Wake up

Wake up! If you’re reading this, then you’re already awake in the traditional sense. (Unless you’re dreaming right now and I’m just a character in your dream, in which case, please don’t wake up.) But are you conscious? Were you conscious a minute ago, before I asked the question? Were you aware that you existed? If not, when did you last remember that you exist?

I use the term “waking up” because when you ask these questions, you probably have a sense of awakening, as if you weren’t fully conscious a moment before, as if a switched was flipped and everything changed from black and white to vibrant color. (Our language lacks a word for this mental state, a reflection of how unimportant we consider it.)

Self-awareness is not our natural waking state. Most of life is lived automatically. Stimulus, reponse. Left foot, right foot. A dreamless sleep that we wake up from in those rare and fleeting moments when we remember that we exist.

The awakened state of remembered existence is immensely rewarding. How?

You gain presence. By waking up you can notice details about the world you’d otherwise miss. You can connect more fully with your reality, experience it in a deeper, truer way, and savor the present moment more fully.

You gain autonomy. You only have free will to the extent that you realize you have free will. By remembering that you exist it’s easier to remain conscious as you think and feel and act. That way, you’re no longer shaped by happenstance, no longer just letting your life happen to you. You are steering your own ship.

You gain gratitude. In the lulled stupor of everyday life we take our existence for granted. But awakening reminds us how remarkable it is to have sprung into existence out of nothing. Existence is a gift so mysterious, so unfathomable, so incomprehensibly unlikely as to border on the ridiculous. The gift that enables all other gifts. Which you have been given but did nothing to deserve.

How can you live a more awakened life? By increasing the frequency and duration of these awakenings. Increase the frequency by thinking of situations and circumstances you’ll soon be in and making a mental note to wake up when those things happen. Increase the duration by trying to stay awake as long as you can, by preceding your thoughts with “I am aware, and” or “I am thinking that”.

But don’t take this too far. You have two selves: an experiencing self and an observing self. By default, your experiencing self dominates. But you don’t want your observing self to dominate either; that would interfere with a lot automatic behavior that should remain automatic. Instead, strive for a middle way that balances observing and experiencing.

Honor the gift of existence, by remembering it and cherishing it often. You’ll become more present, more grateful, and more in control, three of the surest routes to meaningful happiness.

Today's Activity

  • Think of five places and situations you’ll be in later today, and make a mental note now to wake up when you’re there. If you do wake up at that time, you can select a new triggering event. If you try this and it doesn't work, set an alarm or put a post-it note where you'll see it.
  • When you do wake up, try to remain continuously aware that you exist for a minute or two. With every breath, think "I exist". Don’t just say it mindlessly, think it. Breathe more slowly than normal. That way, if your breathing returns to normal, that means the action exited your consciousness and you probably also forgot your existence. If thoughts and feelings come to mind, precede each with the thought "I exist, and I'm thinking that", or "I exist, and I'm feeling that".
  • If you get value from this activity, make it a daily habit.