Please Don’t Spoil My Day,
I’m Miles Away

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.

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  1. Robert says

    I’m very much looking forward to the continuation.

    Thank you for linking to my blog. I’m returning the favor.

    Posted December 8, 2005 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    My pleasure, Robert. I should be posting again on this topic shortly. Thanks for the link!

    Posted December 8, 2005 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Robert says

    P.S., I went back and spelled your name correctly on the post introducing you…apologies for the eight hours or so when someone might have thought you were Malcolm “Pollock.”

    Posted December 9, 2005 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Robert,

    I’ve just read it. “My blushes,” as Holmes would say. Thanks again!

    Posted December 9, 2005 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Of Two Minds on February 1, 2006 at 12:56 am

    […] Jaynes begins by examining our experience of, and commonsense ideas about, our own consciousness, for which he has coined the excellent word “introcosm”. He makes the point that our notion of having a plenary awareness of ourselves is an illusion; that consciousness is gappy in the extreme, and says that, as I have also argued in an earlier post, “consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” This is the issue of sleep that is so central to esoteric systems. But this book is not an examination of the possibilities and methods of our attainment of greater consciousness, but rather an extrapolation in the other direction. If we are able to spend so much of our time, and do so much, unconsciously, is it possible that the circumscribed consciousness that we do experience is not essential to human life? Could it be that at an earlier time in history we lived quite unconsciously? How would human life have been different? What would the archaeological signs be? What would the psychological and physiological underpinning of such a shift consist of, and why would it happen? Jaynes set out to research these questions. […]

  2. […] First, it can serve as a reminding factor as we work to become more aware of ourselves. In a previous post about sleep and awakening I mentioned an ancient metaphor in which we are seen to live our lives drifting in the current of a river. It is only by resisting this flow that we become aware of its soporific power, and of how deeply submerged we are. By resisting these most fundamental habits we can make it possible to begin to see ourselves more objectively, and it is only by forcing ourselves quite ruthelessly to witness their power of their hold on us that we can see clearly how dire is our predicament, and thereby grasp the urgency of our struggle. […]

  3. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Watch Your Back on February 22, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    […] The practice of inner work begins with an attempt to observe ourselves. As I have discussed in earlier posts (here and here), it is very difficult for us to notice the edges of our conscious awareness. The more it ebbs, the less we realize it. Most of the time, we do not remember ourselves. […]

  4. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Body of Ideas on August 28, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    […] The human brain is the most complex object known. It also has the remarkable ability to reconfigure itself in dynamic response to its ever-changing informational context. It is an exquisitely designed intentional engine, and permits the human animal a behavioral and conceptual depth and flexibility that is unparallelled among living things. It also is the locus of the greatest mystery of all, consciousness. We have a great deal to learn about how all of this works, and it may well be that our minds themselves are simply inadequate to the task of understanding it all, as Colin McGinn has suggested. It may also be the case that dualism is correct, though I doubt it – it has always felt to me like a “God of the Gaps” approach to the explication of mental phenomena. But I have yet to see a convincing argument for dualism based on the alleged “infinitude” of Man (if you think you have one, please send it along). I think it is simply the immense, ungraspable complexity of our cognitive apparatus – our evolutionary jackpot – along with the well-concealed fact that our consciousness cannot “see its edges” that is what deceives us into thinking we transcend physical limits. […]