The idea that "life is but a dream" seems to be cropping up a lot in my life recently, and when this kind of synchronicity happens I usually try to pay attention, think carefully and keep my ears pealed. Often a growing obsession will draw me on with a certain fascination or magnetism, increasing in intensity until I reach a moment of triumph or break-through, when the struggle to comprehend resolves into an unexpected and unexpectedly easy clarity. But this time is different. Whenever someone mentions this idea that life is a dream, that we are the dreamers dreaming the world, that our goal or purpose is (or should be) to "dream the world awake"--I feel repelled, repulsed even. Far from wanting to pursue the idea, I am constantly backing away, insisting no, no it isn't; and yet, the theme keeps appearing suddenly, slipping around some corner like a stubborn ghost. So for now, I'd like to take a moment to articulate for myself--and for you, dear reader, if you care to tune in--where this sense of repulsion and objection comes from, why I feel so invested in the "realness" of this life and world. Perhaps by doing this, the reasons for this unwelcome haunting may become clearer.
Dreaming the Persistent Other
Don't get me wrong. I am not your typical secular Westerner who eagerly dismisses dreams as the randomly generated nonsense and noise of a tired brain in rehash-and-recovery mode. There is of course that problem, when comparing our existence to a dream in a culture that refuses to take dreams seriously, much like the metaphor of the amusement park ride that Bill Hicks uses in the video clip above. Such a comparison can, intentionally or merely by implication, express a certain nihilism. "It doesn't matter--it's just a ride," Bill Hicks assures us immediately after mentioning our tendency to kill off good people, those with the wisest souls and kindest intentions.
But it does matter! Doesn't it? In a dream we might experience a tragic and horrifying murder, one that has us shaking and sobbing and slobbering into our shirt sleeves, only to wake up the next morning to a real world washed with dew and full of life. It doesn't matter, it was just a dream, we breathe with relief, and smile. It wasn't real. But we can say this precisely because those dream-people, whether they die in dream or not, cease to be when the dream has ended. They have no unique or independent existence from the dream, and so in a very important sense they simply aren't real. But even the most level-headed, down-to-earth Miss Practical-Shoes might pause to phone up her brother if she dreams that he has died or fallen gravely ill; perhaps not because she believes her dream to be true or accurately reflective of reality, but maybe simply because she recognizes her brother as a unique being with an independent existence and her dream reminds her of her interest in and concern for his well-being. On the other hand, when dream-people reappear or persist from night to night, they can grow to have a semblance of independent existence. Ask any child suffering from night terrors, any grown adult struggling with recurring nightmares: the anxiety of repeated dreams can be very real, indeed, with powerful effects on life in the waking world.
The importance of the dream-world in our "real" lives increases tenfold when you believe, as I do, that dreams are a way for us to connect with aspects of ourselves and our world that we can't normally access in "ordinary consciousness" while awake. In dreams, intuitions and extrasensory perceptions take on concrete symbolic forms that we can interact with and even, potentially, influence. We may travel to places we've never been, only to arrive there the following day with a sense of familiarity. We may anticipate the needs of others, their vulnerabilities or fears, before we have consciously acknowledged them. We may even encounter nonmaterial creatures, beings of energy, emotion and thought, guides and gods, ancestors and children not yet born. In amongst the chatter and noise of our sleeping brain's reverberating chemistry, we might discover revelation and prophecy, if we are listening attentively, respectfully and with a hint of healthy incredulity. In short, it's rarely true that a dream is "just a dream," even when it is. Rather, dreams have the potential to connect us to a vast interwoven, multilayered reality that penetrates and transcends our ordinary experience as individuated material selves.
So what do people mean, exactly, when they say "life is just a dream"? Do they mean that somehow suffering and pain as we experience it in this life is illusory, unimportant, irrelevant? Even if such a view can free a person, to some extent, from his own suffering (especially if it is self-generated through fear or guilt), it is unlikely to help him cultivate compassion for the suffering of others. After all, their pain isn't real. When we wake up, we'll discover we are God, and then won't we all have a good laugh. Besides which, not only is the pain of others not real, but perhaps even the other itself is not real. Perhaps, like the people populating my dreams, I'm making you all up and one day I'll wake up to discover that I am God dreaming the World dreaming Me (and I've been talking to myself in my sleep). In which case, all the more reason to shrug off strife, pain and death when it happens to other people and focus primarily on my own happiness and self-fullfilment. I might as well make it as enjoyable a dream as possible, right? And thusly whither away concepts like self-restraint, sacrifice, altruism and even love beyond that of self-gratification.
Dreaming the Creative Act
Granted, most people who talk about the world-as-dream have, I think, a more sophisticated concept in mind. If I understand it correctly, the metaphor is meant to illuminate our role as "dreamers," that is, creators of our own realities. We have all experienced in dream the strange freedom from ordinary causality: a painting we see in our dream reminds us of our old childhood family farm, and suddenly we find ourselves again at the farm itself, just as we remember it. Or, we want to get to the theater faster, and suddenly we are not running but flying, gliding, leaping buildings. People morph into other people and back again. We play out a scene as we simultaneously watch ourselves playing it out from some external perspective. These are all common-place in the dream-world. The usual laws of gravity and time do not apply. And because of this freedom from physics and normal cause-and-effect, our wills are raw with power, the dream-world seems to respond readily to our stray thoughts and passing whims. Not only are we, as the dreamer asleep, creating the entire dream-world as we experience it, but even within the dream we sometimes have a sense of heightened control. Even nightmares--of being unable to run or scream, of being displaced out of context or willfully misunderstood by everyone around us--can evoke a sense of irrational lawlessness that, if only we could master it with a stronger will!, we feel sure would sway just as eagerly in our favor.
Because this is true of dreams, people who compare the "real world" and our existence in it to dreaming often strive to emphasize our ability to shape our reality, to influence it through intention and focused willpower to an extent far greater than we usually believe possible. As a philosopher-poet type myself, who has fostered a life-long love for art and creative work of all kinds, I came to my belief in the fundamentally imaginative-creative aspect of our existence many years ago. And yet, there are aspects of the world-as-dream metaphor that nag at me, striking me as sloppy or inaccurate. Besides the problems of suffering and the collective or Other that I mentioned above, if we take the world-as-dream analogy too seriously we soon run up against a major stumbling block: science.
I have written before about the relationship between science and magic, in response to the ponderings of other skeptics. The world-as-dream approach may seem to circumvent much of the conflict by suggesting that the physical "laws" of hard science, being just another aspect of our dreaming the world--are thus only as inflexible as we believe them to be. Suddenly, we are free to believe whole-heartedly and without complication in things like synchronicity, intention manifestation and mysterious action-at-a-distance. The problem with this view is that we also succeed effectively in turning science into a collective delusion, in which we all agree that free-falling objects accelerate at exactly 9.8 meters per second per second and the earth revolves around the sun rather than the reverse (though this has only been true since most of us started believing it).
Although I am far from a materialist, I do have this odd knack for befriending atheists and science geeks. Because of these friendships, over the years I have developed a tremendous respect for the scientific process of discovery and analysis, as well as an acute appreciation of its natural epistemological limits. In other words, although it may be true that science can only describe this one tiny little aspect (that of the material, physical world) of a greater transcendent reality, it proves to describe that particular aspect with surprising clarity and consistency. Much more lucidly and reliably, I would argue, than one might expect of a human species still unable to agree about things like whether yellow American cheese is yellow or actually orange. (Certainly, we can come up with all sorts of elaborate theories about a guiding superconsciousness or Spirit that sets limits on how our own chaotic willfulness ultimately manifests, but most of these prove cyclical and self-justifying, with no way of gauging their validity, likelihood or relevance.) Furthermore, because science has set for itself the goal of dealing uniquely and specifically with the physical world, and we have all experienced either directly through experimentation or indirectly through the by-products of science such as technology and medicine, to call science into question as mere delusion calls into question these experiences themselves and our ability to trust our most fundamental intuitions about the world in which we live and move and have our being.
For some, this notion is not disturbing at all. Of course we should mistrust our senses and experiences of the world; Descartes, Father of the Scientific Method, said so himself! (Although he may have only said it as a sneaky way of getting the Church off his back.) But as an artist, the thought of being so fundamentally disconnected from the physical world around me as I experience it not only frightens me, but shakes my notion of meaningful engagement to its very core. I engage with the world creatively, through writing, music and art. But as Annie Dillard points out, "an artist lives jammed in the pool of materials," even while the philosopher roams the realm of ideal forms and the mystic soars deep to the seat of fiery love and union. The shape and limit of matter, its particularities and idiosyncrasies, its movement and resistance, all of these aspects of the physical world are absolutely and utterly essential for the creative artist. One is not creative in spite of but because of them. I know and trust the power of words--and my own creative power in working with them--because I have come to respect them as having a kind of existence and life of their own, a reality that reaches beyond my own will and so can also grab hold of me and yank me suddenly beyond myself. I am not a master or maker of words, I am a friend, a companion, a lover. In the same way as a musician finds a companion in his instrument or a sculptor in her stone or clay. These things must be real at least in some sense, and we must be able to trust our experiences of them, if our creative work is to make any connection, to have any meaning.
And so, it seems to me that, even if these world-dreamers are right, even if life in this world really is "just a dream," this is one of those times when, as they say, "the only way out is through." Rather than dismiss our experiences of a stable, scientifically-comprehensible physical world as merely the self-perpetuated shared delusion of a people asleep, we must seek to engage this world deeply and passionately, cultivating attention and presence in all aspects of our lives with the playfulness, creativity and trust of children. By doing so we discover that, like our dreams themselves when we stop reducing them or explaining them away, the world will reveal to us an infinite potential for deeper connection, understanding, evolution and awakening.