The Big Old Dream

Everyday life is a big old dream that we’re sometimes lucky enough to wake up out of. When we don’t wake up – which is almost all of the time – nothing happens. We think, at the time, that something is happening, but really nothing’s happening. Which is of course always the way with dreams.

The urge to dream is overwhelming – it takes hold of us and pulls us under like a potent anaesthetic gas. We go under almost instantly; it’s not even a case of counting to ten and then never getting there – we don’t even remember to start counting. We have it in our heads to count and then it’s gone; we’ve forgetten, we’ve been sucked into the dream.

Obviously the dream must be very attractive to us for it to be able to do this to us – it must be very seductive indeed.

But how does it manage to be so very attractive to us?

In what way, by what strategy, does it manage to seduce us every time?

The mechanism is very simple, and yet it is difficult to grasp at the same time. It is difficult to grasp because our minds are so befuddled with dreaming. The stealthy tendrils of narcotic gas have reached deep into the core of our being and disabled our understanding; our ‘insight centre’ has been shut down so that we can’t understand anything clearly any more…

The mechanism – clearly – must operate in the first instance by offering us some sort of prize, by dangling some sort of lure in front of our noses. But there is more to it than this – something else is needed first. After all, when we are actually awake we have no need of anything. We are complete, whole, lacking in nothing.

Since we lack in nothing, why would we be drawn into something?

So first, the dreaming mechanism must do something to us. It must condition us to want what it offers us, to need what it offers us. Then – given this necessary basis – it has us. Once this conditioning is in place we’re gone. We’re sunk. We’re lost without a trace, sucked up in the dream forever.

The problem is therefore, how to introduce this conditioning?

How to make it seem like a good idea?

How to induce a free man, or a free woman, to accept a conditioned dependency?

In a very real sense, this is an insurmountable problem, an insurmountable difficulty.

Who would willingly swap freedom for slavery, who would trade the joy of unconditional being for crappy illusion-driven misery?

What kind of deal is that?

Insurmountable difficulty or not, the strategy plainly works very well indeed – there are obviously no problems on that score and so we will have to leave this perplexing point to one side and carry on with our explanation of the mechanism by which we are seduced and held captive by the dream.

So the first step us that we are seduced into accepting a limitation, accepting a programmed deficiency. What this comes down to in practice is that we agree to see the world from a particular type of ‘limited standpoint’, the type of limited standpoint that does not see it to be a limited standpoint. Or – to use James Carse’s more poetical terminology – we agree to veil our own freedom from ourselves. This limited viewpoint that does not know itself to be limited, this veiled situation, is the conditioned self – the ubiquitous and deeply familiar sense of being a ‘me’.

Once we have agreed to see things this way, then the game can begin in earnest. The thing about the veiled viewpoint which is the conditioned sense of self is that it represents a thinly disguised deficiency or lack. Because its nature is that of a ‘disguised deficiency’ the self is susceptible to a particular type of illusion – it is susceptible to (in fact it is controlled by) the illusion that it can make up or remedy this lack by successfully obtaining certain advantageous outcomes, and successfully avoiding other certain disadvantageous outcomes. Thus is born desire.
The conditioned self, not being aware of itself, does not know that it is essentially a thinly disguised deficiency and so neither does it have any insight into the true nature of its motivations. Instead of being aware of the lack that is in itself (or the lack that is itself) it sees everything upside-down and perceives its painful inner deficiency as being an actual positive value in the outside world.

The dreaming self then develops a deficit-driven desire to obtain the ‘positive values’ that it sees in the outside world for itself. It conceives the desire to secure them, control them, monopolize them, possess them… Needless to say this dreaming self can never possess these ‘external riches’ because they don’t actually exist. They are only its own ‘poverty’ seen in a displaced way. Yet even though it can never possess the prizes that it covets, the dreaming self can still get a hell of a lot of mileage out of thinking that it can possess them if it plays its cards right. It can pleasurably anticipate getting its hands on the prize – or it can anxiously anticipate not being able to do so.

The dreaming self’s thinking (either of the optimistic or of the pessimistic variety) with regard to its chances of successfully obtaining and securing the positive value it is so attracted to are enough to make up a whole world for it. The conditioned self’s thinking on this matter – either positive or negative – actually constitutes the dream.  That’s what the dream is – the whole dream is nothing else than the self’s hopes that it can obtain what it wants to obtain, interwoven with its fears that it might not be able to, and all the various multifarious intrigues and complications that can creep into the picture along the way.

There is a parallel here to the ‘Six Lokas’ talked about in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where each ‘Loka’ (or ‘world’) represents one particular variation on the theme. When lost in the dreaming state I might imagine – in my delusion – that I actually do possess the prize, in which case I will feel triumphant, exultant, euphoric. I will feel over the moon. I will feel full of pride. This corresponds to the Deva Loka, the Realm of the prideful gods. I may also – when I am in this hypnotized state – start to get the feeling that others are plotting against me to take my prize away from me, which would correspond to what the Bardo Thodol calls the Asura Loka, the realm of the jealous (or fighting) gods.

I might on the other hand be very sensible and mechanical about my treasure and use it as a basis for creating all sorts of systems and protocols and ‘proper procedures’, and this is the Animal Realm, which Chogyam Trungpa calls ‘the Realm of Intelligent Stupidity’.  I might be constantly searching for the treasure but never quite succeed in securing it for myself, in which case I am lost in the Preta Loka, the World of the Hungry Ghosts (which Chogyam Trungpa calls the ‘Neurotic Hell Realm’). Or I might perceive that someone or something is threatening to take my rightful prize away from me and react with absolute rage, which would place me in the lowest Loka (the one with the most suffering in it), which is the Hell Realm associated with anger. The sixth Loka, the one we haven’t mentioned up to now, is the Human Realm, which Chogyam Trungpa depicts as being mid-way between the complacent self-absorption of the God Realm, and the psychotic self-harming of the Hell Realm. The Human Realm is the only world from which it is possible to find release from the six-fold Kingdom of Desire, according to Buddhism.

All of these worlds come down to one thing and one thing only – the relationship of the dreaming self with its projections, which it mistakenly imagines to have an independent existence of their own (just like a man who imagines that his own shadow is a separate entity to himself, and who either desires or fears it on this basis). As we have said, the dreaming or deluded self only experiences attraction or aversion because it lacks ‘substance’. Given this inauspicious beginning, it is bound to be controlled by its attachments – that is the nature of the conditioned self. That’s what keeps the Wheel turning.

This game goes on forever. By itself it will never come to an end – it only ends if we manage to ‘wake up’. Why we allowed ourselves to fall asleep in the first place is the profoundest of mysteries; the thing is, however, that once the habit of being sucked up into the dream has been established, it is extraordinarily hard to break it. The tendency to fall asleep is brutally strong, and the inclination to wake up fragile and easily overwhelmed…

By Nick Williams | Staff Writer

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