In the dim light of stars, a mind, round and glossy as a bowling ball, began to understand the universe. With a giant cosmic whump, all minds suddenly fused, becoming an unspeakably beautiful all-knowing giant black ball, slowly turning forever . . . and never.
So went, more or less, a dream that began and ended in the moments that passed between my dozing off and the phone call that awakened me only seconds ago. It was a typical scene. I had been sitting there reading some grandly dull philosophy book, groggily wondering about the structure of meaning or something like that. In such ponderings the distance between interest and boredom is a short one, and the jump from contemplation to slumber was made without effort, as usual.
I didn’t resist. I rarely fight dozing off, because dreaming almost always commences. My mind just strolls off the edge of consciousness into that beautiful world of liberation from the obligations of wide-awake coping. I like it there. It feels like home, somehow.
I am usually quite aware of my dreams. I watch them the way a confident coach watches his team on the field. I have some kind of control, but I let them go. This is probably why I have few nightmares. When things start to get heavy, I either let it play out, knowing that I’m in no real danger, or I cancel the whole show and start another one.
This leaves a pretty big range for dreams to roam. And I sometimes think I’ve travelled most of it. The dream-me has killed more people, been killed more times, endured more catastrophes and become involved in more weird situations than Charlton Heston in every bad movie he’s ever made. There have been some pretty dull scenes too: boring conversations with faceless people, pointless croquet games, endless compilations of bibliographies . . . But the dream highs have little earthly comparison. Few delights of daily life compare with the transcendent bliss I have often enjoyed in dreams. And few intellectual flashes have seemed so profound as what my dreams routinely offer.
Okay, sure, you say, but does it really mean anything?
My answer is yes, that it not only means something, but that dreaming may be closer to the very source of meaning than our daily waking experience.
Freudians and gypsies alike agree: dreams are symbolic: They possess meaning only insofar as they relate to our waking world. Well, fine. But I would like to ask an old question: Which is the real world? Is it the world of everyday experience, where only certain things can happen? Or is it the world of dreams, where anything can happen?
This is a serious point, one which has fascinated deep thinkers ever since deep thinking became a human pastime. I have done more dreaming than thinking on the subject, so I would like to bring a novel perspective to bear on the matter. I believe we can point out the main difference between the world of dreams and the world of concrete realities, and explore the role of meaning in each.
The difference is this: details.
The dream world is a place of fluid generalities, where ideas count first and details are less important. Think of how a face looks in a dream. A dream face rarely looks as “real” as a waking world face. Your mind first imagines the face and fills in only so many details as the storyline requires. This is true of anything in dreams. You can’t pick up a dream-book and casually scan through the pages, finding the same thing on page 221 every time you look there, or search for a certain passage that you can read at length, reviewing this sentence and jumping to that one. Those details are supplied in the real world. In dreams we don’t need them. We have the freedom to create whatever we want. And what we seem to want in dreams lacks details most of the time. In dreams, only ideas count.
In our waking world, details seem to be everything. They are inescapable. We rely on them. We build with them. We study them. We look for meaning in them.
This is what science tries to do. The primary activity of science is the examination of particulars. In every scientific discipline from behaviorism to quantum physics, researchers try to break reality down to its most minute bits, as if the most basic truths could always be found in the tiniest (most “fundamental”) parts. But are the details of the world the true home of the meaning we find here? The behaviorist offers ever-more-detailed descriptions of stimulus-response chain operations and the physicist divides atomic particles into “quarks”; but are these meaningful in themselves?
Of course not. It isn’t the particulars of the research that count. What really matters are ideas about the world which research confirms or denies. It is the ideas, the theories, the assumptions we have about things that matter, and not the details to which they apply.
We tend to forget this. Our orientation is toward the details. In our waking lives we constantly attend to particulars of one kind or another. And the workings of science, which we implicitly trust to tell us truths, are concerned with all those little details. We forget that meaning works from the top down, not from the bottom up. Because we work from the general to the particular, the thrust of our attention is always towards the details. To burden a metaphor, we always look down from our lofty ideas to the endlessly complex ground of daily life. Our waking consciousness attends constantly outward through our senses to a vastly complicated world of interlocking parts. Is it no surprise that religion and philosophy point metaphorically upward and inward when they indicate the source of truth and meaning?
Most of what we call reality falls into a range between the trivial and the transcendent. At one end are the details of waking life. At the other end is what really counts.
Nothing obscures this more than our language. Our heads seem crowded with thousands of words, each with a slightly different meaning. We are so skilled at turning thoughts into words that the source of it all is forgotten in the process. Only at such rare times as when we are “at a loss for words” do we come to face what should be obvious: Ideas come first, and words come later. What we say comes from what we know, and what we know is essentially wordless. Knowledge has no details, at least not until we apply it to daily life.
The skill of articulation dominates our waking consciousness. The process of converting what we mean into what we say is so rapid and constant that it becomes easy to mistake the words for the thoughts they represent. Words are proper inhabitants of a detailed world. They are a primary tool for communication. But even here we should notice that the words themselves mean nothing but for the meaning that rides on them.
It is interesting to see how we make that mistake. It is easier to focus on words than thoughts. And focusing is essential for getting along in a world made of details.
Focusing is essential for consciousness, even though focusing is only a small part of what our minds do. When we read, we focus on words, or groups of words, as our eyes scan repeatedly across a page. While our eyes focus as part of an elaborately skillful psycho-motor activity, our minds provide the context for that focus, out of which meaning is derived. That context is broad, varied and constantly shifting. While we read, our minds attend to the author’s developing story. We also attend to our environment, waiting for the phone to ring, perhaps, or smelling for soup warming in the kitchen. Surrounding our ever-moving focus is an unspecifiable awareness that supplies meaning for everything we see or do. This awareness moves outward, from self to details, constantly arranging those details into patterns, and providing those patterns with meaning. (For those interested in the “structure” of knowing, pick up a copy of The Tacit Dimension, by the late philosopher/scientist Michael Polanyi). We are the source of the meaning, and the closer we get to it, the less detailed it becomes. When our attention actually arrives at the source, through dreaming, meditation, religious experience, drugs or whatever, details are gone and only knowing remains.
This is where dreams roam, in the range between the world of details and the world of meaning. On the one side is the finite, with nothing but limits. On the other side is infinity, with nothing . . . or everything.
From the realm of meaning we peer out through the complicated instrument of our bodies at a world with nothing but limits and details. It is a world of finite dimensions and endless change. It is a world of time, where everything ends.
It’s nice to know we don’t have to live there.