A common idea in esoteric teachings is the notion that we live our lives too mechanically, that we are in fact in a kind of waking sleep. The notion seems silly at first. Of course we aren’t asleep! Sleep is what we do at night in our beds. During our busy, productive days we are conscious, we are active, we are engaged. But consciousness is a tricky business, and one of its sneakier properties is that it can’t see its own edges. To put that another way, it takes consciousness to be aware of consciousness, and that means that unconsciousness cannot be aware of itself.
This is easy to illustrate in a number of ways, the most obvious being the impossibility of marking the moment that one falls asleep. But the idea applies not only to the degree of consciousness, but also to its contents. We think that in our waking moments we are “taking it all in”, but that is far, far from the truth, in many different ways.
A good example is our visual perception. In each eye, as I am sure most of you know, there is a “blind spot”, a portion of the visual field that transmits no information to the brain. Close one eye. Do you see that part of the picture is missing? No. This should be surprising, because the blind spot subtends an angle of roughly five degrees, which is one hundred times the apparent area of the full moon. Why don’t we notice this gaping hole? Are we “filling it in”? No. The answer is that we are simply not looking for any visual information from that area of the retina – there is no neural machinery hooked up to process it. We aren’t asking for data from that part of the eye, so we don’t notice when we don’t get any. There is no “epistemic hunger” for news from that source. Out of sight, out of mind.
You might think that this fact, although strange, is due somehow to our being “used to” not seeing anything in this part of our visual field. But that isn’t it, a fact that is amply demonstrated by what happens to people with damage to the visual cortex of the brain. Such people may be missing an entire hemisphere of the visual field: everything to one side of center is simply not there. But they are completely unaware that anything is wrong. If you point it out to them, they will deny it.
The apparent plenum of our visual experience, then, is an illusion. But if this is possible for our perceptual awareness, how then can we be sure of the continuity of our consciousness itself? The answer is that we cannot. We are prevented from detecting the gaps in our consciousness by the gaps themselves. This is an idea with profoundly disquieting implications.
Might we, then, live in a kind of sleep? How would we know?
There is an ancient metaphor that describes our situation. We find ourselves floating in a river, carried all throughout our lives by the current. Because we are drifting, we do not control the direction of our movement; in fact we have no awareness of the current at all. To become aware of its strength, we must take hold of something firmly anchored, something that is not also moving with the flow. The moment we do, suddenly we feel the mighty tug of the stream, and we must exert a tremendous effort to resist its power. If we are actually going to pull ourselves free, it can only be by sustained exertion, by a genuine act of Will. But once we are free of the river, then we can go wherever we like. How much easier just to let go, and drift effortlessly. But there is a waterfall up ahead.
As human beings, the choice is ours. But if we are not even aware of our predicament, nothing can be done. We need to see, not just be told, that we are asleep, that we live as machines. How do we begin?
There are ways. More on this later.