Subjective Reality vs. Solipsism

September 16th, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

I want to make a distinction between subjective reality and solipsism, since many readers still confuse the two.  I think the best way to explain the difference is by way of a simple analogy:  lucid dreaming.

Imagine you’re having a lucid dream.  This means you’re lying in bed having a dream, and while still within the dream world, you become conscious and aware that you’re dreaming.  In the dream you might be playing some role other than your real-life persona, but you know the real you is lying in bed asleep, and that your dream persona is just a character you can control.

Even while you’re lucid, you probably can’t control everything, nor would you necessarily want to, but the knowledge that you’re dreaming gives you a fascinating new perspective on your in-dream experience.  You can interact with the dream reality on a whole new level.  I’d say the main difference is that you become virtually fearless, since you know that nothing in the dream world can hurt the real you — the dreamer who’s having the dream.  It will still feel scary to fall off a building, and a hard landing may still trigger the sensation of real pain, but you’ll be a lot more willing to try interesting things just for the experience.

Subjective reality = lucid dreaming while awake

Subjective reality is basically lucid dreaming while awake.  It’s not really a belief — it would be more accurate to say that it’s a perspective.

Subjective reality is the perspective that recognizes that you are in fact the dreamer and that everything you perceive in the dream world, including your dream body and the other dream characters and objects, is taking place within your larger consciousness.  When you’re fully lucid, you know that the dream character you control isn’t the real you — the real you is asleep on a bed somewhere, having the dream.  Your dream body is merely your first-person interface to the dream world, a construct of consciousness.  If your dream body gets hurt, you may still feel the pain.  If it experiences pleasure, you may feel the pleasure.  If something in the dream startles you, you may feel that emotional reaction.  But when that dream body dies, the real you lying in bed remains alive, and you simply wake up.

The non-dream version of subjective reality, the one I’ve described in my previous writing on the topic, is basically the same concept of having a lucid dream, except that you apply it to waking physical reality instead of your nighttime dreams.  In effect you become lucid while physically awake, recognizing that there’s another layer of dreaming and that this physical reality is also fully contained within a larger consciousness, and that outer consciousness is in fact the real you.  Your physical body-mind is merely your first-person interface to the dream world.

Once you reach this level of lucidity, everything changes.  You’re still experiencing reality — it doesn’t simply stop – but because you recognize it as a dream, you’re able to interact with it on a whole new level.  You will still experience pleasure, pain, and fear as you react automatically to in-dream events, but because you know you’re really the outside dreamer who cannot be truly harmed by anything within the dream, you begin to relate to life from a state of inherent fearlessness.

When people experience their first lucid nighttime dream, it’s normally a very exciting experience.  I can describe the feeling as one of exhilaration… like, “Wow!  I’m dreaming.  This is absolutely amazing.”  Once you get a grasp on that perspective, it’s such a wonderful feeling you never want to let it go.

When you have a seemingly negative experience while lucid dreaming, like you get beat up by another dream character, on one level you may still experience some fear or other negative emotions.  But on another level, your knowing that it’s all a dream adds an element of enthusiasm and fun to everything.  It’s like playing a video game.  In a very immersive game, when something bad happens to your character, it can be frustrating, but it’s still fun.  This is the perspective I described in The Joy of Sadness.  Subjective reality is a perspective that allows you to tap into the joy behind every negative emotion.

Solipsism = degenerate, partial lucidity

Solipsism, like subjective reality, also recognizes the dream nature of reality.  However, solipsism assumes that your dream character (aka your in-dream ego) is in fact the real you and is somehow creating the other characters as a projection of its own ego.  Solipsism doesn’t recognize the existence of the outer dreamer in which the whole experience is taking place.  It assumes everything is emanating from the dream ego and that there is no outer dreamer.

This perspective regards your dream character as real and conscious, but the other dream characters are just projections and are not conscious by themselves.  Subjective reality, on the other hand, sees ALL the dream characters (including yours) as equal projections of the outer dreamer, and no character is more or less valid or conscious than any other character; they’re all just projections of a larger consciousness.

Imagine you’re playing a video game where you control a particular character who can move around within the game world.  That character is your avatar.  Solipsism is the perspective that says your avatar is the only thing in the game that’s real, and the whole simulation is somehow a product of your avatar’s mind or ego.

Maybe you can find some value in the perspective of solipsism, but I don’t find it particularly useful.  To me it seems objectively unprovable and subjectively disempowering.  Even so, I tried holding it for a while, but it just didn’t feel right to me.

Subjective reality filtered through an objective lens is not subjective reality

When people tell me they’re concerned that seeing the world through the lens of subjective reality will make them feel lonely or depressed, I know they’re really talking about solipsism.  Solipsism is basically what you get when you try to interpret subjective reality through an objective lens.  If you filter reality through the objective lens and then pass the result of that filtering through the subjective lens, you end up with essentially nothing.  It’s like taking the output of your eyes and then running it through your ears.  What happens when you try to listen to blue?  You get nothingness, the null set.

If you wish to grasp the perspective of subjective reality, you have to put down the objective lens first.  You can run both filters in parallel, but if you try to run them sequentially, you’ll never get it.  I know this isn’t easy to do, and I completely sympathize with those who find this a frustrating endeavor.  Imagine if you were born deaf and then suddenly gained your hearing after decades of filtering reality through your visual sense.  It might take a lot of practice before you could successfully rely on your hearing in parallel with your vision.

What helped me most through this process was that I was an experienced lucid dreamer for years before I began to explore the perspective of subjective reality.  I already had the experience of distinguishing between non-lucid (objective perspective) dreams vs. lucid (subjective perspective) dreams.  I think that gave me a major head start in being able to apply these same perspectives to physical reality.  If you’ve never experienced lucid dreaming or astral projection, I imagine it would be much harder to understand subjective reality.  When the objective perspective is all you’ve ever known, it’s hard to even conceive of other, independent perceptual filters.  It’s like trying to explain hearing to a deaf person.  How can you explain sound in terms of sight, smell, etc?  But that’s essentially what I’m trying to do when I write about subjective reality through an objective medium.  The people that are able to grasp it easily are usually those who’ve already had some experience with it.  For everyone else the best I can do is provide a pointer to the experience, but my words can never adequately describe the real experience.

The only conscious being in the universe?

I sometimes stumble upon people writing on their blogs, “Steve believes in subjective reality.  He thinks he’s the only conscious being in the universe.”  That’s false on two levels.  First, it assumes that I equate my identity with subjective reality, meaning that I don’t also perceive reality through the objective lens.  In fact I rely on both lenses just as I rely on both my eyesight and hearing.  The subjective perspective runs in parallel to the objective one.  It’s like playing a video game — you know you’re playing a game, but you simultaneously perceive the game world through the eyes of your in-game avatar, so the game is experienced both subjectively and objectively.  At any given time, you may temporarily focus on one perspective more than another, just as you may focus on your hearing more than your eyesight under certain conditions.  But at no time do you ever lose access to other perspectives or senses.

Secondly, such statements confuse subjective reality with solipsism.  While solipsism is a distinct perspective from subjective reality, personally I don’t find solipsism very practical, accurate, or empowering.  To say that I believe this Steve persona is the only conscious being in the universe is simply untrue.  I don’t perceive consciousness as being centered within my ego.

Hopefully you can see that solipsism is not remotely the same thing as the subjective reality perspective I’m describing.  Subjective reality is lucidity, but solipsism keeps you trapped in the dream world by making the assumption that your dream ego is somehow the real you.  Consequently, I consider solipsism to be a degenerate, partial lucidity.

I notice a lot of people these days try to utilize the Law of Attraction while harboring a perspective that’s pretty close to solipsism.  They hold a semi-objective view of the world, but they assume their creative power lies within their individual ego.  Their results are often dismal.  Then you get the hard-core objectivists attacking such people as loons.  Oh well.

Subjective reality and creativity

Some people fear that perceiving physical reality through the subjective lens will somehow mess up their lives or make them do stupid things.  I suspect such people have never had a lucid dream.  For me the adoption of the subjective lens was like gaining a new physical sense.  Imagine being deaf your whole life and then gradually learning to hear.  The process can be confusing at first, but it isn’t going to cost you your eyesight, and it certainly won’t switch off your common sense.  If you can make sense of the new perceptual input coming through, it’s a very empowering and amazing experience.

If you can pull it off, I think you’ll find the addition of the subjective viewpoint to be very empowering, much like gaining a new physical sense.  Eyesight, hearing, and other physical senses are perceptive filters, but they’re also creative ones.  Similarly, the subjective perspective can greatly enhance your creative ability.  Imagine cooking a meal without your sense of smell or writing a play without being able to hear.  Sure, you could do it, but the output will probably be bland and mono-dimensional.  The perspective of subjective reality adds a certain spiciness to life, both in terms of perception and creation.  By gaining a new input channel, you also gain new output channels.

When you’re having a dream and you become lucid, your ability to make the dream world “better” increases dramatically.  I find that when I’m lucid dreaming, I can do a lot more, but I still have limits.  The empowering perspective of lucidity gives me access to new abilities I wouldn’t otherwise possess, but I still have to practice in order to build skill.  The dream doesn’t automatically switch to full “God mode.”  I’ve been lucid dreaming since 1994, and there are still many things I can’t do very well.  Overall the lucid perspective is very empowering, but it’s still fun and interesting at times to pay attention to the objective perspective too.

Accuracy vs. popularity

The main issue with the subjective reality perspective is that it’s not very common or popular.  That doesn’t make it invalid, but it does mean that if you choose to pursue it, you’re likely to encounter people who think it’s invalid because they’ve never experienced it… or they’ve experienced something like solipsism and assume you’re on a similar degenerate path.  If you live in a world where most people are deaf, and you gradually begin to hear sounds, how will you explain your new perceptions to others?  Good luck!  They’ll probably think you’re daft.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t try — I’m obviously willing to make the attempt — but don’t be surprised when you witness some resistance from the other dream characters.  You’ll have to ask yourself which is more important to you:  accuracy or popularity.


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