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Dreams

The Studentenheim in Bonn

The Studentenheim in Bonn

I have just posted a spiritual fantasy called “Dreams.”     The heroine Jenny finds herself in a different reality, able among other things to enter into the dreams of others – past, present and future.   Go read it if you’re into that kind of thing!   I wrote it about 20 years ago and have given up on ever having it published.  However, more than anything I’ve ever written it outlines my core beliefs about life, including speculation about the nature of reality.  Read that and you know me, even 20 years after the fact.

The story had an odd genesis.   While I was studying in Germany I had the pleasure to spend a chunk of time in a Studentenheim (dorm) in Bonn on the Endernicher Allee.  When everyone left for Christmas I stayed in my room.    I could have gone to visit friends elsewhere in Germany, but I wanted a little bit of time alone — I had been traveling all through November as I shifted from staying in Berlin to Bonn, and wanted some time by myself.

On December 25th I took a magical train ride through the snowy Moselle valley (I had a German rail pass I was using up), eating my Christmas dinner at the Frankfurt train station.   On the 26th I took another train ride, finishing my rail pass.  That evening the Letsch family – caretakers for the Studentenheim – invited me for Raclette.  I drank at least two liters of beer and enjoyed a wonderful evening.

The next morning – December 27th – I awoke at about 4:00 AM.   I had been listening to a CD from the former Supertramp member Roger Hodgson Eye of the Storm quite a bit that week.   It has strong spiritual undertones, and the time alone had me in an introspective mood.   I woke up with a story in my head.  I grabbed my Zeos 280 laptop and started typing.

It was like that for the next two and a half days.   All day on the 27th and 28th I was in my dorm room, typing out this story.  I’d run out of ideas, take a break and lay down…and then get up as new ideas popped in my head.   I finished it on the 29th, a sunny bright day.   “Wow,” I said to myself, “where did that come from!?”

I then went for a run through downtown Bonn and along the Rhein river, finally getting outside after spending nearly three days consumed by this story.     I thought I had something really good – I printed it out, made copies, gave it to friends, many of whom reacted positively to the ideas.    A couple said it was remarkable and inspiring.   I looked into publishing it a few times, but with no luck.  I would share it with people I thought might enjoy it and for awhile fantasized about getting it published and maybe even becoming a full time author.   But that was a pipe dream – I write too much like an academic!

This morning I started a blog post in which I mentioned how I used to keep a journal of my dreams, including lucid dreams.    I had interesting encounters with vicious dogs in those dreams, and some of that had worked its way into my story.    I put that post aside and decided to post my story for anyone who might be interested in a story I still feel really close to.

So I’d be honored if any of you take the time to read my story Dreams.

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Live Every Moment

Live every moment
Love every day
Because before you know it
Your precious time slips away
Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagen

Back in college I wrote a poem “Now Lasts Forever.”  I was intrigued by the idea that it is always now.    Time is an elusive concept.   Physicists tell us that time and space are really two parts of the same thing.    Photons — those particles of light illuminating the world — do not experience time, only speed.   For them now is literally all they experience.   That seems incomprehensible but we’re really in the same boat.   We experience now, even though the world changes around us.   My best definition of time is change – you know time has passed when things change.   Now lasts forever, change is constant.

I’ve argued before that it’s important to ‘live awake,’ to see beyond the kind of fog that society and culture can impose as we go through the day doing what we are supposed to do, caught up in various little battles and problems.   Angry at the traffic jam, snapping at the kids, fretting about work.   It’s easy to get caught up in that kind of parade of emotional noise, exhausted at the end of the day from the constant push and pull — or as a line in a different song puts it “overwhelmed by everything but wanting more so much!”

Live that way and days can pass in apparent meaninglessness.  Every battle or issue that arouses emotions and causes frustration gets forgotten, replaced by others that distract one from really living.   Then at some point it ends, and for most of us everything we’ve worried about and focused upon is forgotten faster than we  think possible.   Even those who make it to the history books do it in a caricatured manner.   People remember some deeds and details, but most of the daily concerns and activities are lost.   Now has changed, that past is gone completely.   We perceive left over traces in memory and artifacts, but little more.

No wonder some philosophers see the human condition as one of suffering and pain.   Wanting and yearning, desiring and struggling for something utterly unobtainable – a world that makes us happy.   When you depend on the world for happiness and contentment, the world will always disappoint.     Especially modern humans, stripped of the meaning community, faith and tradition provided in the past, face tremendous psychological difficulties coping with trying to make sense of this world and ones’ place within it.

The answer, it seems to me, is to take now seriously.   It is now.   Always.   Now lasts forever.  Change flows through the now.   It’s not that time is passing, now is simply changing form.    It’s not that we’re aging and gaining wisdom, we’re simply changing along with the world around us.

That lends perspective.   Why let ourselves be tied down by daily drudgery?   The reason things seem frustrating and boring is we create temporal cages.    We see time as well defined and important, and thus in any battle or fight the stakes are high.

What I try to do is appreciate the now whenever it occurs to me to do so.    When I put my six year old to bed he wants me to lay there and cuddle him.   The part of me wanting to build temporal cages thinks “I have to grade papers, I want to read a book, I don’t feel tired, he’ll keep me in here a half hour, he should fall asleep on his own…would my dad lay with me and cuddle…fat chance…”   If I do that my mind gets caught up in drifting, thinking about what I could be doing and the time passing.

But if I look in his eyes, hug him, look around the room and think of its beauty and how it will change, I appreciate being with my six year old son in his bedroom with the moon light flowing in, his soft skin against mine, or his little feet kicking my back, and it’s bliss.   I’m appreciating and living this moment, keeping my mind from wanting to leap out of the now.   After all, fretting about what one could be doing accomplishes nothing yet keeps one from appreciating what one is doing.

Walking downstairs through the rec room to my office I look at the wall colors.   What a beautiful house!   Where others might see a messy room, I see toys that someday will just be memories.   It’s here now, I’m in a point of time that has great joy if I let myself simply experience.    When I read student participation in discussion board for my on line course I realize I’m part of their education, they’re learning, taking time to write at something I constructed (this course and its structure) and we’re engaged in a real learning relationship.   It’s not “damn, I have to grade,” but WOW, I get to read these ideas and respond.   How cool is that?

Focusing on now is also helpful when one is irritated.  If I think, say, my son was treated unfairly in some situation I could fantasize everything from law suits to angry confrontations.   Those won’t happen, I’d just be wasting energy due to my own lack of satisfaction with the situation.   So instead I pause.  Look around.  The beauty of the place where I am at, the things around me, the joy inherent in this moment.    Last weekend skiing I had to go up the T-bar with my six year old.  One time towards the end of the day my legs and shoulders were in pain and the ride was excruciating.  I was dwelling on my poor aging aching body then suddenly thought…wow, Dana and I are going up the T-bar together, that is so great…look at the snow, the trees, the sunlight, this is such a beautiful place, so magical.   And it was – as I engaged in that celebration of the moment the pain didn’t disappear, but it didn’t register.

We joked and laughed going up the mountain.   That laugh.   So delightful.   Today after school Dana comes out and it’s the first really cold day this year, about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.   He takes off his jacket, “wow, it’s really hot out here,” he says.  (Note: I take full responsibility for that kind of behavior, he’s acting like me in that sort of instance.)    I try to get him to put his coat on but to no avail — though he does move quickly to the car.   Other parents might struggle and get mad “how can you take your coat off, you’ll catch your death of cold, get your coat on NOW!”   I just smile and watch the stubborn and independent little guy run to the car laughing.   The moment is beautiful.

The more I manage to appreciate each moment as it goes by, the better I feel, the more I find life truly beautiful and wondrous, the more magic seems to occur.    Monday was trash and recycling day.   We recycle monthly, so I had a whole bunch of Christmas boxes I got ready to go Sunday night.  I usually leave things up there Sunday nights but it was raining – and freezing rain is not a friend to things left outside.   So I knew I had to wake up Monday early.

I did – at 7:41.  The rest of the house was asleep.   The recycling people come early and I was afraid I’d missed them.  I rushed to the garage still wearing my lounging around the house pants and headed up to the road.   It’s about a quarter mile up to get to where I have to leave the stuff.   The recycling truck is there.  I get out, “glad I caught you,” I say as I hand the guy my broken down boxes.   He smiles, takes the stuff and I head back.

But as I do I have a huge smile on my face.  What a moment.  I woke up just in time!   Can that really be coincidence?   And I got the maximum sleep possible without missing it!   The air is crisp, the sky clear, and the world full of magic and beauty.   Living in the moment works.

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Why am I an Idealist?

I am an idealist.  I’m not talking about foreign policy or international relations (Wilsonian idealism), but rather philosophical idealism.   What does this mean?  It means that I see ideas as the essential “stuff” of reality.  There are many forms of idealism (just look it up on Wikipedia), and rather than categorize myself I want to explore why I hold this position — not explain why, but explore, since I’m really not sure myself why I think as I do.

To the realist/materialist there is a reality “out there” made up of things external to the self, which one has to navigate in order to survive and thrive.    Most realists see the external world populated by many individuals like oneself, and life involves learning to interact with others, cooperate and sometimes fight.  At a practical level, there isn’t much difference between how one would live life as a materialist/realist and an idealist.   Experience is what it is.  If I jump off a cliff I can injure or kill myself, regardless of whether reality is made up of matter or ideas.   Poverty, war, disease, pain and sorrow are experiences that are as real and valid regardless of ones’ philosophy.

Most people in our culture are realist/materialists.  It seems to be how the world operates; our language and way of thinking are geared towards such an approach.   For me to reject that for idealism seems odd.   Yet since experience is something processed in the mind, the nature of reality is an open question.    A dream reality seems real — one appears to have a body and there are objects apparently external to the self — but its all in the head.  We also have developed virtual reality games, holographic images, and other ways that hint at the possibility that one can have an experience that seems to be enmeshed in a world of external entities, but is actually contained in a computer program or beams of light.

Moreover, without going into the scientific detail, it’s harder to hold on to a materialist/realist view of the world and make sense of modern physics than it is to have a more idealist perspective.   The paradoxes around time, basic particles, the nature of space-time, how light operates, etc., are immense.   Well established principles such as non-locality (one particle can instantaneously impact another, which should be impossible) and quantum tunneling defy common sense views of reality.   Probably the best author (and someone who is a realist/materialist) about this is Brian Greene, and his books The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Hidden Reality.

OK, if you read those with an open mind you might say that my view is plausible, but so many questions are open that idealism isn’t self-evidently the best alternative.   So why do I believe as I do?

William James noted that peoples’ beliefs are often less about how they analyze reality and more a reflection of personality.   Perhaps my personality predisposes me to this kind of world view.   As a child I was naturally religious, reading the Bible by age 12 and taking prayer and faith seriously — much more so than my parents.    As I grew I became skeptical that one religious teaching could be right, but kept the sense of spiritualism.   Even my choice of music — Styx Grand Illusion, Yes, Supertramp, Alan Parsons Project, Kansas, and the Moody Blues, venture towards more mystical takes on reality.  The cynical realism of punk rock didn’t appeal to me, while traditional hard rock like AC/DC and Van Halen always seemed fun but shallow.  (And Grunge?  YUCK!)

Maybe by my nature I am drawn more to spiritual ideas (which link well with idealism) than material ones?   That is a bit disappointing if true — if we’re all sort of programmed to have particular world views through our personality, then how free are we?   Are people Republican, Democrat, libertarian or radical by dint of their personalities?

And what is it about my personality?   When I do personality tests a few things stand out.  I’m very non-judgmental (I’m radically on the ‘perceiving’ side), I easily accept both change and uncertainty, and I’m optimistic.  I don’t carry grudges, tend not to dislike people, and tend to be a bit dreamy and escapist.   I see those things as good, but my optimism can drive friends crazy, and my escapism probably has cost me life opportunities.

Perhaps the most important aspect of my personality that lends itself to idealism is that since a young age I’ve had a profound belief that I am in charge of and responsible for my own life.  I can blame no one else when things go wrong, I have to adapt and make do in circumstances I dislike, changing them if I can (figuring out when I need to adapt and when I can change things).   I view my success, happiness and joy as my responsibility and no one else’s.   This is a hard view to hold with a materialist/realist world view.

First, there would be the guilt attack — oh, that’s easy for a middle class American white male to believe, I’ve been born into comfort, taking responsibility for that is easy — but does that mean third world children born into a war zone are equally responsible?   Such guilt attacks usually come from within — how can I hold such a view, isn’t that arrogant and self-serving?   From an idealist point of view, though, its far more complex.   Managing life conditions is difficult, and material opulence can hinder joy and happiness and create illusions of false success.

Second, a realist world view makes such self-responsibility seem at best a delusion.  Drunk drivers, cancer cells, terrorists, and the ill winds of chance are there to threaten my life conditions.   To a realist/materialist life is a struggle, one has to compete and be on guard at all times — who knows what the world or other people might throw at you!   It makes more sense to see oneself as a victim of circumstance with a realist/materialist world view.  One has the responsibility to respond to what life brings, but life might end up a joyless struggle regardless of ones’ efforts.   My optimism and belief in personal control would be seen as a delusion, one likely to explode in my face someday when a true crisis hits.

Perhaps.   But its not like I haven’t had my own challenges in life.   If it’s a delusion, it might be one that is psychologically useful, giving me a positive attitude and a belief I can handle what comes my way.   Then again, maybe judging world conditions and ourselves on primarily materialist standards is misguided.   After all, my belief in control is not one of the individual self against the world, but of myself connected spiritually to the world; to me that’s the source of strength and opportunity.   It’s not me against the world, but me with the world.   That’s the kind of paradox (I’m responsible and can blame no one else, but that responsibility is based on a spiritual connection to everything else) that my personality has no problem holding.   To others it’s contradictory and downright corny.

Ultimately I can’t know if my idealism is correct.  It feels right at an intuitive level; I don’t believe I could convince myself to think differently.  My way of engaging the world and interpreting reality is part of who I am, it’s not something I can simply change or be talked out of.   And that’s a bit disconcerting.  I’m not sure why I think like I do, nor can I imagine thinking in a fundamentally different manner.   I suspect that’s also true of people who have a far different world view than I do.   I’ll have to ponder this further…

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The Illusion of Objectivity?

The modern mind differentiates itself from the pre-modern by making a stark distinction between the object and the self.   Rene Descartes takes this to its logical extreme by recognizing that consciousness is the root of the subjective self.   The body and all the senses could be deceptive, but there is something that thinks – cogito ergo sum.

Yet consciousness is experience.   Whether or not the world is as our senses indicate, we experience sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound.    Those senses constitute experience, they are all that exist to the self.   From those sensations we make sense of reality, drawing conclusions, testing hypotheses and trying to figure out why the world is as it is.

Before modernism the world of the senses was part of the self.   Instead of a stark distinction between object and subject, the notion of subjectivity was expanded to include objects.   Existence was rife with symbols, consciousness pervaded all of what one sensed, the self mingled with all experience.    Modernism broke this link, and separated the self from all of what was sensed.  The self — or consciousness — thus stood outside of the rest of the world.   That world consists of other conscious selves, no longer connected through shared subjectivity, but disconnected from each other as separate thinking beings.

From there sensory experience was categorized, studied and tested.   Since other humans appear to be as we are we assume that they have the same kind of conscious experiences as we do.   Thus we are in a world populated with “thinking machines,” or bodies that function in service of a mind that itself may simply be a  myriad of material chemical reactions — an extremely sophisticated ‘natural’ computer.

Other entities appear to have sensual experience, but apparently do not have the capacity to reason and reflect.   These creatures are animal life forms.  We know that animals can reason in a limited manner, but the lack of linguistic capacity and reflection mean their consciousness is different.    Other life forms do not seem to experience the world, they just grow — plants lack consciousness.   Below that are non-life forms such as rocks, soil and inert matter.   Energy (and plasmas like fire) have a different status, though we know realize that matter and energy are the same — matter gets converted to make energy.

All this is accepted because it works in the world.   We can analyze reality as if we are discrete minds experiencing a reality we somehow find ourselves in for no apparent reason.   Yet this is an odd conclusion.   If our minds consist of only chemical and electric reactions, with DNA shaping our personality and capabilities, then there is really no separate mind able to comprehend experience.    Where does the self end and the object begin?

The self is our reflective thinking capacity.   Yet where is it?   Is it the brain?  But the brain is made up of objects – cells, blood, chemicals and the like.    What mix of chemicals, electric nerve impulses and the like constitute the self at any time?

At this level the distinction between object and self breaks down.   There are lots of objects that make up the brain, but the self emerges from it in some indistinguishable form.   To be sure, the self cannot live without the body (especially not the brain).   It can lose some parts of the body, but if the body cannot function at a fundamental level the self disappears — the body dies and the subjectivity is lost.

But what if the modern take on subjectivity is wrong?   What if it is not the case that a discrete subjective self is in a world of objects, trying to make sense of the objective reality in which the self finds itself?   What if objectivity is an illusion, what if the pre-modern view of expanded subjectivity is accurate?

First, it is only habit and bias that cause some to dismiss that possibility.   Since the self is constituted only by sensual experiences the idea that the self is separate from those experiences (or the source of those experiences) is pure conjecture.    In dream states, for instance, no distinction is made between what one takes within the dream as sensual experience (you can touch, see, hear and taste in dreams) and the self.   The dream is an illusion of objective reality during the sleep state.

There is no logical reason why waking reality could not be seen in a similar light.    It is more consistent and less malleable than dream reality, but that simply means it functions differently, not that one is pure subjectivity and the other is a discrete subject adrift in a world of objects.   Moreover, modern physics and brain research have mainstream theories that draw the same conclusion.   The holographic principle posits reality as a complex hologram, with the brain operating much as a hologram operates (it appears there is no other way to account for how the brain functions).

The fact that it is possible that the stark subject-object distinction is an illusion doesn’t mean we should dispense with it.   Practically, it has proven very useful, allowing us to manipulate the world of objects to achieve numerous goals.   Pragmatically, accepting the object/subject differences makes sense.

But does that practical manipulation of reality require that we posit a subject-object dichotomy?   Probably not.   It does allow us to remove ethical consideration of how we deal with the world because objects that are not conscious (or in the case of animals possess lower consciousness) do not require ethical treatment.   Killing a tree, killing ants and forging steel are all acts with no ethical content — we’re dealing with non-conscious objects.

If objectivity is an illusion and the self is mingled with experience, ethical issues become more complex.    It still may not be wrong to poison ants or build skyscrapers, but the act of doing so could affect the subject in some non-trivial way.   Moreover, how we deal with others would change.   With the subject-object distinction we can assume that our choices are individual and thus have no impact on others unless there is some objective trace (e.g., we hit another person, steal their money, or something like that).   Without the distinction then humans are not discrete separate selves, but may indeed be linked at some level with the rest of the world of experience.    In that case, ethical systems built on the idea of discrete individuals interacting through choice have to be rethought.

Of course, one could argue that the experience of reality as objective is enough to simply make that a working assumption.    Samuel Johnson used a similar argument against Bishop Berkeley (who also doubted the existence of objective reality) when he kicked a rock and said “I refute Bishop Berkeley thusly.”   The object moved when kicked, the world operates as a world of objects.   Yet as one learns in philosophy class, that doesn’t refute Berkeley or prove anything.   Johnson simply gave a pragmatic reason for accepting the subject-object distinction.

An expanded view of subjectivity seems odd to the modern mind, even if that’s the “natural” state of the human mind in nature.   Seeming odd doesn’t make it wrong, however.    It also wouldn’t mean the modern mind is inferior to the pre-modern mind, only that we may have one point wrong and we should consider the implications for how we live and understand the world.   This also could be an alternative to cold positivism and meaningless relativistic skepticism.

Row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream…

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Is There A God?

(This reflects my own internal musings over the past few weeks, already discussed in a blog entry ‘The Nature of God?‘ last month.)

We’ve reached a time in history where most well educated people have developed a deep skepticism of religion.   Even those who still profess a faith often treat it as a minor aspect of life, something held on to out of habit more than conviction.   In Europe only 20% of the population still believes there is a God.   Even here in the US core biblical knowledge that all used to share is becoming rarer.   When I was a child everyone learned about, say Jonah and the Whale, and knew who Abraham and Isaac were.   If I ask a class that now a days only one or two out of thirty students will know.

The skepticism of religion seems to answer the question “is there a God” with “no.”  But really, the question goes unasked.  Instead a particular belief system is being replaced by another one.   Atheism generally is an embrace of materialism (belief in the dominance of matter, or things which can be seen and measured in the world) and rational logical thought.    This was the enlightenment alternative to religious faith and tradition, after all, and the enlightenment is winning.

A belief that matter is all that matters (pun intended) has to be called into question, especially as scientists learn more about the nature of matter, time-space and the universe/multiverse.   A focus on reason or rational thought discounts the entire emotional side of human existence, relegating the part of our experience that gives us a true sense of meaning — joy, anger, happiness, sorrow, etc. — to second class status.   In short, even if one thinks that particular theological perspectives or religious dogmas cannot be believed, that shouldn’t automatically lead to an embrace of materialism and rationalism as the proper way to understand life.    Reason, after all, cannot provide ethics or morality, it is only a tool that can lead to conclusions based on evidence and assumptions.   Reason does not tell us what our values should be.

So I would start by going back to the question: is there a God?

The first aspect of answering any question is to define the term.    What does God mean, especially if we’re asking in the abstract, rather than asking about a particular God-story.   The Christian, Muslim, or Hindu Gods may all be fiction, but that doesn’t mean there is no God.    For any of their beliefs to be right, there first has to be a positive answer to the central question on God’s existence.

There are various ways God can be described.   God is the prime mover, the one who set the world in motion.   Before Newtonian physics was modified by Einstein the need of a prime mover caused most people to accept the need for a God.   And it does seem like science requires if not a prime mover, at least something to cause the “big bang” or to generate space-time.   So part one of a viable God concept is that God is something that is outside space time that in some way caused this universe or world we experience to come into being.   At this point there is no requirement God be a conscious entity, just a causal mechanism.   And, being outside space-time, there is no need to ask “what created God” – creation and a “beginning” are attributes of being in space-time.

God could also be seen as  a spiritual presence.  Here the going gets trickier.  Religious experience is real, documented over time (famously by William James), and has the capacity to create happiness, improve recovery from disease and yield a more satisfying life.   But how do we understand that experience?  It doesn’t seem to matter what religion one believes either — all Gods seem capable of miracles.   The usual way to approach this in a materialist sense is to see it as a psychological aspect of humanity; religious experience is a chemical reaction of the brain.

But that’s unsatisfying.  Depression, for instance, is linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, but do we really want to say that all ‘negative’ emotions and experiences can be “fixed” chemically?   Can we find a “religious” chemical treatment that gains the benefits of religious experience without actually having the faith?   Such a “brave new world” approach to psychology is scary.   Perhaps chemical imbalances are caused by a mix of stress, negative thoughts, and cultural pressures.   To focus just on treating the symptoms would be to ignore the causes and the possibility that human mental health is more than just chemical reactions.

The spiritual/emotional/inspirational side of life can’t be found in purely material terms, it’s the stuff of dreams, internal meditation, reflection, imagination and art.    We have to have a different standard of observation, more subjective and comparative than use of the scientific method.   If we do that, then a wide realm of possibilities open up.

So I would posit the following God concept:  God refers to an essence outside space and time.   As such it is likely immaterial, in that it would not be subject to the laws of nature as we experience them in our space-time universe.  As I noted last month, if we see reality as primarily spirit (or consciousness) rather than stuff (or matter), then there is a good chance that a God would have consciousness.

Looked at in this way the question of “Is there a God?” has three possible answers:  a) Since we cannot not determine for certain yes or no, it’s a pointless question; b) the probability is that there is no conscious God and any causal mechanism for the world’s existence has a natural/material basis; or c) the probability that there is a God is great, with God defined as a force/source outside of space time (at least in part) with some form of consciousness.

“C” is a superior answer since “a” requires us to dismiss thoughts about the nature of life and our purpose as irrelevant since we can’t have certainty.   I’m fine with uncertainty.  “B” requires dismissing as unlikely the possibility of anything outside of matter and relegates consciousness to mere chemical/material reactions.   That may be the case, but it seems a leap of faith to assume that’s the case.   “C” leaves open a vast range of possibilities from pantheism to a kind of deism, virtually all existing religious beliefs, and a variety of spiritual and philosophical perspectives (including Plato’s notion of the ideal).

So yes, there is very likely a God with some kind of consciousness existing at least in part outside space/time.   But what God is remains ill defined.   Is it a part of all of us (are we all aspects of God?), is it a spiritual force, is it an entity with individual identity?    Those are harder questions.    So I guess for now I’m a Deist.

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Captured by the Dream

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.

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The Brain and Reality

Ever wonder what an ant or a bat experiences as reality?   The bat is blind, but uses sonar to give it a map of the world that works very well for flying, feeding and surviving.  How does the world feel — what kind of world does that bad experience?  We can imagine the sonar map being turned into a visual map because, as visual creatures, that’s what we relate to.  The bat, however, cannot even imagine the sense of sight, any more than we could imagine a new sense that would suddenly reveal to us facets of this reality that we cannot perceive.  To the bat, the world is not a visible one.

Meanwhile an ant or a fly experiences a tiny section of reality, but one that no doubt seems to be reality as it can only be.  An ant crawling along Sasha and Malia Obama’s swingset at the White House, and having a famous first daughter show mercy by moving the ant away rather than squishing it, experiences nothing special.  The ant doesn’t even conceive of or perceive reality that way.  Whether flying in the oval office or in the room of a south side Chicago crack dealer, the fly is oblivious to what us would be major differences in reality.

Simply, we get the reality our brain is able to give us.   Limited by the brain, most people (and no doubt animals) assume that they experience the reality that matters.   True, we know there are subatomic particles and things too tiny to see, and that we are on a speck of dust in the universe.  But we can build instruments try to to uncover the secrets of that which we cannot see, and assume that this is enough.  Anything outside our brains capacity to perceive or imagine is by definition irrelevant.

Yet if a bat or an ant or a fly can have existences so limited that they could be utterly oblivious to the great forces of history around them, might not our brain also have limits?  Just as the fly wouldn’t notice the limits — they would be outside its conceptual and perceptual capacity — we might not notice ours.   Any imagination of something outside our brain’s limits is created by the brain — and thus takes the form of things we can comprehend.

Scientists, for instance, have become convinced that our theories of the universe cannot function unless they postulate some form of “dark matter,” which may make up over three fourths of mass in the universe.  Yet what could this be like?  We can’t conceive of it, our instruments only notice its impact by noting a disconnect between our evidence and our theories about the cosmos.  Quantum mechanics postulates processes and situations that are completely at odds with our understanding of how the world works.  Quantum tunnelling, non-locality, the simulatenous nature of all space-time, paradoxes galore…we don’t know what to do with them.   To take them seriously simply leads us to see the world as far more bizarre than we’ve imagined.  Many physicists don’t want to have science used for such rampant speculation, so they take they view ‘shut up and calculate.’  Don’t worry about the implications of the theory; it works, so use it!

In a post last September, I wrote on whether or not the universe is a hologram, pointing to research in both physics and on the brain.  The brain seems to have capacities that are inexplicable, and we seem to be only conscious of part of what the brain can do.   Moreover, once you open up to theories from quantum physics and other “out there” ideas, it’s not impossible to see the brain as part of a larger unit, a kind of collective soul if you will.  All of this sounds weird given that we perceive reality as distinct units with us as distinct individuals.  But that’s what the brain gives us for our world.   If we have a collective linked nature, it is to our experience what sight is to the bat’s.   It’s not in the realm of our experience.

This kind of thinking, of course, is not new.  Over 2500 years ago Plato’s Allegory of the Cave posited similar ideas — if you spent your life in a cave and never experienced true reality, you’d consider the cave to be reality as it is.  Bishop Berkeley considered material reality a “persuasive illusion;” all we have is interpretations of experience.   But with modern studies of the brain, it becomes increasingly clear that we are creatures in world with distinct limits on how we can perceive and interpret this world.   We wear blinders, we see only a small sliver of reality, with no way of knowing how indicative that which we perceive is of the whole.

And, of course, that works.  Just as the bat doesn’t need to see the color red, or an ant doesn’t care about whose house it occupies, we can live our lives and go about existence without having to think about what may be outside that which our brains allow us to perceive.   Most of us do.

Yet I doubt the bat can truly reflect on the possibility of its limits.   Even dogs, which science says can use reason (it appears a number of animals are capable of using reason — that human arrogance is being pushed aside), probably don’t have our mental capacity to question our understandings of the world in which we find ourselves.   The brain tells us what bits about reality we need to know to operate as humans ; it might also contain secrets about the reality beyond us that for whatever reason we are unable to access (except, perhaps, through instinct).   Perhaps the difference between us and ants is matched by the difference between us and other entities, who can perceive our acts, but of whom we are generally oblivious.

To discover this, we might explore dreams, meditations, and other ways to stretch our brain’s experience.   Some have used psychadelic drugs to do this, but frankly, that would scare the hell out of me so I stay far away from those.   I find it comforting to realize that the brain is setting these limits.  It frees me from thinking I need to correctly figure out the world; that capacity is beyond me.  It allows me to focus instead on doing what seems to work in the world, and then considering how that might be reflected in a greater reality.

What works in the world is what brings happiness.  Greed, envy, anger, and hate do not work, they may bring success, but rarely do they get associated with joy.  Forgiveness, love, tolerance, community, family and even temperment seem to work much better.   Perhaps those hold a key to figuring out what’s on the other side.  And who knows — scientists say we only use about ten percent of our brain or less, maybe we do have the capacity to experience reality more fully.   For me, that’s enough to keep learning and exploring that part of existence as well.   Moreover, it’s playful.  By going with what seems to work rather than needing to know precisely what’s true, one avoids dogma and instead can have fun with ideas and possibilities.

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Dreams

Away from the world of politics and foreign policy for a moment, and into the world of dreams!

Last night I had a series of dreams in which I knew I was dreaming. These are fun. Once you know you are dreaming you can try to manipulate your dream, run little dream experiments, and sometimes just play. Back in the late eighties and early nineties I journaled over 1000 dreams I had, about 10% so-called “lucid” dreams, the term given to dreams in which you realize you’re dreaming. I think that experience has done a lot to shape my view on a variety of issues.

For instance, there’s the case of the dogs. Early on in my lucid dreams I would suddenly find a pack of dogs is chasing me. I’d run, they’d be catching up, and since I knew I was dreaming, I knew if I woke myself up they’d be gone. So I’d will myself awake, and the dogs would of course vanish. Yet the waking me would be mad at my dream self for ending the dream. It’s only a dream, after all, the dogs are not real. Yet the dreams recurred, and grew more frequent. At one point I was running, thinking about waking myself up, but then decided to stop and face the dogs, hurling my hand towards them as an offering. One dog leaped and bit my arm off from the elbow down. It hurt. Not a lot, but there was a pain sensation. Suddenly all the mad dogs were laying placidly and my hand and arm were back to normal. The dogs stopped bothering me after that.

There’s also the flying problem. I have flown many times in dreams, but in lucid dreams I could not will myself into flight. That frustrated me. I’d scream “aloud” in my dream, “this is my dream, damnit, I should be able to fly!” My solution came, ironically, from the book “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In that book the author said the way people learned to fly was to fall backwards and just fall into flight. I tried it. It worked! It got to the point that I stopped even having to do that, I could just take off into flight like superman. I couldn’t always control it, I’d sometimes just keep going higher and away from my ‘dreamscape,’ but I could fly.

Some things found dreams to be no help. I thought perhaps in dreams I could find the answer to the deepest questions: why are we here, what’s the nature of reality, this world, my soul. But ask as I would, my dream characters really didn’t give me any answers. I would sometimes fly up and as far away from my dreamscape as possible, into a region where I felt disembodied, with only sparkles of light and little color. I’d sometimes get a sense of fear, that I was venturing too far out, and then I’d pull myself back. But when I kept going, I ended up simply waking up. One thing I couldn’t do was a real out of body experience. I’d be in bed, know I was in bed and starting to dream, and then try to get up out of bed, or lift myself from my body. I could, but only as the dream ‘solidified,’ and then when I looked down, my body wasn’t there. I wasn’t out of my body, just dreaming.

So what did I get from all this? First, the dog experience suggested to me a need to confront fears rather than flee them. It’s pretty obvious, in fact! But still, the lesson seemed so real to me, that I think I changed. The flying problem taught me something about dreams. In ones’ dream world, one is limited not by the will of the dreamer, but by doubts and uncertainties that one has. I still have trouble walking through walls, and only a few times dived into the ground as if it were water. My mind doesn’t completely accept that this is possible, even though the lucid dreamer knows it is. Perhaps that’s true in life too, our own doubts and uncertainties, often beneath the surface of our conscience, hold us down.

On larger existential issues, it would always occur to me on waking that I have gone not from a fantasy to the real world, but from one world to a different one. The dream world is real while I’m there — as real as this world. I experience taste, color, substance, and pain. Pain and taste are the only experiences truly bland, colors are vibrant. It runs differently than this world, I can do things I can’t do here, and the dream world lacks the coherence of waking reality. Perhaps this reality is akin to a shared dream, where our collective minds create limitations and “rules of the game” that don’t exist in my ‘individual’ dream. I don’t know.

what then is reality? Waking reality, as we know is relatively empty. The space between subatomic particles, which are merely probabilistic ripples in fields anyway, is huge compared to the size of the ‘particles.’ Especially as I learn more about quantum physics and the nature of our physical world, I wonder if the difference between this experience and the dream experience is as stark as it seems. One is real, the other fantasy. Or are both real, or both a kind of fantasy?

Enough playful speculation for a rainy Tuesday morning. I have a chapter on German foreign policy to finish up, and a semester soon to begin. Pleasant dreams, everyone!

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