One of the more ubiquitous metaphors for life is that it is all a dream. But how so? When we are awake, we can usually tell we are not dreaming; it’s when we are dreaming that we think we are awake. Perhaps we are living inside nested dream worlds, as in the movie Inception. The world we wake up to each morning is just another dream, albeit less ephemeral than the ones we have at night. How can we know one way or another? Right now the only way to tell whether this life is a dream is to see if we wake up from it.
Apart from poets, whose stock in trade is metaphors, philosophers and religious thinkers seem most drawn to the notion that life is but a dream. Plato famously likened this world to shadows thrown up on a cave wall – not a dream exactly but hardly more substantial. The Neo-Platonist Plotinus argued that “the activity of sense-perception is that of the soul asleep.” Descartes, in his quest for certainty, called into question virtually everything we think of as real. He wrote, “The visions of a dream and the experiences of my waking state are so much alike that I am completely puzzled and I do not really know that I am not dreaming at this moment.” Among religious types, many look not to this world but to the next for some greater sense of reality. The Prophet Muhammad expressed it this way: “Man is asleep, and when he dies he wakes up.”
The idea of death as some sort of wake-up call can never be confirmed, at least not on this side of the grave, so we are better off concentrating on awakenings where we are still breathing afterward. For Buddhists, life is fundamentally impermanent and ephemeral – not just over stretches of time but from moment to moment. It is the mind and memory that weave together from these discrete elements a sense of continuity in life. The world and everything in it, including the self, are illusory – a dream, if you will. Nagarjuna, a founder of Mahayana Buddhism, said, “There is no reality in a dream, and yet, while one dreams, one believes in the reality of the things one sees in the dream.… Just so a man who is plunged into the dreamy state which results from his fettered existence, has a belief in things which do not exist. But when he has found the path, then, at the moment of enlightenment, he understands that there is no reality in them and he laughs at himself.”
Quantum physicists, whose stock in trade is mathematics rather than metaphors, have arrived at a similar conclusion about the illusory nature of the world as it normally appears to us. “If modern physics is to be believed, the dream we call waking perceptions have only a very little more resemblance to objective reality than the fantastic dreams of sleep,” the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote. We are accustomed to thinking of the “real” world as being composed of matter and energy, but, as the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington expressed it, “the stuff of the world is mind-stuff.” Similarly, Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, noted, “I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything we talk about, everything that we postulate as existing requires consciousness.”
So what happens when we finally wake up, assuming we are still breathing? Does the world around us dissolve like a dream in the bright dawn of some higher reality? A lot of seekers fantasize about enlightenment working this way. But never mind the world around us dissolving like a dream. What about the dreamer? Buddhists do not exclude the self from the stuff dreams are made on. Properly seeking, there is no such thing as an awakened or enlightened self, since the self, in effect, dreamed itself up along with everything else. Andy Warhol may have been on to something when he suggested the following one-word inscription on his tombstone: Figment.
Timothy Conway, “This Is All a Dream”