Life is but a Dream

Many of you would remember the nursery rhyme round we used to sing in our school choirs.

“Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.”

There are many interpretations of this little verse. It has more depth than we ever imagined when we were merely trying to keep time and in tune when it came our turn to sing.

There are of course many who truly believe that “Life is but a dream.”

I have recalled before the story of the Chinese sage Zhuangzi who lived around 400 BCE. Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.

This might seem to be a cute anecdote, but in reality it raises a very important and difficult philosophical problem

Let us examine for a moment the nature of our dreams. When we sleep we are largely cut off from the sensory inputs of the physical world. Despite this, when we dream, our minds create very convincing vistas. We (in our dreams) inhabit very real worlds that seem to engage us just as much as the world we inhabit when not dreaming. The vividness of our dreams elicits all the emotional responses that the “real” world evokes.

Our dreams are often chaotic with themes and participants and landscapes varying markedly through the course of a dream. Many believe that our dreams are this way because they are not anchored by our sensory perceptions into the “real” world as we are during normal waking consciousness.

But we must never fall into the trap of believing anything that we take into consciousness as “real”. I attempted to explain this in my blog last week. In part I wrote:
“It should be obvious then that our experience of the physical world is a construct of our mind. It builds on the sensory inputs [which I explained were constrained and as a result could only perceive a limited picture of our external world]. However it does not deal with this information democratically, as though each piece of information has equal significance. Our minds are both selective in the information they take in and also on the weighting they give such information. As usual it is important to remember that ‘the map is not the territory!’”
Conventional wisdom would have it then that our perception of the “real” world is a façade the mind builds based on limited and often distorted information. Our image of the world is more “created” than “received”. That our maps of the world somewhat overlap, so that you and I can agree on some of the features of the “real’ world, such folk would attest is a result of the fact that our sense perceptions at least give us some common shared data. This may or may not be so and I might come back to that point later.

One of the states of human consciousness is called hypnogogia. This is the blissful state we experience between normal consciousness and falling asleep. (The term to describe the same phenomenon on waking has been called hypnopompia. However there is now reasonable consensus that they are essentially the same and many researchers in this area now use the term “hypnogogia” to cover both.)

That there was something special about this state of consciousness has been known for thousands of years. References to hypnogogia can be found as long ago as in the writings of Aristotle. However interest in hypnogogia was again aroused in the Romantic Period (commencing from the late eighteenth century).

Hypnogogia, whilst a perfectly natural human state, can be artificially induced and often prolonged by the use of drugs and (more benignly) through meditation. Some time ago I wrote a blog essay relating Coleridge’s drug induced state that resulted in his famous poem “Kubla Khan”. Another poet, Edgar Allan Poe wrote of the fancies he experienced “only when I am on the brink of sleep.” This particular state of consciousness is credited with creative capacities not only by poets but by artists, writers, scientists and inventors.

Another phenomenon occurs in the hypnogogic state – lucid dreaming. In lucid dreaming not only are we aware of our dreams but we are aware that we are dreaming. Moreover, because of our conscious awareness of our dreams, we are able to direct the course of our dreams. We are able to manufacture outcomes and circumstances that suit our purposes. There are never any nightmares in lucid dreaming!

So let me put to you a proposition. When we dream at night in sleep it is an individual enterprise. As an individual my dreams, my temporary reality, is created entirely by me as an individual. Lucid dreaming suggests that I have some discretion about this creation.

On the other hand the reality I experience in my waking state is something that I share, at least partially, with all other conscious beings. In fact this is, in some respects, a collective dream. Remember that “reality” is a map our minds have constructed.

It is worthwhile here, thinking a little about evolutionary processes. It seems to me (and I can cite material in support of this supposition) that consciousness as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of those who work in this sphere would not admit that our consciousness is identical with that of earthworms, rabbits or even gorillas. It is also most unlikely that Cromagnon Man, Neanderthals or Homo habilis would have perceived the world in the same way that we do. Consequently it would be logical to assert that our perception of “reality” is evolving too.

So perhaps indeed, “life is but a dream”. Yet if on the individual level we might be able to modify our individual dreams to have more beneficial outcomes, might it not also be possible for us to modify our collective dream to be more beneficial as well?

I have no doubt that what we call “reality” is a collective construct of mind. In the end we are collectively responsible for this perception of the world we inhabit. As a result we must begin to understand how we each as individuals, but more importantly as a collective, impact on this process.

If indeed “life is but a dream” let it be a dream of love, and let us collectively lead our “reality” in that direction.

9 Replies to “Life is but a Dream”

  1. Here Here. however a recent conversation I was in – suggested that the world has both light and dark, good & evil, love and “hate” and that we can’t have one without the other…? so how do we collectively lead our reality into the direction of “love” when based on the proposition of “polarities” the opposite will always exist? or do you believe it is possibly to eventually create a planet of “love”? 🙂 <3

  2. Good Morning Ted,

    I really like this blog. What you speak of is our collective conscious, and how powerful it could be, if used in a very different way than it currently is.

    If we could deliberately “merrily, merrily row our boat/s” with more care for each other and our environment, less hunger for material things – and the strength to manage our egos in such moments………..we could make this world a better place for many more people.

    Mindfulness can be a powerful place to start – especially when underpinned by a collective clear vision of how our world could be (which many of us have); strong intention to make it so; and the tenacity and resilience to put in the effort necessary to bring it about, then maybe, just may be, we will be riding along on a very different stream than we currently are….

    I think it is beginning to happen…..there’s quite a few in this boat. Heave, Ho…row, row row!

    Thank you Ted.


  3. Thanks Ted, yes that’s a lovely feeling – between sleep and wake……James Barrie put in into Peter Pan, it’s where Tinker Bell comes to you… and where NeverLand is. Perhaps also where a lot of Mythology comes from, and maybe (or maybe not)the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Collective Dreaming is a nice counterpoint on Collective Consciousness – some one should write a Play on it……

  4. “I suspect this will be a controversial point of view and I await the comments of you who might beg to differ!”

    What about the comments from those who might beg to agree?

    “Time is the moving image of Eternity”


  5. I like Edgar Alan Poe’s little poem, A dream within a dream. The hook line being,

    All that we see or seem
    Is but a dream within a dream.

    Not sure why but those 2 lines resonate with me.

    I have had some fun with Lucid dreaming myself Ted, although I found limitations with it. I find that I never have full control of the dream and if I push too much the fragile dream state becomes lost and I return to consciousness. In particular I find that any emotional state can’t be sustained for long. I can fly or walk over a landscape and even decide what that landscape is (choose real places that I am fond of) and the laws of physics are mine to choose, however as soon as I add a person into my dream it all breaks down and I find myself back in a conscious state, to start the relaxation of mind process all over again. Not sure why this is the case or what your experience is Ted? I wonder if the collective conscious state requires a collective of people. Certainly deprivation of human contact can end in insanity (yet another level of consciousness). On the other hand the lucid dream state is singular to the individual and any attempt to create a collective consciousness destabilises the dream state.

    Fun stuff dreams.

  6. The materialist-determinsist view is that our minds/consciousness are a construct of material ‘reality’, rather than ‘reality’ being a construct of our consciousness. Material reality is the common ground while we are in the conscious state (as opposed to sleep state). Dreams on the other hand are memory data (collected from our senses sensing material reality over time passed) mixed and matched creating individual/personal (i.e no shared reference point) mind experience. Such personal experience we may recall in memory when awake. Note how difficult it is to communicate your dream to a someone because your experience (as remembered) are so individual and personal. Likewise, when someone communicates their dream to you, it is difficult to be interested because there’s no real material platform and the story is too personally abstract.

  7. Prospero:

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on; and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.

    The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

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