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Waking Up

Posted by on in Paths Blogs


A darkened chapel. A leather-clad villain holds his victim by the throat, ready to slit her open. Another man creeps closer, gaze steady, voice intent, trying to talk him out of it. Finally the rescuer urges: 


“You can choose to hide in your nightmares. Or you can choose to wake up.”


The screen flickers as I pause the recording. I know I will rewind and re-watch. For the rescuer’s words came as if addressed to me.


Not that I’m intent on murder. But I am familiar with nightmare.


There is the anxiety dream at four a.m., catching me in a semi-sleep that is alive with irrational fear. “I should have…Why did she?…What if…?” Dream images mixing with tense mantras, on and on it goes, usually culminating with some variation on “Why haven’t I done more with my life?” My drowsy, captive mind seems capable only of this automatic churn of worry and self-abuse. My body wants to sleep, so I try to resolve the worries from within. But the more I try, the faster they spin. Getting up feels like defeat. Staying in bed keeps me in the churn.


Far more serious are my walking nightmares, daytime masterpieces of self-inflicted suffering. Driven by an unfocussed sense of threat, I’ve found myself obsessed with fixing past mistakes or righting perceived wrongs. At times, I’ve allowed unspoken resentments to build up so much that I see friends as enemies whom I must resist. For a while I even took this warfare into print, spending a fair amount of energy disputing various theories with a barely concealed anger that far outstripped the cause. 


When I’m in the grip of such states, everything feels like a compulsion I can’t release, something the fates demand of me. I suffer, and know I suffer, but somehow can’t escape the idea that the answer is just more of the same—more correction, more attempts to “win” over others, to remake the past and control the future. I refuse to let go of the very thing that tortures me because at some level I believe it holds the solution. Just as at four in the morning, I refuse to wake up.


“You can choose to hide in your nightmares.”


I think that’s the part I was meant to hear—that when I’m swept up in delusion I am not trapped but actually choosing the churn. Unlike unfiltered reality, the nightmare makes a cozy kind of sense. It’s a closet drama where I can be judge and jury, hero and villain. If I wake, all the intensity and significance of the nightmare fades—the things I devoted such energies to become irrelevant. From within the nightmare that seems terrifying. 


If I wake, then I must acknowledge the suffering my dramas have caused. If I wake, I must face the unknown and unfamiliar, complexity, risk. If I wake, I have to accept that there is more to the story than I could ever imagine and also less. That there are no guarantees. That I can choose, and so bear responsibility for my choices.


“You can choose to wake up.”


But do I really want to? So deep are the habits of self-protection and self-critique it can seem like there’s no other way. Just as when, bound in sleep, we can’t conceive of waking life. Half-asleep at four am, I can still be seduced by my darker dreams, still feel I can earn some peace by playing their game and winning it. 


But here’s the thing: the game is rigged. The only way out is to give up — and wake up. 


Luckily we all retain that capacity. Our wakefulness lies waiting, ready to respond to whatever cockcrow finally gets our attention. I’ve been rescued and woken many times: by good teachers, kind friends, and yes, fictional characters. They’ve come often enough to remind me of what I already know: that the only solution is to abandon the siren song of obsession in favour of a wider world that remains open and undefined. Perhaps difficult insights and unforeseen events await, but also… freedom.


It’s four in the morning and the demons are dancing? It’s high noon and the bad guys are coming?


Might as well wake up.





(The scene referenced is from episode 6, season 3 of Da Vinci’s Demons)



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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.
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