Waking Life

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

An exploration of the meaning of life

Waking Life poster

Waking Life is one of those rare movies which you tend to appreciate more as time goes by. It’s an indie film, well outside of the mainstream audience since there’s not a single car chase, explosion, or space ship. Waking Life is a completely different kind of movie—a beautiful, imaginative, exploration of the meaning of the nature of reality, seen as a real-time dream in the mind of a nameless protagonist played by Wiley Wiggins. This is an indie film by the director of the cult hit, Slacker, and it follows the same stream-of-consciousness style, though with a tone of earnestness markedly different from Slacker.

Waking Life has a visual style unlike any other animated film ever produced. For the most part, faces and shapes are painted without outlines, which makes almost every frame look like an impressionistic painting. There’s a persistent, fluid unsettledness in every scene; rooms bob and ripple, like coaches on a train, or a group of houseboats packed together. Lines, shapes, colors and shadows are in constant motion, sometimes slight, giving a faint feeling of relative stability before they morph into things completely different. Characters turn into clouds or machinery according to their thoughts, and our hero finds himself flying away helplessly to other scenes. All of this accentuates the dreamlike feeling of the story.

The young man’s dream is a meandering stream-of-consciousness through dozens of conversations, speculations, diatribes and dialogues on the meaning of life, and the nature of reality as expounded by a vast array of characters expressing nearly every philosophy conceivable. Even though I sometimes wish the world was a bit more like Waking Life, and that breakrooms were filled with conversations of this sort, hearing every person (no matter how ignorant) proclaim him/herself an expert on the nature of the universe sometimes became tiresome.

And yet, the film is compelling. There simply has never been a movie made like this before, one which asks, relentlessly, with the earnestness of a true seeker, what is it all about? What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of reality?

Awakening from the dream-world

Wiley in the station

Over the course of the movie, the young man gradually realizes he’s in a dream. Although he seems to wake up and go to sleep, he realizes that he is only dreaming that he does so. and tries to wake up. Unfortunately, he can’t, and he continues to wander from one philosophical conversation to another, occasionally meeting someone who’s interested in something more than spouting off their views.

For millennia, mystics around the world have said that life is a dream, and that our spiritual goal is to awaken. (See sidebar.)

The reward of virtue is to see Your face,
and on waking, to gaze my fill on Your likeness.—Psalm 17:5

Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
—St. Paul, Eph. 5:14, NIV

When asked if he was a man, an angel, or a god, the Buddha answered no to all of these, and then said, “I am awake.”—Anguttara Nikaya 4:36

From the unreal, lead me to the Real,
from darkness, lead me to light,
from death, lead me to immortality.
—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The saying that “life is a dream” doesn’t mean the physical universe is an illusion, but that spiritual reality, Ultimate Reality, is much more substantial, although it seems less so here in “Dreamland.” The dream is that we are completely separate beings, mortal and detached from God, and in our inability to realize we are dreaming, we are unable to see that God is in all things, and all things are in God. Our true nature is spirit and our true source is God, and until we find him we are lost in an unconscious, unreal state. God—Ultimate Reality—is far deeper, truer, and more “real” than our experiential reality—just as waking life is from dreams. So in our sleepwalking, we take the world we see to be the way things are, and, even though we “believe” in God as the Ultimate Reality, the dream of this world keeps us from union with Him.

The young man in Waking Life who has learned that he is dreaming has become somewhat unnerved by the realization that the world he knows is not real; waking up is now his quest. This is a very accurate depiction of the frustration most mystics encounter at the beginning of spiritual awakening. It is unsettling and frustrating to find that one no longer “believes” in the world, and that everyone seems to be sleepwalking. Jesus is recorded as saying:

The one who seeks should not cease seeking until he finds. And when he finds, he will be dismayed. And when he is dismayed, he will be astonished. And he will be king over the All.

—Gospel of Thomas, 2

The young man does follow this path—he keeps seeking until he finds. Now and then he catches a conversation where someone actually has some insight into what’s going on, and a few people who can actually see him and talk to him directly. In the same way, in our lives, generally very few people can recognize and speak to our beings, seeing us for who we truly are. His final encounter sets him free. At an arcade, another young man suggests to him that every moment is presented by God as an invitation to join him, to become part of infinity and eternity,and we say “Whoa, not yet!”

The young man’s spirit is taken up to heaven, symbolizing the soul’s union with God, although most will probably understand this as death. Yet divine union is a kind of death, it is the death of “the self”. St. Paul said, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) It is the death that brings us into eternal life, the Kingdom of heaven, here and now.

Waking Life is both a beautiful objet d’art and a brilliant mystical essay. For anyone interested in the big questions at all, it’s a must-see.

Movie stills © 2001 Twentieth-Century Fox.

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