January/February 2011

Editorial: Tom McGuire

Written by Tom McGuire

“Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.”

- Nursery rhyme, Anonymous

Hold this magazine in your hands. Touch the paper, hear the pages turn, smell the ink. Feels real, doesn’t it? But what if I suggested that the text you are reading right now, even the place you are and everything in it is nothing but a dream. Your mind resists this idea. Of course it is real, you say. You know it is real. How? There is a deep pause. You just...know. But still, there remains that smallest tinge of nagging uncertainty deep inside.

I recently saw Inception. Not only is it probably the best Hollywood movie of last year, it is also the most philosophical. It is not easy to combine action, suspense and emotion with lofty ideas and wrap it all together into something that actually works. Congratulations to Christopher Nolan for pulling this off. Inception proposes a simple but highly infectious idea: how do you know you are not dreaming right now? Anyone who reflects deeply about the nature of reality has probably come across this thought already. In fact, it seems to pervade the world’s belief systems.

The poet Edgar Allen Poe pondered whether “all that we see or seem” is “but a dream within a dream?” In the surreal realm of Inception, waking up is no guarantee that you are not still asleep. This made me reflect on the sharp distinction between “dream” and “reality”. We tend to think of our dream state as unreal, but it seems perfectly real when you are immersed in it. Only in rare cases of “lucid dreaming” can you become conscious that you are dreaming and learn to control it. The other side of the coin is that maybe our so called ‘reality’ is not as stable and solid as we take for granted. When we die in this world, perhaps we wake up in another one that is even more real.

Socrates, the most famous Greek thinker, thought that most human beings have succumbed to a deep amnesia. Socrates today could have used the metaphor of being glued to a movie screen for so long that you forget there is a real world outside the cinema illuminated by a sun rather than a projector screen. Socrates thought the goal of philosophy was to go back outside into the light. Much of Western philosophy ever since has just been a variation on this basic concept. Even the 19th century Schopenhauer, who is one of the most influential modern philosophers, described the world as a dream-like phantasmagoria from which the enlightened human being must seek to awaken.

Eastern philosophy is no exception to this trend. The Buddha, when asked if he was a god, an angel or something else, simply replied “I am awake.” The ancient seers of India who wrote the Vedas and Upanishads thought that humanity needed to be guided from the dream of ignorance into the light of reality. This world was referred to as maya, often translated as illusion or dream. Eastern philosophy tended to go further and ask ‘if this is a dream, then who is the real dreamer?’ The modern Indian philosopher Sri Chinmoy replies, “each soul is an ever -blossoming dream of God.”

Many of the earliest known cultures claim the world was “dreamt” into existence and that we are still, collectively, dreaming that world today. This is the view, particularly, of many Native American shaman traditions. Australian Aboriginals speak of The Dreaming not only as the original process of creation but an ever-existing subliminal state that feeds into our everyday experience. This also points to another important sense in which the word ‘dream’ is used – as a way of imagining and visualizing our aspirations. To dream is to envision an alternative to our current experience of reality, and this is the first step towards making it happen.

Here we are in a new year. Let’s take this opportunity to change our dream. What do you really want? How about a world in which we use our energy and wealth to grow, nurture, heal and protect. We could start by doing away with the weapons of mutilation that scar the earth. War is a nightmare – as the United Nations says, it springs from the human mind. Do we need to keep dreaming the destruction of the planet? We could work alongside, and not against, nature so that our environment is both abundant and pure. That means clean water, air and healthy food for every person on earth. A balance and harmony restored. If that’s not ambitious enough, how about dreaming a real community of people united across the planet? Do we have the capacity to widen our hearts enough to reach the whole human family?

Not only are all these changes possible, but they require nothing more than a global shift in perspective. To use the vocabulary of the indigenous American shamans, they require a new dream to supplant the old. Enjoy this issue of Café Philosophy, and good luck with those New Year’s resolutions.