Awake or Asleep?

I’ve always had so many questions.

When I was in first grade in a city Catholic school, for instance, and a nun started teaching us about Adam and Eve, I raised my hand and asked how all the people in the world could possibly be made from just two people. Especially if incest was wrong. (Though I doubt that’s how I phrased it.)

The nun told me to go back to filling in the answers on my worksheet, which made me wonder—even at that early age—if Catholicism was the right place for me.

In second grade, when we were taught to go into a confessional and tell the priest our sins, I made a few things up, because otherwise I couldn’t think of anything to say. He gave me a penance of 8 Hail Marys, which felt cheap to me. I squinted at the pictures of saints on the stained glass windows. Really? I wondered. I can do bad things and say a couple prayers and all will be absolved?

As I got older, I kept asking questions.

In my twenties: Should I change my last name when getting married? What should I tell my kids about Santa Claus?

In my early thirties: Is there a God? If so, then why do all these government leaders seem so mean and self-absorbed? 

Later: Who am I? What do I want?

And: How does one achieve deeper contentment and lasting peace?

People tell me I overthink.


If someone were to ask me if she should embark on a spiritual path, my first response might be to say, I really don’t know.

And the next question I would ask would be, Well, do you want to live your life awake or asleep? 

I want to escape my problems as much as the next person. I want to go to happy hours and drink a lot so that I feel carefree. I want to meet able-bodied, handsome men and let the night run its course. I want to sit on my ass on the couch for hours watching television with my hand in a bag of honey-wheat pretzels.

But do I want to live my life in a haze, acting out of habit, never really knowing myself, repeating damaging patterns that feel stifling? Do I want to lose my temper, make erratic decisions, do things that make me feel foolish or filled with regret?

Or do I want to, you know, little by little, practice opening my eyes?

Meditation, to me, always felt like the spiritual practice that was organic and sensible. Sit still. Breathe. Notice what comes up without judgment. Continue to breathe.

It’s so simple. So why isn’t it easy?

Before my yoga teacher training, where I adopted a daily meditation practice, I would face the silence and the rambling of my thoughts during weekly Quaker meeting. The Quaker mode of Christian worship is like a cousin to Eastern meditation practice, though the difference is that occasionally someone in a Quaker meeting will rise with a message they feel called to speak. But the practice of sitting still, in silence, trying to center, and wading through the congo of the mind is similar. In both situations, we need the courage to face ourselves, to see who we are, to figure out what we want or what direction to take.

When we sit still and breathe with an open, brave heart, all sorts of things will come up. We may remember conversations we had that didn’t turn out well, things we did in the past we’re not proud of. We’ll think about all the things we have to do. We may begin to daydream and get carried away by fantasy. Or we might acknowledge strange sensations in our bodies we can’t explain. What we do is just acknowledge, and then go back to breathing calmly, swimming toward that place in ourselves that is also at the core of everything.

And then we get to experience—beyond all the thoughts and fears and explanations and worries—who we really are, what it really feels like to be alive. Not alive in the passing happiness we get from a “like” in our social media feed, or a kiss from someone we love, or the taste of an ice cream sundae. But alive in a deeper and richer way.

It might scare us, to know ourselves. If we know what we truly want, deep down, if we discover who we really are—past other people’s expectations and desires of us, past our own desire for illusory pleasure—we might have to make changes. And most people are pretty afraid of change. We might discover there’s something we wanted that we never knew, or there might be ways we’re holding ourselves back, or we learn that past experiences wounded us more than we at first believed.

But the good things that happen from a meditation practice are far better than initial states of discomfort. With practice comes a growing feeling of expansiveness, a sense of oneness, a connection to all things. The sky becomes bluer, the grass greener, the birds’ chirping more bright. It’s like eating a flavorful meal after a years-old diet of plain rice. We get glimpses at what it feels like to live on the other side of fear. We begin to think with more clarity and don’t let fleeting emotions dominate our behaviors. We grow in love and compassion—for ourselves and for others.

All it takes is courage and some willpower, and the rest falls into place. A few minutes a day, a particular time that works, a special, solitary spot. It’s a time to release, to sit still and concentrate purely on taking one breath, then the next. It’s a chance to rest in silence and discover who you are, what makes you tick.

So many things that happen in life are out of our control, but we do have the power of our choices. We can decide how we want to spend our time.

Do you want to spend it awake or asleep?

“tempb”by whothinkaboutit is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Categories: spirituality and faith

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1 reply

  1. Jana , what a thoughtful and inspiring piece of writing. You have given your readers a broad insight into your spiritual life and history of self reflection. You start with your childhood and keep going into your adulthood and your spiritual practice of meditation. Thank you Jana for sharing yourself with the world, but especially with all of you friends who know you and sincerely care about you.


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