“Awake” (the TV series) and Awakening   Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking over the last several weeks about the NBC midseason replacement series Awake.  Maybe you’ve seen it or at least heard about it.  (With the continually growing number of networks and choices, it’s become harder to find media experiences to talk about that most of us have in common.  Besides, each of us is busy enough as it is, pursuing our own reality show called Life.)

In its eighth episode as of this post, the drama stars Jason Isaacs as L.A. detective Michael Britten.  The premise is an intriguing one:  after a car accident involving Britten, his wife and son, his reality splits:  on alternating mornings he wakes to one life in which his wife Hannah survived the accident but not his son Rex, and in the other reality to a life in which Rex has survived, but not Hannah.

Britten is seeing two different therapists, one in each reality, each attempting to convince him that the current reality is the only “real” one.  Britten experiences some “bleed-through” of both similar and different details and situations from each reality to the other.  This naturally confuses him at times, but also gives him odd clues and insights into criminal cases he is working on, and into family dynamics that previously had too easily slid past him, until the accident forced him to pay more attention to the surviving family member in each alternate reality.

The series concept is a provocative one on several levels.  Who among us hasn’t wondered at least a little how things would be different if (fill in your own blank here)?  But more significant in Britten’s case is the immediate matter of his sanity.   Is this schizophrenia?  Can both of his realities be “real”?  Or is one destined to win out, forcing the detective to abandon what one of his therapists insists is an unhealthy clinging to an illusion that is preventing Britten from healing?  Which reality might prove “false” — one in which his wife Hannah is gradually coming to terms with their son’s death and planning a new life for them both, or the other, in which Britten is slowly learning to be a better father and to connect with the teenage Rex for the first time?  Who could ask a person to choose between these two?

Both realities are internally consistent, and as far as Britten can tell, neither offers any evidence of being “more real.”  Several spiritual traditions describe this consensus reality of ours as a kind of dream.  By itself, however, that’s never been a useful piece of information as far as I can see.  More helpful is guidance about how to live the dream fully and gracefully, and to shift in and out of this dream and other dreams.  Most of us try not to leave a trail of dead bodies or broken lives behind us, and we generally see this as a good and admirable thing — not something we’d worry about if this were “merely a dream.”

I remember going through a period in my twenties of perhaps six months of very violent dreams, featuring me both as victim and perpetrator, but the experience didn’t disturb my waking world.  No one arrested me as a serial killer, and the dream dismemberments, stabbings, shootings, beheadings and so on didn’t disturb my digestion or emotional life.  (They did give me useful material for contemplation and growth, but that’s a separate post.)  The whole time of the dreams I was both actor and disinterested spectator in that curious way dreams can have.  Obviously the quality of realities is different:  waking and dreaming matter as category distinctions.  If they didn’t, most of us would face radically different waking lives as a consequence of what we’ve dreamed!  Unless you’re seriously repressing, you’ve had at least some dreams that would probably garner an X film rating.  And if you don’t remember them, you’re missing out …

So if Britten is truly “awake” in both realities, he doesn’t need to choose, but simply to keep them straight.  If you’ve ever had a lucid dream, however, in which internal consistency and conscious awareness approach, equal or even surpass that of waking reality, the distinctions can become much harder to sustain.  Britten wears different colored wristbands to help him distinguish which reality he’s currently in.  (Curiously, we don’t hear about his dreams.  Perhaps “waking twice” consumes enough energy that he doesn’t need to — or can’t — dream.)

I have no idea how the writers of Awake intend to play this through.  But it seems to me that it would be an enormous and series-destroying mistake ever to call one reality “true” and the other “false.”  For better or worse, Britten logs parallel lives.

For most of us, both dream and waking are normally discontinuous.  Each has its own interval of duration, and each eventually ceases before the other resumes.  Under the influence of extreme fatigue, illness, or psychotropic substances, we can hallucinate and experience a “bleed-through” of dream-like perception into waking reality.  For most of us this is a temporary state of affairs, perhaps useful or insight-producing up to a point, but not something we desire to sustain permanently.  A good night’s sleep, a return to health, or the exit from an altered state of consciousness resets consciousness.  Generally this is a good thing!

Yet when life goes flat, when the “same-old” of our daily experience — which is almost always a symptom of our inattention and soul-sickness — threatens to bore us literally to death, we need those moments of “awake now!” that may arrive with an accident, death in the family, close escape, or other major transition.  Drama is punctuation to life — I don’t seek it habitually (unless I’m a bored teenage girl).  Regular spiritual practice, as I’ve learned from experience (positive and negative, in the doing and in the ignoring), can both defuse the sense of “same old” and deliver us to smaller and less life-upsetting moments of insight, inspiration and — yes — transformation.  We all dream of becoming more, better, greater, wiser, more loving, more fulfilled.  Now is the always and only time to awaken in that dream — to “live twice,” awake both times.*

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NBC series image

*Many of us “get” small bursts of at least the potential for transformation from art and music, or from sheer beauty on the playing field, or in a craft or manual skill.  The Chinese poet Li Po exchanged poems with his contemporary and friend Tu Fu, and on one occasion exclaimed, “Thank you for letting me read your new poems. It was like being alive twice.”

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