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Awake at the Wheel by Kathleen Hartman Blackburn

Jan 21, 2024

Being exceptional is not a requirement for a full life. Being awake at the wheel is.  -Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann


As I sat down to write this article, I noticed my desire to write something profound. Exceptional even. Readers would be inspired and touched, and gain new insights into their lives.  I chose a subject that everyone could relate to. Words came. Soon I became aware of irritation and judgment of my chosen words.


Critiquing and questioning the ideas behind the words took up all the space in my head. Before long, I began to scrutinize the relevance of my topic. More irritation, more judgment. Time pressures and no finished project. Finally, I made the decision to begin again and write just what was happening for me in this process, letting go of how I thought it should be. Spaciousness returned with room to breathe. A moment of awareness to savor, and from this place I write.


One of my habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and being, as I just described, was living my life, and I wasn’t present. Sadly, this is where most of us live most of the time. This is the definition of being asleep. Waking up in the moment and opening to what is happening right now, allows me to experience life as it is. I can choose to wake up at any time. Try it for yourself right now. Stop reading and notice where you are. Notice the nature of your thoughts and feelings. Sense your body. Connect with your breath. Spend just a few moments just checking in with yourself. Be present to who you are in this very moment.


Whatever is happening in my life right now is capable of supporting my waking up, or it may be keeping me asleep. My work is to discern what stays and what goes. A friend told me that she removed the Facebook app from her mobile device because she was wasting too much time here. This resonated with me, and so choosing this for myself has created more space and more awareness of how I want to be intentional with my precious time. This has supported my desire to live more mindfully in the present moment.


I am being supported in waking up by spending significant time with my mother, who had a stroke. Now wheelchair bound and totally dependent on others, she is a real reminder to me that lives can change in an instant.  When I am present with her, she teaches me about accepting what is – life on life’s terms – with grace, humility, and a positive attitude.


The subjects of aging and death have occupied my thoughts lately, not in any morbid sense or from a place of fear, but in a way that is inviting me to really look at what is here. Impermanence is here. People I have loved are no longer present in physical form. Everything dies; everything changes. We all know this experientially and, amazingly, we often live as if it just isn’t true. I certainly do. The Lenten season with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” reminds me to live in the here and now. Countless times each day I forget this truth. I do this by getting caught in my own little story of what I think is important, believing my thoughts, my opinions, my feelings, and my way of being.


Small irritations and seeing life as problems to be solved, or tasks to complete, crowd my mind.  There is another way. When I die to the patterns and habits, I open to life, and life as it is. The words of a song by Shaina Noll come to mind: “Return again, return again; return to the land of your soul. Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again.” Beginning again is always an option. Remembering what I had forgotten is my saving grace. Returning to the breath, I come back to the here and now and this precious, present moment.


I am reminding myself and those reading of what we already know. Some have been on the path of awakening a long time, and have heard what every wisdom teacher from every spiritual tradition has said before.  Being awake and present in this moment is what life is about, if you want to live a full, authentic life.  We all need reminders. That’s why we need teachers, and classes, and workshops, and books, and relationships, and seasons, and trees, and pets and anything at all, to remind us to wake up in this life we are living.


The lines at the beginning from Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann, a woman of the Jewish tradition from South Africa, now living in Canada, are contained in the poem below. She speaks to me clearly of how this living in the present might look. I am using this poem as my daily reflection and as a reminder of how I want to be more awake at the wheel.


Create a new room in your home
for the knowing beyond knowing.
Sweep your cave daily. Place
some dirt on your altar. Call down
the birds from the sky in worship.
Meditate with flowers in the park.
Learn from puppies and babies,
as well as from the elderly and mid-lifers.
Listen with the ear of a snail, and
remember that pearls are born from grit.
Be still like a lake at dawn, a kind and truthful
mirror of what is. Alignment is difficult
unless you clean your compass often.
(Each person has her own way
of cleaning.) Know that we all are angels
and demons. As natural as mud. Our enemies
too. Link hands with your neighbor,
Though fences are also necessary.
Being exceptional is not a requirement
for a full life. Being awake at the wheel is.
Sometimes, all that is possible
is to witness the impossible.
Run, walk, be still, as your guide directs.
Look for gold in each precious cup of water.
Scan the horizon for trees in need.
Save apple seeds for planting.
Attune your breath
to the Breath of the World.


Kathleen Hartman Blackburn, MA, LPCC, NCC, is co-founder of the Conscious Living Center.