Most traditions that have been imported from the east place consciousness right at the heart of their sales pitch. Gurdjieff was particularly inclined to do this, with talk of higher levels of consciousness. Other traditions speak of cosmic consciousness and the like, and seekers in the West have swallowed these promises hook, line and sinker – which of course tends to imply that these people are dissatisfied with their current state of consciousness.
One of the most illuminating comments ever made about consciousness is that made by Deleuze as part of his commentary on Spinoza:
Consciousness is only a dream with one’s eyes open.
When we sleep we are typically either completely out of it (in deep dreamless sleep), or we are sucked into, and identify with, a world of our own creation called a dream. It is also important to note that during sleep we lose the sense of being a person with continuity of existence – our “self” disappears, indicating it is only a phantom associated with our everyday consciousness – a product of memory.
Our waking everyday consciousness creates a number of illusions according to Deleuze and Spinoza. The first is the illusion of being able to “do”. We are conscious of our desires, but wholly unconscious of the causes of those desires. And so we might believe that our one hour workout in the gym proves we can do, whereas it is simply the effect of unconscious causes – vanity, fear of poor health, addiction to the hormones given off during exertion. Just as in a dream where we passively accept whatever the brain conjures up, so the reality of our waking consciousness is that we manifest the effects of unknown causes. We are an effect and not a cause, and our everyday is the dream of a puppet being pushed and pulled around by unknown causes. Closely related to this is the illusion of free will. We believe we are a center of initiative, when in reality we are automatons wholly determined by environment and conditioning. Our waking experience is a dream, although of a different kind to the dreams we have when asleep. Our waking dream includes a level of continuity, with the illusion of a “self”, the illusion of control, and the illusion that we are a source of initiative.
So where exactly is this much talked about “consciousness”. It doesn’t exist. We are as much in a dream when awake, as when we are asleep. It is a dream of a different kind, but a dream all the same. In reality our waking dream is primarily concerned with survival. The needs of the body program this waking dream so we spend most of our time gathering resources, or finding a mate to produce the next generation. Our days are typically spent working, acquiring money, food and shelter, so that the body might thrive. This waking dream is a survival dream, and as Deleuze states so powerfully, it is a dream with eyes open.
The realization of our utter slavery to the waking survival dream can be a source of despair or delight. If our waking self feels cheated then this realization may lead to despair. If on the other hand we come to see that we cannot do, that we are programmed automata, then we can sit back and watch the show with some level of detachment. Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream …