The Dream Called Reality: Some Scattered (and Unoriginal) Musings on Metaphysics and Hope

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I am not a human. This is only a dream, and soon I will awake. It was too cold and the blood froze all the time”

—Per Yngve Ohlin

“What were those deathly creatures that flew out of the golden box? They were the ills that beset mankind: the spites, disease in its thousand shapes, old age, famine, insanity, and all their foul kin. After they flew out of the box they scattered–flew into every home, and swung from the rafters–waiting. And when their time comes they fly and sting–and bring pain and sorrow and death.

“At that, things could have been much worse. For the creature that Pandora shut into the box was the most dangerous of all. It was foreboding, the final spite. If it had flown free, everyone in the world would have been told exactly what misfortune was to happen every day of his life. No hope would have been possible. And so there would have been an end to man. For, though he can bear endless trouble, he cannot live with no hope at all.”

—Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes, The Greek Gods 

Some months ago, I had a rather interesting experience. It wasn’t supernatural, but it was rather surreal. Early in the morning, at around 5:15 AM or so, I started walking downstairs for breakfast before I heard a noise. It was the sound of someone walking into the kitchen and switching on the light. Figuring it was probably my sister or her husband, I thought of returning to my room, since I preferred to eat by myself (I generally don’t like to talk during meals unless the subject matter interests me). But I decided to wait just in case the person downstairs was just going for a quick refrigerator raid before heading back to their room.

So I stood there in the middle of the staircase, and waited. You might say that it felt as if my life had temporarily stopped. The whole thing felt mysterious somehow. A collocation of atoms that had coincidentally come into being, the collocation of atoms that was me, was standing still in the darkness at a particular time and place, waiting for another collocation of atoms to exit a particular location. And this collocation of atoms was asking itself whether meaning really existed in a meaningless universe! I felt strange as I observed what was otherwise a very ordinary and mundane event.

If memory serves, at this point my thought process went something like this: is my life and this universe truly meaningless? They appear to be meaningless, objectively, but what if that meaninglessness was actually part of a massive illusion? What if the world in front of my eyes, as well as the events that occur around me, were products of God’s dream, as the Advaitins claimed? Gazing at the walls around me and the ceiling above me, I wondered if I really was existing inside the mental emanation of a Grand Architect.

Depending on how you look at it, imagination is either a blessing or a curse, or both. Imagination enables us to peer beyond the world we have, but it also prevents us from being content with the world we have. Imagination is the reason why life is such a tease. With the mind’s eye, we can look at anything we desire, but rarely are our deepest desires granted. Immortality may not exist, but we can imagine being immortal. True freedom certainly does not exist, but we can imagine being free. We may not be Gods, but we can imagine ourselves as Gods.

The ability to dream, along with skepticism, is the reason why I am able to cling onto sanity and hope in the prison of the real. Reality may be absolute, but my perception of it isn’t, because there is no way for me to know for sure whether or not it’s accurate (as far as I can tell). It may look like this world is real and that my life in it is real, but I am basing that on my own empirical observations; if everything around me were an illusion being fed into my mind, my observations would be rendered moot.

The word “dream” not infrequently enters daily speech. “This is like a dream,” “This is a dream come true,” and “The man/woman of my dreams” are some of the most common examples. It is often used to describe a superlative experience, like a joyous marriage or winning a championship. It’s as if we instinctively know that things usually don’t go our way in the real world, and that it is almost like a miracle when a cherished wish comes true.

Which leads me to the following question: Which is more real, our lives in the waking world or our lives in the dream world? Are dreams a parody of waking life, or is it the other way around? I’m using the word “real” in two senses here: real as in being a part of reality, and real as in being the opposite of counterfeit.

Most of us have had nightmares. Many of us know what it’s like to fall off a cliff or to run away from a shadowy entity, only to end up rooted to the spot.

Sometimes we wake up in our dreams. We notice that something is off, and that leads to the realization that we’re not in reality. If only there was a way to wake up from reality! For reality is a nightmare, a nightmare with moments of calm and sweetness, but a nightmare nonetheless. Depending on who we are and where the currents of causality take us, the nightmare takes on different forms. For some, it may take the form of something overt, like domestic violence or war. For others, it might take the form of something subtle, like a soul-killing job or a decaying marriage.

Apocalypse, that is, an ascent into heaven or a descent into hell (metaphorical or literal), is, needless to say, a ubiquitous theme in not only religion, but also in philosophy and the arts. There is no shortage of dramatic structure that describes an absolute beginning, middle, and end.

On one side, this view is challenged by those who take a cyclical view of history, represented by the likes of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, on one side, and those who take a Darwinian view of history, represented by the likes of Alexander Rosenberg.

Even if we are to assume that these thinkers are right about there being no straight narrative to history as a whole, it seems to me that the concept of there being such a “narrative” to individuals lives, remains unshaken. If there is no reincarnation, then birth, life, and death comprise not so much a cycle as a sequence. Each and every individual undergoes his or her own Apocalypse.

A possibility that possesses me is the possibility that life is an actual story, with a real plot. A story written by whom, you might ask? Maybe a cosmic playwright, or each individual’s “higher Self.” With this possibility in mind, I can continue to have hope in the face of the darkness I see–for the simple reason that the darkness is followed by dawn.

As far as I know, no one better represented this outlook than Per Yngve Ohlin, to the extent that he could be seen as a symbol for it. I suspect that he saw his whole life as a nightmare; that would explain why he surrounded himself with ugliness, decay, and pain, routinely mutilating and starving himself, using paint and soil to make himself look like a corpse. Perhaps he did such things so that he would never lapse into a dull acceptance of the nightmare as being all there is.  

Which leads me to the next question, which is a question that has probably been asked the day humankind discovered philosophy: What lies on the other side of life?

According to the worldview that I hold, the answer is quite simply–nothing. For if atheism is true, nihilism is true, evolution by natural selection is true, the mind is a function of the brain, etc., I have no reason to believe that my existence will somehow continue after the cessation of the electro-chemical activity in my brain.

The rub lies at the level of assumptions. As a skeptic, I recognize that all of the positions I hold are provisional and tentative. For all I know, I can be a brain in a vat–or, better yet, a spirit tricked into thinking he is a body, much in the same way that one might be fooled into thinking that one is a dog/cat/hamster/etc. during a particularly peculiar dream.

So that is the trillion dollar question: is this–all of this I see in front of me–real? I do not think this question can be brushed aside lightly, because the metaphysical question is the fundamental question, which must be answered accurately before proceeding any further. Unfortunately, I doubt that the means to do so are accessible to us. The metaphysical question is a complex and confusing mathematics problem with no answer key. As far as I can see, we are stuck with what seems and not what is. But that can be encouraging, because it is ignorance, not knowledge, in which room for hope lies.

In Defense of Dreams

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

“Dreams are real while they last; can we say more of life?”

—Havelock Ellis

“Calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.”

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

In his immensely thoughtful and insightful book, Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, seasoned oneironaut Robert Waggoner delineates one of the obstacles that aspiring dreamers face:

To begin with, the current culture largely devalues dreams as either meaningless or imbued with personal angst, cloaked in indecipherable symbols. The thinking goes that even if you become aware within the dream state (which society deems basically absurd), what have you accomplished? In the face of cultural beliefs like these, challenging one’s self to achieve a dreaming skill can be a lonely affair with little external recognition or support.[1]

This was news to me because “dream,” as a word and a concept, figures so conspicuously in everyday language. People use the phrase “the man/woman of my dreams” to describe the ideal partner, “like a dream” to describe something truly wondrous, and “a dream come true” to describe a desire that seemed too beautiful to be realized.

But does seem to be true that reality is increasingly being emphasized over fantasy. It seems that more and more people favor what is “realistic” and “logical” in their stories. Perhaps this desire for fantasy to conform to reality is only natural, given the apparent triumph of science and the fact that the mundanity of waking life is decidedly far more prominent than the magic of dream life. Dreams simply aren’t a big part of everyday life. You don’t have to remember any of the adventures you have while you sleep, but you do have to be at the office by 8:00 AM each morning.

Oh, but what does it matter if dreams last for only an hour at the most! It is only within this fleeting moment in which one can briefly step outside of the prison of the real and taste the air of freedom. A visit to this strange and wonderful realm reminds one that the dull and dreary walls, the “gilded cages” that Aldous Huxley spoke of, are not absolute.

Many years ago, one of my brothers-in-law and I started a water gun fight out of the blue in his backyard. What began as a small provocation rapidly escalated into a two-man war with Super Soakers that left us completely drenched. We chased each other around the garden, laughing and enjoying ourselves. When it was over, my brother-in-law, who disapproved of my love for video games, had a moral for me. “Do you know why that was fun?” he asked. “Because it was real.”

In my final year of college, I tried my hand at writing fanfiction. One day, while I was on the freeway, en route to my university, I gazed at the rocky hills in the distance, shrouded by a peculiar, light magenta haze. Beholding this rather surreal landscape, something occurred to me: that what made fanfiction so great was the same thing that made lucid dreams so great. Surely many of us have read a book or watched a movie with great delight and anticipation, only to be disappointed by the ending. And surely most of us have felt, at least one time or another, that some chapters of our own lives could’ve been written better. That’s the beauty of both fanfiction and lucid dreams: they are means by which we can take matters into our own hands and write a better story.

As a counterpoint to the dim view of dreams held by modern society, I will mention the Pirahãs’ intriguing take on this phenomenon, which Daniel Everett explains in Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes:

To the Pirahãs, dreams are a continuation of real and immediate experience. … 

… I came eventually to understand that xaipípai [“what is in your head when you sleep”] is dreaming, but with a twist: it is classified as a real experience. You are an eyewitness to your dreams. Dreams are not fiction to the Pirahãs. You see one way awake and another way while asleep, but both ways of seeing are real experiences.[2]  

They certainly have a point. It’s a very sensible and healthy way of looking at it. I think I would go so far as to say that dream life is every bit as important as waking life, if not even more important.

Could one’s life in the dream world be superior to one’s life in the waking world? It may well be. If what we humans seek in life is experience, dreams, especially lucid dreams, are certainly more than capable of providing it. Furthermore, one can have experiences in the dream world that would be unattainable in the real world. We tend to blithely assume that we can and eventually will fulfill our heart’s desires in the real world, even if we are well aware that the cosmos is utterly indifferent to us and neither promises nor owes us anything. In reality, it is probable that most if not all of the dreams we wish to fulfill will always remain just that: dreams. Odds are that circumstances, other people, and our own limitations as individuals will prevent us from realizing them, no matter how much determination we have and how much time and effort we are willing to invest.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that we cannot translate our dreams into actual experiences. There is virtually nothing we cannot do in the dream world—our imagination is the limit. And it may be that the precious opportunities to attain the experiences we seek can only be found in this realm.

True freedom does not exist in the real world, because true freedom consists of being bound by nothing except one’s imagination.

I conclude with the opening paragraphs of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key”:

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other. Custom had dinned into his ears a superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists, and had made him secretly ashamed to dwell in visions. Wise men told him his simple fancies were inane and childish, and he believed it because he could see that they might easily be so. What he failed to recall was that the deeds of reality are just as inane and childish, and even more absurd because their actors persist in fancying them full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.

Notes

[1] Chapter 9: The Five Stages of Lucid Dreaming

[2] Chapter 7: Nature and the Immediacy of Experience. Elsewhere, Professor Everett notes, “The Pirahãs attach no mystical significance to their dreams. They are experiences like all others…”

The Greatest Journeys are Taken While Asleep

By Jin-yeong Yi

“For life is a dream, only slightly less inconstant.”

—Blaise Pascal

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

—Henry David Thoreau

“Dreams are real while they last; can we say more of life?”

—Havelock Ellis

Even the most sedentary of us travel regularly. Every night, when we go to bed, we travel to another world–our own world. Many of us don’t recognize our own world when we see it, but those of us who do see a “world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible.”[1] A world where we can fly. A world where we can play with the stars. A world where we can touch the sun. A world where we are God. In a word, a world where we are free.

So whenever you’re having a particularly rough day, or just whenever you are having a bad case of weltschmerz, you can perhaps take some consolation in the thought that, when it’s finally time to switch off the light and let night surround you, you’ll soon be off in your very own world, away from the troubled world into which you were thrown, away from the prison of the real, if only for a short while. All you need to do is to recognize your world, and remember your experiences within it.

Good night, and sweet dreams.

Notes

[1] The Matrix 

Discovering the World Within

By Jin-yeong Yi

“While I am clearly a creature who lives in a specific time and who occupies a particular place, I am not like the plants of the field or the beasts of the forest. I am not bound in the same way that they are bound by either time or space. With my mind I can move back into the past and forward into the future. I can even transport myself to places different from the one I presently occupy. So I experience something about my life that is both limitless and timeless.”

—John Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision

“Each Star must go on its own orbit.”

—Aleister Crowley

In everyday life, I not infrequently step back from my current situation and surroundings and examine them. I am almost never satisfied with the picture I see. I find it natural to ask myself, Is this the only existence, the only world I will ever know?

I actually don’t think that I despise this world, even if it may look like I despise it. Besides giving me life, this world made my standards, and provided me with all of the inspiration I have.

That said, I consider this world to be a cradle. I don’t know about you, but I can imagine a richer and grander existence than that of grinding away as a cog in the machine of civilization, forever a slave to financial and social obligations. I can imagine a more sublime and poetic existence than that of long commutes through the concrete desert, of paying bills, of dealing with human dysfunction, of reading about the latest horrors in the news. Above all, I can imagine a freer existence than that of having my desires restrained and restricted by the laws of nature. I can imagine a bigger world, a more beautiful world. It’s not difficult to imagine how humankind came up with the idea of supernatural realms, of an afterlife.

I’m not calling for a revolution here. As I have stated before, I am of the opinion that no human efforts can redeem the prison of the real. If anything, I am suggesting the obvious: that we can make the best of our term of incarceration. We can’t redeem prison, but we can redeem our time in prison, or at least try. What that entails will differ for each individual, given the variation of predilections among us. However, there are certain methods that most of us can use, in similar ways, to our advantage.

One of these methods is creativity. To my mind, there are few greater ways to redeem the time than taking the imagination and translating it into something concrete, whether it be a painting, a song, or a poem.

If you aren’t content with this world but don’t believe that you’ll ever be given another, then consider creating your own. Let’s face it: how likely is it that the countless factors directing the course of history will swing in your favor? Will the world you desire eventually come about if you work hard enough, or just wait long enough? Probably not. It seems clear that you’re going to have to take matters into your own hands, in the here and now.

One of the greatest saving graces of being human, in my view, is the ability to dream up places other than the one we inhabit. Though these parallel universes don’t exist outside of our minds, they are real enough for us to live in, thanks to another saving grace of being human: the ability to mentally transport ourselves beyond the boundaries of space and time. That is why we can find so much value in the creations of a J. R. R. Tolkien, a Henry Darger, or an H. P. Lovecraft.

I encourage you to never fall into the trap of thinking that this mundane world is all you have. Recognize that you can fashion your own world and live in it–even in the midst of the daily grind. If you haven’t already, why not start today by answering this question for yourself: If you could, at this moment, leave this world for your own world, what would your world be like, and what would life there be like?

The Most Precious Pearl of Them All

By Jin-yeong Yi

“‘The person has two states: this one and the state of the other world. The third, intermediate, state is that of dreaming sleep. When he rests in the intermediate state, he sees both states: this one and the state of the other world. When he has gone by whatever way it is that one gains the state of the other world, he sees both evils and joys. When he falls asleep, he takes with him the material of this all-containing world, himself breaks it up, himself re-makes it. He sleeps by his own radiance, his own light. Here the person becomes lit by his own light.
‘There are no chariots, nor chariot-horses, nor roads there, but he creates chariots, chariot-horses and roads. There are no pleasures, nor enjoyments, nor delights there, but he creates pleasures, enjoyments and delights. There are no ponds, nor lotus-pools, nor rivers there, but he creates ponds, lotus-pools and rivers. For he is a maker.’”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

—The Bible, Matthew 6:19-21 (King James Version)

“The self is dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than any other thing, and deeper within. If someone were speaking of something other than the self as dear, and one were to say of him, ‘He will weep for what is dear to him’, one would very likely be right. One should worship only the self as dear: then what is dear to one is not perishable.”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“You are walking on the earth as in a dream. Our world is a dream within a dream; you must realize that to find God is the only goal, the only purpose, for which you are here. For Him alone you exist. Him you must find.”

—Paramahansa Yogananda

Here is a riddle for you: What is infinite in size, yet lighter than a feather; greater than all of the wealth in the world, but does not require a safe or a vault for safekeeping?

Do you want to know what it is? More importantly, do you want it for yourself? I will tell you where you can find it.

You do not need to gather any money for it, because it’s not for sale. If it were, not all the gold in the world would be able to buy it, because it is infinite in value. You do not need to risk your life on a long, arduous, and perilous quest for it. It is already within your possession. It is invisible to the naked eye, but it can be easily located. You’re sitting on it. Or, rather, it’s sitting on you. Or, rather, it’s sitting within you. Or better still, it’s a part of you. It has always been a part of you, because you were born with it, by virtue of being human.

It’s your mind.

Am I merely engaging in cheap rhetoric, playing with words, performing verbal card tricks? Let us take some time to examine it, and then you can decide for yourself.

Your knowledge, your thoughts, your memories, your emotions, your desires, your hopes, your dreams–all of these treasures are stored inside of the vault of your mind. Are there many things in this world that you would trade these away for?

Your mind is also a sanctuary. It is your only real refuge from the incessant noise of the so-called “real world.” You can’t find absolute stillness in even the most luxurious vacation resorts, but you can find it in the penetralia of your mind when you go to bed each night. It is the only place in the world that you truly have to yourself.

Your mind is a palace, a palace of the most majestic kind. All the royal edifices that have been created by human hands, as beautiful as they are, look like tawdry playhouses by comparison. The palace that is your mind is not merely vast–it is boundless, fathomless. If you have the necessary knowledge, your palace can be whatever you wish it to be, for you have the power to mold it according to your will. If you do not know how to use your power, you can learn. When you are within your palace, seated upon your throne, fully in control of your native powers, the greatest kings and emperors look like pitiful paupers by comparison. For you are nothing less than a God.

More than anything else, your mind is a universe. It’s your universe, and it is for you to rule, and yet how much larger it is than you! How mysterious it is, how much there is to discover! You will never finish exploring it, not even after billions of years. Its riches and marvels will never be exhausted. It is the only place where all of your wishes are granted, the only place where all of your dreams come true, the only place where your life is a fairy tale.

Perhaps best of all, this treasure of treasures is always with you, no matter where you happen to be on the three-dimensional plane of reality. “Home is where the heart is,” because your mind is your home. You will never need to fret about losing it, because it will exist and be yours for as long as you live.

So why obsess about attaining wealth? You already have the greatest wealth.

Why obsess about attaining power? You already have the greatest power.

Why obsess about attaining a home? You already have the greatest home.

All you need to do is unlock them from the treasure-house that is your mind.

The Perfect Dream

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Who lives longer: the man who takes heroin for two years and dies, or the man who lives on roast beef, water, and potatoes till ninety-five? One passes his twenty-four months in eternity. All the years of the beef eater are lived only in time.”

—Aldous Huxley

On the night before New Year’s Eve, before going to bed, I watched Galaxy Express 999 for what was probably the sixth time. I’d planned to do this before the arrival of the new year, and how wonderful it was to see this movie again and be reminded why exactly I cherished it. This viewing, however, was especially different. This time I understood what the movie actually meant to me.

Summarizing a 113-episode anime series clocking in over 37 hours in a 2 hour feature film naturally entails a great deal of simplification, and no doubt this makes the movie “inferior” to the original series in many ways. But it was precisely that brevity which helped me to realize a few things about the movie as well as fiction itself. What occurred to me for the first time that night was that Galaxy Express 999 was the perfect dream, the kind of dream that I had always wanted to have. I think the movie describes something that many of us have longed for at some point in our lives: an epic poem that is not read but lived, with oneself as the hero.

The narrative of Galaxy Express 999 is an epic poem lived within a dream. It would be impossible for me to make sense of the movie by looking at it in any other way. It would be impossible for me to get around the tremendous implausibility of it all: a homeless teenager accompanied by an immortal princess from another planet, traveling to different worlds on a space train, meeting space pirates, infiltrating a castle (complete with human skulls decorating the stairs) and killing the cyborg who murdered his mother and kept her body as a trophy, and almost single-handedly annihilating an entire planet and surviving to tell the tale with nothing but a few bruises at most. It’s a dream that has a sense of completeness, containing heroes and villains,  joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, glory and dishonor, love and hatred, beauty and ugliness.

Needless to say, plausibility doesn’t matter in the dream world. After all, what makes the dream world great is precisely what makes it different from the real world–not being bound by rules. The moment you step into the universe of your mind, the laws of nature no longer apply. This strange world needs no apology for absurdities. Things happen, and you don’t question any of it. You just go with it. Because it’s all about experience. It’s about living life without limitations. Living life to the full.

The Sandbox of the Gods

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The brain is wider than the sky, / For, put them side by side, / The one the other will contain / With ease, and you beside.”

—Emily Dickinson

A Japanese translation of the title of American Unitarian Universalist writer Robert Fulghum’s widely parodied collection of essays, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, reads, “Jinsei ni Hitsuyou na Chie wa Subete Youchien no Sunaba de Mananda,” which may be translated as “All the wisdom I need in life I learned in the sandbox in kindergarten.” The key word here is the word that was added to the original: sandbox.

This sentence helped me to realize what I really want to do in life: play! Unlike most activities, play is not engaged in for the sake of something else, but for its own sake. Here the line between goal and accomplishment is blurred.

In some schools of Hindu thought, the cosmos and all events within it are said to be the product of creative play (lila) by Brahman, or God. I can think of no grander mode of existence. It’s as pure as it is unrestricted. And it turns out that a humble pastime of small children, and not the worldly ambitions of adults, bears the closest resemblance to life as a God.

Hence my near-obsession with the dream world–it is a limitless sandbox in which one can, in theory, do just about anything that one can imagine oneself doing. In the universe that exists within the depths of one’s mind, no barrier exists between imagination and realization. In the dream world, to imagine something is to make it real.