Close Your Eyes and Wake Up
We were in the schoolyard across the street from our house. It was cold and the trees wore red and golden leaves. My brother and his friend were on the teeter-totter. There was a swing set and merry-go-round and those little horses on springs. My brother and his friend told me to look in the crack in the school wall, a dark, jagged tear where the bricks of the sturdy, square building had broken. They taunted me to look and snickered behind their hands. They thought I would be scared, but I felt calm. I looked. I saw cobwebs and skeletons in the black, like a Halloween tablecloth come to life. I didn’t scream or jump or gasp; they were disappointed. I looked at their sad faces, pouting little boys and I thought very clearly “This is a dream.” I closed my eyes and woke up.
I was four years old.
We really did live across from a school. It was a brown brick building with yellow school busses parked out front where my brother went to kindergarten. I have a vague memory of going inside only once and seeing old wooden desks, the kind where the desktop and chair are one piece of furniture. I never attended that school. My parents would sometimes take us to play on the playgrounds, which were not fenced, or my mother would watch us from the porch of our little bungalow to make sure we crossed the street safely. We were the last house on the block, right on the edge of town, so there was very little traffic.
We lived in Tripp, South Dakota, until I was four years old, my mother, father, and older brother, along with a little white dog named Andy and a calico cat called Joker. My parents had moved there just before I was born from Valentine, Nebraska, when my Dad bought a business from a local man. Unfortunately, the seller had lied about the revenue and before I was old enough to start attending the brown brick school, my parents declared bankruptcy, sold what they could, and moved back to Nebraska.
We did not return to Valentine, where my paternal grandparents lived. Instead, we went to Lincoln, the second largest city in the state and where my parents had met while attending the University of Nebraska. I remember the red brick apartment we lived in and starting kindergarten there. But he job my dad had found turned out to not be very good and I didn’t get to finish kindergarten in Lincoln. Instead, we moved to Papillion, a suburb on the south side of Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city. Both of my parents found the companies where they would work for thirty years and counting.
We lived on the outskirts of that sprawling Midwestern city, never more than a block from the nearest cornfield. I attended first through sixth grade at Westmont Elementary and then junior high and high school at Gretna Public Schools. I was not as good of a student as my brother, who never gave his teachers any trouble. I gave them enough for two. We attended a local United Methodist Church every Sunday. We raised Guinea pigs successfully, killed several gold fish, and, when we were older, had two dogs and a cranky black cat.
It was a very normal life, probably so normal as to be exceptional. My parents didn’t fight or drink, only occasionally arguing (very civilly) over money. Most evenings they came home from work, we had dinner as a family, and then everyone settled down to enjoy watching television and reading books. My dad liked sports, especially football and basketball, and my mother knew many hand crafts, including cross-stitch, quilting, and crochet. My brother and I didn’t get into parties or drugs. We both got part time jobs as teenagers and bought our own cars when we turned sixteen. We were all introverted and bookish and, aside from childish squabbles, got along rather well together.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this American idealism, I felt unsettled. I struggled, even though I really had very little to struggle about. I was uncooperative in school and refused to do “pointless” homework for subjects I already understood perfectly well (according to me). I had few friends, was occasionally bullied and often teased, and couldn’t really relate to children my own age. I found very little meaning in church and often wondered what was wrong with me because I couldn’t feel “the warmth of Christ’s love” that everyone was always going on about. I felt like less than a person and I resented it.
So I tried to grow up too fast – got a car, a nine-to-five job, a house, a mortgage – and then realized that adult “independence” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I hated mowing the lawn. I hated getting up early and doing the same thing every day. I made good money, but found the boring night classes at the local community college more fun than my job. I didn’t date and wondered if I ever would. I skipped a lot of the teenage and young adult experiences that many people proclaim as “pivotal” to their development – first loves, first apartments, first road trips. Sometimes I think I was born old and had to learn to be young. By nineteen I had my white picket fence and by twenty-four I had sold it all, but I waited until I was thirty to truly “run away from home.”
That feeling I had when I was four, “This is a dream,” never left me. I just didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t close my eyes and wake up.
I just wanted to close my eyes and wake up.
The Buddha is “the Awakened One.” That’s what his title means. He sat down under a bo tree in northern India, 2,500 years ago, closed his eyes to meditate and woke up. He said:
Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before …then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its deities, Maras and Brahmas, with its contemplatives and brahmans, its royalty and common folk. Knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’ (SN 56.11)
This he told his ascetic companions in the deer park at Varanasi in what is now Uttar Predesh, India, along the Ganges River. His companions recognized his wisdom and called him “buddha” and followed him the rest of the days of their lives.
The Buddha had seen, years before, the suffering of life. People grow old, sick, and die, and no amount of wealth or love can protect them from this. Moreover, people want what they cannot have and don’t want what they cannot avoid, causing untold stress and suffering. The Buddha also “ran away from home” resolved to discover both the source and the alleviation of this affliction. He was successful in his quest.
My friend and professor, Dr. Drew Baker, recently reminded me that we choose our paths only from the options of which we are already aware. The Buddha chose to become a wandering ascetic, which was common in India in those days, and studied with many different teachers, eventually mastering the meditative disciplines they knew. I chose to move to Los Angeles and become a Buddhist priest and scholar by studying at various universities in the region. I have mastered the arts of library research and ramen noodle cooking.
I draw parallels not to equate myself with the legendary Enlightened One, but rather because I find the juxtaposition humorous, in a nonsensical sort of way. When he sat under that bo tree at the age of thirty-six and fought with Mara’s demons, did he know that 250 centuries later, it would take me thirty-six years of life to type these words on a computer screen? Did he realize I would know his name and follow his teachings, or that anyone would? Or would he shake his head in sadness at how we’ve lost the point entirely in the intervening time?
On the one hand, I read the words attributed to him through the social, cultural, familial, and personal lenses of a woman raised in a time and place so different from his own that I wonder “How can I possibly imagine what really happened under that tree?” On the other hand, we are both human, we both know stress, we both grow old, sick, and die – except that his suffering has ceased while mine continues. The Buddha found an entirely new option and spent the rest of his life ensuring that future generations would be aware of it. What am I to do with this?
Close my eyes and wake up.
I have enjoyed lucid dreams my entire life. I often remember my dreams. I often know that they are dreams when I am dreaming. I can frequently control what I dream. I have a few reoccurring dreams, including the dream of waking up.
I wake up. It is a normal day. I get dressed. I leave home. I arrive at school or work or the supermarket and realize “I am still dreaming.” I close my eyes and wake up. I get dressed. I leave home … and realize “I am still dreaming.” This repeats for what sometimes seems like uncountable instances, occasionally to the point of frustration, but when I do finally, truly wake up, it is absolutely unmistakable. The difference between “waking up” in the dream and being awake is absolutely crystal clear. When I am finally awake, I often lay there for a while and ponder. I’m not so quick to get up and get dressed and go out.
I’ve had this dream since I was a child, but it was only when I began to study Buddhism that I started to wonder if this is comparable to the Buddha’s certainty that he had Awakened. He was absolutely crystal clear. He saw the lure of chasing our desires like a dream to be happily abandoned upon waking (MN 54).
This particular dream keeps me humble. Every time I think I’ve figured something out or had some small insight, I remind myself that I am still just dreaming. This dream has helped me be skeptical and steered me away from dangerous gurus who claimed enlightenment for themselves but later hurt so many people. It has given me some small measure of hope when the teachings of the Buddha’s path seem daunting (impossible! frightening!), because no matter how many days I live while dreaming, I happily abandon all of them upon waking, never looking back.