Three Levels of Waking Up to Life (#996)

Perhaps it’s just a function of being excited about spending the weekend with my kids, but I woke up this morning thinking about “waking up” as a metaphor for the spiritual journey. According to most mystical teachings, we human beings are asleep to our true nature, living instead in an illusory, thought-created world of our own imagining.

In many Hindu and Buddhist teachings this illusory world is called “maya” and is sometimes embodied by a beautiful temptress; in the Kabbalah our true self is hidden from us by “the veil of Paroketh”. When I talk with people about it on workshops, the most common point of reference seems to be the movie “The Matrix”, which very deliberately brings the spiritual metaphor to life with its story of the reluctant hero first learning that he has been plugged into a computer generated matrix and then waking up to discover that he is indeed “the One” who has come to destroy the illusion and wake people up to the truth of life.

As a transformative coach, my job is, in some ways, to wake myself and others up to our true selves and the deeper levels of feeling that exist beyond our day to day emotions. I sometimes describe it in terms of levels of consciousness – three levels of “waking up” to life:

Level One – Waking up to the fact that we are asleep

In the movie “The Usual Suspects”, Kevin Spacey quotes Baudelaire to say that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”. In the same way, the number one reason people stay asleep is that they are 100% convinced they are already awake.

Here’s how the enlightened sage Jiddu Krishnamurti described it:

Let us for a moment, imaginatively at least, look over the world from a point of view which will reveal the inner workings and the outer workings of man, his creations and his battles; and if you can do that imaginatively for a moment, what do you see spread before you?

You see man imprisoned by innumerable walls, walls of religion, of social, political and national limitations, walls created by his own ambitions, aspirations, fears, hopes, security, prejudices, hate and love. Within these barriers and prisons he is held, limited by the coloured maps of national boundaries, racial antagonisms, class struggles and cultural group distinctions. You see man throughout the world imprisoned, enclosed by the limitations, the walls of his own creation. Through these walls and through these enclosures he is trying to express what he feels and what he thinks, and within these he functions with joy and with sorrow.

So you see man throughout the world as a prisoner, imprisoned within the walls of his own creation, within the walls of his own making; and through these enclosures, through these walls of environment, through the limitation of his ideas, ambitions and aspirations – through these he is trying to function, sometimes successfully, and sometimes with hideous struggle.

And the man who succeeds in making himself comfortable in the prison we call successful, whereas the man who succumbs in the prison we call a failure. But both success and failure are within the walls of the prison.

So the first thing we need to wake up to is the fact that we are asleep – that we live in a thought-created reality but we think we live in an objectively ‘real’ world. Once we begin to see the inside-out nature of our experience, a new possibility becomes available to us…

Level Two – Waking up inside the dream

I remember reading a book as a teenager called “Lucid Dreaming in 30 Days”. The idea was that by beginning to understand the dream state at a deeper level, we could learn to wake up inside our dreams. Once awake inside the dream, the incredible freedom of the dreaming mind would let us have extraordinary adventures, defying the laws of gravity (and in some cases the laws of the land) as we flew across new worlds in vehicles made of our own imagination.

In life, when we begin to wake up to the fact that we are dreaming, our world starts to become less fixed and more fluid. Like H2O changing forms from ice to water, we begin to notice that both past and future are ever-shifting landscapes.

One of the first times I noticed this for myself was both unbelievably mundane and incredibly profound. My wife Nina and I had an argument about who was supposed to get the milk for our afternoon tea. I left the house muttering under my breath about how busy I was and how unfair life could be when a new thought occurred to me:

“I wonder if I’ll still be feeling this way five minutes from now…”

This was a radical notion, as I had assumed that any upset over something as important as milk for tea would by definition last at least a day or two. As I made my way through the supermarket, another new thought occurred to me:

“I wonder if Nina will still be feeling upset by the time I get home…”

This was beginning to make sense to me, as I knew we live in the feeling of our thinking and thought, by its very nature, is transient. By the time I got in the car to drive home I was actually excited to see what Nina and I would each be thinking and feeling by the time another few minutes had passed.

As it happened, we both remembered that we are very much in love, and shared two of the nicest cups of tea in the history of tea.

Like H2O changing forms from water to gas, the cloud-like nature of our thought-created realities means that they can also completely disappear from view, revealing a present-moment “sky” of pure potentiality. We are never really stuck with the circumstances we think we have to overcome because of one simple fact:

We can’t be “stuck” in circumstances; we can only ever get stuck in our own thinking.

The moment we wake back up to the inside-out, dream like nature of our experience, our thought-created reality can change completely, from chalk to cheese and from hopeless to hopeful. The infinite creative potential of the present moment becomes our sandbox, and we surprise and delight ourselves with the new possibilities that come to mind.

Level Three – Waking up from the dream

I am not enlightened (just ask my wife!), but I love reading and listening to descriptions of enlightenment experiences. The general consensus seems to be that a) they are seemingly arbitrary and completely unpredictable, b) they last anywhere from a couple of seconds to a couple of days, and c) nothing changes but everything is different. As the Buddhist author Jack Kornfield wrote, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”

Syd Banks, the Scottish welder whose enlightenment experience lasted (by his own description) about three seconds in real time but changed his life (and by proxy, mine) forever, describes his experience of awakening in this video:

While having a “level three” experience may or may not be in the cards for us in this lifetime, every human being has the potential to wake up to the fact of the dream. And in my experience, limited though it may be, every moment we are awake is worth multiple lifetimes of unconscious sleep.

With all my love,


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