The third kind of alarm clock is the use of tasks. Tasks are small efforts that take us against the grain of our persona system, particularly against our mechanical tendencies toward comfort and protectedness. For example, for a specific period of time we could choose not to read while we eat, not to eat sweets, or not to watch TV. We could decide that we will talk to the person sitting next to us on the plane, or that we definitely won't. We may decide to speak in public, or to not speak in public. The task could be to refrain from our normal people-pleasing behavior in specific situations, or to do something else that goes against our particular self-image.
For example, suppose you get the urge to go dancing, but you're not a very good dancer. There's no way you're going to expose yourself as the physical klutz you consider yourself to be. Realizing that you're at your edge like this is a good time to practice a task. The task isn't to become a good dancer (although you might), but about exposing yourself to one little place where you're holding back in fear. It's about using the task as an alarm clock to wake up to conditioning and sleep, to simply see it for what it is. In choosing to go against our self-image, we have to be very clear that we're not trying to change our behavior. We're not making a grim determined effort to overcome our miserable self, to make us into that better person we'd love to be. The effort is much more light-hearted. With this light-hearted perspective toward our sense of "self" and our human condition of sleep, we can paradoxically maintain our resolve, our seriousness of purpose, without the task becoming a grim endeavor.
The purpose of a task is to push us to look at what we normally don't want to see; to allow us to work, in small ways, with our addictions and fears. We perform the task to experience the hole, the pain, the fear, out of which all of our addictive and protective patterns arise. We're taking a small step at our edge, from our own initiative, to keep our practice from becoming stuck and dry in seemingly comfortable routines. Another twist on tasks is to put ourselves into new or foreign situations, not for diversion or pleasure, but to help us awaken. Doing new things can awaken our senses, our awareness, and our sense of presence. I'm not talking about necessarily dangerous things, though because tasks challenge our sense of routine and comfort, they often do seem dangerous. The sense of danger is part of what arouses us from waking sleep.
Recently I took up bicycling again after more than ten years. It's amazing how this little change brought me to experience the world with such freshness. This task didn't especially go against fear or my persona system; instead, it opened me to something new. Presently I'm doing one new little thing each week. I find that each small effort against the force of sleep and mechanical activity awakens a sense of vitality and presence.
Again, there is no one magic key that unlocks the secrets of practice. After all, practice — like the universe — isn't locked. There is nothing exotic or mysterious about what we need to do in order to awaken to reality. But there is one essential quality, without which practice could never really develop, and that's perseverance. Perseverance keeps us practicing through the inevitable ups and downs of daily life. It allows us to keep going even when practice isn't pleasing in the ordinary sense. And one of the ways we make perseverance real is by using alarm clocks.
All the alarm clocks — pauses in time, practice menus, and tasks — serve to counteract the unrelenting subtle force of mechanicalness. We have to understand that we can't just wake up simply because we have the wish to do so. Alarm clocks give us ways to put our wish to wake up into specific forms, through specific efforts. If we don't do this, the result is predictable and verifiable: we'll simply stay asleep in our self-centered dream.