“My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.”

Patricia Graynamore (Meg Ryan) to Jo Banks (Tom Hanks) in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990).

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made a couple of the all time classic romcoms in the 1990s. Sleepless in Seattle in 1993, and then five years later You’ve Got Mail both made fortunes at the box office. However, a few years beforehand they they had made a quirky movie that barely broke even and yet remains as one of my all time top ten favorite films.

There are many incredible lines by John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck,Doubt) in Joe Versus the Volcano  but the one that comes back to me most often is the one at the top. It echoes a famous Buddhist anecdote:

Question: “Are you a God?”

Answer: “No.”

Question”Who are you?”

Answer: “I am awake.”

– questions asked of the Buddha.

I do not claim special insight into this state of wakefulness versus being asleep. But I believe it may refer to the fact that most of us go through our day on automatic pilot. We have our routines, which somewhat manifest as the daily schedule, but we also have routine actions and reactions to what happens around us. Something is said on TV and our reaction is always the same. Someone cuts us off in traffic we get annoyed in entirely predictable ways. Your partner does that thing that you hate and your resentment rises. We have the semblance of freewill, but most of the time we are operating more like programmed robots with routine, predictable thoughts, judgments and reactions.

One aspect of meditation is that we are pausing from our normal relationship with our mind. We  pause from automatically going wherever it goes, and we stop to take a closer look at reality, as it is,  in this moment.

We sit. We place our focus and attention on something going on right now. It might be our breath, the sensations of our body, some music, a candle flame burning. And then we observe what happens next.

Usually what happens next is our mind leaps in to grab our attention and get us focusing on something else. Then at some point we see that has happened. In that moment we are becoming slightly more familiar and aware of our own mind.

Little by little though we are starting to break the monopoly of power our mind has on where we are paying attention. Bit by bit we go through our lives less at the beck and call of whatever it wants to think about. As such we are starting to have more agency over what we react to, what we choose to think about, what we are aware of from moment to moment. We are slowly acting less on automatic pilot every second, and ever so slightly, even if just for a moment here and there, waking up.