How Awake Should We Be?

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, used to tell this story about his 5 year old daughter, Shalvi. She woke up one morning and said, “Abba (dad), you know how when you are asleep and dreaming, it seems so real, and then you wake up and realize it was just a dream? When you are awake, can you wake up that much more and realize that this is just a dream?”

From the perspective of spiritual practice, the answer is a resounding, ‘yes!’  How often do we fall asleep in our lives, acting in habitual ways – ways that are often inflexible, reactive, uncreative, deadened and even harmful? How often do we function on cruise control, not attuned to the nuances, surprises and fresh possibilities that are available right in front of us? How regularly do we move through our day asleep to the suffering of the person right next to us or to the needs of the world around us? How often are we operating the heavy machinery of life half-asleep to the thoughts and feelings that govern our decisions and responses? With intention and practice, we can wake up much more.

Even though this language of “waking up” is a metaphor, describing an experience of stirring into clarity and presence of mind/heart/Being, Jewish teachings that offer guidance about how we can wisely wake up in the morning can be insightful about the much broader project of inner awakening. The Shulchan Aruch, the most widely consulted code of Jewish law from the 16th century, teaches – “One should yit’gaber (strengthen oneself/embolden oneself/overcome/transcend) like a lion to get up in the morning to serve your Creator, so that it is you who awakens the dawn” (Orech Chayyim 1:1).

My waking up in the first moments of the morning is more akin to a hibernating bear, deep in her cave, being rudely poked in the middle of February. Hardly lion-like. The lion-like steady fortitude and fierceness, the graceful and full-bodied strength that this text is calling on us to access within does indeed require overcoming my tendencies, transcending the fatigue, grumpiness and routine of dragging myself out of bed compelled by the tasks and responsibilities that I immediately begin to list in my mind and worry about.

But there can be a decision and commitment to turn toward a different orientation – to wake up “to serve your Creator.” What can that mean? It is a call to wake up and feel myself attuned to being part of a wondrous world and a shared Life – hearing the birds twitter in their trees, seeing the colours changing in the sky, turning my attention to the direct experience of tender, remarkable breathing, mysterious Life moving in my body and animating the world all around me. I find a softening in my whole being as soon as I turn from the buzz of my mind to the wonder and sensations of aliveness. It doesn’t take long before gratitude strikes my heart like a bell and tumbles out of me with each exhale as my awareness touches each gift of a new day – feet supported by the floor, the pleasure of stretching, the roar of a yawn. I am waking up to a new day that is humming with generosity. The desire arises quite readily to direct myself to meet it as an opportunity to serve, offering my gifts. This is as much an ethical awakening as it is a spiritual one.

When we do it right, says the Shulchan Aruch, we ourselves awaken the dawn. The individual ego, the frenetic, fearful, worried, protective, grasping small self so often feels true and real and urgently important, but when I find I am able to wake into a wider experience of Sacred Life Unfolding and my gracious place within it, I can observe the anxiety and despair of that small self with perspective, sharper clarity and with tremendous compassion. There are moments when I feel my heart crack open and the whole wondrous, illuminating world awakens with my own opening eyes and opening awareness.

It takes practice to wake like a lion and bring on the dawn. I would love to practice with you.  

This summer I will be teaching at the inaugural year of the Romemu Yeshiva, a six-week contemplative yeshiva for young adults in New York City. Romemu Yeshiva combines rigorous text study, deep prayer, and Jewish mindfulness-based practices to inspire participants’ profound transformation as individuals and as members of the Jewish and human communities. Please spread the word to any young adults you know –

This winter at the DJC, I will be leading a series of Shabbat morning Jewish meditation sessions and teaching a series called “Meditating Rabbis” to grow in this practice together.

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