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Answering the Call to Awaken

Update: 21/09/2016
Like the Buddha, we all get our call to wake up. It often comes when life isn’t working and we may have to go a little crazy. Here’s how Buddhist teacher Spring Washam answered her call.
 

Answering the Call to Awaken

 

My birth was not a\r\ncelebrated and magical event. My parents’ relationship had always been rocky\r\nand, sadly, it completely unraveled during my mother’s pregnancy with me.

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We lived in\r\nBellflower, California, a low-income neighborhood between Long Beach and\r\nCompton, in a large concrete apartment building surrounded by chaos. Gangs were\r\ncommonplace and I became used to the sounds of gunshots, sirens, and police\r\nhelicopters.

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Even as a small child\r\nI felt a lot of love and compassion for my parents, and I recognized early on\r\nthat they were themselves survivors. My father left soon after I was born and\r\nmy mother worked as much as she could for us. With state aid and food stamps,\r\nwe just got by.

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I wasn’t allowed to\r\nplay outside very often, so my earliest memories are of my sister and me\r\njumping up and down on an old green sofa in our tiny living room. I can\r\nremember thinking at an early age, “Wow, this is going to be a very difficult\r\nlife.” I understood even as a child that I was going to have to bloom in very\r\nmuddy waters.

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About 2,600\r\nyears ago, an Indian prince named Siddhartha was born amid many favorable\r\nsigns. His father, the king, was determined to protect him against the reality\r\nof suffering, and the prince grew up within the walls of the palace with every\r\nluxury one can imagine.

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Around the age of\r\ntwenty-nine, Siddhartha began to feel dissatisfied with his princely life and\r\ndeep feelings of unhappiness began to grow. He longed to explore the world and\r\nconvinced his reluctant father to let him leave the palace on an outing. This\r\ngave the gods and spirits the opportunity to arrange a series of signs that\r\nwould help Siddhartha wake up and see the truth of life. These signs have\r\nbecome known as the four heavenly messengers, and they changed the course of\r\nhis life.

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The first messenger\r\nthat he encountered was a very old man, covered in wrinkles, bent over, and\r\nbarely able to walk down the road. His father had only allowed young and\r\nbeautiful servants in the palace, so this was an unfamiliar sight. Siddhartha\r\nnow realized that his youth would someday end and he too would grow old.

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The second heavenly\r\nmessenger the prince encountered was a very sick man. He was covered in bloody\r\nsores, lying in pain on the floor of a mud hut. Because his father had\r\nforbidden sick people from entering the palace, the prince had no experience of\r\nillness and disease. Now he realized that he and all others would eventually\r\nbecome sick, and his heart was filled with compassion.

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The third heavenly messenger\r\nwas a large funeral procession. A corpse, wrapped in cloth, was being carried\r\nto the charnel grounds to be cremated. Siddhartha stayed at the charnel grounds\r\nfor hours watching the body slowly burn and disappear, and he realized that\r\ndeath awaits us all.

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As Siddhartha\r\ncontinued traveling along the road, he saw the final messenger: a radiant monk\r\ndressed in very simple robes, carrying a small bag and a bowl. The sight of\r\nthis peaceful monk awakened the deepest yearning Siddhartha had ever known.\r\nFollowing the call to awaken of these four heavenly messengers, he rode his\r\nhorse to edge of a beautiful forest and, on the banks of a river, ordained\r\nhimself.

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If we really listen,\r\nwe can hear that life is trying to get our attention as well and wake us up. This\r\ncall to wake up happens when our lives are no longer satisfying, when we have\r\nlost interest in all the things that once made us so happy.

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The call speaks to us\r\nin questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? What am I doing with my life? This\r\ninternal dialogue can be frightening, even overwhelming. As we look for\r\nanswers, we are forced to question the very foundation of everything that we\r\nhold on to—our relationships, religious views, politics, career choices, and\r\neven our social status.

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As this process of\r\nself-discovery moves toward greater understanding, a radical shift starts to\r\nhappen. Sometimes our inner questioning takes us to exotic environments or new\r\ncommunities.

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This process is often\r\nmisunderstood in our culture. It is labeled a midlife crisis, Saturn’s Return,\r\nor even a nervous breakdown. The powerful call to awaken can be shocking and\r\nconfusing to people who are accustomed to seeing us behave in our old\r\npredictable ways. It may seem that we have gone temporarily crazy—and we may\r\nfeel crazy at times.

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In 1997, I had a\r\ncomplete emotional breakdown. I didn’t realize at the time that it was part of\r\nthe call to awaken.

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It started with a book\r\nleft accidentally on my dining room table by a family member. It was a\r\nbeautiful book about the path of meditation written by a Hindu teacher. It\r\nreminded me of my life purpose and awoke my passion to live a spiritually based\r\nlife.

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A few months later I\r\nmoved in with my new boyfriend, even though we’d only known each other for a\r\nshort time. We lived in a tiny, rundown house in the worst neighborhood in East\r\nOakland. It was definitely “the hood,” and everyone seemed to be in a bad mood.\r\nEven our dog was grumpy all the time.

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We had a pretty bad\r\nrelationship and argued constantly over everything. To make matters worse, we\r\nboth had telemarketing jobs aggressively talking people into buying expensive\r\ntimeshares they didn’t need and often couldn’t afford. I had got myself\r\nthousands of dollars in debt and was being hounded by creditors night and day.

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I became very depressed\r\nand angry about the weird direction my life had taken. I was living with a man\r\nwho made me absolutely miserable and every day I went to a job that I hated. My\r\nemotions were becoming more and more erratic. I couldn’t seem to stop crying\r\nand I was overwhelmed by anxiety and a sense of desperation. I began to smoke a\r\nlot of marijuana to numb the pain, but drugs and alcohol were only a temporary\r\nsolution.

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Then one day it\r\nhappened—everything started falling apart. I was fired from my job for calling\r\nin sick. I decided to end my tortured relationship and my car was about to be\r\nrepossessed. I lay on the couch eating cookies, praying to God for help, and\r\ncrying for a week straight.

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Miraculously, I heard\r\nabout a ten-day Buddhist meditation retreat starting in a few days. It was way\r\nout in the desert in Southern California. This was it! It was the break I’d\r\nbeen waiting for and it couldn’t have come at a better moment, because I was\r\ntruly desperate. I had been practicing on my own for over a year, and I knew I\r\nneeded to learn how to meditate properly. I was so excited by the idea of ten\r\ndays of silence, healthy food, and meditation instruction that I was willing to\r\ndo anything to get there. I somehow got the money together and registered.

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On the day the retreat\r\nwas to start, I made the nine-hour drive to Southern California, crying\r\nhysterically, chain-smoking cigarettes, and drinking diet Mountain Dew. I had\r\nall of my belongings in my car, my last twenty-five dollars in cash, and\r\nnowhere to go when the retreat was over. I didn’t care, because I somehow knew\r\nthat if I could just get to the retreat, everything would make sense.

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Looking back now, I\r\nsee that what I went through during those ten days in the desert was a genuine\r\nawakening experience. I spent hours in sitting meditation, and my screaming,\r\ntormented mind finally became silent and peaceful. Doing walking meditation in\r\nthe desert, I let go of oceans of tears with each step. For the first time, I\r\nencountered the teachings of the Buddha and immediately knew I had found my\r\npath. I met my teacher, Jack Kornfield, whose loving encouragement and\r\nsteadfast belief in me have helped me transform my life. The last day of the\r\nretreat, I hiked way out into the desert and on top of a small hill, I prayed.\r\nI took a vow to follow these teachings until the very end. I had answered my\r\ncall to awaken.

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This was the beginning\r\nof my meditation path. It wasn’t the prettiest of starts, but it often isn’t.\r\nIn truth, it’s never where we start that defines us; it’s where we end up.

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I went on to do many\r\nmore Buddhist retreats, ultimately spending a total of almost three years in\r\nsilent retreats, and became a Buddhist teacher myself. In my years of teaching,\r\npeople have told me many beautiful stories about their lives, which have opened\r\nmy heart and given me faith in the strength of the human spirit to soar and\r\nrise even in the darkest hour.

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If you were to write\r\nyour own biography, it would be filled with laughter and tears, times of\r\ntragedy and of triumph. Each one of us has a touching story of how we came to\r\nbe and why we are the person we are today. Some of us are the descendants of\r\nslaves and others have fled war-torn countries. Many people in the West grew up\r\nin wealthy families that looked perfect on the outside, yet were filled with\r\nviolence and confusion.

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Although we each have\r\nunique circumstances and diverse backgrounds, the threads of our personal\r\njourneys are woven together into the same beautiful tapestry. The Buddha said,\r\n“In a human life we all experience 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. No one is\r\nfree from this.” No matter what you have been through or experienced in your\r\nlife thus far, understand that it’s only a starting point, and your greatest\r\nchapters are yet to come.

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SPRING\r\nWASHAM – Lion’s Roar

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