Soon after you were born your family got to work, training you into a well-behaved member of the tribe (a “good boy” or “good girl”). Although you were already related to others in the circle by genes or adoption, the process of turning you into “one of us” involved the force of culture, as distinct from that of nature. A human society is more than a collective for mate-pairing, reproduction, protecting the young, and sharing resources. Again, at the cultural level it is also a system of morality and ideology – an orthodoxy that shapes the consciousness of its members into a common agreement concerning the meaning of life.
You weren’t born with a preconception of life’s meaning. What something means is a matter of making numerous associations within a coherent reference system, between that thing and other things, from that thing to antecedent causes, symptomatic effects, and prospective ends or outcomes. The meaning of something is about linking it into a web of proximal and distant, similar and different, identical and opposite, previous and subsequent other things. Putting this mental picture together takes time and experience, as well as some pretty serious construction work. Your tribe didn’t leave you alone on the job. It provided you with the materials and tools that meaning-making requires, as well as the blueprints and inspection codes you were expected to follow.
All of this mind-shaping, meaning-making, and world-building activity of culture conspires to put its members into a TRANCE, which has at its core that common agreement concerning the meaning of life mentioned earlier. By definition, a trance is a “passage” or transitional phase to somewhere else. A hypnotist puts his subject into a trance so that he or she will unquestioningly obey the hypnotist’s suggestions. The collective culture puts its members under a similar spell, for the purpose of seducing them with the suggestion that they are separate individuals and incomplete without what the tribe has to offer.
As you slowly slipped under, the dream of your separate existence – variously judged as special, flawed, ignorant, unworthy, or depraved – started to take on the feel of reality. You really were all those things! As you looked out the window from your solitary confinement, you saw other egos obeying the same commands, which only confirmed and validated what you felt. The moment you gave your full agreement to the orthodoxy of egoism you fell completely into the DREAM.
Across the wisdom traditions of the world, the word “awakening” is widely used in reference to the event (or process) that leads to liberation. This term also carries a diagnosis regarding the human condition, which is that you are caught in the dream state of ordinary consciousness – and you don’t even know it. As you look around it all seems very real, when you are really just looking at a dreamscape of your own making.
Let’s spend a little more time with this concept, as it is easily (and often) misunderstood. We are not saying necessarily that what we see around us is only an illusion – not actually there, but only appearing real. Leafy trees, clouds overhead, other people walking about: these are real facts in the external environment, even if their appearance, orientation, and proximity to you are an obvious function of perspective and depend on your relative position as an observer.
These same objects take on an illusory effect when we add your appraisals of them as good or bad, pretty or plain, useful or worthless, yours or mine – all labels rather than actual properties, opinions and not facts, projections of yours onto reality and not at all real. Such judgments concerning the value and meaning of things are part of the fantasy you believe. They are ego extensions; and just as your sense of being a separate self is a construct of cultural orthodoxy, everything that carries this doctrine of separation into your general outlook on reality serves to promote the dream and keep you asleep.
So all those labels, judgments, and opinions are projected onto the reality of things. During childhood you were steadily lured into a trance, taught to believe that you are separate and special, that everything else stands in some relation of value and meaning to you. As this whole process was a slow seduction, you gave your agreement without really knowing what was going on. At times even now you may catch a glimpse through the veil hanging over your mind and be momentarily startled by the realization that your worldview is a cultural incantation – a tribal convention, a mental construct, a fantasy of meaning. But pretty soon the sleepy smoke dulls your focus, the trance takes over, and you are comfortably back in the dream.
The thing is, this dream isn’t all candy canes and rainbows. Inevitably, as in the movie The Truman Show (1998) where the bowsprit of a runaway sailboat carrying Truman (Jim Carrey) tears into the fabricated sky at the edge of the world he believed was real, the social conventions that keep the veil of meaning in place slip out of position or fall into tatters. It might be the sudden death of a loved one, the collapse of a career, the breakup of a friendship, or what I like to call “consumer fatigue”: the progressive exhaustion of hope in chasing fulfillment through something outside yourself.
The Western – specifically North American – ego is powerfully conditioned to regard itself as empty inside, entitled and demanding, and in need of being filled up. Of course there’s no filling-up to any kind of lasting satisfaction, for the simple reason that the consumer ego is a fast open drain.
By whatever means the disturbance comes, the deeper fall from dream into NIGHTMARE can be devastating. Value and meaning have collapsed or leaked away, leaving you disoriented and grief-stricken. For some people this might be the end; seeing no reason to go on, they take their own lives. A few will survive the nightmare and slowly repair their damaged dreamscape, adjusting back into an egocentric existence, though tempered perhaps by a sharp edge of cynicism. And there are those who will endeavor to spread their nightmare onto others, becoming apocalyptic alarmists, militant crusaders, violent terrorists, or convicted fanatics.
If you happen to find yourself in a nightmare, you may be closer to AWAKENING than ever before. As I’m using the term, awakening is not a destination but a process; in this way we might think of it as the reversal of a trance. Just as trance is a passage into the dream state, awakening is the path of disillusionment that leads out. Awakening is ongoing. It can come dramatically or by increments, but the process never ends. Enlightenment can make it sound as if an end has been reached, but once any attempt is made to construct meaning around it, what we have is another illusion and not the persistent commitment to clear-sighted awareness that awakening signifies.
Nightmares are conducive to awakening because the work of disillusionment – the stripping away of illusion – has begun against your will, without your consent, and despite your best efforts at keeping the dream intact. The dream itself has built-in safeguards against awakening, with its 24/7 propaganda machine and seductive promises. In a nightmare, however, the gravity of your loss and the distress of your situation veritably scream a call for change. Sometimes pain can be your most effective teacher, and grief your most precious companion.
Upon awakening you can see things as they really are – without labels, without judgment, and completely free of meaning. You realize that reality is one, everything is interconnected, and nothing (listen up, ego) is separate from the whole. You can relax into being, observe without opinions, and love without fear.
It’s not really about you.