A friend of mine wrote an article entitled “the stuff of which dreams are made” (see www.awakeninthedream.com) and in it he is pointing out how our waking life experience is literally not unlike a dream. When we are asleep and having a night dream what we are experiencing is being generated by our minds and usually we do not know we are dreaming while we are in it. Because we don’t know we’re dreaming we experience the dream environment as real and react to it. If we learn to practice lucid dreaming and learn to “wake up” in the dream we can become aware that we are dreaming and change our relationship to the dream. We no longer need to see it as real and we can affect the process of the dream, in other words, dream up a new dream or just experience what we are dreaming without being carried away by it. This is possible because the dream originates from our own minds.
However what most don’t realize is that our waking life experience is really very much the same although it certainly seems more real and solid than a night dream. This is so because our experience of waking reality is just as much generated by our minds as the night dream experience. We know two very important things from perceptual psychology. One is that of all that exists in the environment we can only perceive a tiny fraction. We can only perceive the parts of our environment that our five senses can detect and we know scientifically that there is far more to the environment than what we perceive. Further, even among the types of stimuli that we can perceive we only perceive a small piece. For example, we can detect light with our eyes but only a small portion of the total spectrum of light. So there is much more to the physical environment than we can perceive. This fact points out that our reality is only a small part of a much larger reality. The other important point here is that even what we do perceive, we do not experience directly. Our senses convert what they detect into electrical impulses, which are then sent to the brain to be perceived. These electrical impulses are not the actual environment but they are what we perceive so perception is indirect.
Perception or experience of the environment and actually of our inner process as well takes place subjectively. When the brain receives electrical impulses from the five senses as well as the mental experience it interprets these signals and creates a picture of reality, which we take to be more or less real. But this is not reality; it is our version of it or our interpretation of it. We are all different physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually so how we interpret what we experience and how we generate our version of reality is going to be different.
In Tibetan Buddhism it is also pointed out that our experience is generated by mind. We experience our outer and inner environment and our mind creates labels to identify and interact with things. These labels we take to be real phenomena. For example, I have the label Colin for myself. What is Colin? Colin is a constantly changing collection of many things including this body, my unique past experience, thoughts, feelings, ideas etc. Colin is just a label for this constantly changing impermanent set of stuff and I’m the only one who perceives myself in this way. Those that know me also use the label Colin but their version of Colin is very different from mine, its based on their experience of me from their perspective. This is the case with all labels of everything we experience, they are not inherently real but we take them to be most of the time and so we get into conflict with people because we don’t realize that they see things from their perspective which is different than ours. There is certainly overlap and agreement in how we all see the world but only to a point because no two people see anything exactly the same way, its not possible for them to.
Because our experience is so dependent on mind, it is very much like a dream. In the same way as with lucid dreaming, if we can become aware of how we experience reality and how we co-create it we can become lucid in the waking dream of life, which empowers us immensely because we can consciously recreate our experience of the dream in relationship with our intentions and happiness. If we are not aware of these processes then we can only react and interact with the world based on assumptions which don’t stand up to analysis. We’re like dreamers terrified of a monster which we don’t realize is an illusion and so we run and scream as it appears to chase us. This creates havoc, pain and chaos. If we realize the illusory nature of reality we can create and maintain a much greater and more stable piece of mind and we will be able to share that with others to create a more peaceful world.