I have had three spiritual awakenings in my life.
The first, an encounter with my first 12-step sponsor, changed me from a confirmed atheist into a spiritually curious person. The second, an encounter with my Buddhist teacher, changed me into a Buddhist. The third took place on 18 July last year. . . .
Like most people I have been aware of the planet’s suffering for many years. I knew about the impact of palm oil plantations, the melting ice-caps, and oceans choked with microplastics. This knowledge affected some of the choices I made—choosing recycled toilet paper in the supermarket, for example—but it was still very much on the periphery of my life.
On 18 July, I attended an Extinction Rebellion talk, “Heading for Extinction (and what to do about it),” in England. This event summarised the science of our climate and ecological crisis, and it didn’t hold back. This brutal exposition of our predicament, combined with the speaker’s insistence that “grief is welcome,” cracked through the thick layers of my denial and changed my whole life. It led to, among other things, personal changes such as giving up flying and new clothes, and taking on the new role of “eco-activist,” which resulted in my arrest in October.
Each of these awakenings began with denial. It is usually easier for us to live with the background noise of discomfort, as we distract ourselves with our many toys. If we were to turn toward the discomfort, it might burst out of the cupboard and overwhelm us, and then we might have to change our lives! Who knows what we might lose, or where we might end up. My first awakening led to me breaking up with the first love of my life, and the second to the shedding of my old identity and becoming a Buddhist priest. My third awakening is still transforming me.
Buddhism, at its best, transforms us into different people. This is true of all awakenings. We can use the Four Truths for Noble Ones as a guide. The following is based on a reading of the Four Noble Truths by my Buddhist teacher David Brazier, in his book The Feeling Buddha.
The first Noble Truth is duhkha: life includes discomfort. This truth asks us to turn away from our denial and toward the reality of our pain. It’s very tempting at this stage to continue with our attempts at avoidance—seeking more of the stuff we want, running away from the stuff we don’t want, diving into Netflix and forgetting the whole business. If we want to awaken from our confected fantasies, we need to look our suffering in the eye. We may not feel quite able to welcome it, but we can at least stop shoving it into a cupboard.
The second Noble Truth is samudaya: discomfort leads to arising energy. This is what happens when we look our suffering in the eye—we feel a compulsion to do something. In my case, I often want to eat cake. We can’t avoid the arising of this energy; it is like striking a golf ball and expecting it to stay where it is.
The third Noble Truth is nirodha: our arising energy can be contained. Nirodha means a bank of earth, which is what was used in the Buddha’s time to keep fires under control where they could be used for cooking, and so on. This truth shows us that we have an opportunity to harness the fire of our samudaya, and to use this energy in a wholesome way.
The fourth Noble Truth describes what ensues if we can contain our arising energy—marga: the wholesome path. The Eightfold Path—Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Samadhi—is how we naturally want to live our lives if we are able to restrain ourselves from eating the cake.
We endlessly cycle through these four truths. Sometimes we manage to harness our arising energy for a good purpose, but more often we fall back into greed, hate, or delusion. I’m curious about what made the difference on 18 July last year, when I was able to face a huge cupboard full of duhkha I’d been avoiding for a long time, and use it to transform my life for the better.
Of course, these situations are complex and involve many factors. Unpicking the precise causes and conditions would be a mammoth task, and even if it were feasible it would be impossible to replicate these causes and conditions for anyone else. We all arrive at 12-step groups, Buddhist teachers, and Heading for Extinction talks, with unique karma—the result of countless generations before us. Sometimes it is our moment to be “cracked open,” and sometimes not.
I do think that something made a big difference that evening. After the talk, I watched as a current member of the group spoke of her grief for the Earth and cried. This realisation—that she was personally affected by the Earth’s pain—shocked me out of my denial and into acknowledging the first Noble Truth. I saw my own grief at the Earth’s suffering and I began to feel it. This unleashed a huge amount of samudaya, arising energy, and the group offered me the perfect nirodha, container, from within which I could begin making different choices.
The container that the group offered me was strengthened by the bigger container that holds me as I experience reactions to duhkha—my Buddhist faith. Feeling held by the Buddha’s love is the ultimate “bank of earth” that steadies my fearful urges and allows me to make free choices rather than be driven by avoidance or clinging.
Each of my three awakenings (and of course there have been many hundreds or thousands of minor ones—the “aha” moments that pepper our days) has led me to a much better place. I might not have chosen to go to these places, in fact I’m sure I wouldn’t have chosen to go to them! Nevertheless, I have been guided into a life that is steadier, more honest, and more full of joy. My relationships with other people and the world are more intimate, and I have a deeper sense of purpose. I am hugely grateful for the duhkha that has led me to these places. I wonder where my next awakening will take me?
Brazier, David. 2002. The Feeling Buddha: A Buddhist Psychology of Character, Adversity and Passion. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.