Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
– Edgar Allan Poe – A Dream Within a Dream.
From nightmares to pleasant dreams – even prophetic dreams – we all have them and on waking, disjointed fragments may be all that remain. Edgar Allan Poe’s poem seems to question our very existence – our waking and dreaming state. Is life itself insubstantial, an abstraction of the mind, fleeting and futile?
Shakespeare’s, ‘All the world’s a stage’ monologue compares the world to a stage and life to a play. It is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently quoted passages.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.
In an earlier work, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Antonio, one of the play’s main characters also compares the world to a stage:
“I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.”
Richard Edwardes’s play ‘Damon and Pythias’, written in the year Shakespeare was born, contains the lines, “Pythagoras said that this world was like a stage whereon many play their parts; the lookers-on, the sage”.
In ‘The Praise of Folly’, first printed in 1511, Renaissance humanist Erasmus asks, “For what else is the life of man but a kind of play in which men in various costumes perform until the director motions them offstage?”
This play’, or in modern terms, this ‘movie’ that is life is still a fundamental principle of many Eastern traditions, referring to the world as ‘Maya’, translated as ‘illusion.’ But ‘illusion’ does not mean that the world is not real and simply a figment of the human imagination; it’s just that the world is not what it appears to be.
Mahayana Buddhism uses the magician’s illusion to illustrate how people misunderstand themselves and their reality. Under the influence of ignorance, people believe the magician’s illusion, created through the use of props, gestures, and incantations, yet, while the ‘tricks’ look real, the show is illusory. The viewers participate in creating the illusion by misperceiving what they see. Like the magic show, Maya is perceived reality, one that conceals the true reality.
There are many scientists, philosophers, writers, poets, playwrights and movie-makers who reason that we are unconscious, living inside the illusion where we bear the fruits of our actions, undergoing the experiences of the illusion, buffeted about like a cork on a lake, taken in by language and images, the oldest form of learning and communication.
Prior to the development of the reasoning and questioning mind, people did not consider things by thinking about and analysing them. They thought in pictures or dream-like images.. The parables in the Bible or Aesop’s fables are learned through images and through the relationship of one thing or person with another.
There are so many familiar images that, for most of us, evoke feelings of one kind or another. Feelings of peace can come from images of still water, a baby sleeping, a golden sunrise or sunset. Feelings of peace can be prolonged in meditation, sitting on a quiet, warm beach, sailing through calm waters, in a warms breeze. These images and feelings are redolent of what is termed as ‘the Light’ and we are encouraged to reach for, adhere to, stay in ‘the Light’ – through meditation, being in Nature, listening to soothing music, being a paragon of virtue, through kindness and love.
The other side of the coin is termed as ‘darkness’, depicted in scenes of horror, slaughter – of humans and animals – road, air, rail, sea accidents, accidents in the workplace and a range of criminal acts, from burglary to murder. And the sounds and images of ‘darkness’ elicit feelings of fear, anger and worry. These sounds and images dominate our daily media, fed into our homes and into our hearts and minds. Every news bulletin carries graphic reminders of the darkness. There is no respite; dark stories are big business. The effects of incessant streaming of news can be felt in any number of ways, including a feeling of irritation with everything and anyone for no apparent reason. The long-term effects can lead to insomnia, depression and even physical illness. Along with the ‘dark’ media-generated news images, we experience traffic jams, bad weather, lack of money, losing contracts, dull and boring workplaces, demands on our time, delays, transport breaking down, sickness, overwhelming responsibility and, as our children grow, our worries increase.
As we strut our stuff in this movie, we live ‘on camera’, on the surface – in trance – accepting the advertising, the political ‘spin’, falling for the threats – of punishment, deprivation, even annihilation. In our perceived vulnerability, we are malleable, turning for comfort, when life becomes difficult, drab or uninteresting, to the only option left – spirituality: the invisible realm that is eternal, unchanging, absolute and resplendent, finally realising that all experiences through ‘time’ are temporary, fleeing like swallows at the end of summer. Like the dream, disjointed fragments – memories – are all that remain.
But, detached from Consciousness for so long, numbed by the cares of everyday existence as well as media news and what passes for entertainment, we encounter more questions than answers, trying to remember what our inherited religion taught us about God and the invisible ‘other world’ – concepts shared by many religions and cultures throughout the known world. Heaven, everlasting Hell and a ‘holding cell’, of indeterminable duration, called Purgatory pretty much summed up the scene in my version of the afterlife, with everlasting Heaven as the desired goal.
For the Aborigine tribes, there is no ending of life at death. Dead relatives are very much a part of continuing life and it is believed that in dreams, dead relatives communicate their presence. Death is seen as part of a cycle of life in which one emerges from ‘Dreamtime’ through birth, and eventually returns to the timeless, only to emerge again. Eastern traditions like Buddhism also support the concept of reincarnation: the return to this world again and again until we have attained enlightenment.
Some years ago, I met a ninety-year-old lady who told me that she had a conversation with her deceased husband. “But I can’t remember what we talked about,” she said, sadly. “I spoke to my clergyman about it and he said that it was just a dream; that I should forget about it. No-one has come back from the dead. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, either, but the problem is, I can’t forget about it because I know, without a shadow of doubt, that my husband was here and we spoke about many things. With eyes brimming, she said, “The only consolation is that I knew he was very happy.”
The eternal life – Consciousness – is mooted in literature, films, art and poetry. Modern science claims to have found evidence of an afterlife and countless books have been written by ‘NDEs’, including medical professionals. These are people who have, through accidents or life-threatening illnesses, been pronounced clinically dead – and have come back, to recount astoundingly accurate information of the scenes of the accident or the hospital theatre that could not have been ‘dreams’ or imaginings. Their accounts of their journeys through the near death experience (NDE) are many and varied, but with twin threads of similarity: that consciousness survives and that Love is the highest level of consciousness.
This is where we come to the insurmountable obstacle: we have become so brittle that we find the ‘Love’ bit New-Agey, cheesy and unbelievable. Everything from sport, to politics to terrorism is based on competition – it’s ‘them’ or ‘us’ – the underlying feeling being fear; fear as basic as the fear of being excluded from ‘the right circles’ because we don’t live at the ‘right’ address, drive the most salubrious model of car, or dress ‘fashionably’ enough.
Whether sleeping or awake, few of us have heard what one writer refers to as ‘the music of the spheres’, seen the images of radiant, benign beings nor felt the all-embracing love that is All There Is. None of these are present in this dense, grinding dimension in which we currently exist. Yet, at some level, we all crave what the ‘other world’ has to offer, because, at some level of our being, we know, without a shadow of doubt, that there is ‘a better place’. What most of us don’t know, even after centuries of religion, is that ‘the better place’ is here. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within’ – hardwired into our make-up and, with a little discernment and practice, we can tune in. As John Milton said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”.
Recently, a friend and fellow writer, met a lady who had survived the Holocaust. She says:
“I discerned that it was also her creativity and quick wit that played a part. Her love of music and performing arts was, quite bizarrely, nurtured within the very walls of her incarceration experience. There is much commentary of how the creative flow uplifts and sustains us, and this woman is a living, breathing testament to the notion. She lived to make music and co-create with other artists. She had a purpose, a dream, a vision of life. Add in the hope and love that she reports, and you have the principles to sustain an existence, under the most extreme circumstances. However, her testament is not one of condemnation or hate. She believes in forgiveness and appreciation; she lives not to hate, but to love. And perhaps her health and longevity are due to her personal belief systems”.
“She had a purpose, a dream, a vision of life.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded his famous speech with, “I have a dream”. It’s a common, normal – and typically human characteristic. My dream helps me through ‘reality’. In my dream, I am the performer, I am the audience, I am the script-writer, I am the producer and I am the director. Sometimes, I consider my performance spectacular, sometimes lack-lustre. My fellow performers have very kindly showed up to play the supporting roles and my critique of their roles is based, not on their performance but on how I respond. And when I can call ‘Cut’ and go for another ‘Take’, maybe, with the benefit of the training and knowledge gathered thus far, I can make a better job of it. In the final analysis, it’s my call – and I hope that when I look back at the ‘rushes’ of this ‘strange and eventful history’, complete with an ABBA soundtrack, I can sit back and smile.
Ah! Where would we be without the playwrights, the poets, the musicians and the writers?
One of the most enduring and most uplifting of ABBA’s hit records – I Have a Dream: