The Theosophical Society in America

Till We Dead Awaken: The Quest for Higher Consciousness in Film, Fiction, and Theater

Printed in the Winter 2016 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: HorowitzMitch. "Till We Dead Awaken: The Quest for Higher Consciousness in Film, Fiction, and Theater" Quest 104.1 (Winter 2016): pg. 18-21.

By John Shirley

Because it flashed upon me with a sudden horror that you were dead already — long ago.

                                                                     —Henrik Ibsen, When We Dead Awaken

John ShirleyI was walking through “the yard” at San Quentin State Prison. The prisoners sunning themselves at tables near the worn baseball field would have pleased any casting director with their do-rags and the homemade prison tattoos on muscular bare arms. The man walking with me, though, was smallish, balding, middle-aged, and pale, making me think of an accountant. He might once have been an accountant, I don’t know; I do know he was a convicted murderer.

I was a volunteer, teaching writing to inmates. My companion had written a script, which was about a man driven by his origins to do bad things, but with something higher struggling to emerge in him. I asked, “You have sports, television, work, time to walk freely within the walls — and you’ve been here since 1978. Do you stay so busy you forget, for a while, that you’re incarcerated, and just feel like this is normal life?”

He told me that if he kept busy, he could “sort of” forget. But he added that he could never really forget he was in prison. “You try not to think about it too much, but . . .” He looked at the armed guard strolling by. “There are constant reminders. It’s always there. You feel it.” Even at the best times, the defining negativity of his situation loomed in the background, casting barbed-wire shadows.

Unsurprisingly, the group of inmates composing screenplays often wrote, indirectly, about people who were trapped in some way. And it’s not surprising when screenwriters and authors, moving “freely” in the outside world, write about their own existential conditions, and spiritual conditions, even when they might suppose themselves to be writing about something else entirely.

When I saw the film The Invasion (2007), I remembered that day volunteering in prison. Starring Nicole Kidman, The Invasion is the second remake of the classic science-fiction horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Based on a novel by Jack Finney, the Body Snatcher movies portray an isolated town in the grip of an invisible alien invasion. The invaders take over the bodies of locals, making them, one by one, into cold-hearted players in an extraterrestrial conspiracy. Your wife and your father still look like your wife and father, and talk like them. But it’s not them anymore; they’ve become numb biological robots. Key to The Invasion — it’s even in the trailer — is the admonition “Don’t fall asleep!” Because, the film warns, it’s when you’re asleep that your body is snatched. In his essay for Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute, Parabola editor Jeff Zaleski observes:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers poses a terror that is fundamentally spiritual: the loss of that special something that makes us human . . . Yet the story also offers a metaphor for a less obvious but more insidious threat . . . It’s well known but rarely discussed that the world’s five major religions teach another fundamental truth about the human condition . . . that we spend our lives mostly in a dreamlike state — lost in our thoughts, so lost in our thoughts that we are cut off from the sensation of our bodies and full awareness of the real world. This teaching can be found in the esoteric branches of each major religion.

Both Finney’s novel and the Body Snatcher movies may have been intended more as political than spiritual metaphor. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out in 1956, an era charged with a fear of communists supposedly bent on turning our world into a godless dictatorship of the proletariat. But political themes may mask deeper insights. A look at The Invasion and other films suggests that many popular films are actually unconscious (or only partly conscious) expressions of esoteric truths. Metaphors for spiritual conditions are found in unlikely places — but they are found persistently because, like the man who “kept busy” in San Quentin, we all know, on some level, that we’re in prison. We know, too, that there’s a possibility of freedom just on the other side of a certain wall.

Despite our straitjacketed condition, something in us senses that we’re asleep and struggles, at times, to wake up. Even when we haven’t encountered esoteric teachings, we know something’s wrong: that we are living in a twilight world, where the light is too dim; that we are driven by drivers we cannot see. This unconscious, uneasy half-comprehension of our condition finds expression in popular art — especially in theater, film, and fiction.

Consider the plays of Samuel Beckett. In his unnerving, austere productions, characters walk about in purgatorial loops, repeating nightmarish scenarios, seeming caught up in entrapping states of mind. They battle for dignity, for some eking out of individuality. In Beckett’s short play Catastrophe, two ruthlessly officious, controlling individuals, a “director” and his secretary, set about arranging, as if toying with a wire framework, a miserable-looking, ragged old man frozen on a stage. At the end, the old man, against directions, lifts his head, and looks up at the audience — a tiny act of defiance. It’s all he can manage, so controlled is he by outside forces. Beckett spoke of his plays as “objects,” and probably wasn’t consciously making a spiritual statement. But again and again he poignantly expressed man’s condition: trapped, mechanical, struggling to emerge from a puppet’s purgatory.

Television has its moments of inadvertent insight into our trapped, sleeping condition: going back a ways, one of the most popular television antagonists was the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg is all one being, made up of lesser beings, a cyborgian fusion of man and machine that assimilates individuals, overriding their free will and turning them into mindless components of an artificial Archon. Besides dramatizing mindless subjection to automaticity, the Borg may be a parable of our fear of becoming disastrously dependent on the electronic and digital superstructure of our smartphone-dominated culture.

Popular film resounds with themes that speak of our tendency to lapse into sleep when we think we’re awake. One of the most striking examples is The Matrix (1999). Starring Keanu Reeves, The Matrix is about a man who discovers that the entire human world is asleep and dreaming, kept that way by enslaving artificial intelligences. Human beings are so controlled by computers they become seamlessly blended into the digital world. A rebel leader has liberated a cadre of revolutionaries, one of whom makes a secret deal with the artificial intelligences: he will betray the rebels if he can be allowed a fabricated dream life of his own choosing. The traitor may represent the inner resistance a seeker feels when presented with the possibility of awakening.

Numerous films point to the same truths with a timeliness and convergence of intent that somehow make them part of an inadvertent “movement” in cinema. I’m thinking particularly of American Beauty, Fight Club, Dark City, eXistenZ, Mulholland Drive, The Truman Show, Vanilla Sky, Waking Life, S1m0ne, The Island, The Invasion, and Inception.

Sam Mendes’s 1999 film American Beauty, written by Alan Ball, is the story of a dysfunctional family lost in the centerless maze of modern life. Kevin Spacey’s character can’t touch his wife in any way that matters; he can’t reach his daughter, though she’s right in the same house with him. He has an encounter with a pot-dealing young bohemian who moves in next door — whose obsession with the innate visual beauty of the ordinary world seems an adventure in perception — and is inspired to wrestle his way free of his middle-class funk. The overall impression is of a man recognizing that he’s been asleep, dreaming his way through an air-conditioned, wall-to-wall-carpeted misery — who had forgotten the choices, the almost infinite ways out, that life offers to the wakeful in every single second of existence. As a side note, Ball’s television series Six Feet Under (2001–05) — about a family of morticians, each episode’s prologue dramatizing the death of a client — might be regarded as an oblique reminder of the importance of living consciously in the moment, with death always in the offing.

In David Fincher’s visceral Fight Club (1999), characters desperate for connection to something real go to Twelve-Step groups for problems they don’t have, just to feel emotions by proxy. They are so desperate to rid themselves of existential numbness that they start a fight club, where ordinary people meet in secret to beat each other bloody. It isn’t the violence they want — it’s the return to realness in the moment, brought about by powerful, unavoidable living contact. They allude to a society caught up in consumerism and corporate striving, dumbfounded by masks and celebrity worship and empty recreation, and they recognize that it’s all a kind of sleepwalking, a hypnotic state that must be struggled with, even battered with bare fists.

Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998) is a stylish noir fantasy, a Gnostic fable about a man who finds himself on a search for truth and identity in a shape-shifting city that turns out to be a living urban stage designed for sinister, arcane purposes by malignant entities. All may be a dream — or may not.

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) involves a virtual-reality videogame that — like so many Philip Dick–influenced tales — makes us wonder where reality ends and the game begins. Fantasy and reality inevitably overlap in this film. There are anti-game revolutionaries in the background, and the game’s player wonders what’s real, and if the game could be a game within a game . . .

In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a young actress seems to have her soul, or identity, stolen by evil forces embedded in the city of Los Angeles (no one who’s worked in The Business there needs much convincing) as she goes through an enigmatic quest to find her real nature — in what turns out to be, apparently, a dream.

In Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), Jim Carrey’s character discovers he’s in a false reality, literally staged by people who are using him as entertainment and have done so for a generation. He must find the confines of the staging area and break out into the real world, to find actual love, an unscripted destiny.

Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001) was inspired by a 1997 Spanish film called Open Your Eyes. This Tom Cruise vehicle once again gives us a hero who by degrees realizes that his nightmarish reality is fabricated, intricately computer-animated, and transmitted into his brain, which is in modified cryogenic freeze. He chooses to wake up and face the real world of a dark future rather than accepting the comforting dreams the cryogenics company offers him.

Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) — an intriguing innovation fusing conventional movie photography and animation — gives us a hero who keeps waking up from a complex dream that seems to push him into profound social and philosophical dialogues with the sundry intellectual outlaws he encounters. But each time he’s sure he’s awakened, he finds, once more, he’s only dreaming.

Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne (2002) is a comedy about a movie director who’s so disgusted with actors that he computer-generates Simone, a beautiful actress programmed with the best aspects of all the great female movie stars. The audience falls in love with her, and people refuse to accept she’s not real, even when he tries to tell them so. S1m0ne sends up the public’s willingness to collaborate with illusion on a global scale.

In Michael Bay’s The Island (2005), the hero discovers that his world, which seems to be the only refuge in a world supposedly ravaged by catastrophe, is actually a factory for creating clones used by the rich for spare parts, and the free, living world is hidden but intact and waiting for him beyond the walls of social illusion.

While The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, is less effective than the Don Siegel original, the film nevertheless dramatizes (probably unconsciously) the central dark fact of the human condition: when we allow consciousness to lapse, we surrender our ability to make choices, deferring to lower subselves and their mindless agenda.

Then there’s the Christopher Nolan film Inception (2010). Ostensibly a tale of corporate espionage — stealing some ideas and planting others in human minds through entry into their dreams — the movie can also be seen as a surreal take on the subjectivity of our normal reality. The filmmaker said he was seeking to make a coherent adventure in the world of dreams. But what if a hidden, deeper part of him was saying something more? As G.I. Gurdjieff tells us, “Life is real, only then, when ‘I am’.” Eventually the hero of Inception must find his way out of a subjective dream world, effectively learning what it is to actually be — what it is to be able to genuinely say, I am.

Whether these are great works of art is not important. What matters is the emergence of a remarkable number of films questioning reality itself — each suggesting a sinister puppeteer, pointing to a kind of dreamy disorientation prevailing in the median consciousness of the industrialized world — seems a defined cultural current, however unplanned, emerging from a consensus about our condition. What is it we’re trying to tell ourselves, with The Matrix, and all these other films on the same theme?

These filmmakers are not deliberately referring to esoteric ideas, but on some level they seem to confirm insights basic to vipassana Buddhism, certain forms of Sufism, esoteric Christianity, and Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. Artists express their perception, however murky, of the human condition. And a perceptual consensus is beginning to emerge: mankind is asleep, mechanical, strictured, fragmentary.

Most everyone has had a dark dream that they struggled to wake from. A few nights ago I had a chance encounter on the street with an unbalanced stranger who claimed to have a concealed pistol. He threatened to shoot me if I got too close to his new truck. I doubted he had a gun at all, and took it in stride, shrugging it off, but deep down the encounter disturbed me. That night I dreamt I was in a crowded public square, where a belligerent man argued with me, then ran and got a large automatic pistol from his friends. The crowd watched in vague amusement as I ducked behind a car to avoid getting shot. On some level (this often happens when I have nightmares) I knew I was asleep. It took a few moments, but I somehow deliberately wrested myself out of sleep so that I wouldn’t have to dream of being shot.

My anxiety about the threatening man on the street was not unfounded in our gun-burdened society, and my dream was a way to process that anxiety. Films are like dreams; they extol the social subconscious. The films in our incomplete list are roughly along the same lines. They are cinematic dreams mulling over real dilemmas our so-called “conscious” minds are only dimly aware of. These films are external representations of inner processes: the higher part of us struggling to awaken, to warn us we’re in danger of losing our birthright.

Some of us drift through our lives like pollen; others bounce energetically from one interaction to another like the reflective silver sphere in a pinball machine. Sometimes, spurred by inner compulsions and external conditions, we imagine that we are doing great things in the world; we become reformers, or master criminals. We run for president.

But on some level, no matter what we seem to accomplish, we know that the whole time, we have been asleep. Like the people in comas who are often seen to struggle to awaken, we make feeble, indirect efforts to protest our numbness, to acknowledge that transcendence is tantalizingly near. We go to amusement parks for rocket-fast rides that thrill us into momentary contact with our bodies and the present moment; we try skydiving, bungee jumping, extreme sports. Some people go in for drugs and speak portentously of their fitful, veering experiences with altered consciousness. And filmmakers protest their sleep through movies like The Matrix, an adrenaline-pumping action movie that combines thrill seeking with the notion of our subjectivity to mechanicality and the possibility of awakening to real freedom.

These films rarely offer straightforward solutions to the dilemmas they pose. Although fight clubs do exist, the novel (by Chuck Palahniuk) and film Fight Club are actually presenting only satirical solutions — questioning the status quo — and a willingness to use desperate means for escape.

Still, The Matrix seems to symbolically suggest something like the process of self-observation found in Buddhism and the Fourth Way: the hero takes steps to wake up, only to find he’s connected to machinery that has kept him drugged, fed, and subjected to a false digital “reality.” Waking enough to see this machinery, he’s able to unplug himself from it and escape to liberation. That is, when a man really looks, really observes for himself that he is mechanical, he has the possibility of freedom from the machine.

The Invasion offers us only an alert willingness to question the apparent, and a feverish determination to find a way out of the trap at all costs. The Island’s implicit advice is essentially the same. Vanilla Sky’s hero chooses to face a harsh reality as it is — to look it square in the eye, acknowledging the painfulness of seeing what is, and intimating that in the end the discomfort is freeing.

The young actress in Mulholland Drive seems to be on a search for some lasting, essential self — something beyond the ephemeral — and Lynch hints that there’s an essence to be found, eventually. In Waking Life and eXistenZ we’re directed to question the status quo and our own assumed reality; we’re called to interrogate existence with an active mind.

In The Truman Show, Peter Weir goes farther. Question the status quo, then go on a journey, regardless of the difficulties and your own resistance, to the other side of the façade, where you’d better be willing to see not only the falseness of the staging, but your own.

There are, of course, films, like the heavy-handed but charming Tyrone Powers classic The Razor’s Edge (1946), Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993), and Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), that address spiritual themes more directly. There’s also Peter Brook’s Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979), a film version of Gurdjieff’s memoir of his spiritual search. In what seems a play on ideas of recurrence from Nietzsche and P.D. Ouspensky, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day is condemned to live the same life over and over again till he sees himself, finally, as he truly is — and sees the consequences of real choices. In The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges plays a vain talk-radio host who inadvertently causes a tragedy. Tormented by guilt, he has to risk all, in an act of selfish love, to escape the suffering brought on by identification. In telling the story, the scripter uses Hermetic symbols like the Grail to symbolize the path to redemption through renunciation of the ego.

But films that express the human dilemma unconsciously, like a poignant cry from a child with night terrors, somehow strike more honestly to the heart of our condition. The sudden outpouring of films that show their heroes struggling to escape confinement by the walls of sleep makes us wonder. 

In my own work as a novelist, I try to walk a middle way. In my theosophical novel Doyle after Death and in my novel of “alternative apocalypse,” The Other End, I do use symbols on purpose, but I embed the symbol in story in a way that not only dramatizes, but, I hope, entertains.

But writing fiction to that end is fraught with the risk of coming off too precious, of seeming self-important and pompous. In short, it could easily become bad writing.

For me, the best approach is to engage a sense of real experience, both for myself and the reader. I try to immerse myself — and the reader — into the world of my story, without much, if any, authorial interpolation. But along the way I allow my own spiritual leanings, and important symbols, to emerge naturally from the story and its setting.

Whether it’s prose or pictures, that’s how it works best: the symbol and the story are one and the same. The symbol should emerge seamlessly from the script or the story. And what is usually symbolized, when we look around at the sense of the spiritual emerging from entertainment media, is our awareness, just hatching, that we’re not as conscious as we could be. And that realization is a call from the cosmos itself to emerge into the world of real consciousness.

When I write fiction, I feel a responsibility to call people to wake up to the human condition, to suggest our profound need to reach for higher consciousness, for true mindfulness. And when I’m calling out in that way, I’m calling to myself too. By constantly facing the subject, I’m reminded of my own tendency to give in to my resistance. I’m reminded of my proneness to fall back into seductive numbness and the dull, default level of consciousness — into pseudoconsciousness.

Like everyone else, I struggle to awaken. Writing about awakening, even through metaphor, encourages me to reach for it myself.


John Shirley is a novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of many books including Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas. His novel Doyle after Death was reviewed in Quest, fall 2014. His article “The Apocalypse of Consciousness” appeared in the same issue.