What You Need To Know About Meditation And Awaken

This post gives you the schedule and content of new meditations (summarized in bullet form right below) and dives into the philosophy behind our practice (the longer rambling after the bullets :). And most importantly, scroll all the way down for our new introductory meditation!

The Philosophy Behind Our Approach

As I’ve been settling in to record the meditations, I’ve had a gnawing sensation that we haven’t shared enough of the big picture of the practice we’re offering. Why not just do regular mindfulness meditation and be done with it? What’s our core message and where are we coming from? How do our practice pillars tie together? And most of all: why do we hope this project can be transformative for all of us?

Here is what we’ve told you so far - in short, our practice has 3 core tenets:

  • Meditation and teachings rooted in Buddhist philosophy. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with Awaken. We’re going to integrate the teachings of Buddhism and other wisdom traditions as a backbone for learning how to work with our minds. What is Buddhist philosophy, you ask? Buddhism literally translates to Awake-ism, and the teachings of the tradition are not firm rules but rather ideas for us to contemplate as we experience our minds directly in meditation practice. Here’s a quick sampling: the inevitability of suffering in our lives, an exploration of the causes of suffering, contemplating the nature of self, and recognizing impermanence in all things. Nothing crazy, but these ideas provide a framework for our experience as we engage in meditation practice.
  • Looking at our whole lives. This may be our most important tenet, and we’ll flesh it out a bunch in this blog post. For now, the gist is that all the philosophy and meditation in the world is only helpful if we can directly apply it to our everyday experience. We’ll aim to do just that.
  • Conversation and community. The Awaken app experience is social - on purpose. We’ll learn from each other as we share our experiences and wisdom. We hope to co-create a learning community with you all - everyone is invited not only to share journal posts, but also to get in touch with us and get involved! We want a variety of teachers, practices, and perspectives. Each of us has a unique vantage point, and by sharing with each other, we amplify the fruit of our practice.

Each of these areas is individually important, but it’s where they intersect that we hope to make Awaken special. We have to start by understanding how meditation works. Over time, our minds settle - a consistent practice allows us to see what’s going on in our minds and in our lives. This has been called prajna in Sanskrit, translated as discernment, insight, or (most commonly) wisdom. As we see more clearly, we intuitively feel deeper karuna, or compassion, for ourselves and all beings - we understand how our minds cause us to behave in certain ways, so we can better empathize with others. 

Buddhist philosophy says that these two qualities - wisdom and compassion - lead us to nirvana, or enlightenment or awakeness, in the same way that a bird’s two wings lead it to flight. In learning to fly, we develop these two wings both sequentially and in parallel - and meditation is the practice that allows us to do so.

And so traditionally, you study the philosophy, devote life to practice, and a few decades later (or lifetimes, if you want to go down the reincarnation road :), voila - you reach nirvana! 

But for those of us not donning the robes of a nun or monk, this formula is a bit harder - for a very specific reason. A monastic environment isn’t just a quiet place free of the nonstop traffic noises of Brooklyn (I swear, it’s actually a bit grounding :) - it’s an entirely separate community with a unique culture designed to support practice, introspection, and the ripening of the soul.

It’s hard to describe modern civilization with those same terms, to say the least - and therein lies the basis for our approach with Awaken. So often, the demands of our everyday lives actively undo the benefits of meditation and the development of wisdom and compassion. We can break up our day with a mindful walk - but it’s hard to keep that mindfulness when our cell phone blows up. If it’s a nice note from a friend, maybe it’s easy to go back to taking in the sights, sounds, and sensations of our walk - but sometimes it’s our boss with an assignment for us, or a partner with an urgent chore to do.

It’s not just stress that can undo meditation’s benefit - the rabbit hole of our habitual mental patterns goes much, much deeper. Maybe we think the assignment from the boss is of utmost importance, because if we do it well, we’ll get a promotion. Two more promotions after that, we’ll finally be able to buy that dream house we’ve always wanted, and then we’ll finally be happy. (It follows, then, that the other half of this storyline is if we don’t get that dream house, we’ll never be happy.)

Underneath this sort of grasping are so many accumulated belief systems: what it means to have security, wealth, and happiness, to name just a few. And we all have these belief systems - they’re the foundations of how we construct meaning from experience. Since birth, we’re constantly internalizing what is valuable and not valuable, what is safe and unsafe, what is love-able and un-love-able in our quest for happiness. We get these messages from every source imaginable - from our family and friends, of course, but also from strangers, the media, advertising, and so on. And each of us receives these messages and turns them into our own belief systems in different, often unconscious ways based on our class, the color of our skin, our gender, sexuality, and a thousand other factors unique to each and every one of us. 

(If that last sentence triggers any guilt, anger, or aversion, take a second and be with that emotion, and maybe gently examine its roots. We can have a lot of instant, programmed reactions to the mere mention of class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. You can be sure that our intent is not to harm or impart any agenda whatsoever as we bring these issues into our practice, but instead simply to probe our unique belief systems. Specifically, we want to move out of cycles of guilt, blame, and shame so that we can more clearly see what is going on in our minds.) 

In his graduation address This is Water, author David Foster Wallace eloquently framed this idea (quote slightly edited):

"The insidious things about our belief systems is not that they’re evil or sinful, it is that they’re unconscious. They're the kind of worship we just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what we see and how we measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what we’re doing. And the world will not discourage us from being more and more entrapped by these unconscious belief systems, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self."

His words point at an unfortunate truth - from the perspective of human flourishing, many of the basic elements of our culture are incredibly toxic. And the key insight is that this toxicity is universal. It’s not just some people who are affected - it’s not that it just affects, say, the 99% and that the 1% are free from it. In a culture that confuses money for wealth and fetishizes financial success, the thirst for ever-increasing bank accounts never ceases, even for the rich. Lest you need an example, does Donald Trump, privileged and rich from birth, look like a content (or, for that matter, mentally healthy) human being? This is, of course, just one example of our culture's toxicity - there are countless others.

By all means, the relative impact of our social, political, and economic systems and culture is vastly different across populations, and those in disempowered positions get the short end of the stick. But - and here is where Awaken comes in - by understanding that we’re all affected in one way or another, we can use mindfulness practice to undo the unhealthy conditioning inside of us and start to choose beliefs that bring us joy and nourishment. In fact, we must include this work if we hope to build a better world - because if we don't heal and free ourselves, our efforts to change culture will come from a wounded place.

Our hope is that Awaken helps empower you to make the choices, conscious and unconscious, that you want to make, rather than ones that you never knew you made. And as we liberate ourselves, we start to lay the groundwork for not only a truly free and joyful mind but also for what a new culture could look like, one that supports our collective thriving. 

This practice seems like a small step - meditating, contemplating, and sharing our wisdom with each other. But our vision for practice and Awaken as an organization is to co-create this new culture, in whatever small-but-significant way we can. What would our world look like if more of us were in touch with our inner Awaken, and, from this wisdom, living, working, and creating in our lives, our communities, and society?

I have no idea, but I know how the story starts - with us looking deeply at our own minds, together - and I hope Awaken can be a part of that process.

PS - this inspired us to record a slightly different version of the introduction meditation. If you want to check it out, you can do so below or on the app - just scroll down to the bottom-most screen and hit play.

PPS - and we'd love to hear your responses, questions, and thoughts! Feel free to comment below.

PPPS - alright you made it all the way down here, so we'll tell you. On Tuesday mornings, there is something magnificent about steelcut oats (made at the beginning of the week en masse) - add some milk or yogurt (of the dairy or non-dairy variety), fruit, nuts, chia seeds, and a dash of maple syrup. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, it's because you haven't downloaded the app (iPhone) or on signed up to the mailing list (Android or if you want these meditations delivered by email). No biggie - if you fix it now, we won't tell anyone.