Over the past week, I finished listening to Eckhart Tolle’s classic book A New Earth, started reading The Complete Enneagram by Beatrice Chestnut, and finished ORIENT, module 1 of the personal development course I am writing.
Now I get to tie those three things together for you.
In A New Earth, Tolle made this point. While our external purposes in life will differ, we all have the same inner purpose:
“To wake up and to remain awake.”
If you’ve been looking for your life purpose and have been coming up empty, start there.
Purpose: Wake up and remain awake.
His point impacted my course writing. In the first module, ORIENT, I was thinking to myself, “What’s the least someone needs to know to get started right with personal development?”
One of the first answers that popped into my mind was this:
They need to know what makes it hard.
(I know my marketing friends would tell me to leave it out, as talking about the hard stuff can be a real buzz-killer upfront. But I cotton to Louis Pasteur’s saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” So I put it in any way.)
Well, what does make personal development hard?
Let’s back up one step. There are two primary intentions you can have for personal development:
- Life enrichment
- Personal transformation
The latter, as you might imagine, the personal transformation is a lot messier than the life enrichment. Mainly because anything you cling to will trip you up in the process of personal transformation, and who wants to be willing to let go of… everything? Gulp.
Let’s connect the dots.
- Waking up is our inner purpose
- We don’t wake up without life transformation.
- Ergo, if we don’t wake up, we’ve missed the purpose of life.
Back to what makes it hard.
How do you wake up if you believe you are already awake?
And that is the belief virtually all of us have. We assume we are already awake. We are not in bed, eyes closed, and unconscious. So we must be awake, right?
Not exactly. Not sleeping does not equal awake, not from the viewpoint of consciousness. Awake — being fully conscious — is a state of being that does not automatically come from swinging our feet over the side of the bed and rising up to meet the new day.
This is, by far, the thing I see people struggle with the most when they start their personal development work.
They believe they are awake.
By this, I mean they think they are deciding their actions and behaviors. They think their thoughts are the truth, and that their emotions are always right and justified. In other words, they are totally identified with their habitual thoughts, emotions, and actions. There is no gap between them and that. That’s asleep because it is not conscious. That’s asleep while assuming being awake.
That’s what is called the “waking sleep.”
An intellectual grasp of this is of no real help if that is all we have. If you have not experienced standing apart from these habits, observing them, and modifying your habitual thinking, feeling, and acting in-the-moment, you cannot know you were not awake. This knowledge is not available intellectually. Only experientially.
Does it happen — do we wake up — all of a sudden? I don’t think so. Not typically, anyway.
In reality, what I see in myself and others is a series of small waking-ups. I’ve never seen someone jolt awake as if waking up right after dozing off while driving a car down the road. I don’t think that type of waking up would be healthy. It might be more than our systems could handle.
So, small and repeated waking-ups works just fine.
Is there something to help us along the way, if we’d like to giddy-up a little?
Sure: Actively look for the times when your habitual thinking, feeling, or acting is at play. Observe them in the moment. This is the capacity of self-observation.
One of the first times I saw this in myself, I was driving away from my home in Park City. I was listening to music, and the song was about love. I was not in a relationship at the time, and I caught myself feeling warm and hopeful and happy for when that would come again.
I thought to myself, “I really enjoy being in love.” I was smiling.
And there was another part of me observing the feeling and that thought. And that higher part of me said,
“No. You enjoy the feeling that comes with thinking about the feeling of being in love again.“
Total buzz killer.
I smiled, reached up, and turned off the music. All of a sudden, I felt fresh, alert, and like seeing the world with new eyes. I’d glimpsed my folly.
I felt more awake. And realized that just moments before, I was in the “waking sleep.”
And, within the hour, I was in the waking sleep again. One small, yet important wake-up. They build over time. Each one matters.
Is there something else we can do other than self-observation?
There is no real replacement for self-observation, but we can prime ourselves to do it. How?
We can study and contemplate the dynamic a bit, which brings me to the second thing I mentioned above, Beatrice Chestnut’s The Complete Enneagram. I will copy two paragraphs from her book below. I hope you enjoy the way she frames this up, the “waking sleep.” May it help you see the dynamic, and prime you for a little self-observing. And, who knows, maybe a small wake-up.
The benefit is this: When you know what you might be looking for, it makes it easier to see it. When you glimpse it, then you are on to something. And, if you are like me, you cannot forget it. And you set your intention for it to happen again.
That’s what I have to say to you now about the “waking sleep.”
Make it a great week, y’all. (My southern heritage is coming out. It does that when I’m tired and happy. And I am both.)
Thanks for reading.
Beatrice Chestnut, PhD
From the Introduction, pages 3 and 4
“How does this habit of falling asleep to ourselves get started? How and why do we come to be this way? Human babies have the longest period of dependency of all mammals, so human children possess inborn, wired-in defense mechanisms that protect them from being too overwhelmed or harmed by psychological or emotional threats. Over time, early and necessary (and sometimes life-saving) defensive maneuvers and coping strategies evolve into “patterns” of thinking, feeling, and behaving. These patterns come to operate like “organizing principles,” or beliefs about how the world works and how we must act in order to survive or thrive. These patterned coping strategies turn into invisible and automatic “habits” that influence where your attention goes and what adaptive strategies you employ to interact with the world.”
[she continues in a later paragraph]
“The behavior patterns we develop to meet early threats eventually devolve into habits of mind that trigger automatically–even when the original threats are long gone and we are not confronting anything even remotely like them in the present. Our psyches develop this desensitized “waking sleep” to protect us from early emotional pain, but we end up staying asleep to what’s going on in our lives as we move into adulthood. This misalignment between our ingrained habits and our yearning to live authentically and spontaneously becomes a source for all kinds of suffering, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. The early coping strategies we don’t need anymore become unseen prisons that constrain how we think, feel, and act in ways that feel so familiar and integral that we forget we have the capacity to choose other options. In this way, we go to sleep to ourselves while think we are still awake. We lose our freedom to engage creatively and consciously in the world without even knowing we’ve lost it.”