How to Wake Up.... or 80% Enlightened

Sara and piper sleeping

Sara and piper sleeping

Dear Friends, This morning, like most mornings, my husband’s iphone alarm went off at 4:00 am. He promptly turned it off. Around 5:00 am, our sunrise clock began to glow, but neither one of us noticed. At 5:30 am, the travel alarm I keep by my bedside rang and I slapped the top, allowing me another nine minutes of snoozing. The slapping happened several more times. Finally, a little after 6:00 am, I wrestled our two little dogs off the covers so I could drag myself out of my comfy bed.

Each time I hit the snooze, I’m thinking, “If only I can sleep a little longer, then I’ll be ready to get up.” And yet, even though I usually get enough sleep, I rarely feel ready to get up. I’m not exactly dreading the day, but I’m also not often aware of any of the many positive reasons to get out of bed either. I’m in the habit of resisting the morning. I don’t subscribe to one of my husband’s favorite sayings (which he attributes to Martin Luther King, Jr., but other people think was Benjamin Franklin’s): “When you wake up, get up. And when you get up, do something important.”

I just returned from a retreat/conference called “Zen Brain,” at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. The retreat was focused on the neuroscience of contemplative practices. Before I tell you something of what I learned, I want to offer the disclaimer that I am not a scientist. (And I apologize in advance to any neuroscientists reading this and cringing.)

One of the presenters, Elissa Epel, talked about the importance of waking up. She wasn't referring to waking up as in enlightenment (the word buddha means awakened one), she was talking about what happens in our minds when we first open our eyes in the morning. (More on that in a moment.)

Another presenter, Cliff Saron, talked about research done on cats that suggested that up to 80% of what we perceive (at least visually) in each moment is based on what is already happening in our brain/mind in the previous moment. This moment sets the stage for the next moment, and that moment sets up the next. Epel’s current research on waking up is expanding on this. While not yet complete, it seems to show that our mindset upon waking sets not only the mood for our day, but also our physical well-being and our longevity. Epel studies cortisol levels and telomeres. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone” – we spike cortisol when we are stressed, which can have a deleterious affect on our physical and psychological well-being. Having a positive morning attitude reduces our cortisol spikes. That seems pretty obvious.

What’s more surprising was that telomeres, those bits at the end of our genes that shrink as we age, seem to also be affected by our morning attitude. Epel’s work is comparing the length of telomeres of subjects who report feeling relaxed when they woke up, to those who reported feeling worried about their day. It seems that telomeres may be longer on subjects who aren’t dreading their day. And since it appears that longer telomeres means longer life expectancy, having a good morning attitude might just make us live longer.

But how do we create a positive morning attitude for our days? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests reciting a morning intention poem (also known as a gatha.) Gathas are meant to be used throughout our day to help us stay present to our experience and our intentions. I wrote this morning gatha on my bathroom mirror in dry erase marker. “Waking up this morning I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment, and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.”

“Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others. Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We don't have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky. We don't have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child. Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy.” -- Thich Nhat Hanh

There’s another little exercise I picked up at a silent retreat in which you pay attention to your breathing as you fall asleep, and also as you wake up. You try to notice whether you fall asleep on an inhale or an exhale and whether you wake on an inhale or an exhale. This practice creates a kind of continuum of meditation throughout the night. (Side note: several other research studies have shown a positive correlation between meditation and telomere length.)

Both of these exercises, like most Zen practices, are impossible to carry out perfectly. I’ve only twice been able to notice whether I was inhaling or exhaling when I fell asleep (both times I was exhaling,) and haven’t yet had the ability to notice whether I was inhaling or exhaling when I woke up. But when I practice this way, I become aware of my breathing very soon after waking up, and by being aware of my breathing while lying in bed, I can sense whatever it is I might be feeling (dread, excitement, blah) about the day.

If I am feeling happy, then paying attention to my happiness expands it allowing the happiness to flow into the next moment. If I find I’m dreading a particularly difficult day because I have too much to do, I’m supporting a family member who is going through something, or I’m fearful about an upcoming interaction, I gain perspective by becoming more conscious of my negative mood. And when I offer myself some self-compassion, rather than continuing to feel dread, I end up feeling more relaxed and compassionate.

How I wake up conditions how I take a shower, which conditions how I eat breakfast, how I interact with co-workers, how I treat myself, my family, and the clerk at the coffee shop. It conditions whether I like the weather (is it too cold, or is it crisp?) what I see when I look at my computer (am I overwhelmed with email or do I have a lot of friends?)

How we wake up conditions and influences everyone and everything we come into contact with, directly or indirectly. The Buddha, talking here about his enlightenment, not his morning routine, said something like, “Myself and all sentient beings on earth waking up together.” How I wake up affects you, and how you wake up affects me.

Really, waking up from sleep isn’t different from the kind of waking up that the Buddha talked about. If we wake up well in the morning, then we are experiencing a moment of enlightenment. And if we are enlightened in this moment, there’s an 80% chance we will be enlightened in the next moment. For those odds, maybe I’ll even stop hitting the snooze.