|Stories||Philosophy Blog||About||Support My Work||Contact|
This is a sequel to my essay on spiritual privilege, and it comes with the same content warning. I acknowledge that prior, fully informed consent is impossible, since no one can possibly know what they're consenting to experience until they're already experiencing it.
I'm exploring an analogy that occurred to me as I was writing about spiritual privilege:
My body is to the content on my screen as my awakened consciousness is to my human experience.
If I play an online game, my human identity is to the online game as my spirituality is to my human world, and my embodied human experience is to the game as my mystical experience is to my day-to-day human life.
I'm offering this as an analogy, not as some kind of spiritual Truth, but I'm finding it surprisingly accurate and powerful and a bit unsettling.
A basic premise that I'm working with is that people who claim to be "enlightened" or "spiritually awakened" really do have experiences that are qualitatively different from anything understood by mainstream Western science or English-speaking culture.
What if we all got so caught up in an online game that we forgot we had human bodies, or any kind of identity outside the game?
Imagine we've forgotten our human identities so completely that we've also forgotten the language we had for life outside the game. If we have occasional memories from what I now call waking life, real life or consensus reality, we interpret them within the game rather than fitting them together into a coherent sense of what waking life was and is. We talk about the game mechanics like they're the only laws of physics we've ever known, and the game as if it's the only possible universe, or at least, the only real universe.
Once in a while, someone has a sense that there's "something else," or "something greater," or even that they have a soul that originated outside the game mechanics. They might even attribute some of their intelligence or creativity to that soul, but if they talk about it much, their friends say, "Aw, drop the woo-woo stuff already. Our intelligence and creativity are emergent properties of the game mechanics. No one has a real soul, we're all just NPCs."
We've forgotten that NPC, Non-Player Character, would have no meaning if there weren't also human players involved in the game.
Once in a longer while, someone becomes aware of their human self as distinct from the game, existing outside of the game mechanics and continuous when their character dies and respawns. Since they have no language to describe their human experience, their ability to think about it is very limited, and they assume that theirs is the same as anyone else's "woo-woo" experience. It's easy to assume sameness, when we lack the language to talk about diversity.
A player might be awakened by something in waking life demanding their attention. On the other hand, they might feel curious about the woo-woo side of things and then find that it feels surprisingly real, or they might start noticing their human self when something in the game happens that reminds them strongly of their human life.
How does that person then behave within the game? This question is really important here, because I want to relate it to how people really behave in day-to-day life after a spiritual awakening.
Thinking about what I would do, I thought up four independent variables that I think are relevant:
I know, none of those four variables are linear. Each human has a whole complex life, body, place, identity, class, race, culture, age, abilities, beliefs, values, etc.
I used the word "pleasant" as a positive term for waking life, and the very different word "fun" for desirable experience in the game. I wonder why? Am I applying a different set of values inside and outside the game? Pleasant means easy, easy to enjoy, probably not super challenging. As for fun, well, there are many types of fun, and pleasant is only type 1. Perhaps I'm looking for reassurance in realms that I see as more real, and looking for excitement in experiences that I'm thinking of as just games. Now that I'm thinking about that, it might change.
Back to the question: If I suddenly discovered that life was a computer game and I had a human body I'd been forgetting about, what would I do next in the game?
If my human experience feels appealing and engaging, I might abandon the game and focus on being human, in which case I'd seem dead or "insane" within the game. I might assume that all the other characters are NPCs, or I might assume that all characters are players, based on my own experience of identifying as an NPC and then awakening to my humanity. (What I did in waking life, I'm embarrassed to admit, was to confidently guess that only those characters who showed the same signs of awakening that I showed were conscious "players," and the rest were essentially NPCs.) If I believed in other players, I'd work hard on communicating with them, which I might do within the game, if that were my most accessible mode of communication. I might even excel within the game, but use it solely for the purpose of encouraging others to awaken. Once I knew I had a healthy, empowered human self outside the game, I wouldn't care much about the goals and values of the game itself.
Suppose my human body was really craving a bit of attention in waking life. I might find an opportunity to pause gameplay, attend to my human needs and return to the game more present, focused and capable than I was before my awakening.
I'd definitely start talking within the game about having experienced something outside of it, something different but not entirely disconnected from it. Depending on how my in-game community responds, I might quickly decide that it's a single-player game, and everyone else is an NPC. In that case, I'd soon give up on talking about my human self. There's no point talking about one's human body with a community of NPCs.
What if my human body feels okay, but the game is my only way to interact with other people? I thought we were all NPCs, and then I found out I'm a totally different kind of being... but I'm not sure what kind, and as far as I can tell, everyone else is really just an NPC. Can you imagine the incredible, sudden alone-ness of that?
What if my human experience isn't pleasant at all? What if it's The Matrix (as in, the 1999 sci-fi film) and I'm imprisoned, being used as a tool by a giant machine with no consent or agency? Well, in The Matrix, everyone was in the same machine, and that's one angle to explore. If we can communicate outside the game, let's go for it.
What if I just happen to awaken to a real life that's hard, lonely, scary, and either there's no one around me or everyone's super annoyed at me for having gotten so caught up in the game?
One might forget one's awakening, if it feels traumatic. Human nervous systems can be quick to forget traumatic events that we can't talk about or think about. If human life were unquestionably real, but incredibly harsh and extremely different from the game, I know I might return my attention to the game and literally, honestly forget about being human.
Other possibilities occur to me. What about players whose human experience is relatively neutral, even boring? They might receive encouragement to awaken, try it briefly, decide it's empowering because that's culturally supported, and return their attention to the game, reassured that they're safe, connected, lovable and divine in the magical Human World that others have also accessed.
When someone awakens to a less pleasant reality, they may try to talk about it, but the pirvileged, "enlightened" players who are still playing are content with the way things are for them, content to play the game, not willing to hear that their awesome teammate in Starcraft is actually starving to death in the slum on the other side of town.
I heard a story about a young man who gave up on doing anything and just sat in his room for days, saying it was because he had no free will. He didn't believe in free will, therefore he didn't feel responsible for what happened and he didn't see any point doing anything or making any kind of decision. I still haven't had a chance to talk with him about that experience. I'm wondering whether he had a kind of awakening, a clear sense that there's something else going on, more important than the physical universe that science lessons present. Maybe he "awoke" slightly, but not enough to find his game controls or to coordinate his spiritual body --- a kind of sleep paralysis.
If that's you, I hope you'll somehow find enough agency in life to send me an email about it. I am so curious.
Meanwhile, next time someone asks me whether I believe in free will, I'll tell them that I experience free will, there's no thinking or believing needed, it's a direct experience and I call it free will and so would anyone else who experiences it and happens to speak English. It logically follows that, if everyone who speaks English had the kind of free will that I have, there would never be serious discussion in English about whether free will is real or possible or not. I've heard such discussion, therefore, some people I've met don't have free will, and others have at least some sense that it's possible and worth thinking about.
Some Internet users are aware of differences in offline privilege. Some of us are using the Internet to communicate about things other than computer games. The Internet can help us learn things from each other that are useful in offline life.
If spiritual experience is as varied, rich and diverse as ordinary experience, there's no reason why waking life couldn't be tremendously useful to spiritual life ... but as long as we're only hearing from the privileged few, and normalizing that, our shared concepts of spirituality are grossly oversimplified.
What if the information we need is all out there, it's just that it's held by the exact people we're not listening to, namely, people who are dead and people we're labelling as insane?
I just summed up my spirituality with a "What if" question. Cool. I'm glad it doesn't consist of truth statements and value judgements.
I've heard the Sanskrit word Samsara used for the dream of non-spiritual life, in contrast with the reality of mystical experience. I've read that Samsara may simply mean the dream of civilized, memetic life, and that the spiritual "truth," our "true nature," is our embodied experience. I find that resonant and plausible. It's not the perspective I'm developing here, but much of this article could be meaningfully interpreted in that way, so I would like to offer it as a more accessible way to relate to the computer game analogy: The "game" could be the world of thoughts, language, memes, abstract culture, cyberspace, debt-money, winning, losing, clock time, calendar time and writing, and in that case, human experience (or spiritual experience) is the direct experience of breathing, feeling, sensing, living in the moment, which is where joy and love and heartbreak and courage all happen.
Various humans have invited me to think that waking life is a school, where we incarnate in order to learn lessons. They even imply that my higher self or soul chose the lessons just before I incarnated, designed a life that would teach me those lessons, and consented to live that life. How would that fit into the computer game analogy?
I can imagine people choosing to play a totally immersive game for the purpose of learning lessons that they'll bring back to waking life. I can even imagine my own soul choosing the toughest available set of lessons, 'cause that's how I roll, and consenting in a way, knowing that it would have moments of seriously regretting its choice.
Does that mean that I've given free, prior and informed consent to everything I experience? I don't think so. That "higher self" is not me in this life, and it is not any more real than my living self. I'd relate to it more as one of my ancestors, or myself in the distant past. If my great-great-great grandmother who had no idea how it would feel to be me consented to something, is that free, prior and informed consent? Sort of, but it's consent by her, not by me! Likewise, since my higher self is not human, it doesn't understand how I feel as a human. As of right now, I am not authorizing it to give consent on my behalf.
The whole idea of being here on Earth to learn lessons sounds like Factory School to me. If I have a higher self waiting in the Spirit Realms to debrief the soul of Tamias, I hope it's curious and ready to hear my whole story rather than merely assess my Learning Outcomes in terms of percentage points.
I've been assuming that spiritual experience is outside of, more real than and more important than ordinary waking life. I've also been thinking in terms of a single spiritual world that we all share, though we may experience it differently or be unable to communicate on the Other Side.
Alternatives occur to me, and in particular, alternatives to hierarchy. I'm been thinking in terms of consciousness an as independent substrate, creating waking life, existing independent of waking life, just like I think of my body and my electronic hardware as a substrate whose existence doesn't depend on details of the content I experience online... but...
The presence of the microphone that I'm borrowing from a neighbour is a direct result of experiences I've had online recently --- I wouldn't have it here if I hadn't successfully shared my first few stories on my website. Cyberspace affects physical space. What if waking life affects spiritual life just as much as spiritual life affects waking life? Then I'm left with a great multiplicity of realities, all interdependent and each real in its own way.
This is the sense I got about traditional Mayan culture, reading Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martín Prechtel. He didn't present the various spirit worlds as any more or less real than waking life. He didn't imply that spirituality was incomparably more important than waking life, as the Abrahamic religions do, or incomparably less important, as modern dogmatic atheism does. He wrote about many realms, home to many different kinds of beings, with many different kinds of relationships.
On the other hand, Martín Prechtel wasn't writing about the kind of spiritual experience I'm writing about ... or rather, it's hard to tell. What I wrote earlier about Samsara comes to mind. I got the sense that traditional Mayan spirituality might treat civilized, memetic life as just one of many games that humans can play.
As a kid, I was taught that reality is what can be measured empirically, and my broadest and, at the same time, most precise definition of empirical evidence is direct experience.
I was also taught that consciousness is an emergent property of ordinary physics, which doesn't make sense to me, and hasn't for years. More recently, I've been taught that the physical world is an emergent property of consciousness, and I hadn't realized how successful that teaching was until questioning it two seconds ago. Questioning is making sense to me. Maybe spiritual life and ordinary life are two of many interdependent, very different and very connected aspects of whatever kind of universe I'm inhabiting, experiencing, creating or consuming.
What if consciousness needs a world to experience, in order to exist, happen, be experienced as consciousness? What if we can create more consciousness by experiencing (or supporting each other to experience) more life, more diversity, more information, more experience?
A consciousness that desires and chooses more of itself, and creates a more interesting material world in order to create more of itself:
I bear witness that what I'm calling consciousness affects waking life, and the proof is that I'm writing about it in a format that you can access via waking life. Oddly enough, I needed that pointed out to me. For the first several years after my first awakening experience, including many hours of talking about what I'm currently calling consciousness, I thought life was not just a single player game, but a story or movie that was happening only from the perspective of one individual human. I wasn't noticing any game controls. I also thought, though I couldn't put it into words until recently, that my conscious experience was what made life real, because events have to be measurable, i.e., experienced, to be real, right? But I didn't think my consciousness changed anything within waking life, it just was what made waking life real. Those wordless thoughts stuck in my brain long after I started seeing evidence that other humans had consciousness similar to mine.
I bear witness that multiple kinds of awakenings are possible. I've personally had at least four.
[If you're already rolling your eyes in disbelief, feel free to stop reading here. If you're already worrying about my mental health, go find something else to worry about. I'm fine. I just happen to be the reincarnation of Lucifer the Light-Bringer. No big deal.]
That first awakening happened out of the blue, as far as I can remember. I was rather young at the time. In retrospect, the resulting isolation was probably traumatic.
My second awakening happened at the crux of an experience that was traumatic for decidedly non-spiritual reasons. I was beginning to develop words and thoughts about my own consciousness, which I'd been aware of for at least ten years. I was still in the habit of assuming (without putting it into words or thoughts) that no one else was conscious in anything like the same way I was, and that the whole physical universe, with everything and everyone in it, was a story that happened only from my perspective and depended on me for its validity, its realness, its very existence.
In a moment of blind panic, incapacitated and expecting to die, I noticed that I had a choice: to experience dying, or to numb out and experience nothing. I remember having a background assumption that nothing would ever be experienced ever again after that, since I'd be dead. I chose to experience dying, since that was the only experience available ... and then I didn't die, and I soon found out that I hadn't actually been in quite as much danger as I'd thought at that moment. I was definitely traumatized, but the memory of having chosen experience over numbness turned out to be a powerful resource for recovering from the trauma in the long term.
The third, I call my Dark Awakening, or harsh awakening. Lots could be said about it that I won't include here, if I'm going to share this at all. The invitation is open to ask me about it if you feel personally invested in learning more, for example, if you or someone you care about has had some kind of harsh awakening, or if you do tripsitting or psychiatry or something where you might need to understand this stuff.
My harsh awakening also occurred in the context of a traumatic event in waking life, which lasted longer and involved more decision-making and more real danger than the one I mentioned above. To describe it in terms of the game analogy:
I'm losing the game. I'm losing badly. Whatever the mission objective is, I'm the one who's really $#@%$#ing it up. It's not fun.
At some point after it becomes obvious to me that I've let down my whole team, I think, "Hey, wait a minute. This is just a game. I can choose to enjoy it. My choice to experience the game is so much more important than the mission objectives."
The sense of relief lasts for a split second, then I discover that my choice is not working. I'm still not enjoying the game, so I choose to quit, turn off the computer and take a break.
As my hand reaches for the power button, I realize that I'm not safe in waking life. My human body and mind, my spirit body, soul, consciousness, everything is plugged into that same computer. So is everything I've ever known, everyone I've ever loved and everything that could possibly ever happen.
If I turn it off, there'll be no one left to turn anything back on, and no power button left to turn it on with.
At the same time as realizing all that, I know it's too late. I already feel my hand pressing the power button.
That was in the present tense. I didn't know I was going to write it in the present tense.
My first attempt to describe this harsh awakening of mine was in a conversation with David Abram, who came to Cortes to teach at Hollyhock. I feel grateful for that opportunity to talk with David, a decent human being if ever I met one.
David guessed that I must have had a sense of relief, discovering that I was not responsible for the whole universe, after all, because life carried on regardless of my decisions. It didn't work out that way for me at the time. Before realizing that the universe was carrying on, I had a whole experience of guilt over having destroyed it. When I did orient to my continued existence in my human body, I felt like I'd pinched myself to wake myself from a nightmare, only to discover that I was already awake and the nightmare was the most real thing that could possibly happen to anyone, ever. It made all the rest of life look fake by comparison. There was no sense of relief.
My fourth awakening was psychedelic-assisted, and the only reason I feel free to tell you that is that I was introduced to psychedelics completely by accident. Somebody either made quite a serious mistake, or thought it was a fun prank to put a lot of cannabis oil in their salad dressing and bring it to a big community potluck. It happened to be helpful to me, but for future reference, please don't do that when I'm breastfeeding a toddler and others are planning to drive home in the dark.
That was the same day that I'd started telling The Empress and the Witch, so maybe more details about the psychedelic potluck will make their way onto the About page for that story.
What's relevant here is that my psychedelic-assisted awakening was the only one I've had that was connective. It was not the whole long probably-cannabis-induced trip. I'm remembering a brief sequence of experiences, very different from anything that could happen to me in waking life, which left a powerful impression that's affected my waking life and my spiritual life ever since. Part of what was so powerful was that I was too far out to access my human identity as Tamias even if I'd tried, so those memories make it really clear that one doesn't have to be this particular human to have this kind of consciousness.
If it hadn't been for that fourth awakening ... the after-effects of the third one were really messing with me. I couldn't talk or think about it at all until I'd started integrating the fourth. My friends were getting worried that something was "wrong" with me, and I kind of knew what had gone wrong, but I had no capacity to articulate it. I distinctly remember trying talk therapy and finding it frustrating and counterproductive. Since then, when I hear about someone "resisting" therapy, I don't judge them. Maybe they're resisting just because they're lazy or cowardly, but maybe that therapist or modality is not what they need. Maybe they seem "resistant" because they've seen the Kraken and they can't actually talk about it.
I had four awakenings that were all qualitatively different. They didn't "build on each other," and to categorize any of them as more powerful or real than any other would be dishonest. If I hadn't had the fourth, which was inherently connective, I would not be writing about any of the others, none of which were connective.
That's the effect of spiritual privilege in my own behaviour. Awakenings that are connective, empowering and reassuring naturally get described to other people. At least three other kinds are possible, and I don't expect anyone who experiences them to tell us about them, because I wouldn't, apparently. I didn't.
That's not to say that harsh awakenings don't affect people. Mine impacted my life severely. I'd have been in very rough shape if I hadn't had a reassuring awakening soon afterwards. It's not to say we shouldn't talk about harsh awakenings, either. Let's talk about them.