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 their lives? 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 (asleep) way, 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 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 growing toward our best or constantly learning 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.
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 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 life, 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 surveillance 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. 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.
Because they’re not “fun.” They’re not gratifying. They don’t relieve or lessen tension—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; what tastes or feels good is good for us, what tastes or feels bad must be bad for us. Most of us live 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. It means waking up from the sleep of living and reacting automatically.
Waking up means asking why. Waking up means examining ourselves constantly, asking why 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 means ceasing to be hypocritical—ceasing to ask others to do what we’re not willing to do, 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 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—ah, 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 level of true psychological and spiritual health and courage, our capacity to love and be loved— 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).
At every moment, we’re either awake or asleep and so we’re either communicating wakefulness or sleep.
At every moment we’re either teaching 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. Healthy people are virtuous people. Unhealthy people are a mixed bag—a 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.
So why try and wake up from our pathological slumber? Why burden ourselves with seeing ourselves as we are? Why look clearly and honestly at ourselves? Why force ourselves to take such bitter nasty-tasting medicine?
Because, in all likelihood, it’s the only way out. 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 wasting our lives and we really don’t want to wake up. Waking up means intimacy—being raw and open and heroically real with ourselves—and doing so constantly. This is the stuff of the “examined life.” And short of this, our lives are just a blind decent into the grass, a useless march into oblivion.