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The Shields We Hide Behind

[First published in PhotoStatic #36, June, 1989.]

Throughout history there have been artists, philosophers, and madmen who have claimed that man's normal conscious state was, in essence, nothing more than a form of sleep. And perhaps that is true. It is the sort of claim that has great appeal, anyway. There is some doubt in all of us as to how conscious we really are, and some belief that a higher mental state is possible for us to attain.

This "sleep" we are under is best explained as being our acceptance of the everyday routine. That is, because we always do the same or similar things from one day to the next, we have shut off our perceptions of our lives to some extent. We have become conditioned to the routine to the point where we do not need to be very conscious of it to muddle through our day. We live our lives like zombies or sleepwalkers.

An example: on my first day working on the auto assembly line I remember vividly how complicated my new job seemed to be. It took all my focused concentration to follow the assembly procedure and then to perform that procedure quickly and accurately enough to keep up with the moving assembly line. Those first couple of days were nerve-wracking experiences. I had to be so very aware of everything I did, each little physical motion. But after a time I got the hang of the job. I could do it properly and quickly. I kept up with the moving assembly line. I found that I could automatically pick up the part, the bolts and nuts, fasten them on to the motor, and tighten them down with the drill. I even had time to chat with other workers, to daydream, to hum a tune to myself. I found that I did not remember each and every one of the 90-some parts I assembled every hour, eight hours a day, six days a week. They just somehow got done by my body while my mind was somewhere else, not thinking about what I was doing. My work had become something I did in the same way that I breathed. The same unthinking, unknowing, automatic way.

And it is just this trance-like state which certain people throughout history have called a kind of sleep. To wake from this sleep is to become aware of everything you do as you do it. To be always discovering your life as you live it. But how to shut off the automatic pilot that runs our actions? How to break out of this robot conditioning?

The surrealists advocate a shock to the rational mind by combining unrelated items in unusual situations, thereby jolting the mind into a new mode of consciousness. Zen Buddhists use a similar method in their koans, as do the Sufi mystics. These methods can result in a momentary break in the routine, an upsetting of the mental apple cart. Your eyes widen. You takes in a sharp breath. What?, you say. And then the moment is gone; you relax; you sink back down into your usual mental patterns; you shrug and smile at the moment of alarm and danger.

For it is dangerous to be shaken from the mental routine. The mental routine is our basic reality, after all. It provides the framework for our conception of the world. When that routine is shaken, our very sanity is at stake. Our sense of Self, of purpose, of value, are all under siege when something breaks the routine. The Odd is threatening.

It can be argued that such a threat is healthy, that atrophied modes of thought can be broken in this manner. So argue the surrealists, Zen Buddhists, and Sufis. To some extent that is true. But I personally see far more danger in it. Our awareness of reality is filtered through so many perceptual lenses, is accomplished within such a limited conceptual framework, for very good reasons. Just as it would be damaging to look directly at the sun without benefit of the earth's atmosphere filtering and diffusing much of its harmful power, so would it be dangerous to see reality unhindered by any preconceptions, any cultural frameworks, any physiological limitations. The sight would literally destroy the viewer. His Self would be annihilated. Reality is too strong to confront except through mental blinders and distorting lenses.

It would take a man with different eyes than we now possess to perceive and survive the true nature of our existence.

In the meantime, we erect symbols and alphabets, religions and philosophies, nations and monuments. Anything to shield ourselves.

--Thomas Wiloch