My Very Cancelled Reality
There is a softness to the twilight hours, the mind seems permeable, the senses grow placid and yielding, easily invaded by the fast-fading shadows of our dreams. It is in these blurry hours, when our harshest awareness must strain to come online, that we are freest. Our stricter faculties are tasked only with deciphering sight and sound, as we are not yet too wise for the impossible, they grow large, and kind, and larger still, surrounding all the curious things the dawn will banish.
It is not uncommon for me to startle awake and find myself sharing the room with residual images from a dream for the following minute or so. For most of my life, my dreams have been lucid – if I wished to exit a nightmare as peril grew near, I’d squeeze my eyes shut until I physically felt my eyelids contract, and open them to look out into the faded black of my room. The boundary between my imagination and waking life never felt particularly marked, but there was no consequence to this, my dreams felt terribly polite – an olive branch extended from my conscious awareness to the shallow end of my subconscious. My sense of personhood was the unwavering centre of my experience, and the boundary between myself and the environment was sacred. I felt no distress when my dreams intruded on a morning, or my perception dissolved into pure exhaustion, no experience was destabilizing to my identity. That was, of course, until Wednesday.
Wednesday night I awoke with a distant sound ringing out in my ears, and through a sleepy a haze, felt the push-and-pull of my breath, the headache forming beneath my skull, and complained, in the privacy of my mind, that I needed a few more hours of sleep. These sensations and thoughts, which would have ordinarily coalesced into a sense of self, swarmed me with no aim. I was not myself, I detected no soul, I was perception itself, trapped in hollow body. I felt a panic creep up my chest and blood leave my fingertips. I hurried to the bathroom mirror stared at my reflection; it trained its eyes on me, a curious stranger; I saw myself as I see the elderly man selling lottery tickets by the town square.
I’m used to the banal “dissolution of self” offered by practices such as mindfulness and have never found them particularly enlightening or disturbing. “The self is an illusion,” says the one, “we do not author our thoughts, they simply appear to us.” Our thoughts are born of us, consciously or otherwise, it is the make of our mind that gives them structure, our sensibility that gives them taste, our heart that gives them form; they appear as a finished product, but we recognize that they belong to us. We can’t pre-decide our thoughts in the same way we can’t pre-board an airplane – paraphrasing George Carlin, “what does that even mean, to get on before you get on?” This puts no dent in authorship. “Why, don’t you know, if we pay attention like so, we can notice there is no self.” And if we “pay attention” in a different manner, as if by magic, we “notice” something else entirely – as though the manipulation of perception could produce a variety of experiences. How curious. This I face is another beast entirely. I cannot look at the looker, I cannot find the witness. I can’t focus on my breath and sit in a benumbed trance, as the two-bit secular buddhist prescribes – my focus itself is disjointed, my perception is fragmented, each experience torn into emotional tone, cognitive understanding, pain, pleasure, sight, smell, never coming together, never forming an event.
Loss of self is as primordial a fear as the fear of the unknown. Consciousness is not all there is, but it is all that cares, and the self how it cares. The self is the glue that binds existence, we fear the destruction of self when we fear anything at all – or love, seek, laugh, despair, live. To be without a sense of self is to be in perpetual disbelief – the “other” is dissolved, the world is dissolved, the cohesion of life gives way to isolated moments joined only by memory and fact. The outline of a life, that is what we are left with without a self.
The twilight hours bless us with a lack of sense – poison of the brain – and the mind treats the stuff of the world like the pliant matter of dreams. But I have never benefitted from the quaintness of the late night quite as much as I ought to, it never seemed a remarkable hour to me, my dreams never felt strange, and reality seemed weighty enough to withstand the occasional nocturnal assault, should that ever change. Perhaps this is why my self crumbled so easily, I never did admit the flexibility of the imagination, I did not dream a dream so much as think it. Reality does not feel weighty anymore, it does not feel the monument it once was, I only see scaffolding.
I am not keen on this death. I known now that I must build something new.