Waking Up is Hard to Do

There are some new and interesting threads unwinding over at Bill Vallicella’s website, the Maverick Philosopher. Currently under examination are “mystical” teachings, in particular Buddhism. But in particular there was one little post, seemingly unrelated, that caught my eye. In this brief piece Bill presents a lamentably problematic question: should we think for ourselves?

The problem is that if we do, we are unlikely to find and correct our errors. But unquestioning submission to authority is an obvious mistake also, as witness the horrors of Nazism. What to do?

I think that the esoteric traditions have something to say about this question.

If we accept the idea of levels of consciousness, and its implicit converse, levels of sleep, then the following point can be made:

In sleep, we inhabit our own subjective world – as I lie in bed at night, I might be dreaming that I am walking down a city street, while my wife Nina, a foot away, might dream that she is sitting on a beach. A roomful of sleepers will have little or no commonality in their subjective experience.

When my wife and I arise in the morning, suddenly we share a great deal more – we agree on our location, what day it is, etc. But there is still great deal that we see very subjectively, and with little overlap.

But is the state that we call “waking” really all that is available to us? We distinguish many levels of consciousness below our waking state: “half-asleep”, “daydreaming”, “wool-gathering”, “dozing”, “nodding off”, “asleep and dreaming”, “dreamless sleep”, “coma”, and so forth. But why assume that our ordinary “waking” state is the summit of our potential? There are practical teachings whose purpose it is first to bring the student to the realization that he is asleep, then to offer a method for becoming more conscious. There are no guarantees, but in my experience a person who practices an authentic method will, at the very least, experience moments – often mere instants, like the pop of a flashbulb – in which he is suddenly conscious in a way that is startlingly different from the usual state of affairs. There is a clarity, and an enhanced perception, that is strongly akin to sitting up in bed and blinking in the sunlight.

The point of all this – a point that is made often in these traditions – is that awakened people, seeing the world far more objectively than the sleeping multitudes, will implicitly understand one another, and will have little about which to disagree. It is the fact that we live in sleep that makes us stray from truth in a million different ways, that makes it possible for Nazism to emerge, that makes us slaughter one another again and again and again.

So here’s the way out of the dilemma: in thinking for ourselves, our chance for error is directly related to the depth of our sleep. This means that we must try to live more consciously. How do we do that? That’s not for this post. But there are ways.

As I remarked in a previous item, if we want to live more consciously, the most difficult and important effort we can make is, always and in everything, to remember to try.

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6 Comments

  1. Jess Kaplan says

    Maybe you’ve put your finger on the technique for getting from positivism to idealism!

    Posted December 4, 2005 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Ideally, yes, but I’m not positive.

    Posted December 6, 2005 at 1:25 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm,
    Being awake in the way you are stating it, that is, in the Buddhist or Gurdjieff and Ouspensky meaning (and many other mystical philosophers) is directly related to one’s “I”. The waking up can only be accomplished by “work on oneself” to establish a single I that is free from all the distracting influences to which one’s present I continuously succumbs. As we all experience, our “self” or “I” constantly identifies with these distracting influences. In my experience, few individuals that I have met have ever succeeded in demonstrating or admitting to developing the level of Gurdjieff ‘s “Man 4”, or above type “I”.

    Bill

    Posted December 7, 2005 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, yes – I said that all we have to do to live “more consciously” is to remember to try, but of course to achieve any long-term or significant results requires tremendous effort, and guided effort at that. But just to remember oneself at all, whenever possible, is the necessary first step.

    Posted December 7, 2005 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  5. Very nice post, but I’m not sure. You contrast waking with sleeping, but the example you use contrasts waking with dreaming, which is a particular state of sleep. The dream is a peculiar phenomenon in its own right, but in one of the more readable and interesting pieces Sartre ever wrote (“The Psychology of Imagination”) he makes a persuasive case that the dream is just the work of our ordinary, waking imagination, but an imagination that has closed in upon itself, like a bubble sealed off from the “real” (i.e., the perceived) world. Now, if that’s the case (or even close), might it be that “more consciousness” comes at the expense of less imagination? That absent-minded thinkers and/or dreamers might actually have a greater “level of awareness” in some sense, even if they have trouble not tripping over their shoe laces? And, to be utopian-skeptical, would any level of awareness, just as such, really bring agreement among people of widely differing experience and character?

    Not to say, of course, that there aren’t more or less aware, in some broad sense, people and moments. But I guess my real question here is, what does it really mean to be “more conscious”, other than metaphorically, in the first place?

    Posted December 8, 2005 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Good questions, Ellis, and probably deserving of a separate post to talk about them. Briefly, though, I’d respond as follows:

    You contrast waking with sleeping, but the example you use contrasts waking with dreaming, which is a particular state of sleep… what does it really mean to be “more conscious”, other than metaphorically, in the first place?

    I chose dreaming as opposed to dreamless sleep for that example because the total unconsciousness of the latter would have provided no useful contrast – I was trying to illustrate degrees of objective awareness, but to have used dreamless sleep or coma in the example would have been like dividing by zero. What it means to be “more conscious”, and the value thereof, is illustrated very nicely by imagining yourself riding in a car, and looking over at the driver, and noticing that he is nodding off at the wheel. “Nodding off” is a state of reduced consciousness, compared to our “normal” state; but as I asked in the post, how can we be sure that our “normal” state is the limit of our potential? I am quite convinced that it is not.

    …might it be that “more consciousness” comes at the expense of less imagination?

    Indeed it might! Implicit in your remark is the common assumption that “less imagination” is a bad thing; it could be argued, though, that while imagination should be a valuable tool, a useful faculty, it should not be more than that, and most importantly, it should not be mistaken for reality. If we live only in imagination, as we do in dreams (or perhaps in our “waking” sleep), we do so at our peril.

    …to be utopian-skeptical, would any level of awareness, just as such, really bring agreement among people of widely differing experience and character?

    The point, you see, is that the experience might not be so “widely differing” in the first place if we all were conscious enough to live in the real world, rather than our separate, imagined ones.

    Posted December 8, 2005 at 1:12 pm | Permalink