Probably one of the most difficult films I have watched lately, Waking Life is. As a response to my last post, one of my students suggested this film. He probably knew a little about my obsession with dream interpretation.
The film is visually fascinating. The story line is pretty straightforward — a man got hit by a car, and then transferred into the state of unconscious, in which he lived in perpetual lucid dreaming. What make the film utterly interesting is how his lucid dreams are not just random collages of his previous random encounters, but very specific meetings, conversations, with people from whom he then learned about the meaning of life. Beginning with the importance of existentialism from a college professor whose lecture he was attending, neither he or us viewers realized yet whether this was a dream, and that many of them were to follow. Only until he was no longer himself, but was living in someone else’s female body talking about “identity” that he — as well as us — began to realize that this couldn’t be real. At the beginning, it seems as though he could have been a curious student going around the city in Texas knocking on the doors of former professors’ houses who could educate (or re-educate) him about the meaning of it all. The climax was when he was talking to a guy at a pinball arcade, who told him a story of writer who managed to write a bestseller so fast that he himself was scared of the fact that the story line may not be a direct product of his brain, but was given to him by someone else. A few months he then realized that the story line was, in fact, his own future. How did he access it? Something must have bent the space-time continuum that enabled him to live in the body of his future. This was the climax of the film, and the very zenith point of the protagonist’s search for his destiny. There was not any, the answer was, but the fact that he was learning so much about how might he have lived his life differently was, rather, meaningful. The irony, however, is that he was learning about the meaning of it all in his dream, and no matter how corporeal the knowledge he was acquiring through meeting these random people was, he wasn’t going to get to use them because he might have been killed by the car accident and therefore he was not able to wake up into his physical life.
This was not the first time someone made an awesome film about dreams. The television show Lost, the films Mulholland Drive and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are some of the most remarkable. For Lost, which is also one of my favorite shows of all time, it was great because it was such a long TV series (many people, though, got really upset at the end when they all realized that the whole thing was a story of souls struggling to get out of the purgatory; I was okay with it and thought that was pretty clever!). The Matrix is one the classics. When Keanu Reeves — I mean, Neo — got stuck in the underground metro station after trying to bypass between the real world and the Matrix, he was in the same state of pergatory that the protagonist in Waking Life was in. But, in fact, we could also argue that the entire trilogy (Matrix, Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolution) was all about dreams. After watching Waking Life many may question their own existence. Are we dreaming? Are we dead? The French philosopher René Descartes, back in the seventeenth century, has dealt with this question. Is there anything at all that we can be sure of?
Skeptics of his time said no — there’s absolutely nothing we could be sure of, and that even their consciousness could have been deceived by an evil demon who wanted to make use of us for their own benefits. The entire Matrix trilogy was about human beings trying to emancipate from the deceptive consciousness (the Matrix) that this evil demon (the machine) has created to make use of our bioenergy (heat from human body), and proving the existence of reality outside of the Matrix. Descartes is credited for coining arguably the most memorable quote in philosophy and the study of consciousness: Cogito ergo sum or “I think therefore I am.” This quote, unfortunately, is also one of the most misinterpreted quotes of all time. It sounds pretty straightforward, but, the same way we should not allow the evil demon to deceive us, we sure should not let the face-value simplicity of the quote mislead us. Descartes coined the term to defend philosophy against the skeptics of his time who were making the universal argument that we weren’t capable of coming up with anything philosophically meaningful simply because we just couldn’t trust anything — the evil demon was winning. By telling these skeptics “I think therefore I am,” he’s saying they’re wrong. If Descartes spoke English he may have said, “we can question anything, but the only thing that we can’t question is simply the fact that we are questioning.”
So, for Descartes, we know that we are not being tricked because we are still able to question our existence. An evil demon wouldn’t allow us to undermine their authority like that. So, what would be the instance or situation in which we usually don’t question the reality? I can think of one: In our dreams, we don’t seem to question. Anything could happen in your dream. People who have long past could be walking on the street and you won’t even think that’s weird. You could be in another person’s body talking, and you would not even think that’s unnatural, and so on. But something of a quandary is the fact that we also don’t seem to exercise our ability to question that much neither. So, perhaps, the skeptics should be skeptical about their dreams, in which they don’t question anything, rather than the reality in which they are questioning just about everything. In this sense, the father of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is, perhaps, right that dreams could tell us more about reality than the reality itself — simply because we tend to question, censor, and problematize reality too much. Often what is important is something we don’t have to question or censor. When we question things or censor things, we also question and censor our own existence, and that could be a useful exercise to understand the use of reason. But when it comes to using the medicine to solve the mystery of human’s consciousness in order to cure hysteria, it’s much easier for the clinical psychologists and the psychoanalysts to know exactly about those things that you don’t question, rather than the things that you question.
Whoever knows me well knows that I used to keep a dream diary. I did so until the summer of 2013 when I started doing my fieldwork in Shanghai, and I had to decide between spending the precious morning observing and studying the urban neighborhood on which my doctoral dissertation was based, or writing my dream diary. Anyone in their right mind would probably prioritize writing about work over writing about dreams, I thought to myself.
My decision? I decided to do both.
I could not make up my mind to give up writing my dream diary completely, so whenever I got up in the morning I tried to write down as much (and as fast) as I could by hand onto a piece of paper before I got interrupted by the social activities in the neighborhood that demanded my attention. Years of writing down dreams have taught me that the best way to capture the memory of the dream before it disappears is to try not to move my head at all while writing. This may not be the best way to get up in the morning according to science. I began to write down my dream in a hardcover Moleskin diary when I was a student at Oxford. It was there that I developed my own techniques of capturing my dreams. One of them was to doodle, draw, and write whatever came to mind as much as possible without concerning about the coherence of the story line, and the construction of the narratives.
The memory of the dreams faded very fast, and the more I moved my head around the faster it faded. So, the best way to capture it was to write while my head was still laying down on the pillow. So, I had a diary right next to me with a fountain pen, which was the only instrument I could write comfortable with. As soon as my consciousness woke me up in the morning, and that I realized that whatever situation I was in was a dream, I would try not to clear my mind but to use as little energy as possible to grab the fountain pen on the side of my pillow (my head was still on the pillow) and while I was still side-sleep on the pillow I would write down as much as I could on the diary. Usually, I would doodle, draw, and most importantly, write down a few keywords, which would be anything, ranging from the people I saw in the dream, places that I was in, situations or events, or whatever, because those were just about enough for me to recall parts of the dream, and writing them down as fragments allowed me to move on quickly to write something else. Dreams are never meant to be reconstructed neatly. They’re always fragmented, and since space and time do not matter when you are inside of your own, the law of causality and transition do not apply.
When I just started to write, I made a rookie mistake by trying to connect fragmented stories in my dream through a series of transitional narratives. For instance, I thought there had to be something that transitioned myself from one dream to another, say, from talking to my diseased grandfather in front of my own house, to being in a bowling alley with President Carter. There was no connection between them. The fact that I could talk to my diseased grandfather without me reasoning that he was already dead was already a clear sign that time and space worked differently — if they’re such things at all — in dreams. What’s worse was that the more I tried to reconstruct the transitional narratives, the more other, usually more important, parts of the fading memory that were still able to be recalled fades. So, instead of being able to write down a few of those fragments, I was able to write down two of them, at most, and that was because I wasted so much of my conscious energy to reason to unreasonable.
When I sat down and wrote my daily fieldnotes at night, which was my ritual before I went to bed, I would flip through the handwritten notes about my dream that I, drew, doodled, and shorthanded down in the morning. I would then try to incorporate them (as much as I thought would make sense) into my fieldnotes. Freud once said “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious,” which has the potential in revealing what I might have spotted while in the field, yet egregiously censored by my consciousness. Since I was studying thee phenomenon that my consciousness allowed me to perceive, I thought it may be useful to try to think about whatever lied beneath that. I had a true hope that I would get at something by doing so.
After having shared the early draft of this post with the student who suggested me this awesome film, I was bombarded with some great questions. One of them was “have you ever tried lucid dreaming?” This was an interesting question because it seems as though being able to exercise your imagination — and feel very real about it — is something we all want to do. That said, after having spent some time thinking, I responded to him “Not intentionally. I am pretty content with my waking life. Everything I ever want to do I can do it in my waking life (smile emoticon).” In fact, there is nothing that I really want to do that I can’t do in my waking life. I mean, I don’t want to fly. I don’t want to be the richest man in the world who can buy anything. I don’t want to travel through space or to the moon and back. I don’t want to see the whole horizontal plain of the earth turning vertically (like what we saw in the film Inception). And I don’t want to have unlimited casual sex and ultimate orgy with beautiful celebrities. These seem to be a few things that most of us aspire to achieve lucid dreaming when they go to bed at night, and I don’t want any of them. In fact, if I ever arrive at lucid dreaming, I’d probably just do nothing, because doing nothing in one of the few things that I cannot do in waking life. I live in space and time — and I have to pay my bills — so I have to, at least, breath. Doing nothing would mean I get to live outside of space and time. Isn’t that kinda cool?
The other reason why I am not that interested in lucid dreaming is because I am only interested in the unconscious. Lucid dreaming, unfortunately, won’t serve as roads to the unconscious. The scenarios one come up with in lucid dreaming is still pretty much based on our understanding of the space and time in which we live in our waking life. We’ll still think about the cause and effect, and the consequences of the action that we, in our waking life, would think about. Our mental illnesses are all results of our inability to act according to our instinctive nature, simply because we, as Freud explains in the Civilization and its Discontents, are being forced by law, social norms, etc., “to be conscious” about the consequences of our action. So, living the world that consequences won’t matter won’t allow the layers of free association to be revealed, allowing you to connect the dots leading to a treasure map to the unconscious. That is, in a lucid dream, we will still be exercising your consciousness to think about scenarios who wish to be in, as opposed to those that you may not be able to think that you would like to be in but actually, and deeply would make you really happy.