When we dream at night, our dreams are essentially images to which we respond in a felt, an emotional way. We may have a sense of time and, by extension, cause and effect, but generally we are simply tumbling through jumbled if moving imagery.
Narrative is what comes after. When we wake up, or as we ascend through sleep back to waking, narrative emerges. We look back – in time – at the dream, its spill of scene and picture, and impose meaning on it. How do we do this? By making a narrative through what is basically a kind of recitation. We literally recollect parts of the dream and string them together in an order that makes intuitive sense. And then we talk about it, or think about it. We relate it to other dreams, to ideas, to events and people and so forth.
The point is that the dream is a vital thing – energetic, rich, moving and so forth. And the narrative or meaning we attach to it is not the dream. It does not inhere in the dream. It is something else entirely. It may be valuable or helpful or insightful – and it may not be – but it’s not the dream.
The suggestion I want to make is that our waking lives are like this, too. That is, we are having an experience that is vibrant and rich – full of images and sounds and smells and this and that and so forth – but meaning does not inhere in it. Meaning is what we give it subsequent to our experience of it.
If we give attention to our thoughts we can see this happening, or sense it maybe. There is a little gap, a little – a barely perceptible – space between our encounter with the maple tree, or our neighbor, or the fresh-baked pizza and our ideas about those things, the story we tell about them, the meaning that we are giving them.
The meaning of life is simply a thought that is always just a hair’s breadth behind life itself.
In an important sense, there is nothing wrong with this. It is important to see that so we don’t get too worked up about it. We’re not bad, we’re not doomed, we’re not broken. We evolved – our brains evolved – over millions of years to think this way. The problem is that we don’t know it’s happening. We don’t “see” the way thought is always reactive – always coming in after the fact to tell us what the fact is.
And that is all the separation from God – if you want to use the G word – is. Reality is what is and we mistake our thoughts about what it for what is. Our thoughts are not the problem. Our belief that they are real is the problem.
We have to become aware of how the imposition of meaning is not meaningful in a helpful way, and we have to see that we are responsible for doing it and – critically – for not doing it.
This was what the writer and psychologist James Hillman was getting at when he talked about avoiding interpretation of dreams by letting our dreams interpret us. As soon as we impose meaning – usually through narrative – onto life, then we are no longer looking at life, or the dream, or the image. Why? Because now we have donned the lens of interpretation and our seeing is affected. We’re looking at the interpretation of the thing, not the thing itself.
In order to see reality, we have to become aware of how we are interpreting life. We have to become aware of how the imposition of meaning is not always helpfully meaningful, and we have to see that we are responsible for doing it and – critically – for not doing it. We have to make a commitment to refusing to indulge the habit of believing our interpretation of reality rather than simply allowing reality to be as it is. Then we can make skillful – real – decisions about what to do, what to avoid doing, and so forth.
A Course in Miracles calls the unfettered perception of reality “the peace of God” which is the helpful alternative to dreams (or illusions) which is what we get when we confuse our personal thoughts about reality for reality.
We want the peace of God. This is no idle wish. These words do not request another dream be given us. They do not ask for compromise, nor try to make another bargain in the hope that there may yet be one that can succeed where all the rest have failed (W-pI.185.7:2-5).
This is hard to do because it is unfamiliar. It is like suddenly going vegan after a lifetime of meat and dairy: you feel deprived, cranky, unbalanced, pitiful. And it is also like driving a new way to work – for your whole life you’ve been driving down Elm Street and now you are driving up Main Street. It feels wrong and you forget and turn down Elm and you have to remind yourself which way to go and be very attentive. We are built – we have evolved – to slip into habitual patterns. Waking up is seeing this and choosing to no longer do it. We aren’t free when we’re conditioned.
So my practice of A Course in Miracles isn’t really about the course anymore. The course is a helpful scaffolding but really, you reach a point where there is nothing left but the application. This is what the course is getting at when it assures us that if we are sincere in our desire for God’s peace then “the means for finding it is given, in a form each mind that seeks for it in honesty can understand” (W-pI.185.6:2). When you’re ready to work it, you’ll see that life – your life, right now, just as it is – is nothing but the means by which to learn how to love.
In this case, for me, the form arises from the accumulated wisdom of certain writers and thinkers that I’ve clumsily stitched together over the years into a quilt that is finally sufficient to cover me and my assembled beloveds and allow for a warm and helpful, for a fructive. rest. I am talking about Emily Dickinson, James Hillman, Thomas Merton, Thoreau, David Bohm. I read and read and thought and thought and wrote and wrote for decades and then slowly – over a period of a few months this spring and summer – the curtains parted as if by a breeze not of my own making. “Oh, so this is what I’m supposed to do.”
And then you do it: you bring A Course in Miracles, if that is your path, into application because now you know how. Your life becomes a simple presence that “acknowledges illusions are in vain” and thus allows “the eternal in the place of shifting dreams” (W-pI.185.7:6). It’s all there is – and ever was and ever will be – and at last – mirabile dictu – it is enough.