Barely Conscious

A Thought Experiment

Take a moment to think about the characteristics of the normal kind of sleep that we’re all familiar with when we tuck into bed for the night — the loss of consciousness; decreased sensitivity to external sensations; sometimes accompanied by dreams; other times no memory is formed. On average most of us spend about 8 hours per day asleep. In other words one third of our life is spent almost entirely unconscious. The other two thirds we are “awake”, which is to say we’re not laying down with our eyes closed and our brains turned off.

If we pay closer attention to what we’re actually doing while awake, we might begin to notice that most of the time passes in a level of consciousness so low that it can be compared to sleep. Thoughts come and go; emotions rise and fall; we move around here and there and it all occurs very automatically. We barely notice and suddenly whole hours have passed by this way. Maybe something happens that briefly captures our attention but soon enough the disturbance passes and we fall back into the automatic form of consciousness called “waking sleep” or “relative consciousness”. Have you ever driven to work, walked in the front door of the office, and realized you don’t remember anything about actually driving or how you got there? Have you ever walked into another room in your house, presumably for some reason, and realized you have no idea why you did that? Have you ever been so lost in thought that someone taps you on the shoulder and you can’t say how long you were out? We even use the terminology of sleep to describe this experience — you were day-dreaming.

Consider the impact this waking sleep has on our ability to function in life. Where does “choice” or “free will” enter in this process? If our waking hours are spent bumping around in the automatic reaction to whatever occurs to us, there is very little choice in the matter. No wonder we find it so hard to follow through on our goals, such as following a better diet, getting to the gym regularly, or having more patience with our loved ones. It’s almost like one voice inside our head decides to do something but it’s immediately replaced by another voice that wants to do the opposite. Round and round we go, and usually the lazier, unfocused, tired, less motivated voice wins the day. Let’s just get a pizza and watch some TV shows tonight. Yes that does sound comforting.

Why aren’t we awake?

Let’s examine why this is happening. One explanation is simply conservation of energy. Rivers don’t flow uphill. Plants don’t grow extra branches and leaves they don’t need. Snakes don’t strike when they’ve just had a meal, even if the food crawls right into their mouth. You won’t see lions running around just to get some exercise. Everywhere we look, living organisms do only what is necessary to survive and that means not wasting energy.

Consciousness requires energy too. It requires exerting a kind of force and this force doesn’t happen automatically. Consider what happens when you focus your attention very intensely for a period of time. Did you ever take a long, difficult test in school? How did you feel afterwards… pretty tired right? Have you ever played a competitive sport that required great focus? If you play long enough you may reach a limit where you can no longer concentrate and need a break or else your performance deteriorates. Have you ever tried to meditate for a long period? You may find that eventually your ability to focus wears down over time. But what could be less effort than sitting still and allowing thoughts to pass by?

If our general level of consciousness is barely above actual sleep, it must mean that our survival doesn’t require anything more. If it did, we’d make the effort, or else perish.

Imagine living in the prehistoric era with our earliest human ancestors. Back then we were surrounded by all kinds of threats. Large predators wanting to make us their next meal. Weather destroying our shelters overnight. Fires wipe out the forest where we hunt and gather our food. Cuts and broken bones become deadly infections. The neighbors in the next tribe over attack us to take our precious animal skins and tools we worked hard to produce. Life was a matter of daily survival and it took all of our awareness to avoid catastrophe.

Back in modern times, technological and cultural advancement, the very same things that make life easier and less dangerous, have also made us so comfortable that we barely have to make any effort whatsoever. Fewer and fewer of us have work that requires great physical exertion and predictably we’ve gotten out of shape, weaker and less skilled using our bodies as a result. Before the advent of printing, someone had a job to memorize entire novel-length stories and could recite them perfectly. Now we don’t even remember our best friend’s phone number. Throughout most of history the most common kind of work was subsistence farming, and you had to work hard or you wouldn’t be eating and your family could starve. Today our next meal is chosen from an app screen at the press of a button and dropped off on our doorstep. Tomorrow we’re promised that we won’t even have to lift a finger to press the button, that machines will respond to our voice and perhaps even read our thoughts soon enough. No wonder our attention sometimes wanders and we have trouble staying on track.

It’s quite a dilemma we’re faced with. On the one hand life has never been easier. On the other we find that this waking sleep is causing all kinds of trouble in our lives. I got distracted by the television, fumbled and dropped my favorite mug onto the ground, shattering it into pieces, oh dear. Johnny from accounting is so annoying I have trouble focusing on my work and can barely stand it when he’s talking. Our emotions frequently overwhelm us and we lose our temper at the smallest inconvenience or perceived slight. It’s been 15 minutes already, where is that waiter with my coffee anyways??

Seems harmless enough

But the troubles don’t end with these silly foibles and annoyances. With a few rare exceptions, it can be said that almost every calamity and misfortune in our lives can be traced back to this waking sleep. The lack of stable self-consciousness, the unpredictable impermanence of our inner state, starts off with a little anxiety, some fears about the future, or imagining someone doesn’t like us enough. Soon we’re addicted to alcohol to forget our worries, or we overeat to fill the sense that something is missing inside. All kinds of addictions start out this way.

Or maybe we lost ourselves in a fit of self-righteous rage causing loved ones to turn away from us. We became overwhelmed with jealousy, one thing leading to another, and now we’ve lost friendships. We’re full of regrets and shame about our past behavior that we can never change, which leads to deeper cycles of depression and misery. It starts to feel like there’s no escape and the depths of despair seem bottomless.

Hold on a minute, where did that regretful behavior come from? Was it a conscious choice? Were we fully aware of ourselves and acting from a calm, unified, or rational state? Of course not, which is why it’s called sleep. Things just happen to us, even our own behavior is a predictable result of the events that triggered it, going all the way back to our first moments of childhood.

We must have learned to react that way at some point. It doesn’t just appear from nowhere. And if we learned it in our childhood adolescence, that must mean those we learned it from also learned it from someone else. There really is no one to blame or hold responsible. It’s simply the lack of consciousness itself, and the ignorance of the consequences of our own behaviors.

There’s an old saying that when a butterfly flaps its wings it can cause a typhoon on the other side of the world. We don’t blame the butterfly for starting a chain reaction that created a storm, and we don’t consider why the butterfly flapped its wings in the first place.

Is there any way out?

The automatic, mechanical nature of our behavior is called sleep because, as in our dreams, we are mostly helpless to what occurs in this low-consciousness waking state. We have a sense that it should be possible to do something about it, but how? Many religions and spiritual traditions describe making an effort to wake up, to pay attention, to bring awareness to the present moment and be mindful.

For example the new testament of Mark 13:35-37:

Therefore stay awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.

Or this quote attributed to the Buddha:

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

Awakening is such a core theme through so many holy texts it’s almost impossible to miss. Unfortunately in many cases, that’s all they will say on the subject — just do it.

Returning back to the normal, night-time version of sleep let’s consider: what causes us to wake up in our cozy beds? Maybe something happens nearby that makes a noise or creates a sensory perception that jolts us from our slumber, such as an alarm clock or a tap on the shoulder. Sometimes a disturbing or exciting dream wakes us, our hearts racing and the strong emotions carrying over for a few moments after we awake. At times a biological process needs to be attended, such as thirst or a cough. Other times our bodies’ natural sleep rhythms simply cycle back to consciousness and we gently open our eyes. Perhaps we can find some analogous causes that bring our full awareness to the present and temporarily unify our consciousness during the day too. A car honking behind to tell us the light has turned green while we were distracted. A special, highly emotional event such as the birth of a child creates an unforgettable impression that lasts a whole lifetime. Pain from an injury releases a wave of adrenaline that heightens our awareness of everything happening around us. A peaceful, meditative moment outside in nature where we feel like a tiny spec of existence in a giant universe experiencing itself. These are the moments that stay with us and give us the sense that something “more” is possible inside of us. OK, maybe not the car honking at us.

Unfortunately we can’t rely on these special moments or external events to keep us awake. Hopefully it doesn’t take a broken bone or a near miss car accident every day to jolt us into presence. We know that it requires our own efforts. With deeper self-knowledge of the internal machinery of consciousness we can improve our effectiveness and maybe find short-cuts that allow us to create moments of awareness naturally on our own, similar to how the natural biological rhythms wake us from our beds.

This podcast and the school it is connected with study the basic structure of our consciousness — the Blueprint of Consciousness — so that we can have great confidence that the methods we practice are aligned with the natural functioning inside our own minds. This study is based on the mathematical structure of the Octave, which can be found in many other natural systems such as DNA, the periodic table of elements, and also the inner structure of human consciousness. It shows that we are on the path of evolution that started millions of years ago with a single-cell reproducing, creating all the biodiversity of the planet, eventually leading to these strange creatures called humans, with so many possibilities.

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