Are We Dreaming?

What is a dream? I usually think of a dream as an imagined experience taking place completely within my unconscious mind (sleeping dream). Compared to reality it has no substance or physical properties. It’s entirely made of thought or imagination.

How do I know I’m dreaming? When I’m in a dream I don’t. In hindsight after I wake I may view it as surreal or nonsensical yet I don’t draw those conclusions while I’m in the dream. However unusual the scenes may appear from the waking state everything is plausible and “logical” while I’m in the midst of the dream.

How do I tell reality from dreaming? The most obvious way is the continuity that exists in our waking state versus our dreams. I wake up in the same setting I fell asleep in. The room is the same room with the same furniture, paintings, curtains and carpet. My responsibilities are the same when I wake and they persist. My body is the same with whatever aches, pains and challenges were present when I fell asleep. In short, I wake up to the same world to the same life to which I fell asleep. Reality is an objective state apart and independent of me. A dream is not. A dream has very little continuity even though a particular dream scene may repeat. The scenes are completely sporadic and generally I’m not even consciously self aware in my dreams. I don’t consider my own existence while dreaming. While awake it’s rare that my own self awareness doesn’t dwarf all other considerations. While awake everything is about me.

I’ve noticed something though that has me questioning just what I know for certain. When I’m asleep dreaming the space of the dream seems quite real. The dream is unfolding within a setting that extends out into space. From my waking state I understand that this was all a construct of my mind and no actual space ever really existed. When I’m awake the physical space that extends before me and all the objects that fill that space are quite real and separate from me. Their existence is self evident.

With this certainty in place the following thought experiment has proven very interesting. Read the following through first and then try what’s described for yourself, see what you think:

Close your eyes.

Consider a thought: My favorite color is blue (or whatever your favorite color is).

With your eyes closed and the empty, black void before you repeat that thought.

Notice how you “see” the thought. You’re aware of the thought having a presence that you see in your eyes-closed landscape. Of course you don’t see in the way you comprehend seeing with your eyes. Yet within that space that exists behind closed eyes the thought appears to exist as a thing you can “see” but not as a some-thing you can point to. It’s there but “there” doesn’t really make sense. It’s as if it exists in a placeless place.

Because the thought included your favorite color you may be having the experience of that color as well. Color is present yet you can’t “look” right at it. It’s similar to the way a blinking star can only be seen out of one’s peripheral vision but becomes lost when looked at directly. Its presence, the color, is there none the less. The thought or image of the color exists as a “thing” in a place that can’t be located, a placeless place.

Now, with eyes still closed, become aware of a sound, any sound in your awareness.

Let’s say I hear traffic outside my window. That traffic appears to me to be happening at a distance.

Now ignore what your mind is telling you about where the sound is happening. Just become aware of the sound itself without any conclusions about it or its location or anything else.

Just notice the pure happening of the sound.

Notice with your eyes closed that the sound is happening in exactly the same place within your awareness as the thought of your favorite color you were thinking about before. Your actual awareness of the sound is in exactly the same placeless place as the thought of your favorite color.

This most likely will be difficult to maintain as your mind wants to identify and define your world ceaselessly. Maybe you can only maintain this perspective briefly but hopefully you’ve had a taste of what’s being described. If you do the same experiment with your other senses you’ll find that they too occur in that same placeless place of awareness. The most difficult sense is vision/seeing, yet that succumbs to the same observation as all the rest if pursued. We have all grown up with the seemingly self evident knowledge that our sight is a record of what really is so it’s the most compelling of our senses to experience differently. With practice this becomes easier and easier to “see.”

OK, open your eyes.

So what does this have to do with a dream you might be thinking?

A dream is an experience that is happening entirely within consciousness, within my awareness within the dream. The entire scene, the landscape, any characters that appear in that landscape, any objects in that landscape that occupy space along with those characters are all happening within consciousness. A way of describing this would be to say that everything within the dream is the shape consciousness or awareness is taking at the moment it’s experienced or dreamed. The only “thing” actually present within a dream is consciousness/awareness.

In our experiment above we experienced how every sense we have is happening in the same place of awareness or consciousness. Now consider that your entire experience of your world is the experience you have of your senses. The chair you see before you is your experience of your sense of vision. If you touch the chair your experience of that touching is a combination of your vision seeing your hand touching the chair and the sense of touch as the skin on your hand meets the hardness of the chair. You’re probably thinking of this image as two things happening, the sense of touch and the sense of vision. But within that one placeless place of consciousness/awareness you are having a single experience where both touch and sight are occurring as one thing. Your experience is not of two separate things but of one experience within consciousness which your mind describes as two things happening together. Your ongoing experience is always one experience. You are always having a single experience within awareness that you perceive as many things. Many things is not the actual experience you’re having within that placeless place of consciousness/awareness.

Now consider this, if your entire experience is the experience that’s appearing in this placeless place of consciousness then your experience of the outside world is always the experience of your senses that’s appearing within consciousness. Your experience is always what your senses tell you it is. You’re never experiencing a world out there as such but are always having the singular experience of the culmination of your senses as a single experience in this one placeless place of awareness/consciousness.

Now you could say, as I have, that your singular experience within consciousness is the input data of the objective outside world as perceived by your senses. That may be. What’s actually “out there” may or may not exist. But you can’t say what exists apart from your senses because you have no way to observe what’s “out there” other than through your senses. Your experience is always of your senses within awareness whether an objective “out there” exists or not. You only know the experience of the shape your senses are taking within awareness. You only know the experience of the shape your consciousness is taking now.

A dream is the shape your consciousness is taking as you dream. “Out there” is the shape your consciousness is taking while you’re awake. Are you sure they’re different? How can you tell? How would you prove it?

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