Tag Archives: metaphor

Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan

The first time I saw Inception, I could not figure out the details. I just came out with the impression that it was a superb movie with some plot involving dreams within dreams and stealing and planting of ideas in other people’s subconscious. The image of the falling van frozen midway between the bridge and the river got forever etched in my mind whenever I remembered the movie.

Only on watching the movie the second time after several years could I follow the whole plot. In the movie, Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) gets into the mind of Robert Fischer, heir to a large business empire, to plant an idea (that he must dismantle the business empire) into his subconscious through various layers of a shared dream. The film is stunning with its visual effects and the dream landscapes that really whisk your mind away to another world altogether.

And just like the film The Matrix, there are to be found several tantalizing parallels between real life and the ideas used in the movie.

The pivotal idea of the movie is captured in this quote by Cobb

Our dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake we realize things were strange.

When we dream, it does seem real, isn’t it, as if we are in that world with all its adventures and excitement. While the dream is happening, we are simply sleeping in the real world. Our posture while sleeping or the movement of food in our intestines might create feelings which get visualized as certain emotions or experiences in the dream world. And if in the dream we reach a spot where we are in ‘real’ danger, then than jolts us to wake up. This is same idea that is depicted in the movie – that when you die in the dream world, you wake up in the real world – or one layer up in the subconscious.

In the movie when Cobb’s wife Mal gets too attached to the dream world, Cobb plants this idea in her subconscious. But after waking up into the real world, she still carries that idea around with her and insists on dying, believing that she will wake up into another higher layer of reality. And Cobb could not prevent her from committing suicide.

Due to the inability of our language to express ideas, we have to use the same words to represent vastly different orders of abstraction. “To wake up” is also one such phrase which can have multiple layers of meaning depending on what you are talking about. And one such metaphor that is used in the spiritual teachings, is that – to awaken one must die!

In this case, to die is not referring to the physical death but dying to the attachments of the physical world. And when you die to that, you awaken into the real world. So is there truly such a real world? Is the world we are living in merely a dream?

Gurdjieff’s whole teaching started with the statement that man is asleep and he has the potential to wake up. All his exercises and instructions were meant to help his students awaken to the real. He also wrote a book – Views from the Real World.

Buddha described himself as the Awakened One.

So is there a state of mind, a state of consciousness that these people are pointing to and is that state to be understood in the same way as we understand the state of waking up from a dream?

As a seeker of truth, one must pay attention to these ideas and instead of taking the step that Mal took in the movie, one must use the totem that Cobb used to check whether one is in a dream or in the real world.

What’s the equivalent of the totem in our world? What is it that can tell us without any doubt that we are in a dream and not in reality? I would propose it is self-observation. If one observes one’s mind without judgement, we will at some point realize that whatever we understand of this world is not so at all. And when that understanding takes place, we (so to say) ‘awaken’.

All the great spiritual teachers have always used some or other ways of inception – to plant the idea of awakening into our subconscious. Gurdjieff called this the Influence C which appears to us in the dream as Influence B and points us towards waking up as opposed to the forces of the dream which are Influence A, which keep us in the dream.

So are you awake or dreaming that you are awake? Am I the person who is saying this to you in your dream like Morpheus talking to Neo in The Matrix?

The Three Monkeys

The 3 monkeys are popularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. However, their origins are probably hidden in ancient times.


Each of the three monkeys have a different posture. The first one is covering his eyes signifying – See No Evil. The second one is covering his ears signifying – Hear No Evil. And the third one is covering his mouth signifying – Speak No Evil. In some cases, there is a fourth monkey also who is shown crossing his arms signifying – Do No Evil.

Whether 3 monkeys or 4 monkeys, I am not concerned with that. What I wish to point out is that the 3 monkeys are not serving their purpose. If their purpose is to remind people to speak no evil, hear no evil and see no evil, then I really doubt whether anyone is reminded of that in daily life. The 3 monkeys then just become a good show piece at home.

Think of it – If the advice was meant for human beings, then why show monkeys giving the advice to humans? Will humans ever listen to monkeys? Obviously not. So is there a deeper message in the sense that humans only look like humans but deep down they are only monkeys?

There is a good possibility that the monkeys refer to the ‘monkey mind’ of the humans as a metaphor for the restless nature of the mind that keeps jumping from one thing to another. And for such a mind, it is important not to get involved in anything evil. So fundamentally, the intention of the 3 monkeys is to warn humans about evil and to keep them away from it.

However, there are some problems in this if someone tries to take the monkeys seriously. People anyways do not take them seriously but that is not because they have tried to in the first place. Most people are not bothered. They simply assume the advice is for monkeys and not for them.

Say, for example, you decide not to see any evil. So, when you come across any evil, you will close your eyes. Maybe you see one person hurting another and you realize that is evil, so you will close your eyes and not look at it. Maybe you see someone cheating or someone killing or someone behaving badly, then you will close your eyes because you are advised not to see evil.

The same applies to hearing no evil. Suppose you decide not to hear any evil. So when you find one person shouting at another or passing lewd comments about some woman, then that is evil. So you will cover your ears and not hear it.

In both the above cases, you actually turn away from what is happening. Is that an outcome we wish to have? Do we really want people to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to all the evil in the world? If one does it, will it safeguard the person from evil?

Please note that before deciding to close one’s eyes or cover one’s ears, one must identify that the thing one is seeing or hearing is evil. This means that the definition of evil and the database of all evil things must be in the mind in the first place for someone to decide what one is seeing or hearing is evil, in order to take the action of closing one’s eyes or ears.

This is more clear in the case of speaking no evil. It presumes that if one gets the impulse to swear at someone, or speak a lie or bitch about someone, which I think can all be classified as being evil, then one is supposed not to speak it because the monkey tells – speak no evil. So one is asked to control one’s tongue. But all the while, the evil thoughts are going on in the mind uncontrolled.

So if evil and what is evil is already in the mind, then just not seeing, not speaking or not hearing does not serve any purpose. If we understand the 3 monkeys at this superficial level, then it does not make any sense.

In fact, Osho gave an interesting twist to the 3 monkeys. He said that the first monkey stands for – Don’t listen to the truth because it will disturb all your consoling lies. The second monkey stands for – Don’t look at the truth; otherwise your God will be dead and your heaven and hell will disappear. The third monkey stands for – Don’t speak the truth, otherwise you will be condemned, crucified, poisoned, tortured by the whole crowd, the unconscious people. You will be condemned, don’t speak the truth! The fourth monkey stands for – Keep your pleasures, your joys, hidden. Don’t let anybody know that you are a cheerful man, a blissful man, an ecstatic man, because that will destroy your very life. It is dangerous.

While Osho gave his own interpretation to the 3 monkeys, it does not solve the original puzzle of the meaning of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

I would like to propose that we understand the monkeys from the perspective of intention. When you see or hear anything, accept it the way it is. Do not find fault with it. Do not observe its negative aspects. Do not pay attention to its positive aspects. Do not differentiate between good and evil at all. Accept everything as it is. And when you speak, you speak about things as they are, not with any intention of doing good or evil, not with any intention of harming someone or benefiting oneself.

When one is able to do this, I believe the 3 monkeys’ true purpose is being served. I would rather be a monkey who lives up to this standard than a human being who thinks himself to be superior to monkeys.


The Blindness Metaphor


Enlightenment is a sometimes equated to a blind man being able to see. Let us understand what this means.

We see many things with our eyes. We can see the tree across the road, we can see the bird flying in the sky and we can see people around us. What is it that we cannot see? Does enlightenment seeing something more than what normal people are able to see?

There are two perspectives from which we can understand blindness. First is inability to see the big picture. We usually consider everything we see as separate from us. We do not perceive the unity of everything. We – plants, trees, animals, humans – are all immersed in the earth’s atmosphere. We all breathe the same air and it is one whole single system. If all the trees disappeared one day, we will not have oxygen to breathe. If one species disappears, it leads to the disappearance of other connected species. Because we do not see this interconnectedness, we are blind to that extent. We do not understand the consequences of our actions and continue to take actions which harm us, even if that is not our intention.

The second perspective is inability to see the small picture. We think all the things around us are static. They do change but only gradually over a long time. But that is not the case in reality. Everything is changing very very rapidly all the time. We simply cannot perceive it. The growth of a flower, the decay of our brain, the movement of clouds, everything is happening, changing at every moment. We think we meet the same person everyday but that is not the case. So when the person behaves differently, we get a shock. We are not prepared for the change because we do not see that change happening in front of us.

Both these limitations of our perspectives makes us blind even if we are able to see everything. When our mind accepts that things are changing all the time and everything is connected to everything else, it is alert in every situation. It begins to see what it could not see earlier.

The Waking Up Metaphor


The experience of enlightenment is many times compared to waking up from sleep. There are some similarities but it is not wholly so. But the metaphor is very good for understanding.

When we are sleeping, we see dreams and in the dreams what we see is experienced as quite real. Sometimes, we are running from some danger, sometimes we see snakes, sometimes we are riding a horse, sometimes we see our friends, sometimes have sex, sometimes eat food and it is experienced as real. We can wake up perspiring from a dream. We can even have conversations with people in our dreams. It all seems so real at the moment and we are immersed in it.

But the moment we wake up, the dream is gone. We cannot deny our experience. The dream was definitely real. It really happened whether it was because of the jiggling of our brain cells or some nerves doing a dance, whatever it was, it did happen. Yet, from the perspective of our waking life, it did not happen. You fell down from a cliff in your dream but you woke up in your bed. So you did not fall down and hurt yourself.

This is a similar to what happens in enlightenment but not entirely. When enlightenment strikes you, you feel like you have woken up from a dream. Whatever is your story in life – where you were born, where you studied, whom you married, and what jobs you did all seem like a dream. They did happen for sure. You can still see your wife or the window and the cars on the road. Yet there is a definite sense in which they are not wife, window, road and cars. They are definitely not that.

The whole story of your life suddenly seems like a dream. Were you really born, did you study, did you get married, did you just come back from office? You can see the evidence surely but question the story, the interpretation.

From the perspective of enlightenment, you can see colors, hear sounds, feel objects but you are not bothered whether people call it a green color or say it is the sound of a plane or say the cushion is soft. It is as it is. It could not be otherwise.

Therefore enlightenment is called waking up. To this extent it is fine. But the difference is in the fact that you are still talking to people, walking around your home, driving your car, drinking coffee and watching TV. People speak to you and you speak to them. So the dream is still on, you are in it yet you realize it is as it is. You don’t get caught in the dream and take it seriously. You see other people sleep walking, sleep talking, living in their dreams and therefore a natural compassion develops towards them.

How to wake up? Watch yourself and see how you are going about in your life – the way you talk, the way you do things, the way your work, your habits, your internal justifications, your thoughts, your reactions to people and things, your likes and dislikes. These are all in your dream. If you are able to see yourself dream-living like this, you will surely wake up.