How ‘Waking Life’ Helped Me Accept My Chaos

“And on really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion.”

 -Timothy “Speed” Levitch, Waking Life

Waking Life (2001), a relatively hidden cinematic gem, is a movie directed by Richard Linklater. The main character is a young man who passes through life in a dream state, feeling detached from his dreams and staying silent or even absent throughout most of the movie. What first strikes the viewer is the movie’s extraordinary technique of motion-capture, which translates footage of real actors into animated images. It has a disorienting effect on the viewer, who constantly wonders about the way the movie was produced: is it drawn or filmed? Simultaneously they are captivated by the vibrant colors and the liquified aspect of the objects and characters. The technology’s effect on the viewer mimics the main character’s constant questioning of whether he is experiencing a dream or reality. His attention is being constantly captured by different characters presenting various views on the meaning of life, politics, different sensations and sociological wonders. 

This is a movie that is really close to my heart, as I watched it for the first time when I was 16, and for the second and third time last month. While re-watching it, I realized that seeing Waking Life at a young age has planted insights and ideas into my mind, which I have returned to again and again throughout my development, and which I am going to share with you.

I. Subjectivity and the Absurd

Chapter 3, Life Lessons[1] features a monologue spoken by prof. Robert Solomon at the University of Texas at Austin. He talks about existentialism in a positive light, describing it as a philosophy that gives agency and freedom of creation to the individual. In his view, the individual isn’t maddened by the Absurd, but accepts it and revels in the freedom it offers.

On the postmodernists, he expresses his “awful nagging feeling that something essential is getting left out” in their writings. That “awful nagging feeling” is the same one I had a year ago, when being on top of Tate Modern and trying to take a mental picture of the horizon. Trying to absorb the whole image was futile, as my vision jumped from brutalist buildings to blinding imperial ones, quickly disorienting me as it descended onto the Thames, wondering how many kilograms of coke and liters of blood have accumulated in its consistency. The impossibility of essence comes from our desire to condense a chaotic London into a mental souvenir, or to cling onto idiotic proverbs or recyclable quotes when entering a complex debate. We try to squeeze the world into an essence, but we inevitably fail, realizing the result isn’t London anymore, it isn’t the world, it isn’t the meaning. Looking at your fragmented reality: imagine peaking through one of its cracks into the abyss. You suddenly realize you’re actually staring into one of the many eyes of a spider that crawled through, and it stares back for just one moment before stealing away, leaving you alone to stare into nothingness again. The meaning is whatever feeling you assign to the contact, not a universal signification of the spider or the crack it crawled through.

I believe this is what the movie is trying to achieve as well, as it does not point to any character being right or wrong; their different subjective perceptions just exist, and all of them seem equally absurd.

II. Human Connection is Made Possible by the Choice to Open Up and Trust

Again in Chapter 3 a blonde woman tells the character: “when we communicate with one another, and we feel that we’ve connected, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think that’s what we live for.” Later in the movie, in Chapter 11, The Holy Moment, we see two men talking about the power of film to embody a permanently holy moment, exploring Bazin’s theory of film as God incarnate. In real life however, holy moments are rare, and their ephemeral nature is precisely what makes them holy. The two characters decide to have a holy moment by looking deeply into each other’s eyes. What I find interesting is the way they talk about the holy moment: “If I were to look at you and just really let you be holy, I don’t know, I would, like, stop talking.” The decision that takes place (“Let’s have a holy moment”) gives the impression that the holy moment of human connection can be accessed willingly, it is not random, not divine. It is instead something that is achieved through the decision to be open and “not polite”, accepting to feel uncomfortable: 

“Yeah, but I’d be open. And then I’d look in your eyes, and I’d cry, and I’d, like, feel all this stuff and that’s like not polite. I mean it would make you feel uncomfortable.”

After a few moments of experiencing the holy moment, one of them mentions that “everything is layers […], there’s the holy moment and then there’s the awareness of trying to have the holy moment.” What happens next is that these two characters morph into cloud figures of themselves. They trade their three dimensional reality for the holiness of cinema. There is also the separation between the holy moment and trying to make it happen, which points at the fact that perhaps the decision and the fact that it did not occur naturally could potentially inhibit the holy moment. The idea of the holiness removing humanity, or the physicality of the characters, could signify the effect of estrangement of the holy moment.

III. Dissociation

The discussion on the holy moment and human connection brings us to what I think is a central theme of the movie – dissociation. Most viewers see this movie as a guide to oneironautics, and if you are interested in learning the sacred lessons of that art you should check out Casper Rudolph’s article on exploring lucid dreaming. I, however, will focus on the aspect of dissociation, which is defined as the action of disconnecting or separating or the state of being disconnected. It’s usually a trauma response and “a psychological experience in which people feel disconnected from their sensory experience, sense of self, or personal history. It is usually experienced as a feeling of intense alienation or unreality, in which the person suddenly loses their sense of where they are, who they are, of what they are doing.” Ever since the first time I watched the movie, I could associate with the main character’s experience, even though I had never had a lucid dreaming experience. I view the main character’s dream-drifting and eventually feeling like he is stuck and cannot get back to reality as the portrait of a deeply dissociated person. He mostly stays silent throughout the movie, sometimes being present in the scene and listening to other characters who hold monologues about different subjects, while other times he is not present, but his dreams are presented through his mind’s eye. The only time when he is fully present and attempting to connect to other characters is when he realizes that he cannot exit the dream state and starts feeling intense anxiety: 

“Yeah, but I’m still in it now. I, I can’t get out of it. It’s been going on forever, I keep waking up, but, but I’m just waking up into another dream. I’m starting to get creeped out, too. Like I’m talking to dead people. This woman on TV’s telling me about how death is this dreamtime that exists outside of life. I mean, (desperate sigh) I’m starting to think that I’m dead. […] I’m like trapped. I keep, I keep thinking that I’m waking up, but I’m still in a dream. It seems like it’s going on forever. I can’t get out of it, and I want to wake up for real. How do you really wake up?”

This scene was one of the few things which helped me understand my experiences with dissociation. Picture this: you’re 15 and you wake up one morning, your feet touch the floor and walk you to the bathroom and pick up your toothbrush. You start brushing your teeth as you catch a glimpse of your reflection. Mirror iris parallels reality iris, a straight axis can be drawn. In the moment that the two points are connected, the murmur in your head goes silent as your memory and sense of the world are erased for a second and you forget who you are. It feels like I’m an alien who was just thrown in this body, with no sense of self or its surroundings. This was my attempt to make sense of the terrible sensation of dissociation when I come out of it. But when I’m there, it’s pure terror, I am paralyzed by the fear of not being able to cling onto any piece of identity. In order to pull myself out of it, I try to identify objects in the room, remind myself of the people in my house, I visualize my parents, my best friend, anything to try to piece together a coherent image of who I am and what I am doing there. 

Thankfully these moments were not very frequent for me, and the more I made sense of what this sensation is and where it is coming from, I was able to ground myself into reality more easily. The way I was able to understand it is by using this movie as a metaphor to explain my experience. Another scene which I think of as a valuable lesson and which has helped me move to a more positive outlook on life is Chapter 15, We are the authors. The scene is set on a bridge, where poet Timothy “Speed” Levitch, with big curly hair and wide open eyes is speaking intensely and passionately about life and consciousness:

 “I would say that life understood is life lived. But the paradoxes bug me, and I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion. Before you drift off, don’t forget. Which is to say, remember. Because remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting. Lorca, in that same poem said that the iguana will bite those who do not dream. And as one realizes that one is a dream figure in another person’s dream, that is self awareness.”

Most of my experiences with self-awareness, or the realization that Levitch is talking about have been quite terrifying, but lately I have been working on learning to dance with my own confusion and try to understand it instead of running away from it.  When I first watched this movie I had the habit to write “stop overthinking” all over my walls in an attempt to get myself to live more in the immediate reality and less in my own mind. My problem was that I thought that there was a switch for thinking and I could just turn it off and the mess in my mind would disappear. However, what I learned in the years that followed is the true meaning of the words “life understood is life lived”. Exploring my inner world became the goal, becoming the journalist of my own mind.

[1] Many thanks to the creator of this website, who has taken the time to transcribe the entire movie and arrange it in the form of chapters with relevant titles:


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