All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream – Edgar Allan Poe
So I went to see Inception last night with most of the family. First a general review. It was an excellent and entertaining movie. It combined espionage, science fiction and action with mind-bending psychological and metaphysical elements. I don’t generally go out of my way to see a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, but he seems to be getting better.
But my reason for commenting here is because of the use of the dream metaphor. Just as a warning, my commentary below may be considered a spoiler by some, so you may want to see the movie first.
The movie involves shared dreaming, dreams-within-dreams, and the strange phenomena that in dreams, we are often unaware that we are dreaming, and confuse dreaming with real life. As the characters struggle to avoid becoming lost in their multi-layered dreams and strive to wake up, a natural question arises – what if the waking world is actually yet another layer of dream, from which we need to awaken? In the film, this speculation is immediately and forcefully dismissed as pathological. But the director knows that he has planted a seed of doubt in our minds, and he subtly toys with that doubt right up to the end of the movie. Seeds of doubt are another theme that runs throughout the movie.
In fact, dreaming and waking have been used in various spiritual traditions for thousands of years as a metaphor for ordinary consciousness and enlightenment. In fact, the name “Buddha” translates as “the awakened one”. In the Gnostic “Hymn of the Pearl” from the Acts of Thomas, the son of a King is sent on a mission to retrieve a treasure, but falls asleep and forgets who he is. His father sends a letter to remind him:
Awake and arise from your sleep,
and hear the words of our letter.
Remember that you are a son of kings,
consider the slavery you are serving.
Unenlightened consciousness is indeed very much like dreaming. We become entranced with the little details of our lives and the stories unfolding around us. We forget and become unconscious to a larger context around us. We forget our connection to our highest self and become attached to the particulars. Many enlightened teachers have confirmed that the process of enlightenment is like waking up from a deep and not very nice dream.
It’s interesting that several spiritual and psychological schools and techniques use dream work, dream journaling and lucid dreaming as tools for self-development. Ken Wilber suggests that dream work is one of the few resources we have for accessing our shadow aspects – which are normally invisible to the conscious mind.
Like the dream engineers in Inception, we need to become better architects of the dream world in order to become more conscious in the waking world – and ultimately – awake to the larger world of spirit.