Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dreams, Part Two: Life Is But a Dream

This is Part Two of a four-part series on dreams. Part One looks at the meaning of dreams, and dream interpretation. Part Two explores how Buddhism uses dreaming as a metaphor for life itself. Part Three describes several types of spiritually significant dreams. Part Four offers practical methods for working with dreams and the sleeping state.

"Life Is But a Dream," John Scanlan

Dream as Metaphor

In Buddhism, dreams are a commonly used metaphor for the nature of life itself. "Like a dewdrop, a water bubble, an illusion, a dream, lightning, a cloud: regard conditioned dharmas like that," said the Buddha in one of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. In other words, anything and everything that we can point to in this life, including our own bodies and those aspects of the mind and consciousness that we usually think of as the "self," is a conditioned dharma: a temporary, illusory phenomenon that appears when the right causes and conditions come together but has no abiding essence of its own. Where is the essence of a cloud? How solid and permanent is a dewdrop or a water bubble? What reliable truth can be found in an illusion? How real is a dream, once you've awakened from it?

In Tibetan Buddhism, the metaphor of dreams is frequently applied as an actual meditation instruction -- a method of contemplating how our minds interact with, and co-create, the world we experience.

Say, for example, we dream of a bear that is chasing us, and we fear being caught and devoured by the bear. Within the dream, it feels very much like we are over here, and the bear is over there; we perceive a subject-object relationship between us and the bear. From the point of view of our waking lives, we know there is no bear, and no real duality between subject and object: the bear, and our own dream body, and the entire dream world in which it appears, is all a great fiction, a cinematic projection of our minds. But because, in the dream, we believe in our own movie and take the bear on the screen to be real, we experience fear, and our hearts beat wildly as we try to escape the bear's teeth and claws. However, if we were to be aware and lucid within the dream and recognize that the bear is really a projection of our own minds, then the bear might still appear -- because anything can appear in a dream -- but it would cease to provoke the same fear because we know it isn't really out there.

In the same way, much of what we experience in so-called waking life, which we take to be substantially existing out there, is really a projection of our own minds. Say we are in a crowded subway car, and at the far end of the car we see someone who catches our eye and looks very attractive. We begin to fix our gaze on this person, and in our minds we start building up our case, commenting on how attractive he or she is. The attractiveness appears to us to be an objectively existing quality out there in the person, at whom we are now openly staring like a deer caught in the headlights. But then the person turns and reveals a different angle, one that isn't as flattering, and suddenly our attraction goes up in a puff of smoke. What happened?

What happened is that, as if in a dream, we projected the quality of attractiveness onto this hapless person who stumbled into our field of vision, and we believed in the solid reality of our projection -- just like in a dream. The attractiveness we experience as being out there in the other person is really an illusion, a trick produced in the mind by our own habitual patterns of dualistic perception and labeling.

Whether we perceive that person as being attractive or not depends on a whole range of variable factors: our cultural conditioning and previous experiences (do they remind us of someone else we were once attracted to?), our mood (if we were fuming about something our boss said to us at work, would we even notice the person?), what the person is wearing (would we feel as attracted if he or she were dressed as a clown?), the lighting and environment and other circumstances, and so on.

If the attractiveness we perceive were really out there in the person, then it wouldn't disappear when a different angle was revealed to us; we would always find that person attractive, no matter what. Moreover, if the attractiveness were really out there in the person as an objectively existing quality, then everyone else would find that person attractive too; but in reality, we might be the only one in this whole subway car who even noticed the person. Many of the other people around us might even find our attractive person repulsive if they paid any attention. Beauty is indeed, in so many ways, in the eye of the beholder.

The same goes for our negative perceptions, and our neutral ones too: the people who irritate or repel us, and the ones about whom we feel indifferent. It's not that all these people out there don't appear in front of us, but every emotional trip we lay onto them is just like a dream. What we perceive in our world has the power to attract or repel us because we believe in its reality -- we think it's really out there -- in the same way we believe in the reality of the dream bear. In both waking life and in dreams we suffer, we experience fear and loathing, because we constantly believe that the projections of our own minds are real.

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