Some people take pills to fall asleep, while others take pills to wake up – or such was my experience experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs when I was young enough to claim I didn’t know any better. Although these drugs were classified as hallucinogens, I never actually saw anything that wasn’t there. On the contrary, you tend to notice all sorts of things that are there but escape your attention in your normal waking consciousness. More than anything else, you discover that your normal waking consciousness is a bit of a misnomer, since most of us go through life with our eyes open and our minds asleep. This became immediately apparent when interacting with those who had not taken a pill to wake up. Everyone seemed like an automaton operated by a “me” algorithm of habitual thoughts and feelings, with nary a spark of true awareness. Why didn’t I notice this before? Perhaps because I was an automaton much of the time myself, operating according to my own “me” algorithm.
I read Peter Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous about the years he spent with George Gurdjieff, a self-described teacher of “esoteric Christianity” who first emerged in the waning days of the Czarist regime in Russia and then migrated to the West. For Gurdjieff, Christianity was not a matter of outward practice but of inner transformation, based on certain of Jesus’ sayings. Like many Christian mystics, Gurdjieff attached special significance to Jesus’ statement that “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” This was in response to questions from those looking for external signs that the kingdom was coming. As Gurdjieff noted, Jesus advised those seeking God’s kingdom to “keep awake…for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Gurdjieff’s entire spiritual practice was devoted to waking people up. The chief difficulty was that people think they are awake but in fact are sleep-walking through life. “People have been told almost since the creation of the world that they are asleep and that they must awaken,” he said. “So long as a man sleeps profoundly and is wholly immersed in dreams he cannot even think about the fact that he is asleep. If he were to think that he was asleep, he would wake up.“
Gurdjieff’s spiritual practice consisted of a rigorous regime of self-observation and of body movements, some of them derived from Sufi sacred dances. The Sufis shared Gurdjieff’s view that we normally exist in a kind of waking sleep, citing the Prophet’s teaching that “people are asleep and when they die, they awake.” The Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi makes clear that this death is not to be taken literally. However, the awakening brings an end to the dream and also an end to the dreamer; otherwise, he merely awakens to another dream. The dreamer must die so that God can awaken in him.