Once we start to hang out in spiritual circles of the Buddhist or Advaita kind we soon enough come across statements like “life is an illusion” or “life is just a dream”. While teachings pointing to the “unreality” of the world as we perceive it through the filter of our minds are very helpful, I find spiritual seekers often get stuck in it. And whenever seekers get stuck, it is because they mistake the metaphor for the reference.
All the “dream”-metaphor refers to is the fact that how we perceive the world is fundamentally subjective. The image of the world as we know it is a function of our individual set of conditioned beliefs of good and bad (in time and space). The judgmental (good vs. bad) interpretation of the stream of experiences creates the illusion of an observatory experiencer, an entity separate from the stream. This split is the source of duality: there is a “me” experiencing and evaluating what is happening within and without. Accordingly, non-duality is realizing the “me” as another experience, as another aspect of the stream. It is the awakening to the truth that all there is, is the stream of experience. Thus, by entering the stream, “we”, the subjective “judge” dissolves. And by no longer objecting or trying to control the stream, we flow with it and suffering ends.
Unfortunately, for many people I have met, the metaphor seems to mean that they should suspend judgement or negate their subjective experiences. Both approaches, though, are expressions of a fundamentally judgmental nature. They can’t work, because whenever we do something to get something we are operating from a stance of good vs. bad. “I should not judge” is as judgmental as it gets.
Spiritual pointers and metaphors are not meant to make us do something but simply to acknowledge and accept how it is. Hence, to enter the stream (and dissolve the “judge”) all one has to do is to fully acknowledge our imaginary views of the world. Once we don’t care about judgement anymore, we have transcended judgement, and we enter. When we say “yes” to everything, even to our conditioned “no’s”, unity is restored. Nirvana is Samsara fully embraced.
There are certain ways to bring this state of surrender about. Ramana Maharshi for example would say that the world is unreal (a subjective image), that fundamentally only Brahman (the “raw” stream of experience) was real, but that in the end, the world was Brahman. So, even the subjective judgement (the “me”) is an expression of the sacred, because it is also an experience. There is only experience, unity, and “thou art that”.
The (teaching-)approach which works for me is a bit different, though. I compare living with going to the movies. We all know that the whole fun of going to the movies is to forget that is a movie and to get lost in the plot. So, if we kept telling us it was “just” a movie or “just” an illusion, we could have stayed home, because it negates the whole movie experience. The same applies to life. If we keep telling ourselves that life is “just” a dream, we keep ourselves out of, that is, detached from life (see an older post on detachment). To get the most out of a movie experience one has to get wholeheartedly involved in the plot. Hence, getting completely sucked in by life without wobbling or hesitating, to live for the sake of playing out our part on the world stage, whatever this part turns out to be, that is the enlightened life. It is a sacred “yes”, which is unconditional, which does not expect anything in return and which, for those reasons, will yield constant surprise, wonder and gratefulness. A “dream” it is, but what an amazing one!
“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke