Do you think of “enlightenment” as the province only of special beings, like the Buddha, or of those who spend their lives cross-legged, meditating, and chanting “om?” Or maybe you view enlightened people as ones who somehow spend their lives in a state of earthly or heavenly bliss.
I’ve been a victim of these stereotypes at times. But in her new book, How to Wake Up, author Toni Bernhard helps us see that moments of awakening can be a daily experience for all of us, starting now. Reading her book, I understood for the first time that the words “awakening” and “enlightenment” refer to freedom from our self-caused psychological suffering. We can attain this freedom by deliberately choosing to cultivate self-compassion, kindness, appreciative joy, and wisdom.
While "enlightenment" may sound like a lofty goal, there are exercises—"practices"—that can help you develop the habit of "waking up." In fact, odd as it may seem, by the end of this blog, you will know 8 ways to become an “awakened one.” (For the blurry distinction between “enlightened” and “awakened,” see one view here.)
Bernhard, a practicing Buddhist, published her first book, How to Be Sick, after she was struck by a mysterious flu-like illness that wouldn’t go away, that resisted diagnosis, and that eventually forced her to resign from a job she had loved. After publication, she was deluged with emails and notes from people with chronic illnesses who had been helped by her book. But, to her surprise, she also received thanks from healthy people who applied her teachings successfully to the struggles of their own lives. This feedback led to her second book, How to Wake Up, a description of Buddhist principles and practices for everyone who seeks relief from mental suffering. (Disclosure: Toni Bernhard is a member of my blogging circle here at psychologytoday.com.)
Bernhard’s mission in How to Wake Up is to teach practical skills that help us catch and change painful mental states before they can take over. Here are 8 “wake-up calls” from her book. Although greatly over-simplified to keep this blog short, they can offer a glimpse into relieving your mental suffering and thus help you become a more enlightened being. (Really!)
1. Wake up from story-suffering. It is a common experience to realize that you’ve been lost in thought, torturing yourself with dramatic, distorted stories about your past or future. (See my experience here.) Instead of chiding yourself, Bernhard suggests you label that realization as a moment of enlightenment. You’ve just woken up! When I read this passage in Bernhard’s book, the phrase from the old hymn came to me: “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” Bernhard uses the phrase, "Ah, I've been lost in thought and now I'm not!"
2. Wake up to the present moment. A non-judgmental awareness of the present moment—usually defined as "mindfulness"—is “a moment of peace with our life as it is.” To practice savoring the present moment, Bernhard suggests telling yourself the phrase, “Just this!”
3. Wake up by tuning in to body sensations. Embrace the present moment by tuning in to the sensations in your body. Your body can be a “doorway to awakening” because the physical sensations you are experiencing bring you into the "now." Focusing on your breath, as you inhale and exhale, is one way to turn your attention away from unproductive thinking and toward the present moment.
4. Wake up by accepting your unpleasant feelings. When a challenging emotion like anger, sorrow, self-criticism, worry, or envy arises, acknowledge that unpleasant feeling and treat it in a friendly way—like a guest. As Bernhard says, “Acknowledging the presence of an unpleasant experience is itself a moment of awakening because it’s a moment of gracefully engaging our life as it is for us right now.” To practice "sitting with" such difficult guests, find a phrase that helps you label and welcome the unpleasant emotion, such as, "I see you, anger." "Worry, so it’s you again." "The old refrain: Never thinking I'm good enough." Or quote the song: “Good morning, heartache. Sit down.” This exercise helps you see that unpleasant emotions are not permanent residents but simply temporary visitors. By tolerating them, you open the door to investigating them more fully.
5. Wake up by practicing self-compassion. Bernhard states that "...every moment that we truly feel kind and friendly toward ourselves and others is a moment of freedom from suffering." Unfortunately, most of us have an inner critic that can bombard us with devastating criticism. Bernhard confronted her own inner critic when she realized how much she was blaming herself for her chronic illness, adding mental suffering to her physical pain. Eventually, she writes, “...when I saw the suffering that I was imposing on myself, I thought: ‘I’m a decent person. I don’t deserve this kind of treatment from myself.’” I can’t think of a better phrase to memorize than the one above.
6. Wake up from judging others. Bernhard offers a useful distinction between “assessing” others and “judging” others. “Assessing” is the neutral sizing up of people—a skill that is necessary for survival. “Judging” adds our standard of how we think things should be to the mix. “Why doesn’t he lose weight?” “She’s a thoughtless person.” To counter the habit of judging, Bernhard shares a wonderful idea for a daily practice: As she leaves the house, she uses the cue of her hand on the doorknob to remind her to approach other people in a friendly and open-hearted way.
7. Wake up from envy and resentment. These two mental states are the source of suffering for many. Being able to truly feel “appreciative joy” at another’s good fortune may take practice, but it can be an anti-toxin to the poisons of envy and resentment. To develop this habit, make an intentional choice to rejoice in the good fortune of others.
8. Wake up by cultivating wisdom. Although Bernhard suggests many wisdom practices, I found that her most liberating statement is that true awakening is “waking up to a peace and well-being that aren’t dependent on whether a particular moment is pleasant or unpleasant.” What a relief to tell yourself, “I don’t need for my life to be perfect to be at peace!”
There’s so much more in How to Wake Up. In addition to providing advice for living, gently delivered, Bernhard’s book serves also as a wonderfully cogent introduction to the precepts of Buddhism. Bernhard has a knack for describing complex ideas in simple ways, illustrating them with personal examples and stories that make those ideas memorable and meaningful.
Awakening is not a one-time deal, as Bernhard points out. It’s a matter of creating new mental habits through lifelong practice. Although I described these habits as “simple,” they are not easy. They require thoughtful attention. But just realizing how much of your own mental suffering you can alleviate once you recognize your own part in it was, for me, an “aha” moment in itself. You may not become an "enlightened being" after reading this useful book, but you will certainly have more moments of awakened life than you used to.
So, what is "enlightenment?" Amazingly, “enlightenment” is a set of learnable habits that can free you from self-induced suffering. Once you adopt those habits, you will find that you can alleviate your own suffering and that of others.
© Meg Selig, 2013
If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like my blogs, "3 Quick Ways to Curb Catastrophic Thinking" and “Soothe Emotional Pains with RAINS” or this blog on "The 7 Habits of Emotionally Healthy People" by Guy Winch. Sample the blogs of Toni Bernhard here.
Source: Toni Bernhard, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (Wisdom Publications, 2013).