The practice of awakening


The term, nirvana, is often defined as, ‘beholding the ceasing’. This is an unusual form of words. Beholding suggests that awareness or observation is important – realising that ‘ceasing’ is happening. The word, ‘ceasing’, refers to the ceasing of reactivity, attachment, discrimination, dualism – a process of letting go, releasing, non-attachment. To be aware of (behold) the letting-go (ceasing) of reactivity is another way of saying to be mindful.

In the Dhammapada, nirvana is described as, ‘immediate, clearly visible, inviting, uplifting, and personally sensed by the wise.’ When we are awake to life as it is – being mindful of our experiences without reactivity and attachment – we are ‘beholding the ceasing’; in other words, we are realising nirvana (or enlightenment). This is an experience and a skill available to everyone, not just to an elite, super-human few. To be mindful is itself nirvana – a process of moment-by-moment awakening to the reality of impermanence and interdependence within the ups and downs of everyday life.

Just as the self is a process, not a thing or an essence, so enlightenment/nirvana/awakening is a process – a continual awakening to the reality of everyday existence, awakening to dharma. There is no end-state of eternal absolute unchanging enlightenment – no transcendent final state of nirvana – for this would pre-suppose that there is a state in which anatta and anicca no longer apply – something the Buddha suggests is not the case. It might be more useful to use the word ‘enlightening’ to refer to this continuing process of mindful attention without attachment, reactivity or discrimination.

Enlightenment/nirvana is not a goal or destination, it is the journeying itself, and the journeying is the practice of awakening – being mindful. We could call it ‘nirvana-ing’. Hence, as Dogen says many times, enlightenment is practice, practice is enlightenment. Rather than think of the Buddha as the awakened, or enlightened, one – a super-human being – it might be more useful to think of him as a human being who was extremely adept at the skill of awakening or enlightening. The word, Buddha, comes from the root budh, to awake, perceive, know. And it was in this skill of non-reactive clear-sighted awareness, that the Buddha was an expert. We could also describe this as the skill of being mindful in the fullest sense of the word.

NB. ‘Reactivity’ refers to a complex array of habitual, conditioned behaviours, including: attachment, craving, mental chattering, judgmental habits, obsessive thinking and feeling – rumination – whereby thoughts and feelings spawn further thoughts and feelings in endless cycles – continually creating disturbance, confusion, dissatisfaction, tension, frustration and exhaustion. Reactivity, in this sense, is what mindful meditation illuminates and dissolves. When we are mindful, we are letting-go of, or ceasing, reactivity – we ‘behold the ceasing’.

When we let go of reactivity, our experience becomes clearer, lighter, more direct and fluid – we feel more harmonious and connected – at peace with ourselves and realising our kinship with others and with the universe.

Anicca = impermanence, endless change, process

Anatta = ‘non-self’, interdependence, conditionality