As December darkness comes earlier every day, as our joints ache from the unusually cold weather, and we feel the year quickly drawing to a close, we naturally become more reflective. Even in the midst of shopping, parties, gifts and "to do" lists, we turn inward. It is easy to see the external symbols of religion (for example, the Menorah and Nativity Scenes) as well as the quintessential rituals and activities in churches, temples and synagogues. Yet the heart of religious traditions — silent prayer, contemplation and meditation — is also present, though more quietly.
After eight days of meditation, Siddhartha Gotama — the Buddha — was enlightened.
On Dec. 8 every year, Buddhists from around the world celebrate this holiday as "Bodhi Day." How can the experience and teaching of a man who lived in India 2,000 years ago be relevant to those of us living in Orange County in the 21st Century? The term "enlightenment" often evokes images of a guru on a mountain top or bald monks in monasteries. It may seem like an ideal which can be achieved only by a chosen few. But in modern English, enlightenment or "bodhi" is better translated as "awakening" or "waking up." The Buddha means "the awakened one." In Zen, the Buddha is regarded as offering teaching and an example, but he is not worshipped as a divine being. The way to truly commemorate the Buddha's awakening is to do our own waking up.
What are we waking up from? To be asleep is to rush through days on auto pilot, with no connection to the deeper meaning of our lives. To be asleep is to be stuck in our hardened conclusions about what we enjoy and what is a waste of time, rather than be open to investigating things freshly, to see people and events just as they are each moment. To be asleep is to spend too much time phoning, texting, e-mailing, Internet surfing and watching TV. But one important aspect of "waking up" is to discover for ourselves where we are asleep in our own lives. Boredom, irritability, depression and compulsion are red flags.
We are asleep to the wonder of our lives. Vietnamese Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hahn describes waking up as the discovery that life is a miracle:
"People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. The real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, the eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle."
Meditation is a key resource in waking up, in re-discovering the meaning and joy of life. Sometimes it can be on that list of healthy activities that we should do — but don't — like losing weight, getting more exercise and eating right. People tend to underestimate the importance of instruction, structure, coaching and support. They feel they can read a book and just do it. There may be an initial period of refreshment and peace but with time deeper spiritual issues inevitably will arise, which can undermine continuing to meditate. We find ourselves impatient to get going with the day's business, rather than taking time regularly set aside to listen and wait. We want an immediate reward. We want to do things our own way rather than opening to a larger dimension of life. We want to be the boss, rather than a co-worker. We want to do rather than be.
Yet we know that the ability to enter more deeply into simple events, rather than being caught up in our worries, fantasies and fears, is the key to satisfaction. We know the quiet joy of seeing an old friend, enjoying a sunset on vacation or the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Meditation helps us to approach all activities with this same wholeness.
Harvard researchers have found that 47% of the time, people's minds are on something other than what they are doing. And most daydreams are unhappy rather than pleasant escapes. The results of the study confirm the teachings of Zen: happiness does not depend so much upon what you are doing, but whether you are fully engaged in doing it.
Meditation helps us to develop skills to be fully in the moment and by doing so, to experience joy. Waking up is something everyone can do.
DEBORAH BARRETT is a Zen teacher and counselor at the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.