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Wakefulness and The Beam

2 min

Here's a piece on cultivating greater wakefulness in life.

An important quality to track over time is our wakefulness in life. By "wakefulness" I'm pointing to the experience of being alert and engaged in your life. This is contrasted with a sense of "being asleep": the automatic, harried, unconscious way of moving through the world that we all know, perhaps too well.

I will take for granted here that in general each of us would like to be more wakeful in our lives. This may not be true of everyone, but I think most people will agree that they would like to reduce the amount of their life they spend "zoned-out" or moving in a reactive way.

I want to offer a simple but useful metaphor for working with this quality: The Beam.

Imagine an elevated beam that is wide enough to walk on, but not wide enough to stand on without your balance being engaged.

There are four states we can be in with this metaphor: on the beam, falling off the beam, off the beam, and getting on the beam.

Now, being "on the beam" represents a wakeful, curious, engaged quality of awareness and presence. The feeling like when the person you're talking to is really listening to you. Is really there with you.

Being "off the beam" represents the opposite. Being wound up in habitual patterns of thought, feeling, and action. This is typically accompanied by neurotic, discursive inner chatter, or a dissociated numbness.

The "falling off the beam" and "getting on the beam" states represent the vast range of states in between this. As we lose our balance, or after we've fallen, and as we muster the strength and clarity to try again.

Over time we become more skillful in three ways:

  1. We can stay on the beam for longer
  2. We can more readily notice when we are falling off the beam or when we have fallen off
  3. We can more easily get back on the beam once we've fallen

In the beginning, we may often need support from others to even find the beam in the first place. Some kind of peak experience. A moment of heightened insight and clarity.

Sometime after we have fallen, we will realize that we are off the beam. This will be confusing and discouraging. We may not even have an idea of how to return to the beam. Our habitual self will probably step in to try to fix the situation.

Eventually, we'll find our way on the beam again, learning a bit more about how to get there in the process.

Over time, we get better at all three aspects of living on the beam. As we get more and more skillful, we reach a point where we can return to the beam quickly and reliably.

Where are you now?

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