May 13, 2009
“Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With” by Gaylon Ferguson
A new book by Gaylon Ferguson argues that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the materialism that has us all in its grip, and that meditation and spiritual community are the antidotes. Pam Dodd is our guest reviewer.
Gaylon Ferguson, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, has studied and taught meditation for over 30 years. During that time, he has probably met all kinds of people from all walks of life who have actively pursued, or fallen onto, the spiritual path. Ferguson believes that the normal human condition is natural or basic wakefulness. Wakefulness is the fundamental goodness of who we really are, independent of our circumstances, that lies dormant in each of us, waiting to be actualized.
Unfortunately most of us have learned from infancy to be distracted by thoughts and feelings that keep us reacting to life automatically, like robots. We get stuck in the past. We fantasize and daydream. We think incessantly, allowing our monkey mind to jump wherever it pleases. Ferguson calls these habitual patterns reruns. We blindly move through our lives, in prisons of our own making, and we don’t even know it. Looking outside ourselves for our inner well-being, we live with a restlessness that never goes away.
The way to wake up from this “sleepwalking” state is not by trying to force or fix ourselves but by gently befriending ourselves in the practice of lovingkindness that is meditation.
Meditation is a commitment to being here now, no matter what. It’s accepting ourselves exactly where we are, working with what’s available in us, and bringing ourselves back to the present again and again whenever we our minds wander. Ferguson maintains that “sitting quietly in meditation is the best research lab to observe the mind’s behavior when it isn’t being interrupted” (p.98).
Meditation is nothing special. Yet if practiced consistently and regularly, it wakes us up to the basic goodness of our lives, not while we’re squirreled away in some far off, quiet sanctuary, but in the midst of living out the ups and downs of each ordinary, busy day.
Ferguson goes to great lengths to provide useful insights and instructions to the practitioner (for the reader of this book must be an active practitioner if the lessons are truly to be learned). It’s clear he knows the ins and outs of meditation.
Practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change
After the initial chapters on wakefulness and natural training, the middle chapters cover guided exercises, reflections, stories, and student questions on the most important aspects of meditation practice. Central to the book’s approach is the idea of “bare noticing.” This is not “thinking about,” reflection, deliberation, or theorizing, but rather the application of one’s unadorned attention to what currently is. Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.
The book’s meditation lessons start with guided training on mindfulness of the physical body and breathing and move on to mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of feelings.
Along the way we learn how important it is not to be too tight or too loose; how to touch the texture of our emotions; how to lean in to unacceptable thoughts and feelings without being hooked by them; and how respectfully to watch the inner critic or voice of judgment that continuously comments on and criticizes what we think, say, and do.
The last two chapters discuss two central contexts for awakening, the nightmare of materialism and the spirit of community.
Ferguson maintains that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the world of materialism that has us all in its grips. He traces the roots of our constant sense of inadequacy, anxiety, and feeling like something is missing to our neurotic pursuits and thinking. We “fake it,” putting on masks to compensate for what we think we lack. We constantly chase after physical comfort, security, and pleasure. We rely on belief systems and concepts to filter our perceptions. We become addicted to altered or higher states of consciousness through drugs, prayer, yoga, and even meditation.
One antidote to materialism is genuine community. Communities of sanity, generosity, and celebration help us learn how to overcome a sense of scarcity and fear. In community, we work productively with our attention, care, and concern as we learn how to be present with others’ strong feelings without running away or trying to fix things. We nurture the compassionate heart, strengthening our wishes for the well-being of others. We learn to be skillful, waking up into trust and living courageously with others. In this larger sense, “practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change” (p. 170).
Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.
The hopeful message of Natural Wakefulness is much needed in today’s stressful times. Unfortunately, the book’s structure gets in the way of a full appreciation of its wisdom and lessons.
First, the wording of the chapter titles is too abstract. The clearer descriptive subtitles would have made better titles. Also subheadings throughout the book are uneven; some make sense while others are too vague.
This lack of clarity carries over to the numbering of the guided contemplations and exercises, which doesn’t follow a consistent style from chapter to chapter. Also, the exercises would have stood out more if each had been put in boxes or otherwise highlighted so the practitioner could return to them easily. The same goes for the valuable question-and-answer exchanges; their inconsistent formatting is distracting, making it difficult to follow the insights meant to support the main instruction.
Other issues include the lack of a bibliography, a few muddled metaphors and analogies, and several abrupt or incomplete transitions that leave the reader hanging.
Last, teaching meditation necessarily involves using abstract language. While much of this language may be familiar to the seasoned meditation practitioner, it can be difficult for the neophyte. Add the burden of structural issues like this book has, and despite the great content, it will be a challenge for some to read.
Pamela Dodd has practiced Korean Zen Buddhism since the mid-1990s. She’s always returning to beginner’s mind as her love of learning takes her into new fields of knowledge.
Pam has a master’s degree in social work and a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. She’s the co-author of The 25 Best Time Management Tools & Techniques, an Amazon bestseller.