Meditation 99: Life is a Dream
Metaphors draw two unlikely suspects together in an illuminating way. The metaphor “Achilles is a lion” is not literally true, unless I have a lion named “Achilles.” Yet it draws attention to the courage and strength of the hero with a punch that straight prose lacks. “X is brave and strong” applies to many people. The metaphor distinguishes Achilles from others who are also brave and strong. Metaphors make readers think about the deeper identity that underlies surface differences. A good one sparks new thoughts and connections between ideas, but metaphors are never literally true.
“Life is a dream” is a well known metaphor. On the surface, seeking an identity between waking life and dreaming seems unpromising. After all, we distinguish ‘dreaming’ from ‘waking life’, and without this contrast, it would no longer make sense to speak of ‘dreaming’ in the first place. Life is real, but dreams are not. No matter how vivid at the time, what happens in dreams does not actually happen. I dream that I marry the boss’s daughter, but wake up to find it is time to go to work sweeping her dad’s factory floor. I can fly in my dreams, but not in waking life. There are other contrasts. Time is disjointed in dreams, but can be mapped using clock time in ‘real life’. I wake to a continuing life, but each dream is complete in itself. It is extremely rare, I would imagine, to continue last night’s dream tonight. Dreams certainly appear illusory in comparison with normal waking life.
At this point, we might ask why “Life is a Dream” has captured so much attention over the years? From what direction do we hear it? The metaphor seems to be coming from an esoteric tradition, from mysticism, Taoism, or perhaps Buddhism. As a realistically-minded philosopher, I have resisted the idea that life is somehow a dream. And yet, I have thought about it over the years. I stub my toe. It hurts. Is this a dream? I lose my job, my wife, my cat and my dog. Are these just dreams? The world aches with war, plague, death, hatred, hunger and despair. Are all these dreams? Are the suffering of millions just illusions?
Another way I have resisted the life/dream metaphor is by rejecting mysticism as not sufficiently rational. In one strand of the mystical tradition as I understand it, what the ignorant normally call ‘life’ is actually illusory. It is the veil of Maya, fueled by craving for the unreal and delusional delights of trying to satisfy endlessly proliferating desires. Everything is changing in every way all the time. Nothing stays the same. We are supposed to escape from the illusion of Maya and the wheel of life (Samsara) by understanding that life is just a dream, and all this ceaseless striving is a kind of sleepwalking. Best to give up the desires which give birth to the world of craving. This sounds good, but once again we are up against the fact that life feels real to those who are struggling to survive in a difficult and frightening world. Thinking that life is just a dream seemed to me just an excuse to forget about the world and all the problems we find there.
After coming to these dark reflections, I found a question to move forward. Are dreams actually the same as illusions? Consider an optical illusion. Once we find out that it is an illusion, our minds corrects for the faulty perception. A straight stick looks bent when it is half under water. Once we learn a little optics, we see why it looks this way. Of course, it might be a bent stick after all, but that would just be funny. Are dreams illusions like this? I think not. No matter how sure I am that it was a dream after I wake up, there is no way to ‘correct’ for the illusion while in the dream itself. Dreams just do seem real at the time.
First of all, a dream is not illusory on its own terms. While dreaming, the dream is real. Second, dreams have meaning. To say that something is a dream is not to say that it is meaningless, pointless or trivial. Third, and most importantly, though dreams do vanish upon waking, the ephemeral nature of dreams does not detract from their existence or significance.
From this standpoint, there is a deep identity between dreams and waking life. For me, it has to do with the varnishing of days and dreams together. Yesterday has all the phenomenological reality of yesterday’s dream. It is gone, not to be retrieved. Yesterday is like a play that ran its course, stirred up actions and passions, and then passed away in sleep. What is the memory of the wonderful trip you took to the sea shore last summer but a dream? This is the deep structural identity of memories, dreams and waking life.