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Is life a dream?

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air;

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

—Shakespeare, The Tempest (IV.i.148-158)

There are many aspects to life that make it feel dream-like. Primary among them is the passing of time which seems to increase as one gets older and leaves in its wake, fading memories and stories we like to tell ourselves. Looking back at old photographs, we no longer recognize so much the people and places we once knew. Sometimes we wonder if any of it ever really happened—so transitory is our existence. The Ashtavakra Gita reminds us not to depend on the longevity of objects and relations when it says “Look upon friends, lands, wealth, houses, wives, presents, and other such objects of fortune as a dream, or as a magician’s show, lasting only a few days—just three or five.”

We all intuit the ephemeral quality of life. We grasp desperately onto the objects and people close to us hopelessly like rafts made of sand in the great ocean of samsara. We question our brief role in what appears to be a kind of cosmic tragicomedy written by an unseen hand. We don’t know how we got here or even, really, what we’re supposed to do. It’s all so mysterious, and just a tad unsettling.

Having come across Vedanta, we might be shocked to learn that the world isn't real! To any rational person, such a statement immediately sounds suspicious. However, according to Vedanta "real" is defined as that which never changes and is always present, which, once examined, no objects qualify as. To see the world as unreal is an important part of spiritual development because with a proper understanding of the nature of objects, we needn't any longer get caught up in the world's drama or suffer from events we have little or no control over. After all, this isn’t our show. We didn’t write the script, have no idea where central casting is, and the props appear to have been here long before anyone arrived on the scene.

The unreal quality of the world is traditionally taught through analysis of the three states of experience (waking, dreaming, sleeping), and through close examination of the nature of objects, which are found to be insubstantial. This doesn't mean objects are not experienced. It means that they don’t have any lasting qualities. They are here one day and gone the next. It’s for this reason that Vedanta considers objects as good as non-existent and that any impression that they be otherwise—just an illusion.

Life can appear as a dream because it is constantly changing and not what it seems. Anyone who has studied basic science knows that what you see is definitely not what you get.

Life can appear as a dream because it is constantly changing and not what it seems. Anyone who has studied basic science knows that what you see is definitely not what you get. Not only does the mind correlate with nature to create a version of empirical reality, but objects themselves are shown to be made of divisible parts that only have an appearance of solidity (I covered this topic in a previous essay). Furthermore, all objects are formed, sustained for a time, and then become something else. In the Mandukya Upanishad with Karika, the author, Gaudapada writes, “That which does not exist in the beginning and in the end, is not so in the middle.” (2.6) Nevertheless, as individuals, we seem to be hardwired to interpret the world as something solid and enduring. This inability to see the actual truth about the world is the “sleep” that Shakespeare writes about. In Vedanta, the cause of it is maya, or beginningless ignorance.

Vedanta even has a term for that which is real (satya) and that which is "apparently real" (mithya). All objects fall in the mithya category, while only consciousness, which is non-objectifiable, falls in the satya category. This distinction is important because only consciousness is unchanging, always present and can never be negated. Mithya is inscrutable. Why anything exists at all is a mystery. Mithya cannot be said to be existent because it doesn’t have an existence of its own (in other words, it’s dependent on consciousness). On the other hand, it can’t be said to be non-existent because its effects are experienced. Paradoxically, the more we probe mithya the more it is unknown.

The quality of mithya is shown in the analysis of the three states of experience, where, in order to move from the waking state to the dream state, the waker must become the dreamer. Likewise, in order to move from the dream state to the deep sleep state, the dreamer must become the deep sleeper. None of the waking, dreaming or sleeping states are real because they are constantly in flux. In the end, only consciousness is the factor consistent in all three states. Even in deep sleep there is awareness. If that weren’t the case, the body would cease to function.

In the Mandukya Upanishad with Karika, Gaudapada has much to say about empirical reality’s unsubstantial qualities. It suggests that the waking and dream states of experience are really no different. Both states feel real while in them, it’s only after waking up that we are able to say, “It was a dream.” However, ultimately, both states are just thoughts playing on the screen of awareness. Life is like a stage where objects in the form of thoughts enter and exit. In the end, the only constant is the stage of pure consciousness.

Guadapada uses the illustration of a firebrand to show how consciousness set in movement by maya seemingly causes objects to manifest. In the firebrand example, the end of a stick is lit in the dark and when moved quickly, appears to transform itself into various shapes.

Picasso was once asked by a LIFE magazine photographer to “draw” using a small electric light. The result was 30 captured drawings drawn by the artist that included centaurs, bulls and Greek profiles.

Pablo Picasso drawing a centaur with light, 1949. Gjon Mili.

Although it appears that Picasso is drawing forms with light, in reality what exists is just a single electric light. Due to the swift movement of the light, the one light has the appearance of plurality or lines of light. Similarly, when the mind moves one sees objects and their cause and effect. As Vedanta teacher, Swami Paramarthananda puts it, “The seeming motion of consciousness is caused by the rise and fall of thoughts. The thoughts come from the mind and the mind comes from maya. Therefore maya alone through the thought movement is producing all.” (Mandukya Upanishad with Karika, p.287)

In the midst of all this movement, consciousness is still, like a stage on which the actors enter and exit. “Thoughts move and experiences flow and you get a virtual reality, which is like a hologram that appears very tangible. Thus the thought motion creates the appearance of the world.” Gaudapada’s conclusion to this is that there are no objects; that the world is only an appearance created by the apparent motion of consciousness. Like a firebrand seemingly creating animals, people and places, the world and its plurality is just an illusion. There is only consciousness and that matter is nothing but consciousness in motion—in other words, it's mithya and only apparently real.

In the Mandukya Upanishad with Karika, Gaudapada has much to say about empirical reality’s unsubstantial qualities. It suggests that the waking and dream states of experience are really no different.

One might think it incredulous that an entire world could be created from thoughts alone. But there are plenty of examples where we are drawn into worlds we know aren’t real and yet, act as if they are. When we go to the movies, all we’re observing is a composite of sound and light projected and yet, people still cry when Fantine in Les Misérables descends into prostitution, and jump out of their seats when Freddy Krueger attacks another victim. Virtual reality (VR) and the VR headsets will soon take “reality” to a whole new level as we connect not only sight and sound, but our sense of touch and smell to a machine. And if that isn’t enough proof, what about when you dream? In a dream you are the script, the actors, the props, the lighting, the backdrop…everything! You are both the material and intelligent cause of your dream. So “real” is what is perceived to be real.

The question might arise, “If the world is just mithya, then why not just walk into moving traffic or jump off a bridge?”—after all, it’s just a dream. Answer: Because in spite of life being a dream, life is beautiful. It might not always appear so, but on the whole, taken as a larger composition, it most certainly is. Thus, we should continue to play our part in the tragicomedy for as long as our karma permits.

Swami Paramarthananda tells a story about a student who was taking a stroll with his teacher while engaged in the topic of mithya. All of a sudden a rabid street dog appeared and began to chase them. Later, the student asked the teacher, “If it’s all just mithya, why did we run from the dog?” The teacher answered, “Our running is mithya too. I was running to save my mithya body from the mithya dog!”

So, is life a dream? Life does have a relative substantial quality due to certain persistent elements such as the time-space continuum. Furthermore, as an individual I am not able to just bend the rules to my own liking and go against the laws that govern the world. I must still run away from the mithya dog if I wish to avoid mithya pain. However, from the perspective of pure consciousness, life is much ado about nothing—just a temporary apparition.

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind.


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