Thursday, July 5, 2007

We are the stuff that dreams are made of---

I've been very busy doing construction on my "heavenly cave" over the last few weeks and have let this blog slide. This involved some pretty hard physical work of a sort that I used to do when I was younger, but which now I find quite hard to do. In particular, I had to shovel three tons of gravel, move and set 60, 50 lb slabs of cement, put in a retaining wall, dig a trench for a weeping tile, and, smash a hole in a 1 foot thick reinforced concrete retaining wall. (My whole body ended up aching by the end of the week!)

One thing did strike me, however. During my "coffee breaks" I was slowly reading through the A.C. Graham translation of Liezi and I found myself thinking about the fundamentally dream-like quality of life. The chapter that Graham titles "King Mu of Chu" contains several stories about people who found it hard to separate their dreams from reality---including the famous question of Zhuangzi about whether he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who is dreaming that he is a man.

Of course I've heard about these stories for years and I've also had the experience of having a vivid dream only to wake up to "reality". But in the middle of shoveling the gravel off the sidewalk in front of my house and wheeling it onto my patio, I had the sudden revelation of the purely episodic quality of existence. That is to say, that at that particular moment of my existence I could not only look back on the dreams that I had had the night before and question their reality; but I could also look back at the work I had done the day before in exactly the same way. When I did so I found that the notion was immensely liberating. It meant that when I shovelled the gravel I was just shovelling gravel----I was no longer digging a trench, carrying concrete, sawing wood, or anything else. Nothing else mattered, just the task at hand.

People who look at religion from the outside in usually assume that the mystical experience resides in altered states of consciousness, visions, miracles, and so on. But in actual fact, the really important stuff of spirituality comes down to gaining insight into how complex and mysterious the "mundane" is. The revelation that one only lives through the individual "task at hand" and not in the totality of what one calls their "life", is probably the most profound thing that a person can learn. If we meditate on it and integrate this insight into the way we see the world, then it cuts away our fear of death and allows us to identify with the entirety of life instead of our own petty theoretical existence.

Of course, however, this truth cannot be given to another through mere words on a page (or blog), all one can do is point the way and hope that others will make the effort. Then someday, and in his or her own individual way, another person will have the same insight. And then perhaps they will try to explain the experience to another----.


kasturi said...

hello bill! so glad to discover your blog. you have helped me with a word: "episodic" - to describe the nature of reality. i've been telling people i experience time now as 'islands' and of course no one knows what I mean! But this is what I mean. Certain islands keep on turning up. The episodic nature of my reality. Thanks!

A spiritual guide I once knew, asked me 'are you okay in this moment?' my answer: yes. her advice: keep asking yourself that question. i did and found out i am always all right, even when ill, in pain, etc. This practice helped me to do what you say here, about identifying less with what I think of as 'my life.' very sage and useful advice, (even though you quite properly eschew the giving of advice)

The Imugi said...

"But in actual fact, the really important stuff of spirituality comes down to gaining insight into how complex and mysterious the 'mundane' is."

Yes indeed...when Liezi is flying on his dragon, everybody else sees him feeding his pigs. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
I agree entirely with your point of view. i actually wrote a book with a friend of mine about our perception of reality, time and space and the correlation with our normal day to day lives.

by the way, as long as we are aware that we could be both, a butterfly and a human at the same time...we are all ok.