What does it mean to be “asleep” in life?
Simply put, being “asleep” means being blind to ourselves, being blind to who we are, why we are the way we are, and what it’s like to be on the opposite end of an interaction with us. It means being ignorant of or unconcerned with all of this and why we do what we do.
Why do we—or some of us, or the vast majority of people—do this?—sleepwalk through life? Why do we—so many of us—live like this? Why are so many of us content to live like this?
What’s the payoff?
A supposedly easier life? A supposedly less painful and stressful and anxious life?
Aside from the obvious answer that “everyone else” is doing it and living the same way (asleep), maybe it’s because we’re too full of pride to be willing to look at ourselves honestly (especially if our life is not something shiny and lustrous to behold). Or maybe it’s because we’re too ignorant and unintelligent and so we lack the cognitive capacities to look at ourselves (which is not likely for most people, especially “educated” people). Or maybe it’s because we’re uncourageous because we suspect that we might be too weak to stomach emotionally looking at ourselves and our mess squarely, and so because we intuitively sense/imagine how stressful and painful doing so will (likely) be, we protect ourselves (self-protect) and refuse to face ourselves in an objective and fair and honest way. We remain cloudy and asleep rather than clear and awake and piercingly honest.
When we’re asleep in life we’re not self-aware, we’re not self-conscious. Thus we’re certainly not metacognizing—thinking about our own thinking or examining our own programming and paradigm and looking at our own behaviors. And it’s highly likely that our conscience isn’t very active either—honesty likely isn’t a big concern, nor is doing our best or being our best or growing toward (in the direction of) becoming our best or constantly learning and improving and maturing as a person throughout life.
In short, being asleep means leading an unexamined life. A life where we’re ignorant of our own biases and double standards and hypocrisies and conditioning and underlying psychodramas.
If the unexamined life truly is not worth living, then every moment spent dishonestly or deceptively with ourselves, or ignorant and unaware of our own real motivations and deeper needs and potentials, is life wasted. And conversely every moment where we are contemplatively aware of ourselves or where we are correcting our biases, hypocrisies, self-deception and self-deceit is a moment of life worth living.
When we’re asleep, we’re on auto-pilot and living in ego-mode, we’re lost in our projections and transferences and daydreams and biases and double standards, we’re lost and asleep living a me first “looking out for number one” life where others aren’t “real” and where we’re running around constantly empty and unhappy and lost and trying reactively to get our wants and needs (love, validation, safety, security) met and inner-emptiness filled, trying to feel good, living impulsively, and taking the path of least resistant as often as possible, which means as much immediate gratification (damn the future consequences) as possible.
When we’re asleep we’re certainly not engaged in a 24/7 process of constant and never-ending self-surveillancing of ourselves and our own thoughts and behaviors and the underlying reasons for doing what we do and saying what we say.
Blissful ignorance is the goal when we’re asleep. Not knowing is the goal. Not being disturbed or perturbed or awakened is the goal. Undisturbed and uninterrupted sleep and self-numbing is the goal. Living for the moment, living for fun, living for the next satisfaction or good feeling or psychological high or thrill is the goal.
But not constant self-surveillance. Not truth. Not looking at ourselves, examining ourselves, examining our own thinking, really scrutinizing it, really asking why, really being as honest and courageous and straightforward as possible. These are not the goal.
Probably because they’re painful and disquieting and uncomfortable and not “fun.” They’re not gratifying. They don’t relieve or lessen tension—at least not in the short-term! In fact, if anything, they cause/create more tension, more unease, more anxiety, more depression, more distress, more stress, more confusion. Truth doesn’t make us feel good. Seeing ourselves as we are, with no softeners or buffers, doesn’t make us feel good, especially if we’re a bit of a hot mess or if we’ve made a hot mess of our lives. So why do it? Why look at honestly at ourselves? Why force ourselves to take such bitter nasty-tasting medicine?
Most of us are still very simple creatures—seek pleasure, avoid pain; seek comfort and security, avoid danger and duress. We run on very simple programming: what tastes or feels good must be good for us, what tastes or feels bad must be bad for us. Many people, many of us, live in many areas of our life on the autopilot of these sorts of basic, unconscious (unaware) assumptions and patterns.
But waking up means waking up from the sleep that such a way of life engenders. It means waking up from the sleep of avoiding pain and seeking only pleasure, automatically avoiding challenge and difficulty and adversity and seeking comfort and security and familiarity. It means waking up from the sleep of living and reacting automatically.
Waking up means asking why. Waking up means examining ourselves constantly morning noon and night, and starting to spot our discrepencies and inconsistencies and underlying patterns and notice these. It means learning to ask, in relation to what we do, what we say, what we like, what we prefer, what we avoid, the question “why,” and to do so almost constantly—why am I doing this?—what do I really want from this?—why do I really want this?—what will the long-term effect of doing this or getting this or eating this be for myself? et cetera. . . .
Waking up also means ceasing to be hypocritical—ceasing to ask others to do for us what we’re not willing to do for them, making them do the dirty jobs or go first instead of us. Waking up means putting an end to our me-first I’m-the-center-of-the-world looking-out-for-number-one narcissistic ways. It means, instead, putting ourselves on the same level as everyone else—“Love means learning to look at yourself the way one looks at distant things, for you are only one thing among many. And whoever sees that way heals his heart, without knowing it, from various ills” (Czeslaw Milosz)—i.e. various ills such as narcissism, antisocial tendencies, borderline tendencies, depression, a myriad of anxieties, et cetera.
When we’re asleep we can’t see the wisdom in these words of Emerson—“ Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment” (“Self-Reliance”). When we’re asleep, we (mistakenly) think that what we’re trying to teach—what we intend to teach—is what we actually teach. But as we awaken, we begin realize—the horror, the horror!—that this is not the case—that instead what we are teaches far more than what we say or what we intend or will or pretend to be but not yet are. And so as we awaken we get to work on our character—our level of being, our level of differentiation, our conscience, our capacity for virtue, our work ethic, our level of true psychological and spiritual health and courage, our capacity to love and be loved, and the forces of entropy and laziness and fear that keep us stuck and small—because this is the part of us that we carry around with us everywhere and that we cannot escape or avoid or outrun or disown—“For only as we ourselves, as adults, actually move and have our being in the state of love, can we be appropriate models and guides for our children. What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become” (Joseph Chilton Pearce).
The clock is ticking. At every moment, we’re either awake or asleep, and either waking more up or going more to sleep, and so we’re either unconsciously communicating (teaching) wakefulness or sleep to those around us as well as ourselves.
At every moment we’re either communicating wakefulness or sleep, virtue or pathology. —The opposite of virtue isn’t vice, it’s pathology, sickness. Vice is a symptom or expression of pathology. And evil is the most pathological form of pathology. Truly healthy people are virtuous people. The vast majority of people (us) because they (we) are asleep, unaware, unconscious are neither healthy or unhealthy but are a mixed bag—a somewhat disorderly random amalgamation of virtue and vice, areas of relative integration and coherence and areas of mental unwellness, compartmentalization, distortions, projection, unreality, bias, hypocrisy, denial, avoidance, cowardice, pathology. And the less healthy a person is, the less virtuous and the more full of bad habits, vice, dis-intigration, self-deception, avoidance, emotional reactiveness, the person will be.
So why try and wake up from our slumber? Why burden ourselves with seeing ourselves (and what neurosis and psychopathology and dysfunction there is in us) as we are? Why look clearly and honestly at ourselves? Why force ourselves to take such bitter and nasty-tasting medicine?
Because, in all likelihood, it’s the only way out, it’s the only way to truly grow up and mature as a person and become what was intended. If we’re not willing to have the difficult conversations with ourselves, if we’re not willing to look honestly and starkly at ourselves and start putting ourselves under 24/7 around the clock surveillance and really start scrutinizing ourselves and putting ourselves and our actions under the microscope, if we’re not willing to start seeing ourselves for what we are and start calling ourselves out on our own bullshite, then we’re just marking time, wasting our lives, and we really don’t want to wake up. Because, bottom line, waking up means intimacy—being raw and open and heroically real and honest with ourselves—and doing so constantly—and then doing so with others and owning our psychopathology and neuroticism and weak parts and getting to work on overcoming and outgrowing them. This is the stuff—the day in and day out frontline grunt work—of the “examined life.” And without doing this, our lives are just a blind decent into the grass, a useless march into oblivion.
(This is a slightly edited and updated version of an essay I posted on another of my blogs—http://fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/what-does-it-mean-to-be-%e2%80%9casleep%e2%80%9d-in-life/)