“When we agree about our hallucinations, we call it ‘reality.’ ” – Dr. Anil Seth
While it is obvious that you give meaning to the unreal things in dreams by interpreting them, it should also be evident that we assign meaning to events in consensual reality, our everyday ‘reality’, by interpreting them as well. What Anil Seth demonstrates has always been obvious to anyone who thinks about thinking, and believing what’s thought…
Hitting a table is a classic reality test. Everyone will agree the table is real, but I can hit it hard enough to break it, and neither bruise nor feel pain. Some of my limits are mental, and I set them. The table may be real in an abstract sense, but the reality we experience is personal.
We don’t experience the same table. We don’t experience the same reality. Two people sharing the same experience will agree on few common elements. These tend to be the things we talk about. Our language limits us to what we agree on. For most people, language is a poo poo platter of processed food.
Reality consists of our assumptions about things we have not experienced: the common elements. We fill in the blanks by social contract, seeing the same things in a world of which we’re mostly unaware. Everyday events are so familiar as to mean little. We “think” strings of events and actions into stories flat and forward looking. And when we’re finished building our flat story, with idiosyncrasies removed, we call it reality. The “real world,” as opposed to the dream world.
Our different emotional reactions and associations are considered subjective, separate from the nature of things. Yet lacking these associations, things lack meaning, relevance, and presence. Lacking their subjective dimension things are forgotten and so, naturally, our day is forgotten. When we review our “reality”, our days are almost empty.
Interpretation of Dreams
Dreams present themselves as messages from elsewhere, demanding attention like a message from a stranger. You don’t give more attention to dreams you remember, you remember dreams to which you give more attention.
We tell ourselves normality needs no further exploration, but it is the lack of exploration that makes a thing normal. Anything unexplored settles to normal; we have little tolerance for what’s outside of this: novelty, difference, or change. We reject what we cannot shoehorn into expectation. The reason most people have limited world views — racial, sexual, social, religious, cultural, national, not to mention mathematical, biological, or anything else — is because most people, when awake, are asleep in all ways but one: awake people continue to operate by force of habit.
The world seems normal because we don’t explore it, exploration takes us from what we expect. Dreams go beyond the normal not because they exaggerate or contradict, but because they reflect a feeling world to which we pay attention.
On the first night I “awake” to early winter in a New England wood. Chilled air and the leaves have fallen. I have an opportunity to go to Tibet, not to climb but to inspire the kids. We’re meeting in a class outdoors, held atop the plateau, up the long road beneath the broken cliff, a long, smooth sloped carriage road up and off into the distance, ascending the entire hillside.
It’s so much shorter to just climb straight up, up 200 feet of scrambling. I’m wearing my old and worn running shoes, wide soled and flimsy. I’m carrying an unwieldy, sleeping pad, flopped over my arm like boards hinged in the middle. Confident that it will not be so bad, I turn off the road and begin to climb.
Soon I am regretting it. I can’t place my feet as the wide soled shoes catch and fold leaving my feet to slip off the ledges. The cliff is steep in spots and I have to climb, not just scramble. The sleeping pad is like a door. I cannot get around it, see my feet, or do anything but shuffle, as if I’m carrying a potted tree. This feels like a disaster, and now I’m too high climb down. For the first time in a long time I feel afraid of heights.
Frustrated awake, I wonder why didn’t I just drop the pad. The fear of heights was disconcerting. I resolved I should drop the pad, get better shoes, and go back to sleep. Then I would return to the dream, and enjoy the ascent of this cliff. I remember nothing more.
On the second night I dream awake barefooted in yellow ski overalls, going on an expedition. The grey sky covers a landscape under thin snow. We’ve left the car above, as the airfield is down steep wooden stairs, opening through a ravine onto the runway. My dream feet are not cold, I am happy to note, after years of feet made sensitive by frost nip.
My father is helping bring down the luggage. Between the rickety stairs and my bare feet, I only have one extra hand, and in that I’m holding an empty glass beer mug. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this mug. I rarely drink beer. I’m a little uncertain. My father is in his early 50’s, healthier and happier than in his later years.
I’m running light-footed back to the car, to get something I’ve forgotten or overlooked. I’m flying across the snow approaching what I thought was my lone car. I see a pickup truck beneath a tree, windows closed, with a few young men inside it. They crane their necks to see me as I climb a short embankment to where I left my car above them.
My car is now a truck, now up on tall jacks, tires hanging limp. But a switch pumps the jacks like a low-rider, and the tires inflate like fat balloons.
They’re loading the plane down below, a 4-seat prop plane. I think I can fly it. Sitting in the pilot’s seat, tilted back, engines rev full and I’m pressing left rudder, left rudder to keep the nose straight, scuddering down the runway.