Life is but a Dream

“Once upon a time, Chuang Tzu, the old philosopher had a dream. Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly, and while he dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting about, he was happy to be a butterfly. Suddenly Chuang Tzu awakened.  He was Chuang Tzu again.  Now was Chuang Tzu a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or was he a butterfly who dreamed he was a man?”

From the Book of Chuang Tzu
China, 4th Century BCE

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.”

The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148-158

Dreams play a central role in our lives and, whether or not we credit them with much importance, we certainly spend a lot of time thinking about them, writing about them and depicting them in works of art.  Dreams have the power to stir great emotion and enormous passion. Dreams can arouse our deepest fears, can shake us and reduce us to tears. Dreams are often closely related to our highest hopes and aspirations, and who is to say that we will not one day awaken to discover that our lives – the stream upon which we have spent our whole lives rowing – will have been nothing but a dream all along.

To Plato, our lives are no more real to us than shadows projected on the wall of a cave.  Only the philosopher can see through this illusion into the deeper reality.  The Buddha too compared our lives to a kind of waking dream, from which we need to awaken, to become enlightened.  In classical Hinduism, Maya or illusion is the stuff of our daily existence.  Like a mirage, the soul or atman is deceived into believing that this temporary physical body is real and this belief causes the ego to pursue physical gratification that leads to suffering.   The more we look for permanence in that which is, by it’s nature, impermanent (the body), the unhappier we will be.  In Zen, it is like “putting a head on top of the head you already have”, or seeking for something that is already there.  It is like the goldfish looking for water outside the fishbowl (or a bird looking for the air outside of the air).  The moment we forget the illusion, the curtain drops away and we are immersed in the present reality.

But, like the goldfish, how would be recognize this reality or distinguish it from the dream?

Psychoanalysis imagines dreams as central to our understanding of ourselves.  Dreams are doorways into our subconscious minds and offer us keys to unlock our hopes, fears and motivations.  Freud believed that dreams were symbolic ways of expressing our true personality and that our most powerful and dangerous urges could only be expressed in dream images. He believed that psychopathology could be understood and treated through the interpretation of dreams. Carl Jung took a more spiritual approach to dreams, and in them saw an archetypal expression of our human collective unconscious.  Meditation and prayer are ways to connect with our collective unconscious and to awaken to our true nature.

Our existence and the reality of the world in which we live is something that is continually being questioned by philosophers.

The 17th Century French philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the concept of what he calls a `deceiving demon’ who causes us to dream and feeds us ideas that we mistakenly take to be our external reality: “the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds, and all external things [may be] merely the delusions of dreams which [the demon] has devised to ensnare my judgment”

In the film, the Matrix, humans are nothing more than shells that are harvested to feed their masters.  Meanwhile, the humans are programmed by these machine-like creatures to live in a simulated reality – a reality they imagine to be real.

The modern philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that through modern culture and, especially the media, we have replaced reality with symbols and signs and that human experience is, itself, a simulation.  This pseudo-reality or simulacrum, where the map replaces the territory is so pervasive and persuasive that reality itself has disappeared.

In “Xerox and Infinity“, he wrote: ” We used to live in the imaginary world of the mirror, of the divided self and of the stage, of otherness and alienation. Today we live in the imaginary world of the screen, of the interface and the reduplication of contiguity and networks. All our machines are screens. We too have become screens, and the interactivity of men has become the interactivity of screens.”  And in Simulacra and Simulation:  “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” 

In the 2001 movie, “The Waking Life” a live-action animated film, the Director, Richard Linklater, explores the journey of a character trapped in a continuous dream from which he is unable to awaken.  Life and death, night and day, are seen as a continuous loop of encounters and challenges to our ideas and beliefs.  Dreams confront us with the possibility that we are only skimming the surface of a profound and multitudinous reality, a world that we can never grasp in its entirety, slippery in nature and, ultimately ineffable.  Philosophers and philosophies weave in and out of a stream of consciousness over which we have a very limited control.  One of the characters asks, “They say that dreams are only real as long as they last.

Couldn’t you say the same thing about life?” Beyond mere conjecture or existential imaginings, dreams provide a richness that can translate into a vital life force.  For Native Americans, the dream quest or vision quest provides a  personal meaning or direction that guides its seeker through the course of their life:

” Visions are messages from the Great Spirit, each for a different purpose in life. Consequently, one person’s vision may not be that of another. To have a vision, one must be prepared to receive it, and when it comes, to accept it. Thus when these inner urges become reality, only then can visions be fulfilled. The spiritual side of life knows everyone’s heart and who to trust. How could a vision ever be given to someone to harbor if that person could not be trusted to carry it out. The message is simple: commitment precedes vision.”

Black Elk, a well-known Lakota medicine man, related a part of his vision quest as follows:

“This is part of a vision quest I was told to share with all who may be interested. Once, I went to pray at the top of the sacred mountain of my ancestors. As I climbed to the top I heard voices singing as the wind blew the leaves. At the top I saw, made from many stones, a large circle with a cross inside. I knew from my teachings that this represented the circle of life and the four directions. I sat down by the edge of this circle to pray. I thought this is only a symbol of the universe. “True,” a very soft voice said. “Look and you will see the Center of the Universe. Look at every created thing.” As I looked around I saw that every created thing had a thread of smoke or light going from it. The voice whispered, “This cord that every created thing has is what connects it to the Creator. Without this cord it would not exist.” As I watched I saw that all these threads, coming from everything, went to the center of the circle where the four directions were one place (the center of the cross). I saw that all these threads were tied together or joined here at this spot. The voice spoke again, “This is the Center of the Universe. The place where all things join together and all things become one. The place where everything begins and ends. The place inside everything created.”

At the centre of the dream within a dream who knows what we might find – a butterfly perhaps, or  a man or perhaps even, as Shakespeare seems to say, the stuff on which dreams are made. Ourselves.