"The word got around that it was my birthday, and by the afternoon the house was full of presents too, which I received with a mixture of happiness and calculation: although it didn’t seem right to profit from Dad’s death in this way, it hardly seemed fair to ruin my birthday. The raw ambivalence gnawed on me."
What is a Dream?
Looking back after more than 50 years, the critical effect of this dream on my life is quite clear. All of the painfully assimilated facts that I dealt with in the daytime—the weeping, the neighbors, the relatives, the food, the funeral, the burial, and the wake—pointed to the clear and final obliteration of my father’s existence. But at night while sleeping all those facts were themselves obliterated by encounters with Dad that were so vivid that I couldn’t be sure that they were dreams upon awakening. He was demonstrably alive in one world, while very much dead in the other. And both these worlds were parked together in my mind.
The clashing realities tormented me, and I fell into a cloud of confusion. Then one morning over the breakfast table when I found the two of us alone, I plaintively mentioned the dreams to my mother. With her practical, pragmatic cast of mind, she quietly assured me.
“Don’t worry, Ricky. It’s just a dream.”
Those words set me on a course, I think, that ultimately led to the suppression of the visitations. It settled my mind. But now I wonder: what if she had answered differently? What if she had said, “Of course, how fortunate! You had a dream! You saw him with your eyes; you heard him with your ears! He’s on another plane, but clearly you can visit him. Make the most of it. Tell your Dad we love him. Ask him what it’s like up there.”
If that sounds naive to modern ears, it’s nonetheless the way that most of humanity, throughout most of our span on earth, have understood such visionary dreams. Many millions of people have seen lost parents, children, and lovers much the way that I did, alive as ever in their lifetimes, giving reassurance that they haven’t died at all. And for many of these dreamers, as for me, these encounters with their loved one must have ranked among the most vivid events of their lives. The emotional power of such events—think of Jesus presenting himself to his followers three days after his death—can literally found religions. Meeting a departed soul in such encounters, you might well wonder if death was an illusion, an error born of ignorance. After all, that’s what Dad himself had said to me.
Or was the illusion—as my mother so kindly suggested—rather the dream itself?
Which plane seemed more true, the dream or the ‘reality’? They both seemed equally convincing. It just depended on whether I was awake, or asleep and dreaming. I veered between the two as best I could: but why should life present me with these two conflicting realities, one manifesting in daylight, the other one during the night?
Dreams are one of those funny things that take place completely in the mind. They’re completely subjective experiences; there’s no way to check them objectively. And I had the dream in an era when, to paraphrase the positivists, phenomena that could not be verified objectively had to be ignored. That the dream sprang from the very roots of consciousness, its very source, was immaterial. It was better to suppress it.
That wasn’t a question I was able to handle, much less ask, at the age of twelve. Needing a pathway out of the pain, I accepted the consensus as articulated by my mother and reckoned that the dreams took place inside my head. This consensus, springing largely from Freud, held that a dream like mine would spring from a young boy’s obvious desire to overturn reality and revive a beloved dead father. My emotional center in the limbic brain filed its claim, the neurons fired in response, and my brain produced a dream to… what? Balance pain of loss with fleeting joy, and in this neurotically short-sighted way attempt to re-establish equilibrium? Inject my recent memories with a massive dose of unreality to make me feel a bit better for a moment? Those who study dreams objectively generally have a hard time making sense of them.
The truth is that we don’t know much about dreams, even today. There are many contending theories, none of them preeminent. We don’t know where they originate, or why, or what purpose—if any—they serve. But we do know that we’re not alone in our nightly descent into phantasmagoria. All mammals dream, just like humans, and many birds do too. This seems highly significant to me. If my dog and cat are dreaming too, along with the deer and the foxes, the bears,
the wolves, the horses and the hummingbirds—if every warm brain in the world is dreaming the night away—you would think that there must be some reason for it. And that reason, once found, would unite us all. It could hardly be mere coincidence that we all share this bizarre condition.
Here’s another issue with the idea that my dream originated in my head. My brain is adept at coordinating my senses and the information they provide. But that’s completely different from the epochal creation of reality in visionary dreams. The assumption that my mind can switch from monitoring phenomena in the daytime to generating phenomena at night is a curious supposition that warrants some review. Is the brain both an organ of perception and creation? Why should it make sense for my mind to change from a cameraman and sound recorder in the daytime to a full-fledged reality production house and movie screening theatre at night?
It might be more reasonable to assume that I only monitor phenomena while dreaming, as I do when awake. During waking hours I perceive various kinds of energy, delivered to my brain through the senses, and use that information to construct an image of the outside world inside my mind. If my mind continues to be a monitor of reality while sleeping, then this system would remain intact, and dreams would originate beyond the confines of my head, just as waking reality does.
It’s true that I know neither the source of that dream energy nor the receivers in my brain that capture it. But there are lots of things I don’t know. My understanding of electromagnetism and gravity is rudimentary, but I’ve learned to work with gravitational and electromagnetic fields. Could there be similar energetic fields whose content I perceive as states of consciousness like dreams or visions, that I tune into like a television set? This is, again, how most of humanity has thought about this issue for most of humanity’s time on earth.
Space seems empty to us, and our bodies seem full. But at a large degree of magnification, it is space that is full, and our bodies empty. At the level of the atom, some 99.9% of space is void of matter. Yet this virtually empty space is simultaneously an unimaginably fervent sea of energy: more than four trillion elementary particles course through our bodies every second of the day. At the level of those particles, our bodies are diaphanous, almost immaterial clouds of distant atoms.
What are these energetic particles that run through us by the trillions? They’re many things: cell phone calls, television shows, movies and radio programs; but also cosmic rays, solar radiation, earthly emissions, and many other particles and waves about which we know nothing. The numbers are astounding: if every particle coursing through my body could be turned into a dollar, I could pay the national debt in three seconds.
To think that we are somehow insulated from this vast ocean of energy that completely permeates our bodies strikes me as naive. Why shouldn’t we be as intimately tied to the various currents of that sea of energy as we are to gravitation? Since consciousness is itself a kind of energy, it’s not hard for me to imagine it flowing into energetic fields beyond its normal locus in the brain, to some attraction outside the body.
Perhaps that’s what happened to my father’s consciousness upon his death. And maybe that’s what happened to mine in the course of my dreams. Perhaps we found each other in the astral plane, where I saw him through the veils of death. I don’t know, but I do know that the question, and all such questions, are valid ones. Millions of people have asked them, and our growing scientific knowledge of the core reality only makes them more compelling.
But how could Dad say that he was coming back, that he hadn’t died? Didn’t he know what had happened? Well, maybe not. If he was transported at the moment of death to a continuing existence in another plane--as many people have reported in near death experiences--he might well have found himself in the middle of a new and oddly similar life to the one he’d lived before. He might well have been confused, assuming there was no one there to greet him and explain the workings of the afterlife. None of us receives a guide for this life, after all, and ferreting out its meaning is for lots of us the prime preoccupation of our time on earth. Why should it be different on the other side? Stunned with emotion to come upon a lost, beloved son, perhaps he didn’t know that he could no more come back to my world by his own volition than I could go to his. The ways of the dead, they say, are strange.
"Dreams are one of those funny things that take place completely in the mind. They’re completely subjective experiences; there’s no way to check them objectively. And I had the dream in an era when, to paraphrase the positivists, phenomena that could not be verified objectively had to be ignored. That the dream sprang from the very roots of consciousness, its very source, was immaterial. It was better to suppress it."
Life is a Subjective Phenomenon
When I think of what I have to work with in myself, it’s a miracle that anything works at all. Just look at my body: it takes two separate fuel systems—one for oxygen, another highly inefficient one for carbon, which harbors billions of alien and potentially dangerous parasites—to make it run. Chemically speaking, I’m mostly sea water; as if the matter in my body contrived
somehow to rise up from the ocean as a kind of walking water bag, which hangs
from a skeleton whose backbone is a travesty of engineering, which is monitored
—and often tyrannized—by a bio-electric nervous system with a predilection for
inflicting useless pain. I’m chock a block with multiple organs, each required for
some vital function in the patched together orgo-machine that I discover that I
am, each one famously prone to failure in its task of turning sunlight into energy to
keep the whole contraption going. I’m crowned withal by a brain in a helmet of bone,
with two tiny windows for sight, two tiny holes for sound and a single gullet for the
fuel systems. With both the nervous and the physical bodies driven by unbridled
passion—incited by the hormones coursing through my lymph nodes—to perform
an act with another walking water bag to make more of the same.
My judgement and perceptions are so colored by these contending, often
incompatible systems, that it’s a wonder I can even set my pen to paper just to talk
about them; much less direct them; much less rise above them to some realm of
objective appreciation. And it’s precisely that capacity, or so I think, that elevates me
over every other animal and plant.
So when Mom said that it was just a dream, my ears pricked up. She offered an escape
from the residual confusion and paralysis of this wholly subjective experience by
giving me a point outside myself from which to view it, to look down on it, and judge
it as tantamount to nothing. She gave me objectivity—or as I came to realize much
later on—the illusion of objectivity.
It’s an illusion that—through empiricism and the scientific method—has served us very well. Where it works, it works quite well. I live in a different, better world because of it. But it’s an illusion nonetheless.
Because there is no place outside myself from which I can view anything. I’m stuck for the duration in the mire inside my skin. Objectivity will never be an option for a creature like me; it must always be a subset of my all encompassing subjective reality, always colored by the chaos of my organism’s functions and the limitations of my senses and my brain.
Which makes me wonder if I was mistaken to repudiate the most vivid event of my life at that time, to dismiss it from an illusory vantage point, which contained after all no more content than a few empty words.