“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
To be human is to dream. And by dream, I mean in two ways. We dream at night while we are sleeping and we dream during the day when we use our minds to imagine alternative realities.
We all do this. Sleep experts tell us that we have about five dreams a night, whether we remember them or not. And some of us can attain lucidity in our dreams. Lucid dreaming is when we are asleep and dreaming and yet consciously aware that we are asleep and dreaming. In this state of lucidity, the person continues to sleep and can, if they choose, alter their dream. In other words, they are not just observing the dream or experiencing it; they are proactively directing it as they continue to “act” in the dream state.
There have been scientific studies with subjects who were dreaming and able to communicate their lucidity by deliberately engaging in a pre-set pattern of eye movements that could be observed by researchers.
Our waking life has also been likened to a dream. For example, over twenty-three centuries ago, a Chinese philosopher named Chuang Tzu penned a famous poem about his dream as a butterfly.
Here is one translation: “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flying in the sky and then I awoke. Now I wonder, am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly or am I am butterfly dreaming I’m a man?”
How do we know this world is real and not a dream? Like the sleeper who is dreaming, most of us do not realize we are asleep and dreaming. While in the dream, it feels real. Who were we before this dream we call our life? Who will we be after this life is over and we no longer inhabit this body? Will we, after our death, remember this life as an elaborate dream?
Even for our friends who do not believe in a before life or an afterlife, we can ask a similar question. What existed before the Big Bang? Before the universe was created 13.5 billion years ago, what was the nothing that gave birth to the something?
And billions of years from now, when our Sun burns out and vaporizes the Earth in the process, what then? In the grand scale of eternity, will our 80 or 90 years here in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries be remembered like a fading dream or will it be completely forgotten? Does yesterday matter or last year or our childhood? The past and future only exist in our minds. Can anything that isn’t here and now be real?
Chuang Tzu also wrote, “How do I know that enjoying life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death we are not like people who got lost in early childhood and do not know the way home? Lady Li was the child of a border guard in Ai. When first captured by the state of Jin, she wept so much her clothes were soaked. But after she entered the palace, shared the king’s bed, and dined on the finest meats, she regretted her tears.”
As a psychologist, I have known for thirty years that none of us knows truth or reality. Instead, each of us only knows our own experience, our perception and our interpretation of it. I regularly work with couples who disagree about the most basic, fundamental realities of the previous day’s conflict they experienced together: what was said, who said it, what was meant, felt, intended and achieved. Multiply this by seven billion souls presently alive and then add all the people who once lived and are now gone and the numberless humans yet to be born.
What is real and what is a dream? We literally do not see the world as it is. We see it as a projection of who we think we and others are. Our minds are not mere cameras or mirrors capturing, reporting and reflecting reality. We actively create, distort, interpret and explain our sensory experience in the same way that a painter creates their unique view, vision or version of the phenomenon before them. We are each dreaming this life. I am in your dream and you are in mine but our dreams are not the same.
We all know we are right and others are wrong but how can this be? How can all of us be right and all of us be wrong? Is it possible we are dreaming and do not know it? Emo Phillips once said, “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
Chuang Tzu wrote, “How do I know that the dead do not regret their previous longing for life? One who dreams of drinking wine may in the morning weep; one who dreams weeping may in the morning go out to hunt. During our dreams we do not know we are dreaming. We may even dream of interpreting a dream. Only on waking do we know it was a dream.”
What will we think of this life when we are no longer in it? Dr. Steve Hayes, one of the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, likens our thoughts and what we “know” in our thinking minds to the water fish swim in.
He writes, “Fish swim in water naturally. They don’t ‘know’ they are under water, they just swim.” We can’t “know” anything in isolation. We only know by comparison. We understand light because we experience darkness. Joy explains sorrow and sorrow, joy. A fish could only “know” water by being removed from it which means death.
Hayes tells us that thinking for humans is like water for fish. We are continuously surrounded by our ocean of thoughts. “Thoughts are our water,” Hayes writes. “We are so immersed in them that we are hardly aware that they are there. Swimming in our thoughts is our natural state.” They tell us what is true and what is false and we believe them. We know we are right because our minds tell us so, even if other minds tell their owners a different story. Who among us questions our own thoughts?
A fish can’t live without water. We cannot function without thinking. But what if a fish was wise enough to understand water and the world of dry land and endless sky? What happens when humans go beyond their thoughts about reality and wake up from their temporary, ego-centric dream? What happens when we – you and me and everyone we know – wake up and become lucid in this world, this life, this time? What then?
Chang Chou wrote, “Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream. And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen. How dense! You and Confucius are both dreaming, and I who say you are a dream am also a dream. Such is my tale. It will probably be called preposterous, but after ten thousand generations there may be a great sage who will be able to explain it, a trivial interval equivalent to the passage from morning to night.”
On March 18, 1958, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, like many others, woke up from his dream. If you travel to the spot, you will find a sign commemorating his awakening. He later wrote, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
In Seeking Jordan, Matthew McKay asks us to believe that his dead son communicates with him. Many will refuse to believe this. Their thinking minds cannot imagine it or comprehend it so for them, it cannot be true. But what if it was true? Or better, what if we acted as if it was true, regardless of whether it was or wasn’t? Here is my dream of what we would see then:
- We have a purpose here; we are meant to be here; we are here to learn, to deeply love and to wake up to our essential nature.
- We are here to see our self in the other and the other in our self; we are here to see that we are one. We are here to see what is real and what isn’t. We are here to choose love over fear.
- We are here to identify with the spirit, not the physical; what is eternal, not transient; what transcends time and space, not what is fleeting and only temporarily real.
- We are here to accept reality as it is and give up our resistance to it. We are here to open up to and accept the lessons of this life, however confusing, painful and cruel.
- We are here to learn that we are important; we are worthy; we are vital. We are not a mistake. We possess just as much of the divine and sacred as anyone or anything.
- We are here to be present, to be still and to appreciate the love and beauty that continually surrounds us and bubbles up inside of us when we pause and let it rise.
- We are here to understand what we need most and then give that to others as generously as we can: love, understanding, compassion, empathy, patience, forgiveness and acceptance.
- We are here to understand, not blame; forgive, not resent; allow, not regret; affirm, not criticize.
- We are here to see in every human the light we all possess and to embrace our inadequacies and failures as necessary flaws; proof we are students with more to learn in this school we call life.
- We are here to fully embrace the truth that this moment and every moment offers us the opportunity to become lucid, to wake up and to see the truth of who we are.
That’s my dream. What’s yours?