Zen Buddhists often talk about something which may sound counter-intuitive, but is actually most profound: “The mind is a prison”. According to this concept, all of us can become consumed by our thoughts, preoccupied by them to the point where we become hijacked, ceasing to pay attention to real events and stimuli from the outside physical environment. The real world becomes another version of the fake reality that exists in our head, as opposed to the one and only reality: where real people live and die, and real events occur. Events which, had we been awake, we could have had a personal influence on.
By living in our “mind prison” we become bystanders in our own world. We become observers, treating the real world in the same way that we treat our inner “constructed” world: it becomes a series of thoughts and images that come and go. Whereas we used to be able to tell the video game apart from the real world, everything is now a video game. The mind prison is nothing but an endless library of video games and potential scenarios. Every time we are preoccupied with our professional image, our personal identity, the past or the future, the result is the same: we are entering a world that only exists in our head. Although imagination is a useful skill, excessive rumination can lead to stress and other psychoses. But most importantly, it leads to an inability to stay in the present, to see it for what it is, and assign to it the importance that it deserves. The mind prison is indeed a prison, because it locks us out of the present. We end up living in the past or the future, which disables us from being able to act in the present. It is much like in a dream, where you try to run, only to find that there is no ground beneath you to run on.
Living in the mind prison is increasingly the dominant way in which humans use their brain, and the main way in which they exist. The consequences of spending so much time in the virtual space of this never-ending dream are disastrous. By being unable to stay in the present, we cannot see the world in its true colors. The more we neglect the real world outside of the mind prison, the more it deteriorates. If and when we ever wake up, this world may have already become a nightmare. And it won’t be virtual this time.
The paradox of the mind prison is that it exemplifies how our own brain can make us dumb. And ironically, the advanced brainpower of humans means that they are much more susceptible to the “mind prison”. Our brains have the ability to resist the real world and construct their own reality. We are much more capable than other species to override cues from our hormones and instincts that are visceral responses to the real world, and which can be important warning signs. They are the source of much of our emotional intelligence and spiritual compass, our “heart” so to speak. Ignoring them completely is yet another way of shutting down our ability to respond to the outside world. We have imprisoned ourselves.
The Cyborg race in Star Trek is a prophetic vision of what is happening to humanity today: despite being more “connected” than ever with each other, sometimes we literally cannot see in front of us. All “manual controls” have been completely disabled. We live in our brains and apps, in one shared brain that makes decisions for us by narrowing our options down to a rudimentary list. Our vision has atrophied, because we do not need it anymore. We have forgotten how to use it, as images of the new, virtual world are served ready to us from the mass media. Whoever manages to control this central brain we all receive our cues from, succeeds in controlling us. When it comes to the climate crisis, the mass media has managed to create a special place within our mind prison, where we can feel “safe” and reassured: where the climate crisis is real on one hand but is manageable and could be magically turned around any minute now, on the other. The walls of our otherwise dark, cold and damp mind prison are covered with holograms of windows looking out into open countryside, in order to give us the false impression that we are free – and that in fact, we can escape from the prison any time we want to.
Over the past century the various channels of propaganda, marketing and advertising which build and curate our mind prison, have perfected their science of representing, maintaining and reinforcing the most backwards, oppressive and exploitative forces in our society. The world that they have created inside of our brains is a monetisable commodity that they control, exploit and manipulate. The holographic walls of the prison can change at any point to accommodate new hallucinations and messages that the system needs to disseminate.
Key to this is the very way in which we interact with news. We can only really see what is put in front of us within the holographic images of the mind prison itself. In functional terms, news has merged with entertainment, meaning that our role as a media consumer is confined to bringing out the popcorn and observing passively, as opposed to critiquing, debating, forming an opinion and even taking action and responsibility in response to the news. The result, when it comes to climate change and the ecological collapse, is that what used to be real has become a Hollywood movie that our “prison brain” falsely thinks it can turn off, or simply change the channel to Planet B. The ongoing destruction of the planet is nothing but a reality show that we are watching from a safe distance live on our screens, sitting in our couches, without any conscious sense of the significance of what we are watching, of the fact that structures of the planet that have been around for millions of years like glaciers, ancient Eucalyptus forests in Australia, the entire insect kingdom, are being wiped out forever. All this is happening in a real world, which however is far away from the four walls of the mind prison. And despite the fact that we are conscious of what we are seeing on the news, in behavioral terms it would appear that our brain simply does not register this information as “real” anymore, because it has begun to uncouple itself from physical reality.
It is likely that we became blind a long, long time ago. This was engineered to benefit capitalism and consumption, the machines that weaponise and monetise our mind prison. Some of us know very well that we are trapped in our zombie dream: our role as a citizen was long ago reduced to simply observing, with the sole purpose of being exposed to product advertisements in between the news headlines. Our role is not to be an active member of society anymore, because this would not suit the politicians, and it would be an unwelcome distraction from bringing out the credit card to buy stuff advertised while we “read” the news. Being an active citizen is perceived as a threat by the toxic economic and political system that has brought this planet to its knees. Our preferred, assigned role is to be passive consumers of products, and of the narratives served to us alongside those products. Revolutions tend to happen only when people genuinely feel that the system they live in is unbearable. Most people today are so manipulated or busy consuming, that they have resigned themselves to simply accepting this system as their only possible reality. Like a colony of ants that can’t look up, we have become too narcissistic and enslaved to our day-to-day preoccupations to even question where this civilization is heading. And this is exactly what the CO2 machine of capitalism wants: to keep us distracted while it finishes the job of destroying the planet, before destroying itself.
We live in a digital farm, our every action monetized for profit in order to feed the capitalist, CO2-emitting machine which creates the climate crisis in the first place. If it is too hot outside, the sensors inside the farm pick up our mood and send us fake images and messages, cranking up the air-conditioning to reassure us that the planet is fine. Human civilization itself has become a mind prison for farmed humans.
Decades of this media “zombification” across the population have made our strange passive relationship to news a permanent fixture, and a fundamental element of how the world economy operates. Our zombification means we are not actually processing the images that are coming in from around the world as actual, real events. They might as well be a movie or other form of entertainment. We are watching the world be destroyed, and our reaction is exactly the same as watching the movie Independence Day or similar. It is not real and it will all pass when the movie is over. Meanwhile, there is an important message: “We interrupt our coverage of the Global Collapse for a very short Chipotle commercial”
While climate activists continue to raise the issue of lack of coverage in the news, more coverage won’t necessarily help. It can lead to more hypernormalisation, more sleep, more conditioning and desensitisation, and more complacency as the farm’s sensors react: any coverage of our collapsing climate and ecosystems is positioned by the media as entertainment in between fast-food commercials. The more images our brain is saturated with, whether real or fake, the more we get sucked into the black hole of the “prison brain”, becoming part of the fake hyper-reality. The prison brain gets stronger, not weaker, the more imagery it absorbs.
Meanwhile our active brain functions are fast becoming “basic” to say the least. Re-establishing consciousness is the first step in leaving the mind prison. As with any muscle or organ of the body, the human brain needs regular exercise. Scrolling through social media, playing games on the smartphone and reading “opinions” in the news without stopping to form our own opinion does not count as brain exercise. Escaping the mind prison takes conscious effort, which begins with understanding the passive relationship we have with information, our decreasing ability to interact with real humans in live debates, and our separation from the physical and natural world where the real news takes place. This conscious effort is difficult when most of us are actually unconscious.
As this civilization walks through the desert towards its death, it may feel on multiple occasions that its judgement is failing, and that it should turn back. But the mirages projected out into the distance by the farm will be reassuring. As long as people are asleep and busy working the jobs which feed the very system responsible for our predicament, we are rapidly heading for an apocalyptic catastrophe which will end civilisation, life, and the farm itself. Not only will the collapse be televised. It will be curated into light humour by morning news shows, owned by war-hungry fascists, and exploited by business as usual to finish off whatever remains standing on this tortured planet. The global collapse of industrial civilisation will continue to be managed very effectively by half-truths, green hopium and invented villains. What is likely to remain completely out of control, and out of the news, is the climate and ecological apocalypse and any hints into the future our children may have hoped for.
George is an author, researcher, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons or enjoy his books
13 thoughts on “The Dream that Humanity is unable to wake up from”
As you solicit the reader to not just be a passive absorber but to engage in debate I will try my half-informed ideas. You are saying that the problem is that we can’t distinguish anymore the reality (the ongoing destruction of planet earth and hence of the human species itself) from the entertainment complex we are continuously fed. And of course you have a point there. But, how to fix this? Or better, is this fixable? Billions of humans throughout the history of the human species have believed what suit them rather than what our senses and reason suggest. They did it in the past with religions and myths, they do it now with Hollywood and media propaganda. I personally think this is not fixable. And I also think that the problem is easier and harder at the same time. Every passing day worldometer informs us 200.000 people on average (the number is more but let’s round it) are added to the planet. Of these 200.00 people what do you think is the percentage of newborn born from parents who can distinguish the reality of the devastation from the propaganda of just keep grow, buy, consume, live and everything will be alright? My guess is that most of these 200.000 newborn unlucky (to have being born at such a point in human history they ARE unlucky) are born just to feed the amoeba as you call it in another post. Humans are like batteria, they are born, they live, they die. The same happens to the species as a whole. As for now, while the supply chain still holds we can argue about mother earth teaching us something and then we have to listen and blabla. When, in a few months, the cascading effect of the broken supply chain will make the prices spike there will be horror, collapse and an high probability of outright extinction. Are you saying this is not the case?
Hi, thanks for reading. That’s a lot of questions! No, I do not disagree extinction is unlikely..and yes a lot of things are beyond repair
Narcissisism run amok, to say the least. I include myself, although since I was a teen I sensed something was deeply wrong with humans. I had just enough brain power to think materialism and the rat race to aquire stuff was a fools errand. But I did it anyway on a smaller scale than many and a larger scale than many by being born in USA. I am now 69 and am quite certain we are caught in the self reinforcing feedback loop of runaway self interest individually and collectively. Victims of our extreme cleverness at dominating our (human) survival over all other life. Very clever but there is an honor system to life to not take more than you need to make some progeny. We seem to want it all and have taken way more than our share. Overshoot is a bitch. Let us not turn this predicament into a bloodbath. Love Rick
If we seem to live in a super-recharged version of the Matrix, where we look like placid frogs swimming in a crock where they are slowly cooked, on the pretext that we can adapt. We have to learn a lot from the tureg, the blue men of the desert, who insinuate to us: “You have everything, but it is not enough for you, You chain yourselves to a bench for life, and there is a desire to possess, frenzy, haste… In There are no traffic jams in the desert, and do you know why? Because no one wants to overtake anyone there! Here in the West you have a clock, there among the Tureg we have the time”
Thinkers whose writings combine art and science offer the best insights. I see I have a lot of catch up reading to do here!
That’s my style:) thank you Nancy welcome to the blog
This is an excellent essay and I really appreciate it. I have great concern for the climate, politics, etc., and I also value the topics you cover here, which are seldom discussed. I’ve been inspired by J. Krishnamurti, someone who speaks really well about the mind and our relationship to it, and I’m sure you must be familiar with him. There’s some echoes here. Anyway, thanks so much. I read you regularly but I wanted to pipe up about how much this one in particular meant to me.
I don’t know this Krishnamurti. This essay was inspired by two sentences I exchanged with a person at work that sat in the parcel delivery desk. I will never forget their calm piercing look.