Close this search box.
Previous slide
Next slide


Adventures in the Land of the Living Dead

The Hidden Reality

People go about their daily lives: shoppers shop, politicians posture, philosophers ponder, psychologists therapize, and businessmen strategize. They eat, talk, enjoy, struggle, rant and rave, kiss and make up. But there is a terrifying reality hidden below the surface. The choppy, frothy surface may roil with waves or be smooth as glass, but underneath, there is a common thread in the vast mass of humanity. While this truth is missed by just about everyone, it has been pointed out with extreme clarity, now and then at least, by a few rare adepts. It sounds like a metaphor, but humanity is asleep—sound asleep.

This is not hyperbole, a poetic description or an analogy of the human condition, a social comment on the state of men and women. It is a literal fact. Almost anybody you meet or interact with is in a robotic state, reacting according to a million gross and subtle programs and sub-routines of “personality.” Not only physical mannerisms, facial expressions or postural styles are under the sway of habitual programming. The complete spectrum of human emotional reactions and thought patterns form intricate mechanisms of stimulus-reaction. These do not require an actual person to be present, just as self-check-out scanners are replacing individual checkout workers.

The Waking Difference

What does being asleep entail, or its converse, an actual waking state? It simply means being self-aware, aware that you are alive, present, and that “you” are something different than your sensations, your feelings, your thoughts. You are neither your biology nor your biography. Turning up that self-awareness a bit more, we know that we are something other, and something more, than the story or narrative through which we are living. We may, time and time again, find this world that we inhabit, by turns strange, comedic, poignant, shocking, but always mysterious. For an awakened mind experience is fresh, odd, funny, alive, and pervaded by its own humming awareness. Yet looking at people’s faces you will perceive that they are fully identified with the story they are living, with the thoughts they are having, the words they are mouthing, the movements they are making. You will not see in their animated conversations, or in the thoughts and memories that flitter across their faces, a sign of awareness of existence. Self-awareness also goes hand in hand with self-observation, which is more consciously directed.

Awakened and Mindful Downfalls

There is a huge mistake waiting in the wings, just chomping at the bit to jump on stage and take over the show. And that is the delusion that this movement away from mechanical existence is enlightenment, is some kind of extraordinary satori. It is in one sense, but at its core it is simply becoming an actual human being, a “normal” person. Much more pervasive is the constraints of the mindfulness movement. These teachings have obviously become remarkably popular in the last two decades, the darling of corporate and health care trainings, university courses, and large and small scale programs. While this has generated a large new stable of mindfulness gurus, who seem to have the answer, most are fully asleep.

Yes, it is quite possible to dream of being awake. Much of mindfulness is about being attentive, focused, paying heed to what you are doing, to not multitasking or being scattered. This is only tangentially related to self-awareness or seeing yourself in the picture, of not being identified with feelings, sensations, events, and narratives. It is not the same as the traditional idea of objectively noticing one’s own existence as another object-experience. It is also not necessarily an escape from being the programmed, habituated you, the persona or social, societal, conditioned mask. Indeed, it is behavioralism in a new guise or a form of relaxation or stress-relief therapy. This may have wonderful benefits in learning how to be less reactive, to center more, to listen better, to not be caught in one’s emotional states. This behavioral self-improvement, like literally all self-help, can be done in “waking sleep.” Gurdjieff defined night time sleep as first state and the waking and walking somnambulism of everyday life as second state. Actually, self-awareness is third state in this framework.

The Emptiness Scam

You are a field of awareness. You are not a composite of cells, of molecules, or atoms. The atomistic concept was proved false in the days of Plato, and laid to rest until dug up and revived by Descartes (1596–1650). Things exist as fields of meaning, from their own side, as well explained by the physicist Wolfgang Smith and others. To think that the world around you is “in your mind” is a form of madness. Likewise, the idea that you formed perception of the outer or inner world out of a chaos of energies and pieces or particles is patently false. Yes, these fields, like all phenomena, are evanescent, changing, impermanent. But still these persist. The chair of a moment ago is definitely different by some minute fraction of its totality. But in essence it remains chair-full, a full-bodied, wholly expressed chair. The great problem with modern Buddhist thinking is that it is tainted from the get-go by the strange machinations of materialism, and atomism in particular. Thinking that anything whatever is just the sum of its parts is obviously untrue, if not the thought of a simpleton. The human body is not 150 pounds of chemicals or atoms from the periodic table. It is formed of much higher forms of order—organized cells, a highly organized tissue system, incredibly complex organ functions and mind-boggling overall integrity that manages the entire orchestra of a trillion cells. These fields of energy and information are self-existing. The body is real, as is mind, and not reducible to its parts, after which it is no more. But even then, it still was in its wholeness, a field of being and, in the case of humans, a field of awareness.

Neither is this one the types of phenomenology which studies the subjective experience of people. In that sense it also falls into the same errors of seeing the outer world in a nihilistic way, as not being what it is, but a composite of ever smaller units, not ever larger meanings. Between nihilism and eternalism, we have the middle way, the world of temporary or impermanent realness. It is not made up by us, but experienced by our human sensitivity, however shallow or deep that might be, person to person.

The Observer that Isn’t

One might thing that this self-awareness is just a repackaged version of the “observer” approach to meditation or lhatong (clear seeing). But this is frequently a form of self-auditing or behavioralism—as in mindfulness-based self-improvement. Once again, we fall into a kind of schizophrenic or artificial thinking process—not a higher level or higher order awareness that is inherent and pre-existent. As one psychologist’s blog perfectly states “the answer is to develop a number of new neural pathways in the brain that act as a kind of monitoring system.” The myth of the brain producing the mind—of which there is zero evidence and no logic—is now overlaid by the myth you should watch your mind with another part of the mind—on the same level. The instant we are self-aware, we are exterior to the thinking, mechanical mind. This misunderstanding is terrifying, as every potential awakening concept or method can be devoured by the demon of the waking sleep state, dreaming up new dreams about its awakening.

Close But No Cigar

Note that periods of rousing out of the depths of waking sleep do happen to people albeit on a momentary basis.  This happens in a moment of surprise, fear, delight or anything else that temporarily knocks one out of conditioned, habitual modes of stimulus-response. But since it is not appreciated or understood for what it is, it quickly subsides into the sea of unconscious experience. The Buddhists are so right when they insist that the “view” is fundamental to awakening or realization.

Without an accurate map of the psyche, a philosophical understanding of the inner landscape, opportunities will be missed and the wrong path taken, almost every time. For example, if I am mindfully told to “scan my body” and be aware of each part, that is a great technique for relaxation, and positive biological changes. But if I sense and feel the “I,” the consciousness that is doing this, that is awareness. And so there is a well-trodden path to awakening and towards the next steps after that basic leap. But the forces of sleep are profound and we live in societies that depend utterly, from top to bottom, on the mechanics of sleeping people. Awakening is the ultimate threat to the unsatisfactory, literally inhuman world that we inhabit today. There is no political or social solution to the human condition without awakened beings. And awakening is never done just to create such solutions, but are indeed its by-product. Just watch yourself in context for as much time as you can during the day, with no concern for results or in order to “fix” yourself. If this is done, the intention is already the cure that rattles one out of the tepid bath of dull mechanics, a shocking splash of the ice-cold water of presence.

Asa Hershoff (Lama Jinpa), Kathmandu, Oct, 2023

See more

Dr. Asa Hershoff
Asa Hershoff

Related features from BDG

Book Review: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep
Awareness, the Beginning of Change
What Do You Recommend that We Do in Life?
Deep Listening as a Way to Create Spaces of Belonging
The Dharma of Listening and Speaking, Part One

More from The Five Wisdoms by Asa Hershoff

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments