

    Thanks, Katherine, for yet another profound post.
    I found out that when I’m trying to be aware to the moment of falling asleep, I cannot fall asleep. I still need to practice this issue. Do you know some teachings for this practice?

    • EBE – Missed you the last couple of posts! What is your awareness like, is it focused on something in particular or more open? (Edit: I would venture to guess there’s some striving, or effort involved if you aren’t able to relax into sleep.)

      Mingyur Rinpoche talks about sleeping meditation. He says, either “awareness will catch sleep or sleep will catch awareness”, but if you’re really consciously moving in between waking and sleeping, then there will be no dreams and when you wake there will be meditative awareness right there. K, of course, also said it’s possible to have dreamless sleep — which is interesting when you think about “thought-free” wakefulness, it can’t really be sustained. So why can it during sleep?

      Sayadaw U Tejaniya says various things about sleep: “When awareness is continuous during your waking hours, when recognizing everything that happens becomes a habit of the mind, if you can be aware of every thought that comes into your mind, you will automatically be aware of your dreams too. This is the only way to get into your dreams. It is not something you can do, momentum does it…You need to aim at remaining aware until you fall asleep. Try it and see how it makes you feel in the morning…When stability of mind becomes really good, it will be easy to sleep. Just don’t ever think of wanting to go to sleep. When there are no more reactions in the mind you will naturally fall asleep.”

      Hope those references help. I will have to poke around to see if there are additional teachings.

      • ebe

         /  March 9, 2011

        Thanks a lot! Something rings a bell after reading your answer. I think I try to be focused in body feelings, while trying not to think. It is subtle, but when I read your answer I felt I’m striving for “quite”. Maybe it provides some effort and prevents falling a sleep. BTW, thinking about it honestly, this striving for “quite” is quite common in my life. Not only in bed.

  2. alycliffhanger

     /  March 8, 2011

    hi Sharanam, Recently I have been reading the book ‘Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying’, edited by Francesco Varela. (In it, there is a really wonderful summary of the history of the concept of self in western thought given by Charles Taylor, who wrote ‘Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity’).
    The topic of sleep, the way it is presented in that book, is fascinating, and I feel confirmation of the importance of paying attention to the space between dreaming and waking. (and it is not always a pleasant space!)

    I really like the line from this post: “The best thing we can do to ensure our conscious death, from my perspective, is to ensure our conscious life.”
    Thank you!

    • Funny, that’s the quote I pulled for my tweet! Thanks for the book reference. And, looking at dreams is a-whole-nother ball of wax, no doubt…Hope all is well with you. Katherine

      • alycliffhanger

         /  March 8, 2011

        oh, cool! yes, after reading that book, I’m curious about how you/other people in more formal Buddhist traditions have been trained to practice with dreams. I don’t remember instruction about that in Zen… but Zen is pretty quiet about most everything ; )

  3. Thank you Katherine! I just absolutely love the depth of your sharing. Very very few are able to communicate the meditative experience in that way . . .

    Waking up, awake, falling asleep, dreaming . . . it’s all the same, isn’t it. Establishing the intention of being present for the moment, and following through. Not separating between formal and informal practice. I got so much out of Gil Fronsdal’s last two talks about the Satipatthana Sutta. With his help, I feel the Buddha’s wisdom so close, so enticing. No more excuses to not be present!

    And I am with you regarding the powerful metaphor of waking up from the dark night and welcoming the day every morning. Paying special attention to that transition time is indeed a wonderful opportunity to realize the gift of true aliveness.

    Thank you for the reminder. Tonight, I shall practice being especially present.

    Much metta,


    • Yes, intention is so much of what this practice is. Integration. Interest. It sounds like you were very present today, for both the pleasurable and painful. May you continue to live your life thus, freshly, meeting experience as it is–learning, growing, awaring…happy birthday again kalyana mitta.

  4. AC

     /  March 10, 2011

    Well written !


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