How to See Things As A Dream (And Why It Helps)
Can you remember a time when you were jolted awake by a terrifying nightmare, your heart pounding wildly? During the dream, you probably felt captive to the terrors, they seemed SO real. I bet you felt tremendous relief when you woke up.
Many spiritual traditions talk about the dream-like or illusory quality of life. They describe spiritual awakening as waking up from a dream. What does that mean? And how can seeing things as a dream help you live a better life with more insight, ease, and open-heartedness?
Just like your nightmare, life seems SO real most of the time, doesn’t it? Let’s explore what it would be like to see things as a dream instead.
Do We Ever See Reality As It Is?
When you’re living in your daytime dream (your life) you believe your projections — your thoughts, feelings, judgments, opinions — about yourself, others, and situations to be “the truth.” You build an entire story around your perceptions.
He likes me, she doesn’t. They don’t appreciate me. I’m not good enough. He shouldn’t act that way. I like this. I don’t like that. He’s a good person. She’s a bad person. I’m a success. I’m a failure.
We take every moment so seriously, don’t we? Our brain churns on and on in mental fantasies. Those ideas become what we believe to be both our life and external reality — our individual interpretation of the world, our “dream.” Everyone walks around in their own dream bubble. You might share a dream with someone else for a while, until your dreams change and you part.
As much as you believe them, your thoughts, judgments, and emotions about your experiences, memories, or future scenarios will never be a direct experience of life or reality. You’re simply ruminating over what you think happened in the past or anticipating an idea you have about of the future. You’re in a dream.
And all those stories, the dream we’ve built up, can become the source of so much unnecessary suffering. Because things rarely match up to the way we want them to be, which leads to disappointment, self-doubt, or anger. And even when they do, if our desires are overly rooted in attachment, we end up back in suffering when a goods thing comes to an end.
Can you imagine instead, stepping out of the mental constructs, and meeting each moment with your senses wide open, free of all labels and concepts? That’s what it means to wake up.
Here’s another way to understand this illusion-like quality of life. Whatever occurs dissolves into the past just like a passing dream. You can’t touch what happened, it no longer exists. You would never believe a past nighttime to be real, would you? But you believe your dream-like past to be real. You have memories and photos to prove it, along with tons of feelings and opinions about it.
But since everyone remembers the same past experience differently, whose dream is real?
“If you live in a past dream, you don't enjoy what is happening right now because you will always wish it to be different than it is. There is no time to miss anyone or anything because you are alive. Not enjoying what is happening right now is living in the past and being only half alive. This leads to self pity, suffering and tears.” don Miguel Ruiz
Always Recognize the Dreamlike Qualities of Life
This dream-like, illusory quality of life means we can never catch a particular moment, but we can enjoy it just as it is. Your life is not all the thoughts or ideas in our head about your life, but rather each present moment experience. When you begin to realize this dream-like quality, you’ll start to relax and stay present, instead of constricting, constructing, and interpreting every moment through your head.
Here’s advice from one spiritual teacher on how to be in this magical dream we call life.
“Always recognize the dreamlike qualities of life and reduce attachment and aversion. Practice good-heartedness toward all beings. Be loving and compassionate, no matter what others do to you. What they do will not matter so much when you see it as a dream. The trick is to have positive intention during the dream. This is the essential point. This is true spirituality.” - Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche
Chagdud Tulku’s advice doesn’t mean you should be a doormat and accept abuse or injustice. Even though life is dream-like, that doesn’t mean it’s not real. There’s still interdependence and the law of cause and effect. What you think, say, and do matters; it creates benefit or harm.
But when you recognize the dreamlike qualities of life, you’ll stop sweating the small stuff. And the big stuff won’t bowl you over in quite the same way. You’ll have more clarity, more confidence and you’ll feel more at ease.
Chagdud Tulku also doesn’t mean to disassociate, numb yourself out, and stop feeling. Quite the opposite. When you embrace the dream-like quality of life you live with your senses wide-open, experiencing each moment fully and vividly as it unfolds.
8 Benefits of Seeing Everything as Dream-Like
“Be a child of illusion” is one translation of a slogan from the Seven Points of Mind Training, a detailed Buddhist instruction for cultivating compassion in both the most profound and ordinary sense.
This particular slogan refers to our conduct in life, after we get up from the meditation cushion. It reminds us to see all that we perceive like a magical illusion.
What are the benefits of seeing everything like a dream?
You won’t get overly excited when things go well, knowing they’re bound to change.
Neither will you get all worked up when things don’t go your way, knowing that they too are subject to change.
You’ll get off the emotional roller coast that dominates most peoples’ life.
But, you won't become a soulless zombie. You'll enjoy the richness of each moment as a precious gift.
You’ll feel more relaxed, flexible, less self-centered, more loving, and probably have a better sense of humor too.
Your hard edges will soften, you'll feel more grounded and confident, and more receptive to new ideas and solutions.
You’ll take complete responsibility for your actions because you know they have an effect for better or for worse.
Compassion will naturally arise when you see how most people make life into an unnecessarily painful drama. As a result, you’ll wish that everyone could be free from all the mental chaos, and all the suffering it creates.
How to See Things Like a Dream
It’s not easy to let go and simply flow in this illusion-like life. It takes practice, considerable practice.
But once you get a taste of the freedom that comes from getting out of your head and letting things be, I think you’ll be inclined to give it a try and keep at it.
Here are a few ways to practice seeing things like a dream:
Practice mindfulness meditation, train your mind to stay present in each moment. Read: 21 Meditation Tips You Need to Know As a Beginner
Sit quietly and contemplate the dream-like quality of life. It’s a good start when you understand this idea intellectually. But for full effect, contemplate it until it becomes an embodied experience or an embodied knowing.
When you wake up in the morning, remind yourself that this day is the start of a new dream. Encourage yourself to take what happens during the day a little less seriously.
During the day, remind yourself of this dream-like quality again and again. If it helps, post the slogan, “Be a child of illusion,” around your house or office as a reminder.
Especially bring this dream-like quality to mind, when you have difficult encounters. See if it makes a difference in how you respond. See if it begins to decrease your angst in challenging situations.
When you go to sleep at night, remind yourself that the day’s dreams are done. They’ve vanished into the past.
Knowing all things to be like a rainbow, a magical illusion, or a dream, doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist. They just don’t exist in the way we presume they do as solid, permanent, and unchanging.
Experiment for yourself with the dream-like quality of life. Don’t believe it just because I wrote it here or spiritual teachers have said it in the past. Investigate it for yourself and practice it in life until it becomes an embodied knowing.
Your Turn: Have you ever practiced seing everything as a dream? Would you like to give it a try? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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