“Life is a short dream.”
- old Roman saying
“Merrily, life is but a dream.”
- English nursery rhyme
“God speaks chiefly through dreams.”
- Carl Jung
“The dream is its own interpretation.”
“I felt the whole measure of eternal bliss, compressed, as it were, into a moment's space.
- composer Franz Schubert, in “My Dream”
“An absolute, eternal and infinite Self-existence, Self-awareness, Self-delight of being that secretly supports and pervades the universe even while it is also beyond it, is, then, the first truth of spiritual experience.”
- Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine
“All this is God immortal, naught else; God is in front of us, God behind us, and to the south of us and to the north of us and below us and above us; It stretches everywhere. All this is God alone, all this magnificent universe.”
- Mundaka Upanishad
"The Supreme Self (God) created the universe and then entered it in His own essence, like the sleeper creating a new world, that of dreams, with his own mind and then imagining that he lives and moves and has his being in it."
- Srimad Bhagavatam
Dreams have been a source of fascination to the mind of man since the dawning of civilization. In ancient Greece dreams were believed to prophesize the future. In antiquity and through the Middle Ages, dreams played their part in medical prognosis. The Bible contains numerous references to dreams. In his Histories, the Father of History himself, Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century B.C., referred to dreams dozens of times, relating how leaders including Cyrus and Xerxes based their waking strategies on the prior night’s revelatory visions, which they interpreted with the help of Magians, specialists on the subject. Dreams have even guided the course of history. Constantine the Great, living in the 4th century A.D., dreamed one night of a symbol of Christ, the chi-rho, and took the sign with him as an emblem, winning a major battle that made him Roman Emperor – and also a Christian convert.
More recently, attempts have been made to determine what if anything an individual’s dream reveals about the dreamer’s mind, particularly the unconscious. Best-selling authors such as Kurt Vonnegut have written books describing dreams in explicit detail. William S. Burroughs, who in his popular fiction drew extensively on his nocturnal revelations, kept a dream journal in which he attempted interpretations of the events and characters appearing before his mind’s eye during those quiet hours of the night. And most are familiar with the names of the famous psychoanalysts, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, pioneers in their field who wrote voluminously on dream interpretation.
But all too frequently the focus of dream interpretation has been confined to the individual psyche, the attempt being to understand a given personality, ego-based, flesh-bound and bracketed by birth and death as it is, based on the particulars of his or her dream. The analyst wonders, What does a particular dream say about the person in question? Is it perhaps a wish fulfillment of the unconscious mind? A manifestation of repressed fears? A warning of some future disaster? A good omen? But analyzing an individual dream can only hope to shed a few faint rays of light on the convoluted workings of a person’s psyche, and only then if interpreted correctly. (And we shall see that all too often dreams have been misinterpreted, even by men of genius!) Such a narrow focus only speaks to a person’s individualized self, that mind-body hodge-podge of likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, quirks and idiosyncrasies, which is ever restless and never stable, and encapsulated in a form of feeble flesh that is here today and gone tomorrow.
But what about dreaming itself, as a phenomenon? If we take the big picture approach and view dreams as a microcosm or small-scale model of what goes on in the cosmic dream that is the universe at large, we can in fact produce convincing answers to those existential questions which have confounded the world’s most renowned thinkers and been the subject of sacred texts dating back to the beginning of recorded time. Questions like “What is the nature of God?” and “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?”
And for this journey into the mind of God, as we’ll call it, all we need is the evidence of our senses. For each night, each and every one of us goes to bed, and on the blank canvass of the consciousness, an entire world appears, with characters and dramas, which unfolds with breathtaking vividness and just as quickly dissolves back into itself, that is to say back into the dreamer’s mind. Each night we are given a stark reminder of the nature of reality, only to awaken and quickly dismiss our imaginings as fancies and irrelevancies.
But consider if you will the nature of a dream, its general characteristics. Dreams don’t have a beginning. Suddenly you are there, in the midst of some action. And often they don’t have a distinct ending. Several times a night and thousands of time in your life, entire realms emerge spontaneously, with a realism to rival the best set decorator, and with such attention to detail that you are convinced, if only for the duration of the dream, of the reality of everything that takes place within its realm. Most often you as dreamer have no control over what happens to you as character in your dreams, despite the fact that they occur in your very own mind! And you have no control over the actions of others either, even though these characters are also creations conjured by your consciousness. Often the characters are hostile and foreign, the settings unfamiliar and the events absurd. And yet during the course of the dream drama, you experience things as they come - at least until you wake up and say, “That was weird!”
Outrageous occurrences, hostile personages who behave unpredictably in a phantasmagoric drama that is entirely out of your control. And yet it all emanates from your own mind and thereafter subsides back into the consciousness whence it sprang. Amazing!
What if this commonplace occurrence can tell us all we wish to know not only about the creation of the universe, but about the Creator Itself, and our relation to both? Could the nature of dreams give us some clue to the mysteries of waking life? And what does the relationship between the dreamer and dreamland indicate about the manifest world (matter) and the unmanifest spirit from which matter springs? These are the questions we will explore and, it is hoped, convincingly answer within these pages.
The brain works by analogy. We assimilate new information by relating things to what we already know. Things that are similar we class together. You see a feathery winged creature flying through the sky, and because it looks like other feathery winged creatures you have been taught to call birds, you classify it as such and move on. By analogy, we play to our strengths, putting our mental tendencies to work in the understanding of the cosmos. The great traditions of the world have told us since time immemorial, “All is One.” This truth was first promulgated in the Vedas 6,000 years ago, and thereafter developed by the Buddhists, the Christian and Sufi mystics, the Hindu Advaitists and the Hebrew Kabbalists, as well as by Neoplatonists and Whitmanists, and continuing to the present in the work of authors including Aldous Huxley and Eckhart Tolle. Through millennia and across continents, and irrespective of clime or creed, all speak of the unity of man with God.
All is One. But what exactly does this mean?
Our minds seem unable or perhaps unwilling to fathom what is at heart a paradox. How can the manifold objects we see in the world, amidst so much diversity, be one and the same? Our world is one of variety and multiplicity. How can the many be one? But if we stop to consider our nightly dreams, if we remember that everything which takes place in the mind of the dreamer is the mind of the dreamer, in fact is the dreamer himself, since it all emanates from him, if we understand that in an individual dream the same consciousness (that of the particular dreamer) pervades everything and yet is beyond it all, we can understand the apparent paradox of the universal truth that all is one and God is all. (And guided by this unity inherent in divinity, we are better able to do as one great spiritual leader once advised, and love our neighbors as ourselves – even, dare I say, love our enemies.)
Dreams offer a host of benefits to the individualized personality, from neurological housekeeping to memory consolidation, and some of these we will explore. But their biggest benefit may be in helping us understand the Divine Mind, as by analogy we go from the known, our nightly dreams, to the unknown, the origin and nature of the universe and its Maker. We thereby transcend our ego-based personality and access the divine, if only for a moment and in concept. But concepts will not take us to our final destination, for where we are ultimately led lies beyond cerebration. And by the time we come to the end of our journey, we will have left the mind, and its dreams, far behind.
My earliest dream, or the first one I remember, was a particularly gruesome one. I was age seven or eight at the time. The night the dream took place I was asleep in my parents’ bedroom, with a younger brother on either side of me, on the floor at the foot of my parents’ bed. At least that was where my body lay. As for my mind, the dream itself took place in a barren wasteland. A landscape of blood and mud covered by a dusky sun obscured by smog and filth. The setting could have been ripped right out of the set of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie I was not familiar with, not having viewed the film until I was 13.
In the dream I was with my family. We were standing in line with a bunch of other people who were unfamiliar to me. And we were awaiting execution. It was in the style of Hitler’s concentration camps, although Hitler and the Holocaust were foreign concepts to me. The method of our massacre was to be different from what the Jews faced. We were not to die by gas or by incineration, but instead were awaiting our turn with this gruesome killing device that stood in a shallow pit of mud and blood at the head of the line. The device itself, a circular electrical blade affixed to a slab of wood, would soon saw us to pieces. I hadn’t seen this type of blade in my waking life. My dad, who was not much of a mechanic, didn’t own many power tools. And we were raised vegetarians, so no heavy duty cutlery was found in our kitchen. But I have seen such a tool since. Like most people with access to YouTube I have watched footage of animals being slaughtered. Often hogs are sliced in half with a huge electrically-powered circular saw that very much resembles the death tool of my dream.
I was deathly afraid, more than I have ever been while awake. The closer my two younger brothers and my parents and I got to the front of that line, from where we could hear the drones of the anguished others as they were sliced to death, the more I cried. Thankfully I awoke before our time was up. I sat up in my parents’ bedroom next to my still slumbering siblings. Swathed in blankets in the candle-lit room, I was safe and secure. And I heaved a sigh of relief. I was all right. It had all been just a dream. I fell back to sleep.
To Sigmund Freud, dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. And modern psychiatry regards dreams as the guardians of sleep. But before we get to Freud, a little about sleep, since the average person spends about a third of her life unconscious. More if you’re like me and prefer ten hours of nightly shut-eye.
Sleep comes in two varieties, NREM sleep and REM sleep. In NREM sleep, the body functions at a lower rate than in wakefulness. In REM sleep, on the other hand, the brain and body are often as active and can even be more active than while you are awake. About 90 minutes after you fall asleep, NREM gives way to the first REM episode, and thus to dreams. Dreaming is the most distinctive feature of REM sleep (second perhaps to the rapid eye movement from which it derives its name), and dreams are typically abstract and surreal. Dreaming can also occur in NREM sleep, but these dreams are usually lucid and purposeful (more similar to waking life). A REM period occurs about every 90 minutes and can last from 15 to 45 minutes, so we spend about two hours of every eight-hour night of sleep in dreamland. Most REM periods occur in the last third of the night and are accompanied by changes including increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, as well as muscle paralysis so you cannot act out your dreams. Most men usually get erections while dreaming. Babies fall instantly into REM sleep from waking and sleep up to 16 hours per night, but by young adulthood patterns resemble what they do for much of the rest of one’s life, although in elderly persons a reduction occurs in REM. We dream less as we grow older.
For as long as there have been dreamers there have been those attempting theories of dreams. Prior to the advent of science, people viewed their nocturnal reveries as manifestations of some higher power, whether friendly or hostile, demonic or divine. In the 17th century, thanks in large measure to the works of intellectual heavyweights Newton and Bacon and Galileo, the scientific method revolutionized our approach to the unknown, and mythological explanations gave way to one of a more psychological nature, with all but a small minority of educated persons viewing the dream not as a product of outside forces but as emerging from within, a figment of the dreamer’s imagination.
Dreams were regarded by one prominent philosopher as being “the liberation of the spirit from . . . nature, a detachment of the soul from the fetters of matter.” In one of his own dreams, the celebrated composer Franz Schubert wrote that he “felt the whole measure of eternal bliss, compressed, as it were, into a moment's space.” In dreams, at least for a time, and to those of a more artistic temperament, the soul ran free. But many scientists were wary of too lofty a view of the strange night-time phenomenon that visits us all, young and old, sick and healthy, rich and poor, boy and girl, idiot and savant. To these dogmatic individuals, at least until the time of Freud and Jung, dreams arose from bodily reactions, disturbances in the organs, and were to be regarded as lowly physical processes on par with belching and flatulence: always useless, and frequently morbid. But even these men of learning were haunted by the ability of their dreams to foretell the future, and to seek some underlying meaning in what appeared at first glance to be enigmatic content.
Individual opinions aside, when dream interpretation shifted from the supernatural to the natural, general questions arose. “Why do we dream?” And “What do dreams mean?” Questions pertaining to a dream’s origin, its relationship to waking life, its many peculiarities, and the disagreement between the event of the dream and the feelings they engendered, especially how the events can seem so normal at the time only to, when the dreamer awakens, be dismissed as bizarre if not completely nonsensical – these questions kept philosophers awake at night for centuries, until men emerged, pioneers in the field, who combined scientific rigor with the poet’s fancy to attempt a definitive interpretation of so curious a subject, and to finally answer these questions.
To Sigmund Freud, who published his Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 to very little notice (it took several years to sell the initial 600 copies), dreams were more than a purely physical process arising from the activity of the organs, more even than isolated cortical elements awakened out of sleep. In analyzing his own dreams, and following associations linked to elements torn from their context, he revealed thoughts and reminiscences in which he recognized expressions of his own unconscious mind.
Freud identified three classes of dreams. First, those which are meaningful and intelligible, allowing for a rather literal interpretation. The dreams of children are of this type. They are simple wish fulfillments. Take for instance the child who has been denied her favorite candy before bedtime and dreams of consuming the delicious chocolate in her sleep. This dream represents a simple satisfaction of wishes excited during the day but left unrealized. The second group of dreams are self-coherent and with meaning, but appear strange because we are unable to reconcile their meaning with our mental life. As when a dear friend, alive and well, dies in our dream, we promptly ask, “What brought that into my head?” The third group consists of dreams that seem to make no sense. They are incoherent, complicated and meaningless. But through analysis the dreamer could, according to Freud, uncover another meaning beyond that of wish fulfillment. Dreams undergo condensation, displacement and dramatization. They involve composite and mixed persons. In other words different friends or family members, or even acquaintances and strangers, are amalgamated into one substitute in the dream character. And these factors render the resemblance to waking life of certain dreams nearly nonexistent. But from the material of waking life, from some larger reality, dreams nevertheless derive.
(An example of the composite type: I recently dreamt that a visitor entered my backyard. I recognized her to be a girl I had gone to high school with, a girl whose name was Paige. But in the dream I called her Paige Pengra, a girl I had waited tables with in college who looked nothing like my high school friend; while in appearance she was my friend’s wife, Eva. She was therefore three persons wrapped in one. Entering the backyard with two others, she approached me and said, “I have many pictures of you.” But that is neither here nor there.)
Freud was very interested in what provokes a dream, and in the connection a dream had to the dreamer’s waking life. In other words, he was fixed in the realm of the individualized personality. Freud’s own dreams were lively and often times bizarre, and from them he derived satisfying resolutions to problems arising in waking life (of gratitude, and desire) which he had until then been unconscious of. In the end he concluded that dreams carry on the chief interest in a person’s waking life, especially those people and affairs with which we’ve been concerned in the 24 hours prior to slumber. The businessperson dreams of the office, the athlete of the arena, and the lover of her beloved’s embrace. The material of the dream is accumulated in waking life and then condensed, displaced and refashioned for dramatization within the dream. But waking life provides all the raw material. The dream is the mind’s processing of that material in a way that often seems irrational but if interpreted correctly makes perfect sense.
If Freud were analyzing my first nightmare, he would certainly have much to say. Dreams are unrealized desires, he would proclaim. While the dreams of childhood are usually simple and straightforward fulfillment of non-repressed, non-concealed desires, dreaming of my family’s slaughter was clearly not of this type. Adult dreams involve a veiled form of some repressed longing, which Freud often identified as being sexual in nature. These dreams are invariably accompanied by a feeling of dread which brings the dream to an end. What manifests as intense dread was once desire, according to Freud. Perhaps my desire was to merge with my family. We were all asleep in the same room, and my brothers and I had sprung from my mother’s womb, a product of my father’s loins, through the sexual union of the two, united as they were by marriage. Dying, in bringing us back together, could almost seem a fitting end.
Interesting interpretation, this. Love of family and desire to be one expressed as impending extermination, with unbearable dread.
But there is another perspective in which to interpret dreams, one that transcends Freud’s method, with his relentless urge to plumb the depths of a particular person’s psyche. The individual is after all representative of something much larger at work in the universe. Like the microscopic atom whose particles orbit a nucleus just as our solar system’s planets circle the massive sun, man himself is the universe in macrocosm. In the interplay of spirit and matter, the individual serves as a small-scale model for a much larger reality.
Rather than get trapped in the personal unconscious and its workings, we can use dreams to transcend the individual mind and by way of personal experience and empirical evidence arrive at an understanding, or whatever understanding the mind can grasp of a reality which is so much vaster than itself, about the Universe and God, about the manifest and unmanifest. Or, to borrow Sanskrit terms - for dozens of centuries ago sages were discussing these issues in this oldest of extant languages - about prakriti, matter, and purusha, spirit.
Every dream you have has one thing in common. You are there to experience it. And the only common ground between your dream life and your waking state is the same: in both, you are there. You as consciousness may provide much more than a link between dreams and wakefulness. This same consciousness connects you to everyone else and serves as a sort of a lifeline to the divine on whose consciousness the entire universe manifests itself.
I woke up one morning in my parents’ bed and there were two dinosaurs in my backyard. It was dawn and these huge herbivorous beasts were munching the leaves from our trees. I wasn’t scared, nor did I feel any emotion other than a sense of idle curiosity. How on earth had they gotten into our garden? I watched them for a time before falling back to sleep. I woke up later realizing the dinosaurs were a part of a dream. But thenceforth the boundary separating waking life from dreams was unalterably blurred.
When I was thirteen my brothers and I spent the weekend at the home of a family friend. On Friday evening we drove to the video store where she let us choose a movie. My brothers selected A Nightmare on Elm Street, the campy horror film about serial killer Freddy Krueger who visits his teenage victims in their dreams. The premise is simple and scary: If his victims die while asleep, they die in real life. By Sunday, we had watched Freddy slash and slay his way through numerous teens a half a dozen times, the film a hands-down favorite. My youngest brother, who saw all the sequels, plastered posters of the scorched-faced, blade-fingered villain on his bedroom walls. That is, until my dad tore them down for reasons any parent can understand. Mr. Krueger was not the model mentor. I mention the movie because, fictitious though it was, Freddy’s antics further whetted within me the burgeoning curiosity as to the connection between dreaming and waking life.
Dreams are extremely personal, and many of their characteristics are universal. Everybody dreams, usually in color, though most dreams are forgotten as quickly as they occur. They run the gamut of emotions, although negative emotions such as anxiety are experienced with greater frequency than hope or joy. And there are common themes extending across cultures and epochs: about being chased, being attacked or falling from great heights. Other common dream experiences include school events, feeling frozen and unable to move, arriving late, flying and being naked in public. Dreams such as these are common to us all, and though most analysts use their content to explain personal motives or mental workings, the phenomenon itself can explain not only the race as a whole, and life in general (even animals dream), but the nature of creation and the role of the creative force.
Since dreaming is a universal experience, we’d do right at this juncture to turn to the great authors, who with rich imagery and scintillating prose, provide insight into their own minds and by association, into the One Mind uniting us all. Jack Kerouac, author of the immensely influential On the Road, said that his Book of Dreams was an additional account of characters he encountered in real life, proving how tightly interconnected are the two realms. Kerouac’s contemporary William S. Burroughs attempted more of an interpretation of his night life in his My Education: A Book of Dreams. In it we find examples of many of the phenomena recognized by Freud. Out of body experiences, sleep paralysis, lucid dreaming. Burroughs experienced it all.
The author recognized a “special class of dreams not dreams at all but quite as real as so-called waking life and even, if one can specify degrees of reality, more real by the impact of unfamiliar scenes, places, personnel.” In his dreams he was often pursued by police and paralyzed by paranoia. He dreamt in color, whirlpools of colors, reds and blues and pinks and oranges. In his waking life he had once shot a man dead. Since dreams borrow from reality, his nocturnal imaginings elaborated this theme, filled as they were with all kinds of firearms, from .45s to 9 millimeters, Smith & Wessons, Colts and Rugers. His daytime friends - Ian and Alan and Stew and Brion, to name a few - were regular visitors in his nighttime reveries. His senses were frequently employed. For example he often experienced physical pain, tasted alcohol, smelled unpleasant odors (“thousands of years of unwashed clothes,” and “stale sweat and steamed excrement”). And Freud would make a strong case for the role played by wish fulfillment in Burroughs’ dreams. A practicing homosexual, he often enjoyed intimate encounters with male friends and strangers, even young boys. Once he rose out of his flesh and crossed the room, calmly watching his body lying still on the bed until he was ready to slip back in. A committed drug user in life, he partook of copious amounts of heroin and morphine in his dreams. A cat lover, he often dreamed of his favorite pets. He had lucid dreams regularly (those in which he knew he was dreaming). And many of his dreams involved consuming all types of delicacies, from candies and caramels to eggs, bacon, toast and asparagus soup. (Not that he could have eaten much of this while awake, for Burroughs was rail thin. Wish fulfillment indeed!) The settings varied, from France and Tangier, to the Hudson, London and South America. He wandered through expensive hotels, cramped rooms, moving trains and speeding cars. For Burroughs, in waking life, was a traveling man who wore many hats. Sometimes he wasn’t even himself. In one dream he gazed into the mirror and saw staring back at him a Negro’s visage. He even had what he termed precognitive dreams. In one dream he met a young man with a beard, and a few nights later, in real life, shook hands with that same man for the first time at a friend’s birthday party. He often re-encountered dream characters unfamiliar to his waking hours but who made frequent appearances in his sleep.
With such vivid and varied dreams as these, you might guess that Burroughs was at odds with a notion prevalent in his day, which was voiced by a friend thusly: “Dreams mean nothing. Just neural housecleaning. The quicker we forget our dreams the better.” Of course this was heresy to the author, whose dreams were the source of his best sets and characters, who when he underwent a dreamless spell, or more accurately one in which he couldn’t remember his dreams, he suffered a crippling case of writer’s block. But one could argue that Burroughs owed his vivid dreams in large part to his habit of hallucinogenic drugs, potent stimulants of the imagination as they are. By contrast, spiritual adepts who undergo mental fasts, sunk in an eyes-closed, motionless meditation which can last for days and which is on par with sensory deprivation, hardly dream at all. (Such is the connection between dreaming and waking consciousness that the mystic Paramahansa Yogananda once identified spiritual progress as abstaining from violent outbursts even in dreams!) The brain is after all an organ, like the stomach. Forego food, and the intestinal tract has nothing to digest, so peristalsis ceases. Deprive the mind of stimuli, and dreamless sleep ensues.
To Burroughs, his dreams were intimately connected with the meaning of life. He writes: “When we find out what we are actually doing and who we actually are, that is the point of living . . . it may be only a few seconds . . . a few seconds of significant action, out of a lifetime . . .”
For him, the dream adventure was integrally connected to the waking hours, and held within itself the key to life’s purpose. His dreams were Biblical in their importance. They were a veritable Tree of Knowledge, which could confer on mortals the ability to “know the mind of God in time.”
Is the individual’s dream analogous to the Creator’s universe, which is merely a dream in the mind of God? If Burroughs were alive today, you can bet he’d say yes.
As a teenager I became more engaged by waking life, and so dreamland was relegated to what seemed to be its proper place on the backburner of my unconscious. I’d often awaken with a dim recollection of having dreamt, and I’d quickly forget or dismiss any details that came to mind as I prepared myself to go about my day. After all, I was concerned with real life, and waking hours are the real deal, while dreams are merely make-believe, right?
This changed in the latter half of my twenties. After the passing of my younger brother Justin, who died of cancer when he was 22 and I was nearing 24, I began having very vivid dreams. My brother would appear to me, usually looking as he had just before he fell sick and lost a great deal of weight, and often in my bedroom. Because the setting of the dream was the setting of real life, the room where I had fallen asleep rather than some faraway locale, and because in the dreams I always wore the clothes I had fallen asleep in the night before, these dreams seemed to me more like real-life experiences than figments of my mind. In fact, the time I spent with my brother in dreamland was what Burroughs might have called more real than real life.
There was one night during the World Series. I was twenty-five at the time. Over several beers I watched the Yankees sweep the Padres with my father, then I blasted Metallica, my brother’s favorite band, while wearing Justin’s baseball cap, an olive-colored wool number with GAP stitched on the front. I fell asleep when it was still light outside and awoke a few hours later. At least that’s what it seemed, since my room was pitch dark. And I looked over at the bookshelf where I had set the baseball cap before retiring, and there a shadow appeared that took on Justin’s form and then became flesh and blood. It was Justin, there with me in my room. He sat down on the bed next to me and I reached out and touched his arm. His skin was warm! I asked him what he was doing and I’ll never forget his reply. He said “I’m working on myself.” Then true to form he asked if I had any marijuana. Justin was an inveterate pot smoker while alive. I replied I did not, but offered him a cigar, which he declined. A short while later, he left.
Thus began a series of visions featuring Justin. A few months later, I came home after an evening spent staying up late and partying with some friends from high school. Drugs had been passed around and I had done several lines of cocaine while we watched a VH1 documentary. I also consumed copious amounts of whiskey and smoked about a pack of cigarettes. I remember coming home and eating ice cream before turning in. In the middle of the night I opened my eyes to see my brother Justin right in front of my face. He was in miniature, smiling over me, kind of hovering. He was about the size of a hummingbird, and had wings which seemed to be made of light. He could have been Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. He was smiling at me with a mischievous glint in his eye. Next I knew I spun around the room once, twice, three times, I don’t remember in which direction, if it even matters. I remember feeling a not altogether unpleasant sense of vertigo, which was followed by my reappearance in the corner of the room. I looked over at the bed on which I had until a moment before lain, and there my body was, motionless and wearing the same white t-shirt in which I had fallen asleep. I was out of my body, but conscious.
I remember feeling that I could choose not to re-enter my body, just sort of move on, although I didn’t know where; however my desire to “make it” as a writer proved stronger than the allure of the other side and I willed myself back into my physical form. Next I knew I awoke the next morning feeling uniquely energized.
What to make of this? Could the cocaine have induced an arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat that left my brain deoxygenated for the spell of the vision? Perhaps, if as scientists say it takes only seconds for the brain to lose function after the heart stops pumping, and for these visions to be the winding down of the brain. Was it only a dream? But seeing my consciousness survive outside my body severed the identification I had formerly had with my physical form. And my brother, or at least my memory of him, proved to be the catalyst of my new outlook on life, which could be stated thusly: Nothing is as it seems. Sounds like I borrowed it from a movie poster, but you know what they say about clichés: They are often true.
This brings us to the topic of near death experiences (NDEs) and out of body experiences (OBEs), which like the nightly visitation from or vision of my brother, are paranormal phenomena in themselves.
Science tells us that after ten minutes without a heartbeat, damage to an oxygen-starved brain becomes permanent. But there are cases that defy science. Take this example, recently reported in a major periodical. A man suffers a heart attack. His heart stops pumping blood and dispatching oxygen to vital organs. He is clinically dead for over 45 minutes when all of a sudden his heart flickers back to life. He recalls just one thing from the time he was dead: an encounter with an ineffable, luminous, “compassionate being that gave him a loving feeling of warmth.” The encounter transformed him completely: He no longer feared death. He was one of the ten to 20 percent of the declared-dead to return with a tale from “the other side.” A classic near-death experience, or NDE. NDEs involve a memory of dying and being dead that features deep serenity, whole life review, a sense of leaving the body, watching events unfold from above, possibly an encounter with angels or deities and, famously, passage through a tunnel of light. It is often interpreted as a spiritual experience, an encounter with the divine.
As it turns out the classic happenings of an NDE are corroborated by ancient scriptures. It says in the Srimad Bhagavatam: “At the moment of death the sum of all the experiences of life on earth comes to the surface of the mind . . . then comes complete loss of memory . . . next there arises before man’s mind the vision of his life to come.”
NDEs raise some big questions, including arguably the biggest of all: Is consciousness annihilated immediately after death, or does it continue to exist, and if so how long? These reports of time on the other side have existed, albeit sporadically, for thousands of years. They span continents and cultures and involve many of the same elements, although the holy personage, if seen, depends on how a person was raised. A Christian may see Christ, while a Jew may see Moses. And recently these NDEs have been occurring with greater frequency.
(By the way, my experience the night Justin appeared to me is more accurately termed an out-of-body experience, or OBE, coined by Georgia physician and philosopher Raymond Moody, author of the book Life After Life (1975). Neurologists explain an OBE as a trick of the mind. But after we explore these phenomena, we are left wondering exactly what isn’t a trick of the mind?)
In the classic NDE, there is passage through a tunnel of light to some ecstatic, idyllic place. Often reports are of relatives and friends embracing the sojourner, welcoming her into a luminous, exquisitely beautiful realm. And as I said, these experiences are consistent for millennia and across continents and cultures, and those who come back to waking life are often permanently changed in predictable ways. For example, people become more creative and compassionate, less materialistic and ambitious. It is as if they have been granted insight to something greater, more real, encompassing the individualized world inhabited by the personal ego. This would explain the detachment characteristic of those who have undergone NDEs. If you are on a treasure hunt in a dream and realize that the experience is make-believe, you are unlikely to covet the gold any longer. You may even give up the search! The sense of purpose and verve of those who have undergone a NDE tends to increase. They feel themselves to be the treasures that they once vainly sought in life’s fleeting pleasures. And gone is the fear of death, because those who have been granted a glimpse of reality don’t believe in the finality of the body’s demise. There is the now, and the beyond, and infinite existence to come. And transcending time and space, it is all one!
It is as if these individuals have been given the state of mind known historically to the extremely religious, which philosopher William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, describes as one in which “the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. . . . The time for tension in our soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present . . . has arrived.”
It is not only those who have almost died who can access this state of utter tranquility, which may be less a state and more the underlying reality on which the varying states - sleep, waking and dreaming – appear (a state known to the Hindus as Turiya, or the fourth state, underlying the conventional three).
“This Self is fourfold - the Self of Waking who has the outer intelligence and enjoys external things, is its first part; the Self of Dream who has the inner intelligence and enjoys things subtle, is its second part; the Self of Sleep, unified, a massed intelligence, blissful and enjoying bliss, is the third part . . . The lord of all, the omniscient, the inner Control, that which is unseen, indefinable, self-evident in its one selfhood, is the fourth part: This is the Self, this is that which has to be known. (Mandukya Upanishad.)
(Those who practice meditation also access this fourth state, as does the average child, who living in the now experiences the perpetual delight of being. Which may be the meaning of Christ’s words spoken in the Gospel of Matthew: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I am not a practicing Christian, but you must admit the man had a way with words and could really put them on point.)
We must ask ourselves, are these paranormal phenomena – NDEs, OBEs, ghostly visitations - merely products of a hallucinating brain, or are they proof of the survival of consciousness and its participation in a reality much larger than the relatively make-believe events of our individual waking lives?
The scientists would argue that NDEs only give a glimpse as to what happens when the brain is temporarily offline, not when it has gone caput. For experts argue that when the brain is dead passed resuscitation, it flatlines, and since nobody has come back from such a state, no one can accurately describe what if anything lies on the other side of waking life.
The religious person would then bring up faith, a notion many laypersons cling to when they justify their belief in a hereafter. The mind enjoys existing, and so it likes to fathom a realm after earthly life has ended, but presumably the mind – linked as it seems with the brain - dies with the body, so how can it construct a realistic futuristic scenario in which it does not exist?
And yet, even the scientist is not immune to this faith-based notion. His researches into paranormal phenomena have prompted the aforementioned Dr. Moody to declare, “I am convinced that at death, personal consciousness is taken up into a more inclusive state of existence."
We are left to wonder what Moody’s “inclusive state” may indeed be. Is it like deep sleep? Or more like the Hindu’s fourth state, that Turiya which we shall further discuss?
Of course science can explain away almost anything that smacks of the supernatural. Neuroscientists tell us that OBEs and NDEs are associated with the shutdown of the part of the brain called the temporal parietal region, the seat of embodiment, a fact that brain scans support. And hallucinations can be provoked by an oxygen-starved brain, rather than the post-death survival of consciousness. Even the sense of moving through a tunnel of light, so common in NDEs, can be explained scientifically: When blood flow to the head is inhibited, the retina fall into darkness from the outside in, producing the sense of a narrowing of vision.
And then there is a paralytic process everyone goes through every night when we dream, the REM sleep in which our dreams occur. As we dream, we are paralyzed so as not to act out events. Moreover, there are brain states that blend REM with waking consciousness to produce curious results. One blended state of consciousness is the lucid dream, in which the dreamer has enough awareness to control the events. It is as if you awaken within your dream, or know you are dreaming. Normally, the part of the brain that controls executive function (the dorsal prefrontal cortex), is turned off in dreams, removing conscious control. But if it switches back on, consciousness invades REM sleep, enabling the dreamer to control the action.
This happened to me just the other night. (While writing this piece I have had some of the most fascinating dreams ever, make of that what you will.) In the dream I got up out of bed and walked from my room into the backyard through the sliding glass door. I continued down the side of the house, past the pool toward the front yard. I had the urge to dip my feet into the pool but suddenly had the awareness that I was dreaming and could therefore do anything I wished. So why not fly? And fly is just what I did. I levitated up and out of the back yard and into the front yard and over the mountains overlooking my house, and the view was amazing and this lasted as long as I could concentrate, which ended up being only a few seconds, and then the dream ended and I woke up. But I had never done this before, known I was dreaming within the dream. A milestone for me.
In sleep paralysis, another blended state, the dorsal prefrontal cortex switches on, allowing conscious control, but the body remains paralyzed, so movement is impossible. Which experts use to explain visitations by ghosts, in which there is a presence in the room which the dreamer cannot face.
James discusses this curious phenomenon in his Varieties. “It often happens that an hallucination is imperfectly developed: the person affected will feel a ‘presence’ in the room, definitely localized, facing in one particular way, real in the most emphatic sense of the word, often coming suddenly, and as suddenly gone; and yet neither seen, heard, touched, nor cognized in any of the usual ‘sensible’ ways.”
James tells of a friend who several times over a period of a few years had in his sleep felt the consciousness of a presence. He had the sensation of being grasped by the arm, which made him get up and search the room for an intruder. After he had got into bed and blown out the candle, he felt something come into the room and stay close to his bed. It remained only a minute or two. He did not recognize it by any ordinary sense and yet there was a horribly unpleasant sensation connected with it. “It stirred something more at the roots of my being than any ordinary perception,” he writes. The feeling had something of the quality of a very large tearing pain spreading over his chest, yet the feeling was not pain so much as “abhorrence.” When it happened the following night, he mentally concentrated all his effort to charge this “thing,” if it was evil to depart, if it was not evil, to tell him who or what it was, and if it could not explain itself, to get out. It eventually left his room. But while it, whatever it was, remained with him there by the bed, it seemed intensely more real than anything he’d ever encountered. At other times this same man reports a sense of presence developed with equal intensity and abruptness, only then it gave him the feeling of joy and goodness, not vague but “more real than anything. Everything else might be a dream, but not that.”
(I have had similar experiences which I attributed to visitations from my brother, since they happened shortly after his death. I usually wake up in the middle of the night aware that someone had entered my room. My first thought is that it is an intruder, and it is, but not of the flesh and blood sort. And usually I am unable to turn and face “the thing,” and often I am seized by an unshakeable feeling of not so much dread as dis-ease until it goes away.)
Other parasomnias exist which blur the border between the so-called “real” and the make-believe. About half the population experience occasional nightmares: long, frightening and extremely vivid dreams from which one awakens scared. They occur during REM sleep, usually after a long REM period late in the night.
Those suffering from sleep terror disorder typically sit up in bed with a frightened expression, scream loudly, and sometimes awaken immediately with a sense of intense fear. They remain awake and disoriented for a time. Usually they cannot be calmed until they fall back to sleep. These individuals generally have no dream recall, although a single frightening image may be remembered.
A related condition is sleepwalking. Somnambulism, as it is also called, consists of a sequence of complex behaviors initiated in the first third of the night during NREM sleep. Patients sit up and often perform actions. They walk, get dressed, use the toilet, even take a drive before awakening in a state of confusion. They return to sleep without any recollection that they have wandered from the bed.
Brief arousals during slow-wave sleep (the early stages prior to deep sleep and dreaming) are associated with amnesia for events that occur during the arousal. Which raises the question: If you cannot remember being awakened while sleeping, were you there? What is the nature of you? Who are you really? Is there indeed that level of consciousness which underlies the waking, dreaming and deep sleep states and is common to all three?
Indeed night terrors, somnambulism, phenomena in which there is no conscious agent “at the wheel,” as it were, and no recollection of events, eradicates the notion of doership that the personal ego normally arrogates to itself, believing itself to be responsible for what a person says and does. Spiritual adepts are said to have severed identification with the body and with it the notion of doership. One doesn’t do things; things are done through one.
Are these vivid dreams and paranormal phenomena support for life after death? If so, who or what survives? The Hindus would say the subtle body, agglomeration of preferences, talents, karmas, passes on and assumes a new form until the goal of perfection, or Self-realization, elusive though it may be, is attained. I haven’t had these nocturnal visions/visitations of my brother for perhaps a decade. Has he taken another body? Did he really appear to me or was it just my imagination of him?
But really, I don’t go in much for the notion of reincarnation. Here I am reminded of a story about a young man who dies suddenly. His disembodied soul, when asked by his parents communicating through a mystic to come back into his recently deceased physical form, says he no longer identifies himself with that body, or for that matter with any particular body, but instead is the nameless, changeless spirit, source of all that is, and that he prefers to remain this way, which he does.
Once this is done, once you merge your personality in the Absolute, any individual identity seems much too limited to bear for any extended period of time. Perhaps these paranormal phenomena and the dreams related to them serve to remind us of the formless, limitless, perfect eternal that we truly are.
Dreams have a texture all their own, filled with images that seem contradictory and ridiculous, divorced from the normal sense of time, and in whose realm commonplace things assume a fascinating or threatening aspect. Because they do not make any sense in terms of the normal waking experience, the average person tends to disregard them or confess that she is utterly baffled by their irrational, fantastic nature. But dreams are often so much more picturesque and vivid than the experiences of waking life, which seem humdrum by comparison, that they can hardly be dismissed as unreal – unless of course you are willing to question the nature of reality. As I began to analyze my own dreams, they took on such a depth and meaning that I reached the point where the day’s events were just so much stuff to be gotten through so I could enjoy another night in dreamland.
I have had dreams in which, like our friend Burroughs, I inhabited the body of a stranger. Recently I dreamt I was lodging in a cabin with a group of other young men, and I was giving myself a haircut (which I often do: I haven’t been to a barber in nearly 20 years). But the face staring back at me in the mirror was not my own. I had black curly hair, cropped close about my ears. My skin was almost porcelain, and I wore a goatee. It seemed I had borrowed the physical form of a rather handsome mulatto man. But in the dream I accepted the stranger’s face as my own and thought no more of it. It was only when I awoke that I thought back and realized, Hey, that wasn’t me. I have also dreamed I was a girl. A rather comely one, I might add. Dreams such as these, in which the notion of personal identity is challenged, indicate that who a person takes herself to be is not merely a function of what body she happens to inhabit at a particular moment in time - a body which in my case has undergone numerous changes in my 4-plus-decades-long sojourn here on earth - and which she regularly disregards in dreams, either for a different body, or in the case of the dream in which I was hurled from my physical form, for pure consciousness itself. And this goes for everyone. Who you are is something other than the body you wear. It is more than the sum of your thoughts and experiences, your personal tastes and talents. I can only describe it as a sense of I-am-ness. A me-ness, which is hard to elaborate upon, other than it is simply the notion a person has, an overwhelming feeling always present with you, even in deep sleep (although at a more subtle level) that proclaims: “I exist!” Independent of shape or name, independent of station in life or outward circumstances, independent of mood, in praise or in blame, success or failure, alone or with company, your Beingness always abides with you. It is you. And what’s more, Beingness is utterly delightful!
Consider the words of Ukrainian diarist and painter Marie Bashkirtseff: “I find everything good and pleasant, even my tears, my grief. I enjoy weeping, I enjoy my despair. I enjoy being exasperated and sad. I feel as if these were so many diversions, and I love life in spite of them all."
This very same I-am-ness, this delight in existence (the Hindus call it sat-chit-ananda, or existence-consciousness-bliss) is common to every sentient being and may even pervade so-called inanimate objects. It is as if everything screams, “I exist, and my existence delights me!” This feeling, this reality, is immanent in every object. It is what unites us all.
There have been dreams in which I have acted uncharacteristically. Sometimes I am more of a showboat than I am in real-life, parading around my dreamscape, pompously flaunting my dream abilities. Sometimes I am more physically aggressive, vanquishing foes and leaving blood streaks in my path. There have been dreams in which I display talents, like juggling and tight-roping and playing musical instruments, that I do not possess in my normal life. And yet, unvaryingly I am me.
We have heard what Freud had to say on the subject of dreams. Let’s consider the work of Freud’s contemporary, long-time protégé and collaborator, and later dissident and rival, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, another pioneer in the field of dream interpretation.
Jung was not one for theories, creeds or dogmas. “Belief,” he wrote, “is not an adequate substitute for inner experience.” In his life he strove to achieve an idea which put the individual human being, a unique phenomenon not to be compared with anything else, in the center as the measure of all things. Like Freud, Jung disagreed that the psyche was merely a product of a biochemical process in the brain, and yet he did not view the unconscious as an unapproachable and recondite matter that could only mystify the analyst. The psyche (which Jung used to mean the totality of mind, both conscious and unconscious) “holds within itself an indispensable condition for existence,” he wrote in his book The Undiscovered Self; “namely: the phenomenon of consciousness” without which there is no world, since the universe only exists in so far as it is consciously reflected and experienced by the psyche. In other words, Jung assigned paramount importance to the fact of consciousness. Dreams reveal the unconscious, and it was through their study that psychologists first investigated the hidden aspects of daily life, the things we perceive but are not aware of having perceived.
Jung held that dreams, “those flimsy, evasive, unreliable, vague and uncertain fantasies” were the best source for the investigation of the mind of man. He endorsed the helpful medieval view that man is a microcosm, a reflection of the great cosmos in miniature, and that by understanding the psyche, particularly the unconscious mind, we might gain access to the cosmic consciousness from which all derives.
But Freud and Jung differed on many points. In fact they disagreed as to the interpretations of Jung’s own personal dreams. Freud employed free association, urging the patient to say anything that came to mind regarding his dreams and then drawing connections, while Jung preferred to evaluate the dream for its content and little else. He used only the material that was clearly and visibly part of the dream to interpret it. He treated the dream as a fact of life, and specifically as an expression of the unconscious, which, though obscured and confused, nevertheless exerted a profound influence on the conscious mind. Jung’s terrain was the subliminal material: those urges, impulses, intentions, perceptions and intuitions, and rational and irrational thoughts which the individual dismisses or denies in his waking hours but which form the sum and substance of dream life.
He regarded the general function of dreams as this: dreams were the attempt of the unconscious mind to restore one’s psychological balance by producing dream material that re-established, subtly, the total psychic equilibrium. Jung believed society was becoming more and more dissociated, demarcated, and as if by consequence, so was the conscious and unconscious in the individual. Consider your daily affairs. To get through the business of this hectic world, more and more stuff demands your attention, deadlines and distractions and chores and clutter, so less gets noticed and more is therefore swept into the unconscious as the individual (you) merely tries to finish the particular task at hand, with the result that the conscious life gets narrowed to a pinprick. You only focus on that which is in front of you, blind and deaf to the influence of everything else. But the unconscious sees all and needs to integrate itself into the conscious mind. Enter dreams, which seek to right the imbalance.
Jung was a staunch practitioner of dream interpretation who warned against unintelligent or incompetent analysis. Two different people could have almost exactly the same dream, say of flying or of losing their teeth, but it would be absurd to interpret both dreams in the same way without regard for the individual, whose circumstances and the condition of his mind colored the dream’s content. No dream symbol could be separated from the individual dreamer, and there was no straightforward interpretation of any dream. But he recognized the existence of motifs, such as falling, flying, being persecuted by dangerous animals or hostile individuals, wearing insufficient clothing in public places, hurrying or getting lost, fighting with useless weapons and running hard yet getting nowhere. Jung identified the recurring dream, which he himself experienced throughout his life - in his case of a house with several levels each corresponding to a stage of life – as well as the pervasiveness of symbols. For instance, a tree might symbolize evolution, physical growth or psychological maturation, or sacrifice and death (especially to the Catholic); or it might just as likely be phallic in nature. Jung avoided generalizations, seeking instead to evaluate dreams on an individual basis. He did however recognize some common themes based on their prevalence in his patient population. For example, people who have unrealistic ideas or too high an opinion of themselves, or who make grandiose plans out of proportion to their real capacities, tend to dream of falling, as if as a warning to exercise caution and keep pride in check.
As Jung saw it, the overall function of dreams was to compensate for deficiencies or distortions in the conscious mind. But he recognized limitations inherent in the search for meaning in dreams. The ability of the dreamer to recall his dream, for instance; his powers of expression to relate events with sufficient clarity for the analyst to gain some grasp of the content; moreover, the analyst’s ability to interpret a dream correctly rather than superimposing his own personality or theories on the reveries of the individual. Dream analysis was not so much a technique to be learned and applied according to fixed rules, as it was a dialectical exchange between two personalities. Dream interpretation was in its infancy in the days of Jung, and an inexact science at best. And it still is.
But we do know that by means of dreams, instinctive forces existing in the dark shadows of the unconscious rise to the surface to influence conscious action. This is true whether the dream is interpreted or not. Interpreting it does not make it so. The effect of a dream is in the dreaming, not even in the remembering of it, which may be why we forget 90 percent or more of our dreams. Thus the saying, “A dream is its own interpretation.”
And if a dream’s purpose is fulfilled in the dreaming, what then is the need for the analyst, who in bringing the material to the conscious mind and possibly misinterpreting it, can only distort the message and undo what was made right in the individual’s head the night before? In medicine doctors are urged to “first do no harm,” but for the dream analyst, the potential to damage the patient’s delicate psyche with speculative notions is too great to risk. Which may be why dream analysis languished after Jung’s time, deteriorating into books on symbols, which do exactly what Jung cautioned against: They make a symbol universal in its meaning, rather than individual in its character. The man is probably turning over in his grave!
Jung was aware of a dream’s role in prognosticating future events, a role that the Greeks emphasized. But what to the conscious mind seems prophesy is to the unconscious, which sees everything, merely an extrapolation from prior happenings. The unconscious stands outside of time, seeing all. Integrating the conscious and unconscious minds, or becoming conscious of the workings of the unconscious, was what Jung hoped that dream analysis would achieve. This is analogous to the Hindu notion that the lower self (personalized ego) should be sunk into the Self (Awareness) which is its source. Be the Witness, the Hindu mystic urges. But the integration Jung sought demands a knowledge of the dreamer’s personal history coupled with an increasing self-awareness on the part of the analyst, as even a highly intelligent man could go badly astray in dream interpretation for lack of intuition. These critical components of successful interpretation are preciously rare, and it may be that any interpretation however insightful is less a truth and more merely one person’s opinion.
Jung hoped that through dream analysis man might gain introspection, but alas these dreams of his have not been realized in his lifetime or in the half-century since his death.
Much the opposite. The belief in the uselessness of dreams has haunted scientific circles to this day. Some researchers still suggest that dreams serve no real purpose. But most experts believe that dreaming is essential to mental, emotional and physical health. Through our dreams we may weave new material into the memory system, to help us cope with further trauma or stressful events. Dreams may serve to “clean up” clutter from the mind, defragmenting the mental hard drive to prepare it for a new day. Another theory proposes that dreams are a form of psychotherapy whereby the dreamer is able to make connections between different thoughts and emotions in the consequence-free environment of dreamland.
Freud and Jung and the dream analysts that have succeeded them were essentially mechanics of the mind, their chief concern the ego-based personality. They tried to understand the body/mind complex that carries consciousness through life, mistaking the vehicle for the driver. But a driver is not his car. Similarly, a human is not merely his body or his mind, but in essence the associated consciousness. So any understanding of the psyche, even if complete (if that is at all possible), will not shed light on the ultimate questions of existence any more than understanding a car’s transmission will help get the motorist from Los Angeles to New York. To navigate the meandering, circuitous realm of waking life, it is the motorist and not the vehicle we need to be concerned with. Specifically, what is the nature of this driver? And, does he have a map?
What is the essence of personal identity? According to philosopher John Locke, your identity is inextricably linked with your chain of particular memories, which makes you who you are. But in dreams you are cut off from your waking life, and all the memories you have accumulated in waking hours. You experience a temporary amnesia as you step into the shoes of the dream character you have fathomed. And yet you are still you. If who you are is pure consciousness, aware of existing and delighting in the experience of your existence, then dreams are a nightly reminder of what’s real. For there is one constant in every dream. The cast of characters and the setting may change, and your body and behavior, but this is for certain: Whatever happens, you are there to witness, experience, participate in events. Some dreams are ludicrous, nightmarish, or fantastic. Others are life-like. But whatever the case, there is always you. You are the constant in your dreams.
The importance of consistency, of constancy, cannot be overstated. The universe is ephemeral. Things change. Rock is pulverized into sand. Land masses become continents. Species go extinct. At the beginning of time, before even the Big Bang, the universe was an infinitesimal particle, and now the distance from our Earth to the Sun, a relatively tiny star in one of billions of galaxies, is nearly 100 million miles. We get old, grow wrinkled and whitewashed, albeit gradually, over a period of decades. But can anything which is but a blip in infinity be said to happen gradually? Dreams provide a snapshot, a big picture. They are a nightly reminder that worlds are created and destroyed, that this may be one of many universes existing simultaneously, and that the universe may expand out of next to nothing and contract back into itself countless times in the infinity of Time, and that we Earthlings and other species on this planet and perhaps others play many roles, evolve out of nothing and are reabsorbed back into nothing, in a divine drama extending to eternity with one constant: consciousness. And yet most of us don’t give the matter a second thought.
Spiritual religions speak of an omnipresent God filling the universe, so that all is from Him and in Him, and there is nothing that is outside. This truth has united philosophers and theologians with strictly practical teachers like Gautama Buddha. It has spanned continents and centuries, making its mark with the devout contemplatives of India, the Sufis of Islam, as well as mystics of both Christian and Jewish persuasion.
In his book The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley writes: “The immanent eternal Self (individual soul) is one with the Absolute Principle of all existence (God); and the last end of every human being is to discover the fact for himself, to find out Who he really is.”
To those concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds, and the identity of the soul with this Reality, if you seek to fathom the ground of all being, that which is immemorial and universal, if you believe, as did many of history’s greatest saints and sages, that man’s final end is the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent, then the dream analogy helps a mind purified by detachment, charity and humility to achieve this. If it is desirable if not necessary to know the spiritual Ground of all things, that which is centered in the soul and also pervades the world of names and forms and is beyond world and soul, in that transcendent “otherness” of the spirit realm, then dreams are a fitting teacher.
For the dream and all that occurs within it - characters, setting, props - is in essence you, since it emanates from your mind. But no particular entity or item within the dream can be said to be precisely or entirely you. You are not merely one thing in your dream. You are all things. You are not even the dream character you play, although that dream character shares your consciousness. But to identify yourself with one character alone is to neglect the other characters which have also emanated from your mind. You are everything in the dream, but nothing in particular, and you are so much more than the dream, since it does not take into account your experiences, other dreams, sense perceptions, feelings, characteristics, and since the dream body you inhabit is often not the one you wear in waking life. This analogy applies to the dream that is the Universe, the dream that occurs in the mind of God, or Absolute Awareness. Everything in the Universe is God, but nothing in particular, as God pervades everything and yet is so much more. But just as in your dream, the consciousness you possess is your link with the dreamer that lies on the other side of the dream, safely in bed, the consciousness you have in this life is your line to the divine, to the vast, cosmic consciousness on which the dream with all its individual perspectives plays itself out.
I recently dreamt of an ex-girlfriend, whose name is Shannon. The following morning I contacted her to tell her about it. I said half-jokingly that since she is a therapist perhaps she might venture a reason why I dreamt of her. Her reply was that she had been speaking about me to a friend. The implication was that I had somehow picked up on her thought, the result of which was a dream.
Ask most people about their dreams and they will tell you they are not dreaming of friends and relatives, but rather dreaming with them, somehow interacting with them in the spirit realm. This implies more than the existence of a gross body of flesh, which when we dream lies still in our bedrooms. In addition to the gross form there must be a spirit. The spirit, divorced from matter, is able to interact telepathically, free to soar through the ethers, possibly ride on a transcendental highway to remote destinations where it can rendezvous with the subtle bodies of our near and dear. Who knows? There are many things invisible to the naked eye that high-powered microscopes can detect, sound waves inaudible to us that animals can hear. Perhaps there are planes of consciousness hitherto unexplored by science, which may in the future shed light on these mysterious realms.
But to imply that you can be two places at once, your body asleep in bed while your soul interacts in some preternatural realm, is to question the nature of identity. What is keeping your body alive while your spirit surfs interstellar space? Yes, we are all connected (as consciousness), but I did not interact with Shannon any more than I interacted with my brother Justin in the dreams I had of him in the decade following his death. These visions of mine were merely mental projections, figments of my own mind. And here we may have discovered yet another function of dreams, the so-called thought transfer that Mark Twain so insightfully identified in his writings. In his essay Mental Telegraphy Again, Twain relates how he once mailed a friend with a question and before his letter had reached the person, he received a reply to his question in the post. Just having the thought was the same as expressing it. The two men must have been on the same wavelength, a phrase with which we are all familiar. And perhaps I was picking up on Shannon’s thought, expressed in the conversation she was having in which my name came up, the way a person’s ears are said to ring when another speaks of him, or as when you think of a friend and then the phone rings and lo and behold said friend says hi. Only in my case Shannon had rung me in my sleep. I had picked up on her conversation in the form of a fictitious sex scenario involving our naked, sweat-drenched bodies in a dream room somewhere in imagined space and time. Was it in a sexual context in which my name had come up? I never did ask. I have a hunch that our libidinous friend Freud would have a hunch that the answer would be yes. But not even Freud nor for that matter Jung conceived of the notion of dreams as mechanism of thought transfer. In the amazing realm of dreams it seems there is always room for new discoveries! On a side note, I have at other times dreamt of friends long out of my life only to wake up and find they have added me as a friend on Facebook. It seems thought transfer, or mental telegraphy as Twain put it, is as real as anything else.
OK, so now that we’ve explored the topic of dream interpretation as propounded by modern authorities, let’s ask ourselves, What do the ancients have to say on the subject? The teachings promulgated in scriptures and by sages date back millennia and span meridians, so we’d do well to consult them. These teachings we can condense into a single sentence, which reads as follows: God is immanent and transcendent, present in everything but not limited to any one form in particular.
In other words, God is All. And if God is One (since to divide God is to reduce God, and to separate Being from Non-being is to limit God), then All is One.
And when you regard this simple, timeless teaching through the lens of “dream in the mind of God,” what at first seems rather contradictory (how can so much diversity be the same?) actually makes a whole lot of sense.
Let’s tread familiar territory. When you dream, everything in the dream - setting, characters, you - emanate from your mind and therefore can be said to be you, or aspects of you. The same can be said for all that exists in the universe, appearing as it does in the mind of God. The difference between the individual’s dream and the cosmic dream (universe) is that in the case of the individual the consciousness is confined to one locus, that of the dreamer. If the other characters in your dream can be said to have consciousness, you do not have access to it, since you cannot act for them, nor perceive events through their eyes. And if they are real people being depicted, because a person cannot be said to exist in two places at once and assuming they are living their own lives whether awake or asleep and that it is ludicrous to assume you have the power to assemble their souls or subtle bodies in the confines of your own consciousness, then your dream creations, though perhaps resembling one person or a combination of real people, are not themselves real in that they do not exist outside of you. Whereas in waking life there are as many foci of consciousness as there are life forms, so many universes within one, and your life is only one perspective.
The Srimad Bhagavatam, a several-thousand-year-old scripture in 12 volumes, puts it thusly:
“This objective world, which is recognized by the mind and perceived by the senses, is only a projection of consciousness. It is transitory, and therefore not real.”
A projection of consciousness. Just like your nightly dreams, whose vivid and variegated images appear on the canvass of your mind, emanating from you and resolving themselves back into you when the dream is done.
The Lord Krishna, who is representative of the divine in man as are the figureheads of other major religions, Christ and Buddha, for example says: “This whole universe exists in Me and is an expression of My divine power.”
The whole universe exists in the mind of God, just like the individual’s dream world, which exists in the dreamer’s mind.
The mind is a tool, and since it works through analogy, your personal vantage point and daily experience serve to illuminate the mysteries of the cosmic reality. “Thy Self is thy true teacher. Verily by the Self alone is realized the highest good, first through reason, and then through direct transcendental perception.”
“As the spider weaves its thread out of its own mouth, plays with it, and then withdraws it again into itself, so the eternal, unchangeable Lord, who is formless and attributeless, who is absolute knowledge, and absolute bliss, evolves the whole universe out of Himself, plays with it, and again withdraws it into Himself. . . . Verily is the universe come out of Me, and I dwell in the hearts of all beings.” (Srimad Bhagavatam)
The dreamer does this every night in her sleep. She evolves dream worlds from the mind, unconsciously, and then enters into the drama as the main character. In short, we are the Christ or Krishna of our own dreams, albeit unwittingly and without control over the course of the events. In the universe, the Beingness attaches itself to manifold individuals so that consciousness is not limited to one character but shared with as many beings as there are forms, so that the dream played out on the canvass of cosmic consciousness is not one but billions of adventures going on simultaneously. But though the world is transitory, experiences are ephemeral, the experiencer is ageless, timeless and perfect:
“Thou appearest as this universe of illusion and dream. Thou art beyond time. Indivisible, infinite, the Adorable One . . . Thou, womb and tomb of the universe, and its abode . . . the reality behind all existence.” (Srimad Bhagavatam)
Regarded in this manner, dreams can teach us how to live our lives. Just as you awaken from your nightly escapades without further concern for the world you just departed, so you should live your life carefree and at ease. Each night we go to sleep and are granted reminders, sometimes not so gentle, of the evanescence of seeming reality and we are left with that which is: consciousness.
And if ever you need to be reminded of the bliss (ananda) that is your essence, just remember that deeper state of sleep, in which dreams do not appear, where the only experience is that of pure delight.
The philosophy put forth in the oldest of sacred texts reappears, elaborated and enriched, in the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita reminds us that the world is a brief appearance in the consciousness of the Absolute, who pervades everything. Krishna, speaking as God, says:
“By Me all this world is pervaded in My unmanifested aspect (consciousness); all beings have root in Me.”
The scriptures announce the transience of waking life in order to direct us “from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality,” since only that which always exists can be said to have absolute reality.
Each night we are reminded of this. Our dreams arise in an instant, unfold their events with astonishing reality, are experienced with utmost seriousness and then vanish without a trace. Often we do not recall the events of our dreams and if we do, quickly dismiss them as flights of fancy.
The scriptures urge us to awaken from the dream. “Blessed is human birth; even the dwellers in heaven desire this birth, for true wisdom and pure love may be attained only by man. . . . Knowing life to be transitory, wake up from this dream of ignorance and strive to attain knowledge and freedom before death shall claim thee. Never lose sight of the course of the mind, but watch the thoughts that pass through it. The control of the mind is said to be the highest (practice).”
The dream theme is a frequent refrain in these ancient writings: “Indeed, birth and death and all the experiences of life are to the Absolute (God) the experiences of a prolonged dream. Miseries, though belonging to the world of dreams, are of a certainty painful, and do not vanish until we cease our dreaming. Nor does the dream of life come to an end for him whose thoughts are engrossed in transitory, sensuous things. . . . Therefore, control the outgoing senses. Restrain thyself. Learn to meditate upon the Absolute.
“When you know yourself (to be) one with God, this dream will cease.”
And later: “As in a dream one seems to meet with actual experiences, so the ignorant man, immersed in illusion, mistakes shadow for substance. As a dream seems to bring experience of many troubles to a man asleep but deludes him no longer when he wakes, so grief, joy, fear, anger, greed, infatuation, and all other emotions, as well as the experiences of birth and death, are felt to be real by the man who clings to the lower self, but delude him no longer when he knows the true Self.”
And true to the microcosm analogy, each night we live a world age, where characters are emanated only to be dissolved back into consciousness come morning. Which is what the ancient writings describe happening on the cosmic level: “All beings enter (Me) at the end of a world-age; at the beginning of a world-age again I emanate them.”
“Without and within all beings, immovable and also movable; by reason of His subtlety imperceptible; at hand and far away is That.” That, the Sanskrit Tat, is the consciousness in which the world manifests and which pervades the manifest world. Source, sustenance, and the end of the universe, It partakes of every phase of existence. It wakes with the waking man, dreams with the dreamer, and sleeps the deep sleep of the dreamless sleeper; but It transcends these three states, for its true nature is pure consciousness.
Thereafter, the wise man is “like to a man who has awakened from sleep and learned that his dream was a dream.” Whatever he experiences does not affect him, “for the true nature of the Self remains forever unaffected.”
The three states have much to say about the cosmos at large. Every 24-hour period the body goes through the waking, dreaming, deep sleep cycle, only to repeat itself again the following morning. But the awareness underlying these three is our true nature. Nothing that changes really exists, and because these states, waking, dreaming and deep sleep are evanescent none of them can be termed ultimate reality. Unlike Turiya, the fourth state underlying these.
Ask yourself, Is there something present when I am awake, when I dream, and when I sleep soundly that is always the same? The ancients express this essence in the primal sound, Om. Om is actually AUM, not one sound but three, each letter representing one of the three states. But what surrounds the AUM? Silence. Silence is the fourth state. Silence is ultimate reality. Without silence there can be no sound. The Western counterpart to AUM is the Bible’s Amen.
Another sage (Nisargadatta Maharaj) describes ultimate reality as follows: “At the borderline of Beingness and Non-beingness, of consciousness and absolute awareness not even aware of itself, of I am and simple I, precisely where the intellect subsides.” (Nectar of Immortality)
Lest we get lost in the esoteric, let’s reel ourselves back into the realm of personal experience. Each morning, out of deep sleep, we awaken. In deep sleep at one level we cannot even be said to exist, since we are not conscious and therefore unaware of our existence. And then just like that, consciousness returns, and attaches itself to our bodies. It is the same with the universe. Out of Absolute Awareness, analogous to the individual’s deep sleep, arises consciousness, the sense of Beingness, and simultaneous to this, the manifest universe, in which the tiniest flower is a thought, and which we experience as reality in our brief waking lives. And our dreams encapsulate the creation of the world (macrocosm) within the individual’s microcosmic mind, over and again each night. From the canvass of consciousness arises an entire world peopled with colorful characters who enact a very convincing drama, which seems as real as waking life if not more real, and just as soon vanishes to be forgotten.
Dreams exist as nightly reminders of the illusory quality of waking life. To illustrate this point, a sage once told his disciple, who had made the long trip from his home in Los Angeles to a remote Indian village to receive the master’s blessings: "You're here with me now, but when you go to your room you fall asleep and dream you are in Los Angeles. Where are you, in Los Angeles or here with me in India? One is a night dream and the other is a daydream."
Why then, the illusion? For the Self to experience itself in manifold ways? Perhaps, as some have posited, without the possibility of illusion, there is no condition for enlightenment. It may well be that the waking state is only another dream, part of the same mechanism that causes us to have visions in our sleep. But this is speculation. It seems rather well-founded that the individual consciousness is a lifeline to the Absolute in whose consciousness the dream universe takes place. And by freeing the mind of thought, you know the mind of God.
Latter-day mystics have reiterated the teachings presented in the Hindu texts. In the words of Ramana Maharshi and Sai Baba, there is little difference between waking life and nightly dreams, which are both illusory. Waking life may appear to be longer, but time (and with it space) are only mental manifestations to add dimension and duration and so make the illusion possible.
To paraphrase Sai Baba: “The creation of the cosmos, its dissolution, these billions of individuals merging and emerging, all this is but a dream. There are no individualized beings at all, no separate spirits! How can there be billions of individualized beings when there is only One, indivisible and complete, absolute? Like the sun is reflected as a billion suns in a billion lakes, ponds and drops of water, the individuals are but reflections of the One in the minds that it shines upon. The basis of the dream is God Himself. He is full, He is the mind, the body and the soul. You are only as real as a dream! For the eye that can see the Reality, the cosmos is not this multiplicity of names and forms, but mere ‘being-awareness-bliss.’” (Unity is Divinity)
This chapter is taking on a more religious flavor than I had originally intended. I am not a religious person. By naming various deities then choosing a particular one over others, religion tends to the divisive and fragmentary. But I think religious texts point at fundamental truths, though the lens through which these truths are viewed can become clouded over time. How something is read is as important as what is written. Let’s take the beautiful rendering of the creation of the world as depicted in the Holy Bible. What you undergo in the transition between the seeming void of deep sleep to the waking state can be said to be analogous to what occurred at the beginning of the world. The Bible begins with the creation of the world. Genesis tells us that in the beginning the Earth was without form, and void. That darkness was upon the face of the deep.
At the level of the individual we have in this passage a description of deep sleep, shrouded as it is in darkness, formless and void.
Then, with the words “Let there be light,” the light of consciousness overspread everything, just as the individual becomes aware once he awakens from slumber or enters his into dreams. In the Biblical tale from this light sprung grass and seeds and fruits, and moving creatures and fowls, “whales, cattle, creeping things and beasts.” As you transition from slumber to dreamland you play God, fashioning a universe from the stuff of memories, filled with streets and cities, Earth and water, and populated by all sorts of living things, both man and beast.
In Genesis, God is said to have created male and female in His own image. But what we have done is reverse this and make God in our own image, imagining the Absolute as a human (usually a man) of flesh and blood. We have anthropomorphized God, dressing him in a white robe and flowing beard as did Michelangelo in his Sistine Chapel rendering, possibly giving Him a temper or making Him jealous, or as the Christians have done in the Common Era, hanging Him on a crucifix. We have emphasized the human portion of God, as if to better relate to him. But what is it to be made in God’s image? Is it not to be endowed with the consciousness of God, the creative force, to share the spirit, to be identical with the Absolute, existing beyond space and time? The book of Saint John says: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” And what is life. It is that which proclaims, though it may not have a mouth to speak, or language to form the words, “I am!”
Ask yourself, Was there a Lord before humans evolved language with which to praise Him? Attempting to answer this query helps us view the Absolute in a much clearer light.
The modern God is a concept. We refer to God as He, forgetting that the Infinite exists before the formation of the sexes and so is beyond gender. When life developed from the primordial sludge, where was God? Wasn’t God in the interplay of the chemicals that gave rise to life? Wasn’t God the chemicals themselves? Wasn’t God the unseen intelligence guiding the process from matter to life and then to mind and beyond mind to superconsciousness, if you believe modern philosophers? And if so, what is the purpose of mind? Mystics say to know itself. Self-realization is man’s ultimate aim. And in order to reach the goal, we need to go beyond the personal God of popular religions, a being limited by his qualities, individual and separate from all others. All such personal gods are only limited representations or names and divine personalities of the one Absolute.
It is right to identify ourselves with what we share with God. But it is not a body of flesh and blood that is in His image, it’s the bliss that shines in the child’s radiant eyes and the aged one’s creased and care-worn countenance (and, alas, often disappears in the decades in between).
To make God a concept is to lose God, for the concept is never the thing that it represents. God as Absolute existed before a word named Him, before sexes evolved to identify God as He. The reality is consciousness. Consciousness is everything, all that is.
“He, the One, thought to himself: Let me be many, let me grow forth. Thus out of himself he projected the universe: and having projected out of himself the universe, he entered into every being and every thing. All that is has its self in him alone . . . the subtle of all. He is the Self. And that art thou.” (Upanishads)
The truth of the unity of all things is not exclusive to Eastern philosophy. It is found in all cultures and creeds spanning the globe. Hindu mysticism represents the first appearance and primal expression, and possibly the purest form of a truth that touches all major religions and whose influence is felt even in atheism and agnosticism. It was Saint Paul, the same Paul who as Saul persecuted the pious only to later become their staunch supporter, who expressed this universal truth in the 1st century A.D. when he said: “We live, we act, we are in God.”
Here’s a question: What would the characters in your dream have to say about you, the dreamer, if asked?
More likely than not they’d fall down and worship at your feet, as creator of the realm in which they experience life, and the bodies in which they live it. That is, once they had gotten over the shock of discovering that they’re not real but figments of your imagination. For it is on the canvass of your consciousness that they appear, is it not? Yes and no. Amidst such praise, you would probably run the other way, because though creator of your dream drama you enter it not as such per se, but as a character, usually the main character. But I bring up the point because attempting to describe a dream to the characters in your dream is much like a religious person talking about God. And trying to locate yourself (as dreamer) within the dream is like trying to find God in the world. You (as the dreamer) are in essence everything in the dream, since it all appears in your head, but you are nothing in particular. Even the body you inhabit in the dream, in essence the character you portray, though appearing external, is really only another product of your mind. Indeed you are a figment of your own imagination. The only common ground shared by your dreams and your waking life is your consciousness. Your sense of being. Your I-amness. Whatever is going on while you dream or while awake, one thing is certain: You are there to experience it. It seems obvious, this point about your presence wherever you go. But it is easy to forget and you shouldn’t forget it since only with consciousness is anything possible. We’ll come back to it later.
When you awaken within a dream, if you realize within the dream that you are dreaming, two options are available to you. One, you can have fun and do the things you can’t do while awake, such as fly or flout authority, eat junk food or in Burroughs’ case have sex with young boys. Or you can accept things as they come with total equanimity, since no matter what happens, even if you die in your dream, the reality is that nothing affects you. The dream body may get insulted or injured, but the real you, the dreamer you, creator of worlds, remains perfectly safe “on the other side.”
The overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great achievement of mysticism. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. A mystical experience is its own proof, perceptions of fact more direct than any physical sensation could be. But while few experience visions and raptures, everybody dreams.
As the sage Nisargadatta Maharaj once said, “The search takes place within the dream, but the One that is sought exists outside.” He also says, “You are what you seek.” What does this mean?
Let’s assume that in a particular dream you have the knowledge that you are dreaming. In the course of your interactions with the various characters in your dream, one person approaches you and says, “I want to meet my maker.” You ask him what he means. “The one responsible for all this,” he says, gesturing around him. And you realize he is referring to the dream manifestation, which is a product of your consciousness. Would you then point to yourself and say, I am He? This wouldn’t be quite accurate, would it? You may share the consciousness with the one who is asleep in bed, in whose mind your dream body appears, but you are not really he. You are a character in your own dream. The story is being told from your point of view, that is all. Like in a book written in the first person narrative.
Take the book The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. It is told from the point of view of Holden Caulfield, wayward and disgruntled youth, who throughout the story refers to himself as I. But it is not really his story, is it? It is a creation of the author, who may share qualities with his character, but Salinger is not Caulfield. Indeed, Caulfield does not really exist, except in the mind of his creator, and of course in the minds of the countless readers who have enjoyed the classic.
It is like this in life. There is no personal God. Even a Christ or a Krishna is a character in the dream universe which exists in the mind of God. These holy personages are in a sense playing God, giving the average individual something to aspire to, helping us to awaken within the dream. But in essence, as appearances in consciousness, they are no different from you or me. The consciousness from which they derive is the same as that present in you or me. They just have more insight into the nature of the dream, and the miracles they have been said to perform make us more likely to heed their wisdom.
So to buy a bit of time, you tell the dream character who asks you about his (and your) maker, “Come, let us seek Him out together.”
You search in rivers and in streams, over rocks and in crannies. You ask personages you happen to meet during the course of your search, “Have you seen God? Have you seen God?” In reality, God (the dream’s creator) exists everywhere, since it is happening within his (your) consciousness. And so you essentially find God wherever you look, in every stream, rock and cranny, and in the heart of every dream character. But though the dreamer (you) is present in everything in the dream, in all these people, places and things, nothing is identical to you, not even the character you happen to play. For lying asleep in bed in the middle of the night, your heart and respiratory rate slightly elevated, your muscles paralyzed, your eyes rapidly moving, perhaps with a partial hard-on if you are a male, and oblivious to your own identity, you, the real you, the dreamer, is outside of the dream, peacefully reposing on the other side.
Your attempt to find the God of your dream (you as dreamer) is destined to fail, but you can realize you are the dreamer, that you share the consciousness. And if you do, you have figured out the dream.
What does this mean applied to life? So many people are in search of God. But the fact is that you can never find God in one particular person, creed or object of veneration. God exists in all of this, but in nothing in particular. Except in you. God exists inside you, seeing life through your eyes. From God’s light the light of your consciousness derives. In essence, you are God.
Dreams are nothing more than a person’s inner life (memories, feelings, conceptions) projected so that they appear to exist outside oneself. Everything that appears to exist is contained in your consciousness, in the sense “I am.” This is the same process taking place in the waking state. All waking events are contained in the Absolute.
Our dreams teach us another valuable life lesson. It has been popularized in self-help books and propounded in seminars, and its essence is this: Don’t take anything seriously, because nothing is serious.
We awake each morning with recollections of our dreams, however vivid or vague, and they tell us this. All of which happened, which appeared so real and seemed to be happening outside us, occurred within our own minds and ultimately, “in the grand scheme,” isn’t worth furrowing our brows about. You may have been hounded by thieves or been a perpetrator of heinous crimes, been the king or queen of the world, vanquished foes and discovered buried treasures, but you wake up and are no longer bothered, bullied or boastful, despite how real it all was when it happened. This is the nature of dreams. And of waking life. But we never think to put two and two together. We never use what we learn about the transience and insubstantiality of dreams and apply it to waking life, to treat waking life as a sort of dream, albeit longer and with more continuity. And to consider that the things we seek while awake, the fame and fortune, may be just as evanescent, the disagreements just as petty and unimportant, once we awaken from the dream of life. That waking life, to the Witness of all, to the God who sees through your eyes, is as those elusive and illusory treasures of sleep. Do you awake from your dreams learning profound life lessons? Do the prizes you attain carry over into waking life and have any value? Do you awaken from your sleep only to seek out the characters of your dream drama, wondering if they too made it out OK? No. The dream teaches that nothing matters in the dream, not in itself. It is the experience that counts. More importantly, it is the experiencer that has significance. And the experiencer, whether in dream or waking, is one and the same. It is you. Without you, there is nothing.
The Srimad tells us, “Everyone is aware of the experiences; no one sees the Experiencer.”
A famous sage once concluded a dialogue with his disciple by saying, “Pay close attention to what you have heard; but more importantly, attend to the One who heard it.
Who is the One?
One of my favorite books is John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor (which I am currently reading: my favorite book is almost always whatever I’m reading currently, but that’s beside the point). In one chapter, the main character, Ebenezer Cooke, discusses the nature of identity with his wise tutor, Mr. Burlingame. They both agree that individual identity is based on memory, but Burlingame goes on to prove how unreliable memory can be. “All assertions of (you) and me,” he says, “even to oneself, are acts of faith, impossible to verify. The individual is a myth.”
At no time is this more clear than right before you awaken from sleep. The borderline between sleep and wakefulness, where the sense of presence, the I-am-ness, intervenes without the intrusion of individuality, is the time before mind. This sense of being, this consciousness of Beingness without the taint of individuality, with no concept of me and mine, is the closest that we may ever hope to come in this life to the Source. This is Beingness, our nature, and the same for everyone. The sense of being that dwells in every human body, stripped of personality, as this consciousness, is identical everywhere the world over. And in this sense, we are all one. And in the state prior to mind, beyond thought, this becomes clear. In that state you are everywhere. Abiding in the reality “I am” is the essence of all religious endeavor, the only truly spiritual act. And you do it every morning just before you get out of bed. Arguably the day’s biggest achievement occurs with you lying flat on your back not even aware of who or where you are, but only that you exist!
Of course spiritual adepts do it in a more formal way, through meditation and Self-inquiry. The goal is to extend this mystical state, known as the jnani state (pronounced yani), or that state of the sage, who spends most of her time in that border, the point at which consciousness emerges. It is the point of perfect peace. And you experience it every day just after the alarm sounds!
As an individual this happens to you every day, as you awaken from the non-being of sleep to the Beingness of waking life, witnessing the emergence of consciousness and from then the manifest world and your individual place in it. But this waking state is no more real than dreamland. This waking state we are taught to call reality exists in a cosmic consciousness, a dream in a cosmic sleep.
Ramana Maharshi, another great master, once said (I paraphrase): In a dream you have a conversation with a person who has recently died, and you wonder for a moment, Isn’t he dead? But the dream requires you to accept its version of reality. It is the same in the waking state. You are unable to doubt the reality of the world which you see while you are awake. How can the mind which has itself created the world accept it as unreal?
That is the significance of the comparison made between the world of the waking state and the dream world. Both are creations of the mind and, so long as the mind is engrossed in either, it finds itself unable to deny their reality. It cannot deny the reality of the dream world while it is dreaming and it cannot deny the reality of the waking world while it is awake. If on the contrary you withdraw your mind completely from the world and turn it within and abide there, that is, if you keep awake always to the Self, the Beingness that is the substratum of all experiences, you will find the world of which you are now aware is just as unreal as the world in which you lived in your dream.
In other words, you wake up.
Think back to last night’s dreams. While you experienced a particular dream, it all was a perfectly integrated whole. If you felt thirsty in a dream, the imaginary drinking of imaginary water quenched your imaginary thirst. But all this was real and not imaginary to you so long as you did not know that the dream itself was imaginary. Similarly with the waking world. The sensations you now have get co-ordinated to give you the impression that the world is real. It is only when you wake up that you regard as nonsensical the dream’s bizarre, outlandish, inconsistent events, which at the time of their experiencing seemed perfectly normal. By analogy and through meditation, or turning the attention within, you can see through the dream that is waking life.
For many, meditation provides this opportunity to access our true nature, to achieve the deep sleep state while still conscious. And isn’t the state of deep sleep that which we all crave? Sleep, whose power, in the words of Samuel Johnson, “so seasonably suspends the burden of life; and without whose interposition man would not be able to endure the fatigue of labor, however rewarded, or the struggle with opposition, however successful.”
By sitting or lying quietly and closing our eyes in a quiet room free of distractions, we enter the calm of sleep while remaining conscious. And by quieting our mind, first by observing the thoughts and the breathing and then concentrating on the fact of existence and thereby achieving a mental stillness, we pass from a dreaming state to that of deep sleep, and in that state, only peace remains, a levity, one might even call it bliss, in which the only feeling we have is that “I exist.” I am.
But there is something even more subtle than this. For to say or feel inwardly “I am” is still to have a thought. Beyond this primal thought is simply “I” or pure existence. You need not think it, because I is what you are. You are the experience.
The great mystic Adi Shankara once taught: God alone is real. The universe is unreal. The universe is God.
An interpretation of this seemingly contradictory set of premises is that the universe is unreal when taken on its own, but as an emanation of the divine it partakes of reality. The universe is dependent on God, just like the dream is dependent on the dreamer. Manifest life plays out on the canvass of the unmanifest, which is consciousness.
Life is a dream. But it is not unreal. It is however dependent on the dreamer. You cannot influence events within the dream, which have their own causes and effects, rhymes and reasons; however, you can choose to remain awake in the living of this dream called life by remaining conscious of a larger existence, of one that includes everything in the universe and is also beyond the universe and “on the other side.” And you can choose to remain fixed in your nature, which is bliss, and when conveyed to another is expressed as love. And what is this universal love? It is that undeniable feeling which screams, “I am!” The essence of this divine delight is a love of being, and from this arises love for others.
In the beginning there was One who became many to know Itself and to experience the delight of bliss with others in the form of love.
Life is its own purpose. Even what the sages and scriptures regard as the ultimate aim – to answer the question “Who am I?” and realize the Self that is both immanent and transcendent – only exists at the level of the mind, which craves order and is forward-thinking and goal-directed. It can be said that the purpose of the flower is to yield pollen so that the bee can gather it and produce honey for humans to taste. But this is only the human perspective. Flower as honey factory is one purpose, albeit a tasty one, which happens to be fitted to our utilitarian nature. But really the flower is its own purpose, the beauty that graces the eye of the beholder even a secondary end. William Burroughs once wondered, as many thinkers before and since, whether a flower can be said to exist without being seen and appreciated. Does a tree falling in an uninhabited forest make a sound? There are those who would answer no. Which may hint at the purpose of life: For the Self, existing as One, to interact with itself, know itself, experience itself, in manifold ways in the game of love, the divine dream. Modern physics recognizes that the observed is not independent of the observer. By looking at something, you change it. Can studying photosynthesis improve the plant’s ability to convert the sun’s rays into sugar? No. Studying consciousness cannot change it, but it can direct the mind back to its source. In this case, by studying consciousness, you change the mind. Even, you go beyond the mind, to the consciousness which is its Source, which is God.
God, the divine force, prior to man, existing in the evolution that gave rise to man, and in the order of the universe, the laws that perennially play themselves out, in the flower that turns to the sun, the earth that goes round it, in the subatomic particles orbiting the nucleus. On the canvass of consciousness these depictions play themselves out and are infused with the force which gives them their rise and sustains them.
Despite millennia devoted to the topic, scientists are still of no consensus as to the ultimate purpose of dreams. It may simply be that dreams serve by analogy to clue us into the nature of the creative force that imbues the world. The individual’s nightly dream is a small scale instance of what goes on in the cosmos at large, and the process repeats itself every night in every mind. Everybody dreams, and though most dreams share common themes and symbols, there is one constant: The presence of the dreamer. And at the risk of redundancy it is worth repeating that this individualized consciousness observing events in the dream is identical to the consciousness that gives rise to the dream in the individual’s mind, and may be identical or an instance of the larger consciousness on which the entire phenomenal world manifests itself!
Remember the value of constancy. In a world in flux, where time flies by and all things fade, we’d do well to hold fast to what remains the same. And what under the Sun is constant? Not even the Sun itself enjoys immortality. In fact our heavenly orb is middle-aged as far as stars are concerned and has a mere 8 billion years left to shine. What remains the same in both the dream and waking states, however, is the I-am-ness. The sense of Self, the feeling that proclaims “I exist.” This Beingness is with you wherever you go. In the dream it is as if you live through the eyes of another, in a world of your own creation, with a body not yours but “of you.” And this I-amness is the same while you are awake.
But even your existence as an individual began in time, with your birth, or some would say from the moment you became aware of the fact that you existed, evidenced by your earliest memories, which for most people happen around the age of 2 or 3. The question that must be asked is, “Without self-consciousness, who were you? Or better: Who were you before you were born?
This question calls into question the very nature of consciousness. Is there some level of consciousness that exists even while we are apparently unconscious, as in deep sleep? Is the Hindu’s fourth state real?
Consider that the sleeper, once awakened, is able to judge the quality of his sleep. I slept soundly, you say. Or, I was restless. If the latter, you are not so much experiencing the depth of unconsciousness as you are recalling how often during the previous night you lay awake in bed unable to sleep. You ask yourself: How many times did I awaken to go to the bathroom? The memory of tossing and turning tells you that since you spent time tossing and turning you didn’t pass the whole night fast asleep. In deep sleep, you forget yourself and so have no memory. As when the drunk consumes excessive alcohol and cannot recall the events of the evening prior, or the patient undergoing surgery who is put under with powerful anesthesia. This happened to me the latter part of 2014. I had broken my leg in a bicycle accident and required an internal fixation of the femur with insertion of three metal screws. One minute I was watching the intravenous medication enter my circulation, the next I opened my eyes to learn that the surgery, which took nearly 4 hours, had been successfully completed. I had no memory of those four hours, or even of the passage of time. I inferred existence since afterwards I regained consciousness, but in the depths of the stupor, unaware of myself, did I exist?
This also happens in deep sleep, when we become forgetful of self. But something exits even in deep unconscious, and that something may give us insight into our true nature more than waking states or dreaming, because it is free of distractions and diversions, of feelings and phenomena. Hardly noticeable though it is, it nevertheless is. In fact, it may be proof of eternal life. If this is our natural state, and in it we are outside of space and time and not even aware of ourselves, all this can be said to represent our existence prior to birth and after death. In which we exist but at such a subtle level as not even to be aware of it, which is why, like the state of deep sleep, when we emerge from it we do so without recollection.
But we are entering the realm of philosophical speculation which only pampers the very tool (the mind) we are attempting to transcend. Simple examples better serve our purpose.
Everyone can attest to the fact that the roles and identities we assume in our waking hours, though they may last decades (as many jobs and marriages do) nevertheless prove over time to be temporary, and therefore have no reality in the absolute sense of the term. Even the sense of “I-amness” will one day vanish. It came about in the few years after you were born, and it will leave you at death as you discard your body and with it, your mind.
Through the individual role that you play in life, Being experiences itself through a telescopic lens, from your individual point of view, via the mind. But it is possible to transcend the individuality and connect with the impersonal consciousness that pervades all, as “I am,” your individualistic personality expanding into the manifested universe, as you realize that you permeate and embrace the entire cosmos, which is One Mind. And from this to the state prior to knowledge that you exist, that eternal state of I.
The progression on the personal evolutionary path is as follows.
I am this (this particular individual, separated and at times opposed to others, experienced in dreams and waking states)
I am that (from the Sanskrit tat tvam asi; that refers to the totality, all that is)
I am (existence conscious of itself as such, most purely experienced in meditation)
I (consciousness free of the mind and subjectivity; awareness in its purest form, the Absolute)
Just as you exist before waking up and becoming conscious of your existence, you exist before consciousness of your Beingness arises at birth as a human. You are Beingness itself.
You are the eternal Absolute.
In his book Pragmatism, William James discusses the practical purposes to which a useful philosophy should aspire. Philosophy, itself love of wisdom, should not merely exercise our powers of intellectual abstraction, but also make some positive connection with this actual world of finite human lives.
We should ask ourselves, what difference does it make to us if this particular notion is true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced between the concept of world as dream versus world as reality, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is merely a form of mental jumping jacks – a diversion which may exercise the mind but serves no additional purpose. In other words, in what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true? There ought to be a definite difference in the life of the individual if he views the world as a dream in the mind of the divine or if he sees manifest reality as all there is.
James argues that even those ideas which comfort us (such as the belief in a benevolent Father in heaven watching over and protecting us) are valuable since they perform a concrete function, which is to comfort. And Jung would agree: “Why should we deprive ourselves of views that would prove helpful in crises and would give a meaning to our existence?”
What about the view that waking life is a dream in the mind of God? How does our cosmogony, life as a manifestation in cosmic consciousness, which then enters into everything in the dream world, tally? What would James and Jung have to say about the utility of such a notion? Does it give a meaning to life and enable the individual to find a place for herself in the grand scheme?
One thing is clear: Such a notion is comforting. Regardless of what happens in your life, the true you exists “on the other side,” as it were, out of harm’s way, unaffected in an absolute sense by the events of the dream, part of a larger reality, even that entire reality itself. In other words, there is nothing under the sun that is really worth getting so stressed about, since if you think of it, whatever happens in the dream of waking life, the dreamer on whose conscious it appears is ultimately unaffected. Everything will always be all right, no matter how nightmarish things can seem.
Such an analogy sheds light on the possibility of an existence much vaster than the individual existence of flesh and blood, buffeted by the cruel fancies of fate and punctuated by birth and death. It raises a person beyond a trite life of buying and selling and hoarding in between, of coveting pleasure and skirting pain.
Just as a character in a dream cannot influence events, once you give up the feeling of responsibility in affairs of your own, let go as it were, give up the tension of your personal will, putting to rest your private little convulsive self and resigning your personal fate to the higher power, once you greet all that you encounter with genuine indifference, the result is a great inward relief, and often the very earthly rewards you sincerely thought you were renouncing come your way. Detachment pays off, even in dream dividends.
Two: Since we are manifestations in cosmic consciousness, all is really one. How much easier is it then to love one’s neighbor, even love your enemies? Your relationship to God is similar to if not identical to the relationship of the dream character you play in your dreams to the one sleeping “on the other side,” the one in whose consciousness the colorful cast of characters peopling the vast panorama play their drama out, with you in the center of the action. If during the course of a bad dream in which you are fighting enemies you become aware of the fact that you are dreaming, how much easier then to make peace with said enemies, knowing that they are not “real,” that they are projections on your own consciousness, that they are identical to you?
As one healer has said, “There is nothing but Mind; we are expressions of the One Mind.”
The mind is useful for spearheading a search for ultimate truth, but it cannot answer the ultimate questions. For the mind cannot fathom a scenario which excludes it, a reality in which it does not exist, which is why when asked who you were before you were born, the answer is I don’t know because I wasn’t there.
The dream realm provides a fitting analogy to the universe as a whole since mind is unencumbered by burdens imposed during the day. The rules change. Whereas thoughts lack immediacy during the waking hours, being vague and only partially formed, in dreams our thoughts become the world.
The early Greek Fathers of the Church (for instance, Origen) particularly insisted upon the idea that, at the end of time, everything will be restored by the Redeemer to its original and perfect state. This happens every night in deep sleep, from which arises a world of shapes and sounds and drama, only to subside back into the void, and repeat itself over and over, time and again.
The goal of human existence (assuming that evolution is goal directed), the purpose of dreams, is to bring the original mind of man into advanced or differentiated consciousness, where it has never been before and where, therefore, it has never been subjected to critical self-reflection. “For, in ages long past, that original mind was the whole of man’s personality. But as one develops consciousness, the conscious mind loses contact with some of that primitive psychic energy. And the conscious mind has never known that original mind, for it was discarded in the process of evolving the very differentiated consciousness that alone could be aware of it.” (Carl Jung)
For the pioneers in dream states, dreams provided the most interesting information available about man. The results of dream analysis have little to do with worldly concerns, but the meaning of life is not exhaustively explained by your business affairs, nor is the deep desire of the human heart answered by dollars and cents. So much energy is spent in the investigation of nature, and so very little attention is given to our essence. We receive signals every night, and yet how few are bothered to decipher them! The unconscious contains all aspects of human nature – light and dark, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, profound and silly. Each of us must explore his own unconscious, as natural, limitless and powerful as the stars.
Seeing waking life for what it is, a dream in the mind of God, doesn’t make it any less real in appearance. You can realize a night dream is just a figment of your imagination, and yet still experience pain, or the illusion of pain. Which is why morality plays a part. To do unto others as you’d have them do to you. To help ever, hurt never. To love your neighbor as yourself, and your enemy too. But not taking the game so seriously causes you to invest less in it. There is something else, something more. Like the dreamer waking within the dream, you live with detachment, the materialistic highs may not be as high, but neither will the lows be low.
We can use the dream as metaphor to help us to see the unity of God, that God is All and All is One. You become "he who sees all existences in the Self, who sees the Self in all existences, in whom the Self has become all existences.”
Sri Aurobindo once said: “A God who cannot smile could not have created this humorous universe.” Indeed the world may not be so serious as it appears, and if this is the case, “it is the dogmatic people who will be the shallow ones, taking things so seriously, and the worldly-minded whom the theologians now call frivolous will be those who are really wise.” (William James)
Whatever the case may be, our dreams tell us that in waking life as in sleep there is an unseen order, and the only task may be not to try to dictate the course of events but merely to harmoniously adjust ourselves to them. In the degree to which you realize your oneness with the Absolute, you exchange disease for ease, disharmony for harmony, suffering and pain for health and strength.
In her book Thoughts of a Recluse (1883), French poet Louise Ackermann eludes to the reality we all experience in the small hours of night. But for her this reality was also experienced while awake. She writes: “I have made my appearance by accident upon a globe itself whirled through space as the sport of the catastrophes of the heavens . . . I see myself surrounded by beings as ephemeral and incomprehensible as I am myself, and all excitedly pursuing pure chimeras, I experience a strange feeling of being in a dream. It seems to me as if I have loved and suffered and that erelong I shall die, in a dream. My last word will be, ‘I have been dreaming.’”
In giving up your individualized identity you gain totality. You are not the dream body your mind conjured up, but the dreamer in whose mind you and the other dream characters play out their dream roles in a dream world. And in meditation, by clearing the mind of thoughts, you can access the consciousness as such. Transcending time and space.
In order to transcend the bounds of our individual corporeal existences, we have the what (meditation); as for the how, let us consult first Ramana Maharshi, who in one of his only writings, a short work entitled Who Am I? describes the process of meditation, which he calls Self-enquiry, as follows:
That which arises as 'I' in the body is the mind. Of all the thoughts that arise in the mind, the 'I' thought is the first. It is only after the rise of this that the other thoughts arise. By the inquiry 'Who am I?' the thought itself destroys other thoughts. When other thoughts arise, rather than pursue them or as so often happens get carried away by them, inquire: 'To whom do they arise?' As each thought arises, inquire with diligence. The answer to the question is: 'To me.' The mind goes back to its source, and the thought that arose will become quiescent. With repeated practice in this manner, the mind will develop the skill to stay in its source.
Ramana spent years alone in a cave, where surrounded by rats and other vermin and developing sores on his limbs he remained blissfully rooted in the Self and oblivious to these material inconveniences, so he clearly knows what he’s talking about.
Another sage with whom we are already familiar, Nisargadatta Maharaj, describes his path to enlightenment in the following terms:
When I met my (teacher), he told me: ‘You are not what you take yourself to be. Find out what you are. Watch the sense “I am,” find your real Self.’ I obeyed him, because I trusted him. I did as he told me. All my spare time I would spend looking at myself in silence. I used to sit for hours together, with nothing but the 'I am' in my mind and soon peace and joy and a deep all-embracing love became my normal state. In it all disappeared -- myself, my (teacher), the life I lived, the world around me. Only peace remained and unfathomable silence.
Recall the hypothetical conversation you might have with characters in your nightly dream. When asked to tell them about their maker, the mind in whom the dream manifests, all you would be able to say is: “He is outside all that you know, He is not of this world.” This same has been said for the Hindu Brahman or impersonal God. The Upanishads declare: “All is (Spirit). Nothing is outside Him. All this is (Spirit) immortal, naught else; Spirit is in front of us, Spirit is behind us, and to the south of us and to the north of us and below us and above us; It stretches everywhere. All this is Spirit (consciousness) alone, all this magnificent universe.”
The same could be said of the dream world, all of which takes place in your mind. And so we have that the universe is a dream in the mind of God. We are already one with the Divine, without any miracle, or religion, or creation of a moral being – just as your dream characters, whoever they are and whatever they do, are and always will be one with you. Just as you fill the dream world, so that all is from you and in you, and there is no part of the dream world outside you, so God can be said to fill the universe, transcendent and immanent. And the truth is, you are identical with God! As Jesus Christ speaking as a representative of man said, “I and my Father are one.”
Once you turn within to the deepest consciousness of your real self, which is God in you - just as you turn to the sun for light, but here for illumination from within - you discover the unreality of the objects you have chased in your waking dreams in favor of the reality which shines always from within. All too often we make the object of our life’s work things like success, fame and renown, because the world considers them praiseworthy and excellent. But these things should be results, not objects, as are pleasures, conventionalities and fashions approved by the masses, although they are as unreal as if they appeared in your dreams.
Most everyone has had some experience that has called into question the definition of reality. The aforementioned out-of-body or near-death experiences, encounters with deceased loved ones, parasomnias and dissociative states. Depersonalization is one such dissociative state, in which there is a persistent or recurrent alteration in the perception of the self to the extent that a person’s sense of her own reality is temporarily lost. The individual may feel that she is mechanical, living in a dream, or detached from her body. In derealization, it is not the body that seems strange or unreal, but the perception of objects in the external world, which do not seem to have a tangible identity of their own. Transient depersonalization may indeed occur in as many as 70 percent of a given population, and frequently occurs as children become self-aware. This “temporary sense of unreality” is far too common to be dismissed. Fainting spells and the waking dreams already mentioned are other instances when the nature of reality is brought into question. Since what is true in marked degree of some people is likely true in some degree of all, it can be said that everyone has been seized with the feeling that what we take for real, this world around us and our individualized places within it, is no more real than a fantasy or vision, that there is a deeper level that daily life, with its focus on externalities and its preoccupation with rituals and chores and pastimes, seems to ignore. As famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy once said, “Life in the conventional world,” the cupidities, complications and cruelties of so-called civilized life, “is no life, but a parody on life, which its superfluities simply keep us from comprehending.”
To achieve that unity with your surroundings, an existence without boundaries, is to have a glimpse of Self-realization. Then the goal is to extend that fleeting glimpse of your true nature throughout life. Life's purpose is the unification of spirit and matter.
American psychologist James Leuba once said: “When the sense of estrangement fencing man about in a narrowly limited ego breaks down, the individual finds himself ‘at one with all creation.’”
Living in such a way, seeing God in every being and all beings in you, how can you experience hatred, jealousy or rivalry? English poet John Symonds described his mystical experience in this way: “At last nothing remained but a pure, absolute, abstract Self. The universe became without form and void of content. But Self persisted, formidable in its vivid keenness.” Indeed Symonds often asked himself, on waking from that formless state of pure existence, “Which is the unreality – the trance of fiery, vacant, apprehensive, skeptical Self from which I issue, or these surrounding phenomena and habits which veil that inner Self and build a self of flesh-and-blood conventionality?”
The Divine has brought the understanding of Reality within the grasp of the mind by giving it a state analogous in its principal characters. In the state of dream we can fathom the reality that “all things are seen and contained in God.” (Saint Teresa) And aligning your individual consciousness with the consciousness in which all things appear, you become like the center of a circle (the individuality) coinciding with the center of a much larger circle (the Self).
“When to himself his form appears unreal, as do on waking all the forms he sees in dreams . . . and now thy self is lost in Self, thyself unto thyself, merged in that Self from which thou first didst radiate. Thou art thyself the object of thy search.” (H.P. Blavatsky: The Voice of the Silence)
It is worth reiterating that the purpose of the dream, if we can speak of the One without need having a purpose, may be for the creative force to express itself in an infinite number of forms, with an infinite number of perspectives, which finally converge in the totality. “In God all these points of view fall into an absolute identity of being.”
All you have to do is make the effort in the silence of your heart to return from the solitude of individuality into the consciousness of unity with all that is. Thus begins a hidden process which goes on even after the effort stops, and which makes the desired result come on its own, like an “aha” moment.
You may fear losing your individuality, but what you gain in totality is well worth it. As William James so eloquently put it: “For whilst in one sense we give up self to live the universal and absolute life, yet that to which we thus surrender ourselves is in reality our real Self. Oneness of mind and will with the divine mind and will is not some future hope or religious aim, but its very beginning and birth in the soul. It is in union with that something larger than ourselves that we find the highest peace.”
As we have shown, the fantastic experience of dreaming can teach us some of the most valuable things about existence, as night after night, we lay ourselves down to sleep and are swept away from our bedrooms into a realm where personal histories, even the laws of nature, no longer apply. And whatever happens, however outlandish it may seem to the waking mind, the dreamer is not in the least bit astonished. Within the dream there are no expectations, no discrimination between good experiences and bad ones. Duality doesn’t apply. On its own, consciousness is content just to have experiences. Applied to life, we can use this phenomenon to explain all apparent evils. They are just experiences. Who are they happening to? If God is all, then they happen to God. God, seated in the heart of each of us, who appears as manifold personalities to have experiences, not of necessity. Just because. For the same reason you lie down each night to dream: Just because.
To access reality we must venture beyond the foreground of existence, the trivialities of our individual lives, and grasp that sense of the whole cosmos as an everlasting presence, around, through and beyond, which in some degree everyone possesses.
Our dreams may help us access that presence.
In the classic children’s tale The Neverending Story, a boy named Bastian reads a fairy tale and finds himself swept so completely into the magical world of Fantastica, that he has actually become a character in the story. He travels through mystical lands, leaping and bounding from adventure to adventure, slaying adversaries, cavorting with princesses, handling magical gemstones and ruling the land. Bastian has many wishes in the dream realm of the book – he wishes first to be wise, then to love, and finally to be loved - and each wish is fulfilled almost as quickly as he can think it. In the end he drinks of the Water of Life and is filled with joy, the joy of living and the joy of being himself. It is as if he is born again, now realizing that “there are thousands and thousands of forms of joy in the world, all essentially one and the same: namely, the joy of being able to love.”
And then he returns to his own world.
And isn’t this what we do every night in our dreams, taking the form of so many characters to experience the joy of being? And mightn’t this be what the great consciousness achieves in manifesting the world and then entering the heart of each entity, to express the bliss of existence in and through love?
The Srimad Bhagavatam tells us: "The Supreme Self (God) created the universe and then entered it in His own essence, like the sleeper creating a new world, that of dreams, with his own mind and then imagining that he lives and moves and has his being in it."
There are many questions that philosophy cannot solve. For example, if all is one, then why help others, since there is nobody to help but the Self, which being perfect is in no need of assistance? Two, if the universe is merely an illusion then why is it so many sages and scriptures have said that human birth is the highest blessing a soul can achieve, since it offers the unique opportunity to realize God? How to reconcile society’s urging that a person be the best he can be and develop himself at the highest level with the reality that you are what you seek, so it is best simply to be? And how to account for the existence of suffering and evil in the world? Does the fact that God being all is the one who suffers, or that because the universe is an illusion there is no suffering or evil, explain it away?
What’s more, if the individual’s nightly dream really serves as microcosm for what is at work at the universe as a whole, and the dream world is an amalgamation of events, places and personages impinging upon the dreamer’s mind in waking life, then is the universe itself, cosmic dream that it is, itself borrowed from a larger world, analogous to the dreamer’s waking life?
Also, if we adhere to the analogy, and remind ourselves that the dream characters have no reality independent of the dreamer, since they all appear in the dreamer’s mind, and we need not be concerned with what happens to them in the dream, whether they experience pleasure or pain, even though seeming conscious they appear to be hurt or happy, then we are left to wonder, looking around us, if other people are real in themselves or just projections of our minds. Or is waking life a case of consciousness simultaneously existing independently in countless individuals, playing countless parts, interacting with itself, assuming (voluntarily?) ignorance if its identicalness with the consciousness in which the entire game or play unfolds?
And finally, is there an ultimate purpose to the creation? Is it the mind or supramind, as some have posited? Does man have some ultimate purpose? Does God need man to fulfill a certain cosmic destiny, as many writers have claimed? What if anything is the universal mind (the mind of God) working out in the cosmic dream we call waking life and refer to as reality? Does the dream that is the universe serve, like the individual’s dream, to resolve issues, fulfill wishes, sort out repressions, in this case in the mind of the Absolute? Jung and Freud would probably say yes. Since we cannot ask them, we’ll just have to answer these questions ourselves.
It looks like we’ve found ourselves a topic for our next book.
Just the other day I took a nap on my bedroom floor. It was just before noon. When I regained consciousness, I lay for a moment with my eyes closed, and in that instant I realized I didn't know who I was or where I was. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t feel anything. I just was. It didn't last for more than a few moments, but in this period, which, divorced from time as it was seemed like infinity, I was free consciousness. With no memories, mind, personal identity. Free of my physical form. Before long the details of my individual existence came seeping back into my brain. I remembered my name, and my physical location beside my bed. And the fact that I had put a pot of beans on the stove to simmer, so I’d better get moving lest my beans get burned!
But that moment of pure consciousness may have provided a glimpse, however fleeing, of ultimate reality. Pure consciousness, free of thought, existence alone, may very well be what life is like after death (and for that matter, before) and what life is like for, dare I say, God. God who is just pure consciousness. God who alone is all that is.
For how do you know that you're all that is? Does someone come and tell you? Of course not, or else you wouldn't be alone. Merging with God may just be returning to that essence of pure consciousness from which all arises and to which all returns. I'd take that over heaven or hell any day.
FOR FURTHER READING
William S. Burroughs’ My Education: A Book of Dreams
Sigmund Freud’s On Dreams
Carl Jung’s The Undiscovered Self
Carl Jung’s essay “Approaching the Unconscious” from Man and His Symbols
William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience
Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy
Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine
Nisargadatta Maharaj’s Nectar of Immortality and Pointers
Ramana Maharshi’s Be As You Are (with David Godman)