Published in Yoga International, 1997.

Awake In A Dream

      Everybody's searching for enlightenment. Does anybody know what it means? What does it mean to be "enlightened"? What is the actual difference between the way you are now and the way you will be when you're "enlightened"? when you "wake up"? when you attain "nirvana" or "samadhi" or "bodhi" or "moksha" or "satori"? when you finally arrive?

      This is what I've been wondering as I meditate my way through life. Exactly what is it that I'm trying to accomplish anyway? Will I want it when I have it?

      Why did Buddha tell a devotee that he had gained not the least little thing from pure enlightenment? Nothing? Nada. Nil. Then why am I spending all these hours and years meditating when I could be out playing the field or the stock market?

      Then one morning recently I remembered a peculiar dream that I had had a few years ago, and suddenly I felt I understood what I was looking for.

      The night that I had the dream I had gone out with some friends and coworkers to celebrate a birthday. Knowing the crowd I was going out with, I had forewarned my wife that in the event of inebriation I would sleep over with one of them. But as it happened I paced myself pretty well, and after the party broke up I accompanied the birthday boy (who was in no condition to drive) to his home and called my wife to tell her I was on my way.

      Later that night I had a dream, and the dream was that I had gone out with some friends, and on the way home stopped to call my wife. But I said to her on the phone, "The thing is that I've already called you once." "What are you talking about?" "I mean I've already called you tonight. I've already done this. I remember calling you already. I've already been here, called you, and gone home. I remember driving home. I remember going to bed." "Are you sure you're all right to drive?" "I'm fine. I'm just so confused."

      I went around the house telling everyone that this couldn't be happening, that it had already happened. It wasn't just deja vu - I remembered having already done it. I felt confused, disoriented, frightened. Then suddenly it hit me - "I'm dreaming!" I had gone home. I was at home. I was in bed and I was dreaming, and in my dream I was reliving what had already occurred tonight!

      "I'm dreaming!" I told them, laughing. "This is all a dream!" "You're drunk, McCullough." "This is great! I'm awake in my dream!" I kept trying to convince them that it was all a dream, and they kept trying to convince me I was drunk. And the longer I kept it up the more annoyed they became with me.

      Three years later this is the dream that came to me one morning while I lay in bed trying to get myself up for my morning meditation, pondering the meaning of "enlightenment".

      Enlightenment is realizing that you've mistaken a dream for the reality. It is the sudden insight that you are "creating" the world, that it is something which "occurs" to you, that you are more real than the world. You are dreaming the world and all its characters and yourself into it.

      The more I thought about the dream the more it said to me. Every detail of it seemed full of meaning. First of all, the realization of the dreamer that it is a dream was not the end of the dream, but it was the end of the illusion. Nothing changed in the dream, yet everything was changed. The nature of my participation in the dream was revolutionized. In a flash I stopped feeling like a small man trapped in some Kafkaesque situation, and began to play my part with utter abandon. It was all a lark! The situation was not changed - I still knew I was repeating what had already happened - but I was no longer caught up in it.

      The problem now was not to understand what was happening to me but how to make the others in my dream understand how it really was. But my efforts convinced them only that I was drunk. And is that not the reception which spiritual insights usually receive in our culture? Or worse? Drunkenness. Madness. Charlatanism. Witchcraft.

      And the force that drove the realization in the dream was the dreamer's remembrance (however confused) of a different state of being. He couldn't reconcile the present "objective" reality with the undeniable certainty of his awareness that it had already happened. Enlightenment is a kind of remembering: the Self returning to itself. And looked at closely, the objective world is contradictory. As Nagarjuna showed, the world is an inescapable contradiction that can only be resolved in Emptiness. And that resolution is Enlightenment.

      We may even read in the dream a certain similarity between states of intoxication and states of spiritual ecstasy. The "letting go" that we sometimes feel when drunk, or making love, or really listening to music, or walking by the sea, is like the "letting go" that lets us feel the Spirit which is our nature. Perhaps this is the reason we drink too much? lust too much? and long for vacations on the beach? Ramana taught that there is no happiness, no pleasure, in anything in the mundane world: "The truth is that every time our desires get fulfilled, the mind turning to its source experiences only that happiness which is natural to the Self."

      Finally, who is the dreamer? The true awakening is to realize that you are not the person in the dream. That person is but a character. That person is just the world as seen from one particular vantage point. That person is not the dreamer, for the dreamer created all these persons, and everything else in the dream. The dreamer is not "you" in the dream: the dreamer is everyone, the entire dream - and more than the dream too. Your true nature is the Dreamer, not the Dream. And having awakened to this truth in the dream, you now know in your bones what you only believed in your head before: the dream will end. But you will not end with it. For you have dreamed ten-thousand dreams before and you will dream ten-thousand more.