A few weeks ago, I awoke from a dream and as I made my way through the darkness into the kitchen it continued to engage my thoughts. With some fresh-brewed coffee, I sat down in the sunroom, where I start my days, and began to record what I could still remember of the fading dream landscape. This is what I salvaged:
I am in a washroom, where a man stands at the far wall, his back toward me. A second man then enters. He seems to have some kind of relationship with the first man, because there is a brief interchange between them (although what they said has slipped out of mind). Perhaps because I have by now settled into the dream situation, I can still recall what the second man says next:
“Is someone here feeling aggressive?”
At this point, as if to account for that statement and what the relationship might be between these two men, a world outside this washroom begins to flicker in the background. I imagine I am in a teaching facility or a counseling office where the second man is a teacher or a therapist. My dream self must by now feel connected with my imagined surroundings, because I join in:
“I don’t think he was expressing aggression. Imagine that someone announces they’d like a desert with rum-soaked cake, topped with custard and whipped cream, and I identify it as “Trifle”, the English dessert. Would I be expressing aggression?”
The teacher/counselor laughed and asked the other man, “Was that how you meant it?”
I don’t remember whether the other man responded, but by now I am thinking that some spiritual/psychological session is about to start. And because the ‘leader’ seems willing to question his own assumptions, I look forward to participating in whatever comes next.
Back in the ‘real world’ now, I have to thank Glenn and JoAnne, to whom I recounted this dream later that day, for stimulating my curiosity about what was going on in its world.
I can’t say whether this insight arose while I was still inside the dream, immediately after, or over the next few days, but I find it striking that there wasn’t any evidence for the existence of a larger world in this dream. Everything that appeared–such as the motivations I ascribed for what the others said—didn’t require there to be anything outside the washroom to support what arose there. But that didn’t stop my dreaming mind from thinking that there was a world available.
Looking more closely at my dreaming self, as he tried to make sense of the conversation he was hearing and his own contribution to it, it is clear that there was nothing in operation other than my habitual tendency to ascribe a context for everything that appears. Indeed, at least in this dream, appearances and their contexts seemed to just pop up together, like two sides of one coin.
That would probably have been the end of it, but a few mornings ago I read in “Challenging Journey, Creative Journey” a book by Tarthang Tulku, which I am reading every morning, “Compare your commitment to the self to the version of the self that operates in a dream”.
Since there was apparently no independently-manifesting world outside the washroom, perhaps my dream self, seemingly at the center of that world, wasn’t what it believed itself to be either. And what about my waking self’s belief that there is a coherent, preexisting world standing by, which is far more stable than the thoughts I have about it? Could something similar be going on in my waking life? What of my belief that everything that appears is arising out of some network of causes and effects? I’ve heard it said that if God doesn’t exist, we would have to invent Him. Is our need for a coherent world so strong, in a similar way, that we have to invent one whether it exists or not? When we need something badly enough– because we can’t imagine existing without it—are we seeing trumpeting elephants in the passing clouds?
Not that I believe that my expectations have single-handedly invented a world in order for those expectations to have a place where they can be fulfilled. Glimpsing the dynamic that was operating in my dream falls far short of believing that there is a parallel dynamic in my daily life. But could there be a psychological need that guarantees that I find just what I am looking for; and that it operates alike in both my waking and sleeping states?
When I take hold of the forest of images that I call ‘the world’, do I thereby imbue it with exactly the characteristics that have been woven into my conception of it? Could it be that my solid commitment to the self and its world are woven together out of partially apprehended appearances that just keep popping up, augmented by a deep reluctance to venture beyond the tapestry that I have learned to accept as the reality in which I live?