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Dreaming is Knowing

February 16, 2011
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'Buddha Ceremony' by H. Kopp-Delaney via Flickr.

Hindus believe dreaming is a higher form of consciousness than everyday waking life.  To dream and know one dreams, to see the dream, hear the dream, understand the dream not only for what it is, but what it means, and what it is not – this is powerful, transformational knowledge.  One cannot hide from oneself in dreams.  In a sense, all dreams are true, but the truth they reveal is always an inner truth.  Dreams are concerned with the outer world only as it impacts the inner.  Dreams reflect what one sees, rather than what is.

This is an important distinction, between what we perceive and what is.  In our waking hours, we make the mistake of believing they are one and the same.  (This is called vijnana or sense-consciousness.)  In dreams, we know better, and in that knowing, we learn about ourselves. 

Dreaming is my primary form of therapy, my main, though not only, process for dealing with the suffering of life.  I do not dream to escape, but to reveal, not to ignore, but to solve, not to suppress, but to untangle.  In my dreams I come to know the full-feeling self I repress in waking life.  I understand the roots of anger and sadness I won’t admit exists.  I find the sound of fear and the smell of sorrow, and I know them for my own, my truth.  There is no more running away.

And in my dreams I come to know the experience of non-self that I so struggle with in waking life.  It is no longer an intellectual concept circumscribed by words and metaphors.  She who I am in dreams is fluid, illusory, conditional, contingent upon the whirling maelstrom of life outside the weak boundaries of so-called self.  She is empty and so she is everything.  This person has buddhanature.  This person has the power to transcend samsara not by escaping into dream-life, but by seeing through self into truth.

Then I wake up.  I surface or I fall, but whatever the experience, I find myself once again limited.  I am limited by my body, by the laws of physics, by my situation, but most of all by my karma.

Karma is a physical thing.  I hold the apple and let go. It falls.  That is karma, but it is not the karma we should be concerned about.  It is not the karma that binds us.  The karma that binds us to samsara, that conditions us, habituates us, attaches us, is the karma within our mind.  The karma of the apple may return to wound us, like a rebounding tennis ball, when the wrong we have done to others finds us once again.  But it is the karma within our mind that makes us wounded.

Pain is not suffering.  I realize this when I think of all the times I have borne pain with joy, pride, and satisfaction.  There is the pain of a job well done, a match well fought, a goal achieve through hardship and exertion.  There is the pain of pleasant memories, pain worth bearing, that makes one smile.  If it is the association one’s mind makes to the pain that determines either joy or sorrow, then it is the mind’s power to produce suffering or not.  Our proclivity towards suffering is our karma.

I see it in my dreams.  How many nightmare ridges have I stood upon, screaming into the storm, accepting death and loss and sorrow, and not suffered?  How many battles have I fought, wars waged, worlds won and lost, and not suffered?  How much have I raged and not suffered?  How much have I grieved and not suffered?  How often has the ‘I’ who screamed and accepted and fought and raged and grieved, not been me?

Times beyond count.

We do not suffer because we know.  We know the dream.  We know the self as non-self.  We know the nature of our karma.  We know the nature of suffering and of samsara and of buddha.  When we can see the waking world as dream, then we will also know.  In the dream, anger and buddhanature stand side by side, like lovers forbidden to touch.  The anger is the choice I made in waking life, and then instantly repressed in aversion, shame, fear.  It is the choice my karma led me to, but a choice nonetheless.  The buddhanature is the choice I might have made, might yet make, might always make.  It endures when anger flees.  I can see them both.

Now, one might say, “You do not suffer because you know it is a dream.  You know you are safe.  You know the storm, the battle, the war, is false, a fiction of your dreaming mind.”

And I would ask, “How is that any different?”  Tonight, my mind chose war.  Tomorrow when I wake up, maybe I am a soldier, maybe I am choosing war with ever step, gun in hand.  Maybe I am just a daughter, arguing with her mother.  Maybe I am a student, rejecting her teacher.  I chose conflict.  Choice is choice, and always made by the mind, predicated on karma.  It is self that is the illusion, not situation.

In Dzogchen, I have heard they say reality is like a dream.  All we perceive through our senses is altered by our mind such that it becomes illusory, other than what is.  The only difference between waking and dreaming is attachment.  In dreams we can let go, because we know the nature of the dream.  Our karma creates forms within our dreams, some that stand for self, some that stand for the world, but both are, in truth, manifestations of the mind.  Everything is self, and therefore self is not separate, self is non-self.  Seeing these karmic chains can help us be free of them, even while waking.

Last night I had a powerful dream.  It was not powerful for its content.  I dreamed that I was sleeping in a certain place, a dream I have had many times before, but I was aware both of the dream and of my true surroundings and of being aware of both simultaneously.  Dreams are like that, silly and confusing and simple all at the same time.  In my dream, I smiled because I knew what I was perceiving on a deep level, the level of truth beyond doubt, a place I have yet to find in waking life.  In waking life, I doubt that such a place exists, but when I reflect upon my dreams, I realize I have already been there.  This, too, is buddhanature.

I often write about my dreams. Sometimes they are simply interesting stories.  Often they reveal much, though likely only to me, who understands their content and meaning from long study.  I began when I was young.  I recall lucid dreams from the age of four.  They are always in color, full of knowledge without words or dialogue.  I daydreamed myself to sleep each night, slipping without a ripple from waking into dreaming.  I cultivated ever deeper stages of lucid dreaming by understanding the mechanics of my sleep cycle.  In time, I began to pay attention to the emotional content of dreams, going beyond simplistic one to one symbols.  I learned meditation and how to sit with the mind, though honesty compels me to admit it is never a practice I have fully embraced.  Dreams have become a kind of internal barometer, a checking-in to see how I’m doing.  I’ll tell my friends “I’m okay,” but at night, my dreams demonstrate when I’m not.  The past few years, I’ve begun dreaming in third-person as my sense of self dissolves and the chains of karma are revealed.  I’ve begun to know the power of dreams, what they can and cannot do.

Dreaming is knowing, but dreaming is not being.  The glimpses of buddhanature, the experience of non-self, the letting go of suffering and freedom from attachment, aversion, and delusion – I know them through my dreams, hoping that someday, I’ll know them when I wake up.

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