Society and the True Self, Part 3: Waking Up in the Matrix

In my recent posts I have been developing the idea that individual human beings might be more accurately seen as individual expressions of social preferences, attitudes and beliefs than as separate autonomous individuals. We live our lives making choices, deciding between this and that, creating our lives. We become mothers, fathers, doctors, lawyers, and carpenters. We buy cars and houses and clothes and electronic equipment. We go to movies, restaurants, beaches and parks.

The lives that we live are the cumulative result of the choices that we have made. And for most of us, most of the time, this process of choosing how to live goes on more or less smoothly. But occasionally some of us wake up in the middle of a life that starts to feel like it isn’t ours. We look at the lives we are living, the people we are spending time with and the activities that fill up our waking hours and we wonder how we got here.

The movie The Matrix gave many of us a powerful metaphor for this awakening. In that film individuals human beings were living unconsciously floating in tanks of fluid with their brains connected to a super computer. The computer generated for them an ongoing experience of a world and a personal-self living a life in that world. They were effectively dreaming and the computer-generated dream was called The Matrix. In the film some of the characters wake up ‘in the Matrix’ – an experience similar to lucid dreaming where you come to a state of consciousness in which you are simultaneously fully immersed in the experience of the dream and simultaneously aware that you are dreaming.

And this experience is not dissimilar to the awakenings that many of us have in the midst of the lives we are living. Something jolts us out of the story line of our lives – a loved one dies, an aspiration falters, we lose a job – and suddenly we find ourselves mysteriously outside of our lives. We look at the trail of choices that has lead us to this moment and like David Byrne we wonder, how did I get here? It was me who made all of the life decisions that got me here, but in the expanded perspective of awakened consciousness we realize that we were always unknowingly choosing between a very limited set of options. The ideas about who we are, what we are capable of, and what is valuable in life that came to us from society only allowed certain life options to appear to us. Even if we freely made the choices that we made (which itself is debatable) we were always choosing between a limited set of options.

Depending on the magnitude of this awakening we may even feel suffocated by the life we are living. We become aware of the limitless scope of human endeavor and we see how limited the scope of our own lives actually are.

This kind of experience happened to me. I felt as if I had been living on a giant moving sidewalk and had stepped of the side. On the sidewalk people were walking this way and that, passing each other in the illusion of being autonomous choosing individuals. But from the vantage point off of the sidewalk the apparent individual movements seem to mask the deeper fact that everyone is on the same moving sidewalk heading in the same general direction.

An awakening like this is a delicate opening to unlimited possibility. It is both exhilarating and terrifying. In fact I imagine that awakening of this type happen all the time, but are not of sufficient magnitude to stick. The experience of limitless possibility and what it implies about the life we are living is overwhelming. We have momentarily found ourselves outside of the matrix. We feel alone and profoundly responsible. I imagine that many times we simply fold back into the matrix, pick up the social roles and relationships of our lives and pick up the dream character.

If our awakening is sufficiently strong we might find it more difficult to forget about. We will want to confirm it with others to determine what it is, what it means, and if it is objectively real. We may speak to the people we trust about our experience, and if they advise to simply forget about it and go back to being satisfied with the validity of our life, we may do exactly that. If they confirm for us the validity of our awakening experience, perhaps by sharing one of their own, we may be encouraged to pursue the possibility of deeper freedom that our awakening experience has revealed to us. We may become  seekers after truth.