Exit signs in the dream

People often say that the world is like a dream and that when we wake up from it, we become enlightened.

The first half of this idea has probably occurred to people in all times and places. In the words of the children’s song, “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” The second half of the idea comes, I suppose, from Buddhism. In one of the suttas somebody asks Buddha whether he is a god, a heavenly being, or a nature spirit. “None of these,” says Buddha. “I am awake.”

The whole idea can be stated like this: dream is to the waking state as the waking state is to Realization.

This analogy is more a metaphor than a literal truth, but we may be able to extract some practical guidance from it.

If we take the analogy at face value, there are two kinds of waking up: one from the dream state and the second from the waking state.

At the risk of driving away readers who don’t like diagrams, I’ll offer a picture. I promise, this is the only diagram in this article.

On the left we have the dream state, the one that happens while we sleep. In this state we see dreams.

In the middle is the waking state. In this state we see the world and us.

On the right we have Self-realization. In this state we see the Self.

To move from one state to another we must wake up. Waking up is a transition from one state to another. These transitions are shown on the diagram as arrows.

Our goal as seekers is to move across the arrow on the right.

In other words, our goal is to wake up from the dream-like waking state and stabilize in the Self.

It’s easy to move across the left arrow, the one that goes from the dream state to the waking state — all it takes is an alarm clock! — but it’s very hard to cross the one on the right.

If we investigate how we move across the left arrow, the easy one, maybe we can learn something that will help us move across the right arrow.

Let’s start with the fact that sounds and sensations from the world sometimes appear in dreams. Scientists call this ‘sensory incorporation.’

In other words, in terms of the diagram, while we are in the left circle, we sometimes perceive things that are located in the middle circle.

For example, a bird appears in a dream and emits peculiar noises. Then we wake up and realize that we were really hearing the alarm clock which is beeping on the table next to the bed.

We heard sounds in the dream, but their real place of existence — their root or source if you will — is in the world.

As we wake up, we recognize that the bird sounds are really the alarm. We stop hearing the bird and start hearing the clock. Despite this change, the bird sounds and clock sounds are, in a way, the same thing. But paradoxically, even though they are the same thing, the bird sounds never existed and only the clock sounds are real.

Does this sound familiar? It’s similar to the metaphor of the rope and snake in Advaita Vedanta. When we recognize that the snake is really a rope, we have woken up. Similarly, when we recognize that the bird is really a clock, we have woken up. But I’m talking about the left arrow and Advaita is concerned with the right arrow.

We can call the alarm clock the ‘source’ of the bird. We can say that waking up is the same thing as finding the source of the bird and remaining with the source of the bird.

Now here is the main idea of this post. Suppose the dreamer knows while dreaming that the sounds are part of the waking world. The dreamer would hear the bird in the dream and think, “This bird isn’t really part of this dream. This bird is part of the waking world. If I follow the sound, it will lead me out of the dream into the waking world, because that’s where the sound really exists.”

If the dreamer could do that, the bird’s sounds would be an exit sign. The sounds would show the way out of the dream.

Do exit signs also exist in the waking state?

In other words, do we see things in the waking state that actually exist in the right-hand circle of the diagram, the one that represents Self-realization?

That is to say, do ordinary people in their everyday lives see “things” that are attributes of Brahman, that are aspects of Absolute Reality, of sat-chit-ananda?

I think they do. I think there are at least four “things” of this type. These things are exit signs from the waking dream.

1. I
2. Consciousness
3. Love
4. Being

and maybe:

5. Our intuition of holiness
6. Our sense of right and wrong
7. The nameless emotion

How do we use these exit signs? Let’s take the first one, I, as an example.

First let’s review what we did with the bird sounds. We followed them to their source, the alarm. We did that by allowing the bird sounds to change into — that is, to be recognized as — what they really were, the alarm. Despite the change, in a way the sounds and alarm were the same thing even though only one of them really existed. The bird sounds appeared on one side of an arrow, in the dream; their source, the alarm, was on the other side. As we crossed the arrow the dream and bird both vanished.

Now let’s do the same thing with I. I follow myself to my source, the Self. I do that by allowing myself to change into — that is, to be recognized as — what I really am, the Self. Despite the change, in a way I and the Self are the same thing even though only one of us really exists. At the start I seem to be on one side of an arrow, in the world; my source, the Self, is on the other side. As I cross the arrow the world and I both vanish.

Does this sound familiar? It’s Ramana’s method of Self-enquiry expressed in unusual language. Of course, when I write “I” it means the I-thought, which is the I that is apparent in the world-state.

Self-enquiry can be described as, “Use the first exit sign. Follow it across the arrow to its source. Stay there.” Of course, since the first exit sign is me, and I can’t really follow me since I’m always in the same place as myself, this language isn’t quite right. But everything in this post is only a metaphor. At best the words are approximately true.

Can the other items on my list really be used in the same way, as exit signs? I’m not sure they are as powerful as I for purposes of crossing the arrow. But I do believe that from the point of view of the waking state, their existence is on the far side of the arrow, and that we can immerse ourselves in them on the worldly side, and that this helps us cross.

Postscript Number One

About a year after I wrote this article I ran across the following paragraph in A Course in Miracles, section C-3.1. It suggests that forgiveness is an exit sign:

Forgiveness is for God and toward God but not of Him. It is impossible to think of anything He created that could need forgiveness. Forgiveness, then, is an illusion, but because of its purpose, which is the Holy Spirit’s, it has one difference. Unlike all other illusions it leads away from error and not towards it.

Postscript Number Two

When I started to write this article, I collected quotes to show that various people have affirmed or at least expressed the idea that the world is like a dream from which we can wake up. But then I decided that the quotes were hard to read, that they made the article too long, and that they weren’t necessary, so I left them out. I’m including the quotes in a postscript in case anybody wants to read them.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitis expressed an interesting variant of this idea (fragment B26):

Man kindles a light for himself in the night-time, when he has died but is alive. The sleeper, whose vision has been put out, lights up from the dead; he that is awake lights up from the sleeping.

Osho (Rajneesh) discusses the idea based on his experience in this remarkable essay.

According to Maurice Frydman, the literary genius who wrote I Am That and modestly put Nisargadatta’s name on the cover, Nisargadatta once participated in the following conversation:

Nisargadatta: What I appear to be to you exists only in your mind. I am not concerned with it.

Visitor: Even as a dream you are a most unusual dream.

Nisargadatta: I am a dream that can wake you up. You will have the proof of it in your very waking up. (From I Am That, chapter 40.)

If that’s true, I should add Nisargadatta to my list of exit signs!

Here is Ramana affirming the basic idea that to a Self-realized person, the waking state is a dream:

The main point is, are you prepared when awake to affirm the reality of any of your dream experiences? Similarly, one who has awakened into jnana cannot affirm the reality of the waking experience. From his viewpoint the waking state is dream. (From Day by Day with Bhagavan, 19–3–45.)

Here is Ramana asserting that after Self-realization, we recognize that dreams and the waking state never existed:

Visitor: It is said that our waking life is also a dream, similar to our dream during sleep. But in our dreams we make no conscious effort to get rid of the dream and to awake, but the dream itself comes to an end without any effort on our part and we become awake. Similarly why should not the waking state, which is in reality only another sort of dream, come to an end of its own accord, and without any effort on our part, and land us in jnana or real awakening?

Ramana: Your thinking that you have to make an effort to get rid of this dream of the waking state and your making efforts to attain jnana or real awakening are all parts of the dream. When you attain jnana you will see there was neither the dream during sleep, nor the waking state, but only yourself and your real state. (From Day by Day with Bhagavan, 8–9–45.)

Here’s a funny one:

Questioner: Why should I try to realise? I will emerge from this [waking] state as I wake up from a dream. We do not make an attempt to get out of a dream during sleep.

Ramana: In a dream, you have no inkling that it is a dream and so you don’t have the duty of trying to get out of it by your effort. But in this life you have some intuition, by your sleep experience, by reading and hearing, that this life is something like a dream, and hence the duty is cast on you to make an effort and get out of it. However, who wants you to realize the Self, if you don’t want it? If you prefer to be in the dream, stay as you are. (From Day by Day with Bhagavan, 3–1–46.)

Michael James once wrote a blog post titled, Our waking life is just another dream.

In that post, James discusses the following lines by Ramana (quoted here from somebody else’s translation):

One should consider the universe to be like a dream. Except that waking is long and dreams are short, there is no difference [between the two states]. (From Who Am I? tr. David Godman)

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu wrote:

In a real sense, all the visions that we see in our lifetime are like a big dream. (From Dream Yoga And The Practice Of Natural Light)

From the Ashtavakra Gita:

Look on such things as land, friends, money, property, wife, and bequests as nothing but a dream or a magician’s show lasting three or five days. (From the Ashtavakra Gita, 10.2)

What’s up with the weirdly specific “three to five days”? Here’s another:

He who by nature is empty-minded, and who thinks of things only unintentionally, is freed from deliberate remembering like one awakened from a dream. (From the Ashtavakra Gita, 14.1)

When I quoted “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream,” the line from the children’s song, I got curious about its origin. I had always assumed that the song is an old English ballad that descends, perhaps, from something sung by Proto-Indo-Europeans 3500 years ago. But to my surprise, Wikipedia tells me that it was probably written in the 1800s for American minstrel shows. The song is apparently older than the similar poem by Lewis Carroll.

Last but not least, a whole series of hit movies based on the idea that the world is a dream:

One thought to “Exit signs in the dream”

  1. Yes, I’d say Ramana and Nisargadatta are two of the most well known exist signs in our modern era. All the less well known Gurus are also exit signs or wake up from the dream signs. Once I said, “Sometimes we only wake up from the dream when it becomes a nightmare.” I’m sure others have said it too.

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