|by Jay Kinney|
"Man," wrote Pindar, "is the dream of a shadow" - but he didn't say whether it was the man dreaming of the shadow or the shadow dreaming of the man.
Nevertheless our dreams accost us even in broad daylight; who has not, in the midst of some waking task or conversation, had to confront the flicker of some forgotten dream image arising momentarily before him? At such moments our faith in the world of taxes and newspapers and scientists wavers, and we suspect, or remember, that we inhabit another realm as dense, vivid, and perhaps as substantial as the one we see in waking life.
The idea of producing a GNOSIS issue on dreams at first aroused some apprehension in me. We often choose our issue themes as a way of exploring some neglected or poorly examined topic. Are dreams a neglected topic? The stack of current dream books that has been tottering on my desk for the last three months testifies to the contrary. From the lucidity research of Stanford's Stephen LaBerge to Madame Zenobia's 10,000 Dreams Explained, there is plenty of material available for the serious and not-so-serious seeker.
All the same there seems to be a hole in many current discussions of dreams. Most of us would, no doubt, agree that they can serve as a bridge between the conscious and unconscious, the dream state being a sort of psychic greenroom where our inner characters wait to come on stage. Dreams can serve as messages from above or within; as theaters for fantasy; as compensation for inner imbalances. So much we can grant. But these views imply that dreams are somehow secondary to waking life, that the world we greet with our coffee mugs is the real thing and the one seen in sleep is illusory.
Esoteric teachings of many different stripes tell another story. They suggest that, rather than being illusory compared to the "real" world of waking life, the dream world is itself real. Some traditions, like those of the Australian aborigines, even suggest that the dream world is prior to the world of substance, that the forms of the "Dreamtime" underpin earthly reality. Similar views can be found in Plato, in the Kabbalah, and in the teachings of the Rosicrucians and Martinists.
This issue is in part dedicated to exploring these questions, and several of the articles shed light on them. Nonetheless a few preliminary comments may be useful.
One of the main objections to the reality of the dream world is the belief, stated or unstated, that somehow the mind is the brain, that our dreams (as well as our waking thoughts and emotions) are just byproducts of neural events. The latest theory along these lines comes from Harvard psychiatrist Allan Hobson. Dreaming, he says, is caused by the brain's random emission of electrochemical signals. "The dreaming brain automatically generates a barrage of symbols that we do our best to assemble into a coherent story. . . . Dreaming is not triggered by daily events that resurrect buried memories but is a process as automatic as breathing."1 Dreams, then, would be some sort of nervous discharge, our synapses firing out their tensions each night like crazed hicks shooting at road signs.
Personally I don't have the sort of expertise that could confirm or refute Hobson's view. Yet (at least as presented in the popular press) it appears to come down to the same form of materialistic reductionism that has been weighed and found wanting so many times before. As philosopher Thomas Nagel has pointed out in a brief but influential essay entitled "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?",2 our neurological knowledge (even if it's right) tells us little or nothing about what it is to be an experiencing subject. Nagel uses the example of bats, who, being proverbially blind, don't see as we see, but perceive by bouncing a form of sonar off objects. Even though we know a fair amount about the mechanism of sonar, none of this, Nagel argues, tells us what it's like subjectively to be a bat; we just don't have any sense that's close enough to sonar to help us conceive of that experience. Similarly, theories like Hobson's may tell us what's happening at the physiological level, but they don't enlighten us much about what it is to be a dreaming subject.
This is an important point for two reasons. In the first place, the materialistic view doesn't account for all the information: if I dream, part of the data is my experience as a subject. Neurology can tell me about myself as a functioning physical object, but it can't tell me much about my subjective experience (much less anyone else's); reductionistic theories thus don't account for all the data. In the second place, they don't tell us what all this complex cognitive apparatus is for. Even if Hobson is right and dreaming is a cleansing of various neural mechanisms, why are these mechanisms functioning to begin with? It's like saying the purpose of an automobile is to have the oil changed.
As a way of dealing with these problems, we could say that on the one hand there is a perspective that views things as objects, from the exterior, as a scientist observes someone in a sleep lab. There is also a perspective that sees things subjectively, from within, as the dreamer himself would experience the same situation. This second perspective would be the realm known variously as the "dream world," the "astral world," the "Dreaming" (to Australian aborigines), or Yetzirah (to kabbalists). It interpenetrates with the physical world - just as a dream is both a physiological event and a subjective experience - but is not identical to it.
Of course, as we all know, subjective experience isn't limited to the dream state. In the ordinary waking state, we also have subjective experience - indeed we seem to flash in and out of it second by second, as our experience of the physical world is filtered through a screen of emotions, thoughts, reactions, etc. (This could be the maya, the "illusion," of which sages speak, the glass through which we see darkly.) In the dream state, however, this subjectivity is heightened; in fact it seems to be all we experience.
But is this state a "world"? If you define "world" as a planet in physical space you journey to in your sleep, no, probably not. If you define "world" as being a context for experience, then, yes, it would seem to be. Even the physical universe, though we may be inclined to trust more in it because it can be poked and prodded and measured, is itself only a world in this sense; it is only our experience that tells us of it.
If the dream state is a world, is it a real world? Reality is notoriously tricky to define, though the conventional view is simple enough: it's what's available to our five senses. Just as importantly, it has to be publicly available. If I see a pink elephant crawling through the keyhole and nobody else can see it, that doesn't mean it's real: it means I have the D.T.'s.
How do dreams stack up against these criteria? On the one hand, we do have sensation in dreams - sight, sound, touch, etc. These aren't the waking senses, of course, but it would beg the question to say dreams had to be available to the waking senses. Nonetheless our dreams consist (almost exclusively) of some kind of sensory experience.
You could of course argue that the quality of sensation isn't as vivid or coherent in dreams as in waking life, and hence is less "real." Even granting these as criteria for "reality," this argument doesn't hold up very well. The testimony of experienced lucid dreamers indicates that with practice, dreams can well be as vivid and coherent - and as accessible to moment-to-moment consciousness - as waking life. One could object that this sort of thing doesn't come naturally to most people, it has to be taught - but then so do walking and talking.
So the question of the senses leaves us up in the air. What about the criterion of publicity? Dreams are private, subjective experiences; they are most definitely not public. You can't tell me what I dreamt last night. Ergo, dreams are not "real."
Even this criterion is more porous than it might first appear. The dream world can be seen as public in the simple sense that all of us (along with other animals) have some kind of contact with it. But there may be another, stronger sense in which dreams are public. Barbara Shor discusses shared dreaming in her article in this issue, and suggests that, with some work, people can indeed meet each other in the dream state, making dreaming a collective, public activity. The experience of other cultures, like the Senoi of Malaysia and the Australian aborigines, who see a collective dream reality existing alongside and beneath the realm of the material, bears her out. In fact, if we look throughout world cultures, those with some kind of collective access to the dream realm could well outnumber those that don't.
No, given all the evidence - internal and external, "subjective" and "objective" - there do seem to be two worlds: the world of the psyche, the watery, subjective world of dreams, and the hard, solid, he-man world of tables and chairs and neurons. These worlds overlap, but they are not identical. (Ironically for the materialist, science seems to be coming up with its own reasons for positing the existence of a dreamlike "imaginal" realm, as Fred Alan Wolf's article indicates). And it remains very much in question whether one is more "real" than the other.
The esoteric traditions of both East and West, which view reality in a way that's very different from conventional materialism, may be able to help us here. They see the real, not as that which is publicly available to the five senses, but as that which is eternal, timeless, unchanging. Alles vergangliche ist nur ein Gleichnis, wrote Goethe: "All that is transitory is only a symbol."
Here, as in so many matters of the psyche and spirit, the Tibetan Buddhists offer some of the profoundest and most rigorous insights. Their elaborate dream yoga, in which a state of lucid consciousness is maintained unbroken into the dream state, is practiced not as a game or trick, but as a means of convincing oneself that waking and dreaming states are equally illusory, equally void.2 To Tibetan adepts, dreams aren't real - but then neither is the magazine you're holding in your hand.
I had a similar (if more modest) insight during a dream years ago. I was sitting by a beautiful blue bay in Mexico, and suddenly I realized I was dreaming. And while this experience had a slightly different quality to it than waking reality, I noticed it wasn't that different. I tried to explain all this to a nineteen-year-old kid who was sitting next to me. "What?" he replied. "You mean you think I'm a dream character?" He thought it was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard.
The lessons here seem to be that (1) being conscious in a dream isn't all that different from being conscious in waking life (and is perhaps equally rare); and (2) if you try to explain this to somebody - in either the dream or waking states - you may be taken for a lunatic. Nonetheless it seems to be as the Tibetans teach. Both states are fundamentally the same: they are worlds of experience, sensation, duality.
Given that all these transitory states are only symbols, can we brush past them and make contact with something more enduring? As Refik Algan and Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee show in this issue, the Sufis have a view of the "real" that's similar to the Buddhists'. They equate it not with the objects we see before our physical eyes, but that which is beyond such ephemera. And objectivity is not what appears in our test tubes, but contact with the timeless and truly real dimension of the divine.
The Sufis also teach that one way to this realm is through dreams. They suggest that as we make deeper and more sustained contact with an esoteric teaching, the riot of fears, delusions, and desires that infest our ordinary dreams begins to subside and our dreams become more objective: not only are they more in touch with the eternal, but they display more of the consistency and clarity that we associate with a waking state. Mystics attest that such experiences make everything else look phony.
But contact with this higher reality is not enough: we also have to bring it into the world of ordinary waking life. Here too the aboriginal perspective is helpful. Author Robert Lawlor, in his forthcoming book Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, says
The Aborigines conceive [of] the passage of time and history not as a movement from past to future but as a passage from a subjective state to an objective expression. . . . Even today, an Aborigine stays awake at night before a hunt, watching his sleeping dogs. The dog that jerks and growls while dreaming signals to the observant Aborigine that this animal has dreamed of capturing the prey. The dog will be chosen as his hunting companion the following day.4
For the aborigines, there seems to be a grand circulation of activity between the waking world and the Dreaming; even the dreams of animals are made manifest. It is the responsibility of human beings, not only to make contact with that primordial world, but to aid in the process of materializing it. "In some Aboriginal tribes," Lawlor tells us, "the first thing a person does upon awakening is to wander alone in the bush or along the seashore and create a song based on the dreams of the previous night."5
If these teachings are correct, the dream is a point of contact with a dimension that is, if more ethereal, yet no less real than our own. It is a spot at which we earthly beings can raise ourselves up and make contact with the infinite, but it's also a means whereby that which is less palpable, more "spiritual," begins to make contact with physical life, like an angel descending Jacob's ladder. We could even say that it's our part as humans to serve as a bridge between these subtler realities and the world of everyday "reality." If that's so, then it's indeed true that, as the poet Delmore Schwartz put it, "in dreams begin responsibilities."
1. Quoted in Laurie Ouellette, "What Do Your Dreams Really Mean?" Utne Reader, Sept./Oct. 1991, p. 36.
2. Thomas Nagel, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Philosophical Review, Oct. 1974, reprinted in Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, eds., The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (New York: Bantam, 1982), pp. 391-403.
3. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, ed., Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935, second edition, 1958), pp. 215-23.
4. Robert Lawlor, Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1992), pp. 37-38.
5. Ibid., p. 38.(c) copyright 1992 by Jay Kinney