What Does it Mean to “Awaken” in the Dharma?

By Pablo Das.


We talk a lot in dharma circles about awakening. But what does that mean? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are practitioners and teachers. For me, as a person who’s always been drawn to the more pragmatic expressions of dharma, the teaching on the four noble truths offers one possible answer.

The four noble truths could be understood as an attempt at articulating what it is that constitutes awakening. The text, in this case assumed to represent the voice of the Buddha as he teaches, reads “If I had not had insight into these four truths, I would not have claimed to have had an awakening”. So what then are we awakening to? 

First, that life is a balance of pleasure and pain and that it can never be just pleasure and no pain. Life is full of experiences that are not preferable to us. Pain and difficulty are part of the package. The beauty, joy and pleasure of life are balanced with pain, disappointment and loss. Human connection, community and love is contrasted with hetero-supremacy, transphobia, misogyny, racism and more. In small and profound ways, we don’t always get what we’d prefer in this life. It is possible to wake up to this and change our relationship to life on its own terms in a way that supports wellbeing and minimizes unnecessary suffering and harm.

Second, that our minds are wired to react to the balance of pleasant and unpleasant experience. This is key! The mind wants to get rid of what's unpleasant and obtain or maintain that which we prefer. I prefer to call this habit of mind “reactivity”. Sometimes it's appropriate to consciously heed that sense of liking or disliking things and take a stand against injustice or get to safety when there's a threat. But it's usually not wise to follow the prompts of reactivity uncritically. Sometimes trying to get rid of what's unpleasant only compounds suffering. Addiction is a good example of this. Waking up to reactivity of mind means cultivating equal presence for pleasant and unpleasant experience without being unconsciously compelled by reactivity all the time. This reactivity is identified in the teachings as a hinderance to the cultivation of a wise way of living in the world.

Third, when we leave reactivity alone we can experience its impermanent nature. As a result of what we might call “non-reactive presence” we free ourselves from the suffering that often arises from blindly following the reactivity of mind.

Finally, in that space of non-reactive presence, we awaken to the possibility of a very different way of living. When we free ourselves from the cycles of reactivity, we open up a space of conscious choice. We can respond in an empowered way to whatever is going on whether it’s personal or political. The dharma teaches us how to cultivate a way of being in the world that is informed by the cultivation of kindness and compassion and rooted in the wisdom of knowing how life really is.

For me, non reactivity is not an end in and of itself. There is an argument to be made that the four truths suggest that the real objective is the cultivation of a style of engagement with the world through speech, action and participation in the marketplace. One rooted in wisdom and empowerment. What non reactive presence does is awakens us to the possibility of responding in kind, compassionate and empowered ways. I see “the path” as one of engagement with the world not just one of personal growth. One that considers the health, wellbeing, safety and protection of all people. Especially the most vulnerable. 

Awakening, therefore, is about accepting the inevitable balance of preferable and not so preferable experiences in life and freeing oneself from the prompts of reactivity so that one can cultivate a life which is responsive instead of reactive.  


Join me for a 4 week series in Los Angeles beginning next week called "Living the Four Noble Truths". Beginning July 13th. Register here.