We wake from one dream into another dream. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
How can you prove whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state? – Plato
Remember that time you woke up from a dream which seemed so real it temporarily disoriented you, and made you feel for a moment like the world of the dream was just as real as the “real” world? This has happened to us all.
As long as humans have existed, our thinkers and philosophers have pondered the nature of existence with that universal dream/reality intersection in mind. Plato and Aristotle and Descartes all asked themselves about the reality of our physical existence when they posed the dream argument. Here’s a synopsis of that classic conundrum from a 4th Century B.C. Chinese philosopher named Chuang Chou (Zhuangzi):
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.
How do I know that enjoying life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death we are not like people who got lost in early childhood and do not know the way home?... While men are dreaming, they do not perceive that it is a dream. Some will even have a dream in a dream, and only when they awake they know it was all a dream… And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream… And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen. How dense! You and Confucius are both dreaming, and I who say you are a dream am also a dream. Such is my tale. It will probably be called preposterous, but after ten thousand generations there may be a great sage who will be able to explain it, a trivial interval equivalent to the passage from morning to night.
This short story points to a number of interesting and much-explored philosophical issues, stemming from the relationship between the waking-state and the dream-state, and/or between illusion and reality: How do we know when we’re dreaming, and when we’re awake? How do we know if what we’re perceiving is “real” or a mere “illusion” or “fantasy”? Is the “me” of various dream-characters the same as or different from the “me” of my waking world?
How do I know, when I experience something I call “waking up,” that it is actually a waking up to “reality” as opposed to simply waking up into another level of dream?
Chuang Chou’s realization, and Plato’s famous Allegory of The Cave, really all come down to one question: how do we truly know what’s real?
The dream argument basically suggests that the act of dreaming itself, which can seem so real, proves that we really can’t trust our normal five senses and the regular perceptions of our minds. Plato re-stated that idea when he wrote his cave analogy, suggesting that we only perceive the shadows of the truly real, and not their actuality.
In the same way, much Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi thought considers this material world literally unreal. In fact, many religious traditions, including the Baha’i Faith, have teachings that compare the spiritual world with the material one, and come to the conclusion that this material world never lasts; while the spiritual world is everlasting.
These ideas live in the innermost heart of religion, which always calls us to the immortal rather than the mortal; to the lasting rather than the temporal; to the eternal rather than the ephemeral. Every mystical teaching testifies to this truth. That’s the single common aim of all the great Faiths—to lead us back to the divine, which already resides inside us. Each of those Faiths assures us that we can discover the profound, joyful and transcendent in our own hearts and souls—and in our dreams.
Baha’is believe that our dreams show us nightly proof of the existence and the immortality of our souls:
In the world of dreams the body becomes absolutely passive, but the spirit still functions actively, possessed of all susceptibilities. This leads to the conclusion that the life of the spirit is neither conditional nor dependent upon the life of the body. At most it can be said that the body is a mere garment utilized by the spirit. If that garment be destroyed, the wearer is not affected but is, in fact, protected. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 259.