Time for a post veering away from politics and economics. Last night I had my first lucid dream in a long time and it got me thinking. Is life akin to a dream?
Sometimes when I dream I become aware I’m dreaming. I realize that the landscape around me is my own mental sleep-creation, and by exploring it I can explore my mind, or even the nature of this “reality” I experience in the dream world. At one point I kept journals on all my dream experiences. I called it being “dream aware” for a long time, and then learned that the proper term was lucid dreaming. I taught myself how to manipulate the dream world, experimented in that reality, and applied lessons learned there to life.
One thing that would irk me is that in the deepest lucid dreams (i.e., not those dreams just upon waking or drifting off to sleep, but those from the prime dream time) the complexity and excitement of the dream would overwhelm me and I’d lose lucidity. Sometimes I’d regain it, sometimes it would fade in and out. Often upon waking I’d recall that at one point I was lucid, but then got captured by the dream, and caught up in the plot, action and emotions.
In times when I get pre-occupied by the news, the economic conditions, the political theater, or even the human drama around me I recall that sense — am I being ‘captured by the dream’ in waking reality? Am I getting so caught up in the dramas of the day that I lose sight of my true self, and what I deep down know about reality?
The danger of that view, of course, is that it might lead one not to take the suffering of others seriously. But most people already abstract away the pain of others and disengage. I throw myself into such experiences, try to understand the actors on all sides, teach about the human side of world events in my classes, and feel the meaning of these things with a strong sense of empathy. I am shocked at how people can dismiss Iraqi casualties by abstracting that ‘they are Muslims’ or ‘different’ or ‘that’s war.’ Yet people do. As I noted awhile back, abstraction can be the root of all evil.
I believe all world events are symbolic of the human condition, both socially and individually. Does the anger I might feel in a moment of weakness — an anger that might cause me to fantasize about strangling someone, something I would never really do — differ fundamentally from that of the psychotic killer who can’t prevent himself from turning those momentary emotional bursts into real world action? As I explore jealousies, loves, angers, weaknesses and strengths in my own self, I see the entire pathos and divinity of humanity reflected. Under the right conditions or experiences I could be a Gandhi or a Nazi, perhaps even a Hitler. Shut out a stream of empathy, unleash a river of anger, build a dam of indifference and abstraction, and any human is capable of the worst of human behavior; reverse those, and any human is capable of the best. The distance from Hitler to Mother Theresa may not be as vast as people imagine.
I have a strong sense of faith. The faith is not in a religion or a God, but in the belief that the universe reflects a deeper spiritual reality, that our material condition is a manifestation of our beliefs, ideals, and history. I do not mean this in the sense that Voltaire mocked with Pangloss, the character in Candide who supposedly reflected Rousseau’s Deist faith that nature always gave the proper and best result. Indeed, being in a material world it seems that this world is, in a sense, our work book. The problems we perceive are here for us to solve, both personal and global.
When I internalize this view, I feel balanced and centered. The world is as it should be, so that we can learn what we need to learn. Our actions have consequences, but the consequences are also there as learning opportunities. We can’t truly comprehend why or how, but there is a deeper meaning to all that we experience. In that sense, waking reality is like a dream. We get caught up in the dramas and dilemmas, they often overwhelm us or drag us down, but it’s not real. The emotions, connections, pain, joy and ideas are real, the material world is a stage upon which such things are worked out, much like a dream.
To be sure, this waking reality has some attributes in common with dream reality, but some are very different. This reality “feels” real, as does the dream reality. So many times I’d wake from a lucid dream not sure which reality truly seemed more genuine. On the other hand, this reality is not as easily shaped by my own thoughts — I can’t teach myself to fly, swim in dirt, create landscapes and do all the things I can in my dream realities. Still, in my dream world I do not have complete conscious control over the dream — things happen I don’t expect, including those things which cause me to be captured by the dream.
In one dream I was diseased and disfigured. I was walking around trying to make sense of that condition, and feeling depressed. Why me? I was captured by the dream, and when I woke realized that by the end of my dream I was truly despondent — my life had been good, but I’d lost everything. Of course, that wasn’t the case. The dream disappeared with waking. Could that be the same with our ‘waking’ reality? Genocides, mass murder, the horror of human behavior all simply vanishing upon waking (in this case death) to a reality that sees such things as not truly real — even if at times disturbing?
When I think in those terms, my focus shifts. What matters to me in my life becomes focused on family, friends, and dealing with every day life in a way that accepts what cannot be changed, and works with what can. It brings contentment. In dealing with the “big issues” that perspective helps me not get weighed down by the enormous amount of pain in the world. I also have a sense that just as every possible pathos and joy of human experience can be found in each person, each person is a part of a humanity linked in ways we can’t comprehend. Every bit of suffering affects everyone of us; as does every bit of joy. We’re linked, when we spread love and joy, we make a difference in the whole. This gives me a drive to learn about the world and do my part to try to help others.
Being ‘captured by the dream’ can be overwhelming, depressing, and breed cynicism. Most of humanity seems to live caught up in the daily material existence, not seeing beyond it. Becoming lucid in life is difficult, but rewarding. To be sure, maybe material reality is all that there is, with no spirit, soul or transcendental meaning. But that would make for a really absurd situation — if that’s true, why is there even a world. How could there be a world? So I’ll endeavor to live as if what I claim above is real, following the ethics that come from a belief that we are at some level linked and connected; that may be the best moral guide one can have.