I dreamed that I was walking up the front
steps of Alverno College on a bright sunny winter morning, with blue
sky overhead and fields of white snow all around. It was beautiful,
invigorating, bracing. I felt invigorated and cheerful. I was dressed
in a modest brown suit and tie, carrying my Samsonite briefcase as
I did every morning. I was walking up the steps to the large front
doors of the main building of the college where my morning class was.
I opened the door and entered the large foyer that gave onto hallways
leading off to classrooms and offices.
In the foyer was a large L-shaped arrangement of tables spread richly with
cakes and cookies and pies and suchlike. Behind the tables were ten or
twelve students, a few of whom I knew from classes; they were having
a bake sale. I stopped and was making pleasant small-talk with them,
was admiring the baked goods, and was beginning to fuss with my wallet
to probably buy something.
This was when it slowly became clear to me that this whole scene was a dream,
that I was in the dream, that I was talking and behaving along with everyone
else, but I was also aware that the whole thing was a dream. (This isn't
particularly unusual, I don't think. When I tell this story in my classes
today, I ask how many people have had dreams in which they realized they
were dreaming, and over half raise their hands.) So I realized that it
was a dream. It was an interesting and pleasant dream, and I just kept
on enjoying it, continuing the small-talk, and continuing my purchase.
But after a time I began to feel a little guilty toward these friendly students,
because I knew it was all a dream and I wasn't telling them. I felt almost
like I was hiding something from them. I even began to feel a little
inauthentic toward them, as if I should probably let them in on the secret.
That feeling got a bit stronger, so I decided finally to just tell them.
"By the way," I said to them, "I don't mean to offend anyone,
but this is a dream we're in. It isn't really real."
Oh, they thought that was funny. Professor Kerns doing his philosophy thing
even out here in the hallways. "You don't have to talk philosophy
out here too," they laughed. "We learn enough in the classroom,
you know." They were amused.
I was too. It was a pleasant happy morning, and we all felt cheery and good. "You're
right," I chuckled back to them. "But it is still a dream,
you know," and continued to finish buying the cookies.
"Oh come on," one of them responded. "Why don't you pinch yourself.
That'll show whether it's a dream or not. Go ahead, pinch yourself."
So I pinched myself.
"Well? Did you feel it?"
"Well then! That proves it. This is real, see?" And that little
demonstration seemed to carry some weight with the others too. They were cheerfully
convinced that this did prove the situation was real.
"Yes, yes," I said; "but don't you see, I just dreamed that
I pinched myself, and I just dreamed that I felt it. That's all part of
the dream, don't you see?"
They weren't convinced at all. In fact they looked for other ways to prove
to me that it was all real. And thus began a sequence of little tests
they tried to devise to prove to me that it was all real:
"I'll bet if one of us dropped a boulder on your foot and it broke your
foot, then you'd know it was real."
"Yeah!" another one chimed in. "Or if somebody stabbed you in
the chest and you bled all over the floor and died, that'd prove that it was
real! Then you'd know." A chorus of "Yeah!s", and some
friendly chuckles. This all was rather fun, after all.
But I had to add, of course, that all that blood and dying was just part
of the dream too, if they chose to do it to me. It didn't prove that
anything was real.
Someone else proposed: "So if this is all a dream, and none of this
stuff is real, then this table is just made up of 'thought-stuff', and your
body is too. So let's see you walk your dream-body right through this dream-table,
if it's not really real."
A chorus of "yeah's." Everyone definitely thought that was a good
argument. I couldn't walk through the table, of course. I made a play at
trying, but just bumped into it. I explained that of course I couldn't walk
through the table because a big part of the whole dream was that everything
seemed perfectly real. Most dreams in fact have you believing that everything
in them is perfectly real, otherwise nothing in the dream would mean much
to you; you'd just shrug it all off. You don't shrug it off, though, because
it all feels very real to you.
Another student did have a pretty good question, though. She asked if I remembered
what I had had for breakfast. Yes, I did. And did I remember what I'd
had for dinner the night before (I did), and what we had done in class
a week before that (I did), and in fact did I remember anything from
ten or twenty years ago, like one of my birthdays, or my first fishing
trip, or when JFK was shot. Of course I did. "Well then," she
asked rhetorically, "are you saying that this dream has been going
on for twenty years?"
"Yeah!" everyone agreed.
That appeared to be a very good objection to my claim that it was a dream.
But I had to still remind them that a person's memories occur in present
time; i.e., I am right now, in this moment having a memory experience.
And in that memory experience, it seems to me that I recall something
that happened in past time. Of course memory experiences could be accurate
or mistaken or even totally fictional. In any event, this dream had,
as a part of it, that I was "remembering" a breakfast I had
eaten, a dinner the night before, and so on. Most dreams do entail "remembering" things,
even if only remembering things that happened a few minutes before in
the dream. Some entail "recognizing" other characters in the
dream, "knowing" who they are and what their personalities
are like, etc. Most dreams entail remembering something about how the
situation came about that you are presently in, and so on. But the memories
are just as fictional as the dream itself is. You are dreaming up the
memories just as much as you are dreaming up the characters and the situations
and feelings that you are living through.
They reluctantly agreed with that, but still didn't think it was a dream.
"You know, if you really think this is a dream," said another young
man, "and that you're home in bed sleeping and dreaming, why don't we all
just get in the van, drive over to your house and see if you're there in bed.
If you are, then we'll know you're dreaming and that this isn't real; if you
aren't in bed, then we'll know this is real."
Certainly an intriguing idea, but if we had gone to my house I'm sure we
would have found the bed all made, dirty breakfast dishes in the sink,
etc., because the whole thesis of the dream was that I was out of bed
Again, though reluctantly, they agreed.
There were some other interesting suggestions about how we might test whether
this was a dream or reality, but none of them were tests that would give
any results other than the obvious and expected ones; they wouldn't really
test or prove anything.
But one student did ask, because she couldn't imagine what the answer could
possibly be: "If this is a dream, as you seem to really believe
it is, then whose dream is it? Who is the one doing the dreaming?"
I immediately knew the obvious answer to that question, of course. It was my dream;
I was the one doing the dreaming. But as soon as that thought came to me,
it also became clear how absurd it would be to say it. After all, I was standing
there, wide awake, all dressed and talking and alert and not any more sleepy-looking
than anyone else. I was as unlikely a candidate to be the dreamer as anyone
else. Yet I knew I was really asleep somewhere and dreaming this whole
I knew that it wasn't the real me that was standing there all dressed up
and wide awake. It was just the dream-me. The real me was the
one that was back in bed. If we drove over to the house, of course I
wouldn't be in bed; I would be standing there awake and looking at the
bed. But in the real reality, the real me was asleep somewhere
But then I realized what an odd thing this was to say. I would be saying
that there was a real me that was different than the me they saw
standing there. I would be telling them that the me that was standing
there in everyone's sight, talking to them, wide awake, obviously not
dreaming, was not really me.
What an odd thing to tell anyone. Doesn't that sound like simple madness?
The students would probably not accept that it was the same distinction Kant
made between the empirical ego and the transcendental ego, or between
the phenomenal self and the noumenal self. Or that it was Jung's distinction
between the self and the Self.
Or that it might be analogous to Hinduism's
distinction between atman and Brahman, where Brahman is the real self,
the Creator of worlds. Certainly this "Brahman" of mine was
creating a world, and it was a world inhabited by people who refused
to see that it was just a dream.
[I guess, in the end, that is exactly what Hinduism says about this world
and its people. They just cannot see that it is maya .]
As soon as I realized the complexity and oddness of the answer, as well as
the truth of the answer, to the question about who was the dreamer,
I didn't know where to start to answer it. I just stood there, dumb.
Seeing that there wasn't likely to be an answer to their question, another
student finally asked, "Oh come on! How many of us really believe
this is a dream. Raise your hands." No one did. Except me, timidly,
but with certitude. One vote for it being a dream. The only one who really
knew. The student continued: "And how many of us believe this is
real and not a dream?" Everybody raised their hands. The
matter was decided.
[Perhaps that is how people make their decisions about reality all the time.
They take a vote. They accept the consensus. If psychologists talk about
consensual reality, this is definitely it.]
We all smiled, laughed a bit, wished each other a good day, and the students
went happily back to their business of the bake sale. I went off down
the hall to my classroom, smiling, puzzled, anticipating the day ahead.
Discussion Questions for
- How would you have felt if this had
been your dream?
- What conclusions might you have drawn,
if this had been your dream?
- Can you imagine any tests that the students
might have done to prove to me (in the dream) that the situation
- Can you imagine any test that you might
do, right now, right where you are, to test and prove for sure
whether what you are experiencing is real or a dream?
- What conclusions might you draw from
this story and your responses to the questions?
- What questions come to your mind as
a result of this story and your responses to the questions?
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