Buddhism and Awakening

Buddhism defines awakening in a variety of ways. The term "Buddha" means "awakened one." If you take the hagiographic approach, it can seem like something impossible and quite distant, but that's not really how it's presented in the suttas. This is something to look out for: painting enlightenment as something impossible and god-like. We shouldn't do that.

If you look at the teachings on the ten fetters, that's a good model for thinking about awakening. In the first path of awakening, you lose three of the ten fetters: doubt about the possibility of awakening, belief in magical thinking, and a certain aspect of the self that I've heard described as "the intellectual belief in a self," but which I think goes a bit deeper than that.

It's the third fetter I mentioned that really changes things; I think the other two are really a result of the dropping of the third. The way it felt to me was that things that bothered me got a lot less sticky. Something triggering would happen, and instead of it triggering a long internal story about the bad thing that happened and how to deal with it, it would just be noticed and then fall away. So someone would cut me off in traffic, and I'd feel the trigger of anger, but it would bounce off.

This was the beginning of a long process of discovering and releasing triggers, which is still ongoing; as these triggers are released, the mental continuum gets more and more happy and free. As you continue with this process, there are three more paths, which correspond to various shifts in your experience of things like desire and attachment, and to specific deep-seated desires like the desire for life and the desire for annihilation.

Buddhism itself is a philosophy that's compatible with the state of awakening. It's not the only such philosophy, but it's a very good one. It's also a path to the state of awakening and beyond. That's what the four noble truths are about.

I mention this because there is a distinction between what you have to do to awaken, and what you can do once you have awakened; the Buddhist path approaches both of these, but they are different problems, and the Buddhist lineages often fall down on actually getting you to awakening.   It's really easy to get into the habit of thinking that the path to awakening is to learn the philosophy really, really well, but awakening is not a corpus of knowledge.   Awakening is a change in the way you experience your mind and the world.

My personal feeling about this is that it's very important to learn Buddhist philosophy, or some other awakening-compatible philosophy if Buddhism doesn't appeal to you, but once you have a solid grounding in that, it's also extremely important to find some practice that will actually lead to awakening, and not just wait around and hope that your Buddhist teacher will know the right practice for you to do.

Some Buddhist lineages actively work against awakening; I don't think this is deliberate, and indeed I suspect many of the teachers that I would say work against awakening feel very sincerely that they are helping their students to get closer to it. But that means that you as a student have to take personal responsibility for awakening if that is what you want to do, and you have to do your homework, and not just assume that whatever your teacher is telling you is going to work, particularly in lineages where the teacher is treated as infallible.

As a first approximation, I would suggest that you start learning to meditate if you haven't already. If you have heard amazing things about the states of an adept meditator, but don't know how to become one, and the practices that you've been given don't seem to be giving you traction, find a practice that breaks the learning process down into stages and gives you both a way to understand what is happening in your meditation right now, and also what to do to improve it.

You want this to be actionable, not theoretical. If you don't know what to do, find out. I personally recommend The Mind Illuminated as a manual for this, but it's very detailed, so if you go that route, make sure that you take advantage of the online community at http://dharmatreasurecommunity.org or the /r/TheMindIlluminated subreddit here.