What Does It Mean to be Awake?

June 5, 2018
Melissa Lago
Melissa Lago outside the Akuna Zentroa in Bilbao, Spain. / Courtesy photo

The following talk was given on April 28, 2018, by new HDS graduate Melissa Lago at the Bilbao International Literature Festival. This year’s theme was, “Return to nature, a literary utopia,” which sought to pay tribute to Henry David Thoreau and to propose a new way of living based on his work. Melissa’s talk was part of a program to celebrate the translation of Terry Tempest Williams’s book Refuge into Spanish.

It is wonderful to be back in Spain. I fell in love with this country when I walked the Camino de Santiago. I remember walking through fields of red poppies, listening to Gregorian chants, conversations with fellow pilgrims, and the people who welcomed me into the refugios offering me encouragement, teaching me how to care for my blisters, and who gave me food and shelter. I am so grateful to be back in Spain over a decade later.

In this talk I seek to pay tribute to Thoreau by sharing his impact on my father’s life and my own. I begin with my first trip to Walden Pond.

In the summer of 2015, after several days of driving from my home in Berkeley, California, I arrived in Concord, Massachusetts, well past midnight. The next morning, I made my first pilgrimage to Walden Pond where the sunlight, maple, beech, and birch trees, birdsongs, and warm water welcomed me. I was there to honor Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two men whose lives and wisdom had inspired my father—who died of cancer when I was eleven years old—and whose lives have since inspired me.

On this first visit, I experienced a refuge from the fast-paced culture that often characterizes our modern life. Walden Pond gave me space to reflect on Thoreau’s question, “Why should we hurry and waste life?” This feels as relevant today as when he posed it.

How do we stay present and take seriously Thoreau’s observation that “To be awake is to be alive”? In the Buddhist tradition it is often said that our true nature is that of a buddha, a word simply meaning “Awake.” And yet it is very rare to meet a buddha. As Thoreau wrote, “I have never yet met one who is quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

Many of us struggle to slow down and to live with this quality of wakefulness—our entire society seems to push us to speed up.

Yet pain—in the form of loss or an existential crisis, and whether spurred by facing our own mortality or that of a loved one or the loss of an entire species or forest—beckon us into the moment, offering us a glimpse into what it means to be awake. Pain becomes a catalyst that sets us on the path to awakening.

A year before my first trip to Walden Pond my father’s friend Enrico shared an unexpected story with me. He said, “Melissa, your father almost committed suicide in his mid-thirties. He was in his apartment in New York City standing at the window ready to jump, when suddenly the person on the floor above him jumped and fell to his death.” I was astounded. My mother later confirmed this story was true. They both said the same thing, “In that moment he decided to live. He realized he didn’t have to physically die to die to his life.”

Soon after he went and boarded the ship for his next assignment to Vietnam with the U.S. Merchant Marine. During this trip he met Eddi, who introduced him to the work of Emerson and Thoreau, which helped him to find new meaning. This work had a profound impact on him and spurred his life-long search for truth.

Their ideas, combined with having to drop off another group of eighteen year olds to fight in the Vietnam War—a war he did not believe in, led to his decision to quit the Merchant Marine. I wonder if his choice was inspired by Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, because we know Thoreau would not support a war—The Mexican-American War—which he did not believe in.

So when the ship docked in San Francisco, my father got off and never went back to his job or to his life in New York City. With this choice, he left the pain of his childhood and past behind him—a life frought by poverty, violence, and as a Puerto Rican man, discrimination. In California, my father, inspired by Thoreau, made his first connection with nature beyond the blades of grass that poked up through the broken concrete. He began going to Muir Woods to sit among the redwoods. It seems out of necessity he had to learn a new mode of being. One that was attentive, quiet, patient, and present—qualities that help us to be awake when sometimes denial and turning away feels easier.

How do we live in the face of such grief?

I still remember whispering, “Dad, I understand if it’s time for you to move on, I will be okay.” And it seemed he traveled a great distance back into his body, using what little strength he could gather to give me a kiss on my cheek. Then he turned his head, revealing his own cheek, and I kissed the pale flesh. Later that evening, he was rushed to the hospital, and died.

That night I faced an emptiness that has never been matched: falling through space, darkness, nothing to hold onto. The next morning, I vowed to try to honor his life by living each day fully—this of course has meant very different things on different days.

And since Thoreau had helped my father to do this, it seemed fitting and was a great gift to be able to visit Walden Pond with Terry on February 24th of this year, the 24th anniversary of my father’s death. We walked quietly to the site of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods. I heard the hum of cars, the train, and the leaves and pine needles crinkling under our footsteps. Looking down, I was reminded of change.

At Walden, Thoreau grieved the changes he witnessed around him—cut forests, the last bear, new settlements being built at the expense of wildness. Fast forward 164 years since the book Walden was published, and the fact is that today, Walden Pond is now facing even more severe environmental changes due to climate change and pollution. Pesticides and human waste are threatening its very survival, an entire species of fish that once inhabited this pond is gone. We each have these stories from our own communities—loss of people, loss of place, loss of species.

How do we live in the face of such rapid change? I find, as Terry experienced after her mother died, that refuge lies not only in the land and in those closest to us, but in ourselves, and we can access this in any moment.

We can ask ourselves, “What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel?” We can activate qualities of being awake because as Thoreau writes in his final reflection in Walden, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

Here is what I want to share with you: When we sat at the site of Thoreau’s cabin, I smelled the wet earth; I heard the train pass by; I saw the light shining through the gray clouds. I wrote in my journal, “Thinking of my father on this anniversary of his death. His life too has returned to the earth like the oak leaves and like the body of Thoreau. To cultivate awareness is to cultivate awakeness. Life is precious.”

Author’s Note: I am deeply grateful to Terry Tempest Williams for the warmth and generosity of her mentorship and for the honor of including me in her program. And my gratitude to Emilia Lope for making this possible and to the Harvard Buddhist Ministry Initiative for their generous support. A special thank you to the organizers of the Bilbao International Literature Festival for this amazing gathering and for paying tribute this year to Henry David Thoreau, whose teaches us through his example what it means to be Awake.