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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 Zhuangzi:
Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamed I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a butterfly. Suddenly I was awakened, there I lay myself again. Now I do not know whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly now dreaming I am a man.
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…
Yet the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman – how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too. Words like these will be labeled the Supreme Swindle. Yet, after ten thousand generations, a great sage may appear who will know their meaning, and it will still be as though he appeared with astonishing speed.
Zhuangzi’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:
The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality. Set not your affections upon it. Break not the bond that uniteth you with your Creator, and be not of those that have erred and strayed from His ways. Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 328.
O son of being! If thine heart be set upon this eternal, imperishable dominion, and this ancient, everlasting life, forsake this mortal and fleeting sovereignty. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 16.
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.
Dreams demonstrate that we have souls, the Baha’i teachings say. 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.