Notes on Wakefulness

13 February 2018, The Malibu Hindu Temple

Bodhidharma – meaning “one who awakens” – was a 5th century Prince turned monk who traveled from East India to China, bringing with him Buddhism and tea. In stories he is cast as a little grumpy and incredibly devout, wandering about as the first patriarch of China. In one particularly tall tale Bodhidharma is said to have been deep in meditative practice, some time into a nine-year stint of wall-staring when he realized he had nodded off. Furious at his weakness he tore at his eyes, scratching and tearing until he ripped his eyelids off completely, flinging them to the ground in frustration.

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Robert Irwin works with light, “Open your eyes in the morning, the world is totally formed. You haven’t done anything other than be. It’s all around you.”

He continues in an infinite play of empty mirrors, “The whole idea is being able to recognize it, and pay attention to it, articulate it.”

“Beauty is all around you,” he says.

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Miraculously, where Bodhidharma’s eyelids fell, tea plants sprouted. Bodhidharma plucked the leaves of the plant and began to chew. His mind became clear, focused, bright – awake! Reinvigorated he returned to his meditation.

The ṛṣis, sometimes called the “Vedic seers,” were once asked: “‘In what are you experts?’ They responded, ‘in the sensation of being alive. We are wakeful – or, if you like, we vegetate.’ Vajra, the lightning flower, the ultimate weapon of the gods, is connected with vegeo, to be wakeful, vigilant…the lightning is the lightning flash of wakefulness. ‘Vegetation’ and ‘wakefulness’ share the same root.” And as the ṛṣis saw it, the secret of existence was in just three actions: waking, breathing and sleeping. And, Roberto Calasso continues, they were dazzled by one revelation: the elementary fact of being conscious.

The God of Consciousness and Creation; of Death, Time and Destruction; Lord of the vegetable world and of Yoga – Śiva – is said to be always awake; always aware, forever conscious, he keeps his third eye eternally open; he is the light that endures in the darkness, present even when the world ceases to exist.

On Maha Śivaratri – the Great Night of Śiva – devotees demonstrate their dedication to Lord Śiva by staying awake the whole night long, chanting, dancing and praying, maintaining that defining anatomical characteristic of wakefulness – an erect spine, or Mount Meru. In disrupting our patterns (unconscious awareness; sleep) we make space to recognize what is not mechanistic, unconscious being. Now. Now we can bypass our automatic patterns, control our habits, and gain insight.

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Vegetal and wakeful; conscious and animated; animal and vegetable. Even spoons and stones are conscious some physicists say. Panpsychism.

An all-pervading wakefulness available to plants, humans, seers and gods is described in the Śiva Sūtra (verse 11) as a samadhi-like awareness – turīya – : tritayabhoktā vīreśaḥ : The one who enjoys in the oneness of awareness of all the three states – waking, dreaming and deep sleep – becomes the master of all organic energies. Patañjali tells us – : svapna-nidrā jñāna-ālambanam vā : Knowledge in dream and sleep can awaken you to the truth.

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The quest for meaning, for wakefulness and truth, has perennially piqued human curiosity; it is a part of our makeup, steeped in our blood and bones, in the songs of the plants, and planets, myths and imaginings. It is not just a rallying mandate in the turmoil of our times – it is a lineage of inquiry, a tool for transformation: stay awake.

ॐ नमः शिवाय // Om Namah Śivāya!


Śivaratri at the Malibu Hindu Temple, 2018 | Photo by Roberto Maiocchi

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