To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune,
or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them:
To die, to sleep no more; and by a sleep, to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?
'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.
The Bard nails it once again. Perhaps the prospect that our dreams foreshadow life after death should give us pause. One of our many Zen poets, Sengcan of the 6th-7th century China would add:
Emptiness here, emptiness there, but the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small; no difference, for definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen. So too with being and non-being.
So Zen tells us that the apparent boundary line between being and non-being is just that. Apparent. A little more amenable to bridging may be that between sleeping and waking: dreaming.
I have long been fascinated with dreams. I have memories of unusual dreams going back to childhood. But nobody ever talks about their dreams, so I learned to put them in my back pocket at an early age. However, I later learned that, in other cultures, dreams are given a place of importance. Mainly in what we refer to as primitive cultures, to be sure, such as that of the aboriginal tribes in Australia. But native Americans also respected dreams, as did earlier European and Asian cultures, and developed theories or myths as to their import for our lives.
Today, the psychiatry profession pays lip service, at least, to the implications of dreams, but do not seem to have a coherent position on their meaning. The provenance, source, or cause of dreaming has been the subject of wide and sometimes wild speculation, ranging from claims of such paranormal powers as clairvoyance, that is, witnessing real events at a distance; to manifestations of our discriminating mind's ability to bring order out of chaos, to make sense of nonsense, random fluctuations on the circuitry of our nervous system and visual cortex. Areas of the brain light up at different levels of sleep, including enhanced activity during REM, indicated by rapid eye movement.
The history of Zen has contributed a few teachings on dreaming, including Bankei's terse comment that "the enlightened don't dream," which can be interpreted in a number of ways. "Like a dream, like a fantasy" is a famous Zen expression, pointing at the nature of life. Master Dogen published a fascicle titled "Preaching a dream within a dream." And then there is the well-known "Last night I dreamt I was a butterfly; today I do not know if I am a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he is a man." I am paraphrasing here, and my attributions may be amiss. I may just be "dreaming, dreaming, dreaming" as Matsuoka Roshi said of a senior disciple's speculations on Zen.
In the 1960s I came across some books by authors such as Carlos Castaneda and others, including one Lobsang Rampa, who claimed to be an Irish man whose body was taken over by a Tibetan lama. They wrote about being able to enter into dreams while conscious, to awaken in the midst of dreaming, and offered various techniques for controlling dreams. However thin the scientific ice these claims were skating on, I was persuaded to pay more attention to my own dreams, and indeed experienced various degrees of lucid dreaming as a result. I cannot claim any positive results from controlling my dreams, but believe that I came to a better understanding of their place in consciousness in general.
Without delving into the bottomless psychological pit of dreaming and what it may mean, I would like to share some of my personal experience and interpretation of the import of my own dreams, particularly a recent, compelling example. Perhaps you may find that you have had similar experiences. After the recent election, which gives new meaning to the expression "long-suffering," I would not be surprised to learn that "everybody's having them dreams" as Bob Dylan once assured us.
First of all, I would like to assert that dreaming, which involves states of relative sleeping and waking, is an appropriate area of focus for Zen practice. I can testify that in the far extremes of zazen, the line between awake or asleep, and dreaming and ordinary perception, grows exceedingly thin. We often find ourselves, on long retreats, drifting in and out of consciousness momentarily, transcending that particular boundary. Which can stand in for all the other boundaries we encounter in life, even that between being and non-being, as in the Ch'an poem, "Hsinhsinming, Faith in Mind," quoted above.
My personal theory of what is usually going on in my own dreams is that they reflect aspects of my daily life that are perhaps too subtle or painful for me to recognize in their full force during waking hours. I have drawn some conclusions that I will summarize later in this essay, which form the way I currently approach and regard my dreams each night. It may seem odd to adapt an "approach" to the phenomenon of dreaming, but I feel it an appropriate extension of my zazen practice, which I often refer to as "falling asleep staying awake." If the proposition of Zen is that we are asleep when we appear awake, and can wake up completely as did Buddha—thus the title—then examining the difference between ordinary waking and sleeping states seems to me pertinent and to the point.
Recently I had a particularly startling dream, but one which was much like many other dreams I have had. In it, I was striving earnestly to get somewhere to do something, neither of which was very definitive. As a dream of mine, it was beginning to fall into that category that I have come to call "you can't get there from here" dreams. Always involving some sort of project or program, meeting or event that I was struggling to get to, but for some reason could not seem to achieve. Usually, the reason has to do with something missing - my shoes, a portfolio needed for the meeting, something.
It was also often the case that where I was trying to go was unclear, or that the way to get there was unknown. My anxiety would increase through the progress of the dream, until I woke up, or until I would come to lucidity, realizing that here I was again, in the same old dream, if in slightly different circumstances. They are often accompanied by a sense of frustration, which can segue into foreboding, and in worse case, amount to a kind of panic attack, if on a relatively unconscious level.
In this case, I and a companion were traveling together, and we were attempting to get to the Art Institute in Chicago. I assume that the specifics were a form of latent memory, as I had just returned from a trip to that great city, with our intrepid video documentary team, all of whom had sojourned together in Japan a year ago. But after going through room after room, some of which were large and empty, others small and crowded, asking directions and getting more than a little bent out of shape at the lack of progress or cooperation from our fellow denizens of the dream, at one point I actually said to my companion, "Are you beginning to panic yet?" He said "No," and I retorted, "Well, I think its about time you started."
At this time my lucidity approached normal waking state, and of course I realized it was all a dream, though unusually robust and very convincing. I could remember some fine fluctuations in acuity, where in a given room with a crowd of people, suddenly my focus would sharpen, details like their faces becoming more distinct, but also more bizarre, like characters from Fellini's "Satyricon." Which may also represent a memory byte, as we had discussed this film while traveling, and Fellini's fantastic character drawings. But this kind of occurrence had taken place in earlier dreams as well. In one case this time, for example, the person was eating a piece of pizza, but as I focused in on him, his face became unified with the slice, so that he was, in effect, devouring his own face. You can't make this stuff up. But apparently your mind can. This is the point of "360-degree Zen" that Matsuoka Roshi defined as "imagination thinking" at 270 degrees, 3-fourths of the way around the complete circle (see "The Kyosaku.").
My main remembrance, though, was the mounting sense of frustration and panic—that once again, I was, or in this case we were, on this hopeless quest. A sense of impending doom, or being doomed to eternity trying to get somewhere, was accompanied by a claustrophobic recognition that wherever we turned, whichever room we entered next, it was an endless series of chambers, and we could not get out. However, this did not include not getting out of the building, though at one point I was desperately asking people that very question. After, we did go outside, and I could see on the distant horizon the skyline of Chicago, clearly from recent memory, and guess where the Art Institute campus would be, far away. But this did not relieve the feeling of the impossibility of getting there.
So in waking from this dream, gradually, after asking my companion if he were also feeling the sense of panic, I thought that my heart must be beating rapidly. But upon listening, my heart was beating at a relatively reasonable rate, and I calmly surmised that this dream had something to teach me that the others had not. It had occurred to me before that these melodramatic episodes, verging on nightmares, act as a kind of theater, illustrating a dimension of life too uncomfortable to embrace while awake.
It is as if they are a kind of hell, in which we are stuck, with No Exit, apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre.
But it slowly dawned on me that the real issue, the source of my discomfort, was my very impulse to get out. I concluded that "hell," in this iteration, is recognizing that we are trapped in something that we want to escape, but find we cannot; and then expending all our energies trying to get out in ways that do not work. Having the same, or similar dream again and again amounts to a definition of insanity on a subliminal level. I resolved to embrace the dream the next time something similar occurred, to accept whatever "room" or situation I find myself in at the moment, and to sit down in meditation to contemplate it. Hasn't happened yet, but the dream has not yet recurred.
So in conclusion I would like to suggest that we learn to stop separating our dreaming from our waking lives, and to regard the machinations of the mind, in this regard, to be in our best interests. Like the body signaling pain to the brain, perhaps our semi-conscious mind, liberated from inhibition in its hypnagogic and hypnopompic, in-between states, may be our best advisor, as to what business we most immediately need to be taking care of. I am concerned that the ubiquitous use of chemical sleeping aids for those who suffer from insomnia (see October 2016 Dharma Byte) may interfere with this natural process of the heart-mind speaking to us in dreams, sharing advice that we desperately need to hear, honor, and follow through on. I am dangling this prospect in front of you like the prepositions in this paragraph. I hope you take the bait and apply this approach tonight. Sweet dreams.