Reality as a Dream

Reality as a Dream


Although the notion that reality is a dream is found in many cultures, it has different meanings for different groups. In certain traditional cultures, for example, it is not unusual to consider the realm of dreams to be as real as—if not more than—the realm of everyday consciousness. This is clearly the case for the aboriginal culture of Australia.

However, the more usual meaning of this notion is that this world is like a dream—unreal and thus ultimately worthless. In modern Western philosophies, equating the reality of the tangible world with the illusion of a dream creates a “metaphysical horror to be refuted at all costs. The curse of pointlessness with no escape….” (Hunt, p. 217—see Sources). Psychoanalytically, patients who regularly describe their experience of the world as “dreamlike” are regarded as potentially schizophrenic.

By way of contrast, in traditional Eastern philosophies the assertion that this world is illusory—like a dream—is commonplace. India, in particular, has a strong tradition of regarding life and this world as a kind of dream. According to the mainstream of Hindu religious thought, the individual soul is trapped in the sufferings involved with life in this world. And, because of reincarnation, even death does not release one from this world. In most of the religious traditions of southern Asia, release or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life. A metaphor often used to describe the insight that leads directly to liberation is awakening from a dream.

Especially in the philosophical tradition of Advaita Vedanta, this metaphor is developed to stress the dreamlike quality—and hence the unreality—of the world as we experience it in our normal state of consciousness. The doctrine of the ultimate unreality of this world is referred to as maya. Mythologically, the notion of maya is regularly represented by the image of the Hindu deity Vishnu, asleep on the back of Ananta, his serpent vehicle. Ananta, in turn, lies on the cosmic waters while Vishnu dreams the dream that is this world.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.