It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Dreaming)

This article has been published in Sentient City Magazine. I would strongly encourage everyone to explore Sentient City further, as it includes many other very interesting items.


Asked to distinguish between reality and dreams, most people would, directly or indirectly, refer to a continuum that runs from existent on one end to nonexistent on the other. Reality would be the existent pole of the continuum, and dreams would be somewhere in the middle, between the existent and nonexistent poles. People generally believe that the dreamer is actually experiencing the dream (meaning dreams aren’t wholly nonexistent), but people generally don’t believe that the content of the dream is actually occurring there and then (meaning that dreams aren’t wholly existent). Beyond the general agreement that they don’t belong at either end, there have been many theories and discussions about precisely where to place dreams between those poles. Freud’s theory, for instance, proposed that dreams are formed by a combination of memories (real events that occurred in the past) and wishes (imaginary events that did not occur in the past or that could potentially occur in the future). Jung expanded that theory to encompass foresights (real events that will occur in the future) and telepathic visions (real events that have occurred or are occurring elsewhere). These two theories would place dreams, after sufficient translation and interpretation, closer to the existent end of the continuum. These theories stood in contrast to most prior scientific attempts to explain dreams, which tended to see them as random, meaningless images generated by a sleeping mind, placing them closer to the nonexistent end of the continuum, while still earlier mythical and religious beliefs tended to place dreams closer to the existent end of the continuum. Subsequent neurological and psychological research has continued to move dreams back and forth on that same continuum.

That is, of course, a gross simplification of centuries of thought and practice, but I think it gives a basically accurate sense of the Western framework for understanding the relationship between dreams and reality. Tibetan Buddhism, like other manifestations of Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism, takes a fundamentally different view of dreams, primarily because it doesn’t accept such a continuum. The Madhyamaka, or “Middle Way” school, in particular, is a well-developed refutation of any attempt to locate experience on any sort of continuum, especially one that has existence and nonexistence as its poles. The Madhyamaka teaches that any attempt to say anything about reality–that it exists, doesn’t exist, or any combination thereof–is to fall prey to the extreme view of dualism. And without that continuum, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between dreams and reality. The Cittamatra, or “Mind Only” school, which teaches that this ineffable reality is the play of ineffable mind (not to be confused with our individual minds), makes any such distinction still more difficult. The Madhyamaka proceeds by demonstrating the error of seeing the five skandhas (form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness, the five aggregates of which our experience is composed and which are mistaken for a self) as existing, not existing, or any combination thereof. The Cittamatra takes the five skandhas to be manifestations of mind. The combined fruition of these schools of thought is suggested in this excerpt from the Great Mother Sutra of Transcendent Wisdom, translated by Ari Goldfield under the guidance of Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche:

Like dreams, these forms are neither bound nor liberated.
Like music, these forms are neither bound nor liberated.
Like visual distortions, these forms are neither bound nor liberated.
Like reflections, these forms are neither bound nor liberated.
Like mirages, these forms are neither bound nor liberated.
Like miraculous emenations, these forms are neither bound nor liberated.

This pattern could be repeated for each of the other four skandhas (feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness). As I’ve heard Ari Goldfield explain this, the reality we experience is like a dream. It’s not bound, and it’s not liberated; it’s not existent, and it’s not nonexistent. Or, as Milarepa sang of appearances in one of his vajra songs, “Internalizing Fearlessness and Realization That Has Become Confidence” (as translated by Ari Goldfield under the guidance of Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche), “While not existing they appear, how incredibly amazing!” The typical experience of dreams is that if we’re aware we’re dreaming we don’t suffer, but if we mistake our dreams for reality we suffer (either in the throes of a nightmare or upon awakening from and losing a pleasant dream). By analogy, if reality is like a dream, we suffer to the extent that we take it to be existent, which is another way of stating the first two of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. If, however, we relate to reality as we would to a dream when we know we’re dreaming, we don’t suffer, which is another way of stating the third Noble Truth (with the fourth Noble Truth being merely the details of how to achieve that relationship to reality). To follow this metaphor to its conclusion, the crucial distinction isn’t between dreams and reality (since all is like a dream), but between our being ignorant of reality’s dreamlike nature and our being aware of that nature. And the quality of our dream is entirely beside the point. The practice isn’t to stop dreaming or wake up (though those might be the ultimate fruition of the practice) or to improve the dream (such attempts might be called perfecting samsara, which is one of our most tragically Quixotic habits), but simply to recognize that we’re dreaming.

This analogy between dreams and reality raises interesting questions for the artist. If the reality we all experience is no different than a dream, what’s the role of the artist’s creative efforts? Are those creative efforts significantly different than every sentient being’s dreaming and interpreting of their reality? And if the existence that we impute to our dream of reality–our constant, mundane personal creation–is the cause of our suffering, can artistic creation do anything but add to that suffering? Can artistic endeavor be anything other than an attempt to perfect samsara?


Artists–writers in particular, at least as far back as Cervantes (in Don Quixote) and Shakespeare (notably in Hamlet)–have explored these questions. But even further back, Jewish and Christian mystical traditions (Kabbalah and Gnosticism) offer creation myths, very different from those of their mainstream counterparts, that also address these questions. In all of the Jewish and Christian traditions, creation is corrupted. In the mainstream traditions, it’s corrupted through human sin, but in the mystical traditions, corruption is inherent in the process of creation itself. And as the source of corruption differs between the mainstream and mystical traditions, so too does the role of humanity in the rectification of that corruption. In the mainstream traditions, it is God that will redeem humanity; in the mystical traditions, it is up to humanity to redeem the failed creation in which we’re trapped. Here, for instance, is a Lurianic Kabbalistic view of creation:

… Our present world has arisen out of three great dramatic cosmic events–the Simsum, or contraction of God, the Shebirah, or breaking of the vessels, and the Tikkun, the reconstruction or rectification.

Before the Simsum, the various powers of the Ein-Sof or Infinite God, were harmoniously balanced and could not be separated from one another. These aspects were the opposing forces of Compassion (Rahamim) and Stern Judgement (Din), bound together in light. At the beginning of existence, the Ein-Sof withdrew into itself, creating an empty space (the Tehiru or vacuum), within which the forces of Din began to take on an independent life. This deeper concealment, or contraction of the Ein-Sof, thus resulted in a purging of the harsh dross which contained all elements of potential evil from the being of God. The empty space thus contained the forces of Din and a remnant, the Reshimu, or impression of the the Divine Light. At this point the Ein-Sof emanated a ray, the kab ha-middah or “cosmic measure”… This ray penetrated the tehiru and worked to organise the opposing forces that now filled this space, and brought into manifestation the Primordial Man, the Adam Kadmon…

Initially Adam Kadmon did not have the form of a man, but appears as a set of ten concentric circles, the outer circle remaining in close contact with the Ein-Sof. These ten Sephiroth eventually reorganised themselves into the linear form of the human body. From the head and eyes of this Primordial figure bright light poured forth. This light was gathered and held by the vessels (Kelim) of the Sephiroth. These vessels, the primitive ten Sephiroth, could only receive God, they could not in any sense resemble the giving, creating power of the Ein-Sof. In this sense the vessels were incomplete and could not hold the light.

The vessels of the upper three… at first performed well in the task of holding the light, but when the light poured down through the lower vessels…, these six lower vessels shattered and were dispersed into the chaotic void of the tehiru. This was the Shebirat-ha-kelim, “the breaking of the vessels”… The next stage in the cosmic process, and the one in which we are ourselves living, is that of the Tikkun, the period in which processes of restoration and repair must be undertaken. The primary medium for this restoration is the light that continued to emanate from the eyes of Adam Kadmon…

In Luria’s scheme the Biblical Adam had the task of reintegrating the divine sparks as his being contained all of the various worlds, his body being a perfect microcosm of Adam Kadmon. Adam should have separated the divine sparks from the husks and restored them to the light of the divine. Adam of course failed in his cosmic task, and this responsibility has now been passed on to all humanity. It is the task of humanity to find the sparks of the spirit buried in the husks of the material world and and raise these sparks to their divine source.

I encountered these myths not through any study of theology, but through Harold Bloom‘s literary criticism. Though the connection between these strange, obscure ideas and literature wasn’t immediately obvious, I was fascinated by them. But as a sometime writer, I’m beginning to understand the connection between mystical conceptions of creation and the effort of writing. I’ve become convinced that any writer of quality is always dissatisfied with his or her writing; and the better the writer, the greater his or her dissatisfaction. Like the transcendent God of mysticism, we are filled with what seem to be beautiful, eternal notions, and merely contemplating them is a source of great joy. But the effort of creation–of forming those ideas into something outside of ourselves–quickly grows frustrating. Attempts to render the ideas into the inadequate medium of words fall far short of the beauty and timelessness that we beheld–or, worse, we lose the ideas altogether to the cognitive process that precedes writing. It is only and always through the process of creation that flaws come into existence. And we are left with our flawed creations–our lame sentences and paragraphs–to bear witness to our failure on their behalf, hope as we may that they will ultimately redeem us.

I propose that the process of genuine literary creation always brings flaws into existence not simply because writers are imperfect creators, but also because that process is an effort by writers to separate themselves from their deepest neuroses. Though writers may see their work as an extension of themselves, and they may define themselves by them, they go through the process of creating an object external to themselves from within themselves to gain perspective on their condition. As many of us learned in high school, Shakespeare’s characters are great not because of their beauty or even necessarily because of their timelessness (though that is important), but because of their fundamentally human and often tragic flaws. Shakespeare was the greatest creator of characters because he was so successful at externalizing his neuroses into those characters. I don’t believe that the mystical creation myths reflect any truth about the creation of our universe (or, if they do, that’s merely coincidence). Instead, they appear to be the efforts of writers seeking to understand and describe the process of creation as they knew it, and to project the flaws that they knew through that process onto their character, the ultimate Creator.


The second half of Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, his meditation on the figure of Yahweh, has as one of its touchstones Bloom’s insight that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the only character in Western literature that we can believe is capable of writing the work in which he appears. This is a strange, or at least strange-sounding, insight, but some reflection would seem to confirm it. Leopold Bloom, as complete a character as he is, couldn’t write Ulysses, nor could Stephen Dedalus, despite the character’s genesis as James Joyce’s pen name. And though the Don is writing his own adventures in Don Quixote, neither he nor Sancho Panza could have written Cervantes’s novel. Even Marcel, the narrator of Proust‘s largely autobiographical In Search of Lost Time, doesn’t become capable of writing the 3,500 pages across which he has developed until the last of those pages.

Prince Hamlet, on the other hand, possesses cognitive and imaginative capacities beyond those of any of the play’s other characters, and hints at insights beyond even those of the author. Hamlet rewrites and then has The Mousetrap staged in the third act of Hamlet, thereby determining the action of the last two acts of that play, and allowing Shakespeare a voice within the play to speak on matters of stagecraft and the like. Moreover, the character he created to speak his thoughts actually knows more than Shakespeare himself does, as emerges at the play’s bloody climax. Stephen Dedalus plays with the idea of Shakespeare as Hamlet in the “Scylla and Charybdis” chapter of Ulysses (revealing the comparative weakness of Dedalus as Joyce), but it’s Bloom, in Ruin the Sacred Truths, who fully grasps the way in which Hamlet transcends even his author:

… Language, so dominant as such in the earlier Hamlet, gives almost the illusion of transparency in his last speech, if only because he verges on saying what cannot be said:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mute or audience to this act,
Had I but time–as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest–O, I could tell you–
But let it be.

Evidently he does know something of what he leaves, and we ache to know what he could tell us, since it is Shakespeare’s power to persuade us that Hamlet has gained a crucial knowledge… [N]o other figure in Shakespeare seems to stand so authoritatively on the threshold between the worlds of life and death. When the hero’s last speech moves between “O, I die, Horatio” and “the rest is silence,” there is a clear sense again that much more might be said, concerning our world and not the “undiscovered country” of death…

It’s that idea, among many others, upon which Bloom bases the “Yahweh” half of Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. Bloom veers between Yahweh as a character created by the first writer of the Jewish Bible (to whom he refers, alternately, as the Yahwist or the J writer) and Yahweh as the author of the creation that contains the Yahwist and the Torah that contains her work. He vacillates between aesthetic awe of the Yahwist and religious awe of Yahweh. But at neither end of the spectrum of his reactions does he ever entirely abandon either Yahweh’s divinity or his humanity. Yahweh is as powerful, imaginative, and capricious as reality itself, and yet he’s also the basis of our understanding of what it is to be human. This can all become a little disorienting for the reader, and the impulse to be reductive can be overwhelming. To his credit, Bloom forestalls all such attempts. He will brook no nonsense about Yahweh being simply an anthropomorphization of the forces of nature or reality, at least in part because Yahweh is compellingly more human than we are. He keeps the discussion from collapsing into simplicity by examining the diminishment inherent in creation (or Simsum in Kabbalistic terms).

To create anything that was not himself, Yahweh had to contract to allow space for his creation. This could be taken spatially to mean the opening of a void or abyss within which the creation described in Genesis (or the creation posited by the Big Bang theory, for that matter) occurred, but it could also be taken metaphysically. With the creation of man, Yahweh became a self in relation to others. Yahweh was no longer the whole of reality–there were now others, endowed with free will and acting against Yahweh’s intentions and without his knowledge (see Genesis 3 for one such instance). This would have been a profound diminishment for him. Where I have proposed that the process of creation, at least in the case of writing, is inherently flawed, Bloom, who seems to have difficulty viewing any aspect of his experience as anything but literature, has merely extended that supposition to Yahweh’s authorship of our universe, so that not only are we, as the objects of creation, flawed, but the creator as subject is harmed as well. Yahweh had to diminish himself to create our very existence, within which we suffer his absence. We are physically, metaphysically, and psychologically outside of Yahweh, divided from him, as he is from us.

Several times in the book, Bloom mentions that Buddhism escapes him, but it seems to me that he’s tantalizingly close to its deepest insights. Buddhists often refer to what we think of as our self as “contracted”–the result of an illusory sundering of luminous emptiness into the dualistic perception that is the root of all suffering. The central Lurianic insight that to create is to diminish is, if not Buddhist, then entirely amenable to Buddhism. Contraction into a subject (or author) is necessary to the creation of an object (or character). To create is to diminish, to divide, to sunder–luminosity is obscured by creation. Usually, the creator will place himself on the fuller side of that duality, but great artists, like Shakespeare, the Yahwist, and Yahweh himself, will more fully empty the vessel of the subject into the object. Or, as Stephen Dedalus puts it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the great artist, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

But Dedalus’s ideal is unattainable because it’s based on the extreme view of dualism. Joyce seems to concede as much in the final chapter of Ulysses, wherein he describes the inner monologue of Molly Bloom as she drifts off to sleep, in the midst of which she beseeches him, “O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh.” For that one instant, buried deep in pages and pages of unpunctuated text, the author is not refined out of existence, as he is so assiduously throughout the rest of the book, and indeed, the rest of Joyce’s work. This lapse, this appearance of the creator in his creation, might be related to a dream that Joyce reported to Herbert Gormand in a letter written during the composition of the chapter, quoted in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce:

I saw Molly Bloom on the hillock under a sky full of moonlit clouds rushing overhead. She had just picked up from the grass a child’s black coffin and flung it after the figure of a man passing down a side road by the field she was in. It struck his shoulders and she said, “I’ve done with you.” The man was Bloom seen from behind. There was a shout of laughter from some American journalists in the road opposite, led by Ezra Pound. I was very indignant and vaulted over the gate into the field and strode up to her and delivered the one speech of my life. It was very long, eloquent and full of passion, explaining all the last episode of Ulysses to her. She wore a black opera cloak, or sortie de bal, had become slightly grey and looked like la Duse. She smiled when I ended on an astronomical climax, and then, bending, picked up a tiny snuffbox, in the form of a little black coffin, and tossed it towards me, saying, “And I have done with you, too, Mr. Joyce.”

According to the Madhyamaka, the truth of emptiness is interdependence. We are unable to say things about the universe, reality, the whole of existence, or however one might signify everything because there’s no vantage separate from it from which we can speak of it. We can only achieve that dualistic perspective by misunderstanding the truth, by contracting into a self, by obscuring luminosity. Though the dualism at the core of empirical science, Western ideals of artistic creation, and theistic religions sees Molly Bloom as separate from James Joyce, us as separate from Yahweh, and our dreams as separate from us, this is an extreme view. These delusions will lead inevitably to suffering for those who hold them. If we believe our dreams, our art, or the events of our day to be something external to ourselves, something that can be mistaken for “reality,” or even something that could be ours, then we will suffer. Even for the greatest of artists, the art of subjects creating objects, even the most aesthetically accomplished of such art, can do no more than reify duality and renew suffering. Only by knowing that we’re dreaming can we be free from suffering.


This shouldn’t be taken to mean that art causes suffering in artists, but there is a correlation there that bears investigating. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche spoke of the “art of everyday life,” by which he meant that the act of brushing our teeth or washing the dishes, for instance, could be as expressive as any conventional artistic effort, as long as it’s done mindfully. This idea of art wouldn’t be on based on the product of the artistic process. Instead, it seems to me to be based on an idea of art that is something other than subjects creating objects. In making this distinction, I’m not attempting to distinguish between good art and bad art. First, any attempt to define good and bad art is too sweeping and subjective to be useful and would no doubt fail in all of the ways that such attempts have failed in the past. Second, to call something either good or bad is to reinforce dualism, so there can’t be “good” art (or at least a notion of “good” art) that doesn’t reify the conceptualization that’s behind all suffering. After all, the concept of good has caused at least as much suffering as the concept of bad. Finally, to speak of art is generally to speak of products, objects, or, if you will, artifacts, as opposed to the process of expression. The product is whatever it is to each person who encounters it, and any such object has the potential both to become an object of attachment and to become a catalyst for awakening (though anything viewed as an object will tend to reinforce the distinction between subject and object).

The distinction between these two sorts of art–I’ll call them creative art and contemplative art–is in the process rather than in the product. The process of creating something as an aesthetic object must split awareness into subject and object. Creative art causes suffering not necessarily through its product, but through its process; not necessarily for its audience, but for its subject. Conversely, contemplative art gives its practitioners access to clearer awareness, an awareness that’s experienced through the process rather than the product. I suspect that the experience of inspiration described by so many artists, and so often taken to be divine, might actually be this contemplative expression, which doesn’t reinforce dualistic perspective. If the artist is truly open to the present moment and expressing what’s there, he would likely feel as though it were coming from outside himself or herself. After all, contemplative art wouldn’t be an expression of the artist’s ego (or self), so from the perspective of the artist’s ego, it would feel like it were coming from somewhere or someone else (in dualistic terms), as opposed to being simply what’s there (in non-dual terms). In fact, this experience is probably very much like the experience of dreaming.

But it’s only in practice that this can be investigated, and I would encourage anyone reading this to do precisely that. Just over a year ago, I did a weeklong retreat at Sky Lake, in upstate New York, during which we did calligraphy with Barbara Bash. It was a specific practice based on the meditative practice in which we’d already been engaged for five days. Although it’s difficult to convey much about this to others, I do remember feeling joyous (there really is no other word) while engaged in the practice, but not in a way that had anything to do with pleasure. Strangely, as we were doing the calligraphy, we would throw away our papers before the paint was dry. At first, that bothered me, both because it seemed wasteful and because the figures were beautiful. But then I realized that the joy I experienced came not from the figures, but from the practice, of which the figures were merely an artifact. The relaxation born of that realization is akin to the relaxation I’ve felt in the midst of especially anxious dreams when I’ve I realized, “Oh, I’m only dreaming.”

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