Nondual Zen Article:

Dream Body

nondual title

Dream Body
by Kathleen Sutherland


I am not the body. This is a basic tenet of nonduality. We are raised and conditioned to think of ourselves as the body-mind complex, which consists of our physical being, plus mental components: personality, temperament, thoughts, opinions, beliefs. This becomes our identity. But nonduality teaches that this is not who we are. We are the sense of being, the energy that flows through all bodies, the undifferntiated “I am.” Or, more accurately, just “am.” There is no I, no center to consciousness. There is no one, and there is no “other”. There is just this sense of awareness, of being.

It is liberating to realize that we are not the body, nor our thoughts. Nor are we a spirit confined to the body. There is only one spirit, which pervades all beings, all things, all that is. The body’s fate is not ours. We are unborn and will not die. We don’t need the body. This is a wondrous and freeing revelation. We are liberated, seeing that we were always free.

So we have come to know what we are not: we are not the mind-body complex. And we have come to know what we are: the vastness, the “am-ness.” But the question still might arise, where does that leave the body? Discarded, cast aside? Clearly not. It continues to tag along, seemingly central to our ongoing experience.

We conventionally think of the body as a physical entity, subject to physical laws. It was born. It grows and subsists on elements: food, water, oxygen. And when it dies, it will dissipate back into the elements. But the body is not a physical object. That would set it apart from our true nature. That would be a dualistic view.

There is only one thing going on. So this body must be a part of that one thing. I am not exclusively the body. I am not the body in the sense of being a separate being, set apart from other body-minds. But because everything arises in consciousness, all manifestation is a part of me, including the body. This body is arising in awareness, in the “I am,” in the “am”.

This world is not composed of matter. It is all dream. It is all experience. The experience is real. But it is not real in the sense that we typically project, endowing it with physical properties, something apart from mind. Experience is just pure experience, through and through. This land is a dreamscape, other beings are dream characters. You are a dream character.

When you dream in sleep, what is your dream body made of? Mind, pure imagination. And so it is in the waking state. This body, which seems so physical, arises only in mind, in consciousness.

If this body is so ephemeral, why can’t I just shake it off? Or flow into another body, just for the sake of novelty? Extraordinary claims aside, we generally track just one body throughout its lifespan. Since there is no physical body, what we are tracking is an illusory body. Why does it seem to hold such sway over us?

One traditional explanation is karma, which posits that you are born into a given life based on past causes and conditions. But a more accurate view, given that there is no birth or death, is that the sense of separate self, for whatever reason, is associated with, seemingly attached to, a collection of experiences, a particular storyline. But we must stay cognizant of the truth that these experiences are not set in a material body in a physical world. It is all pure mind: pure dream, pure imagination.

This does not discount it in any way. Experience is, after all, all that there is. The experience of this life is your life. It is important. But remaining aware that it is pure experience, and not physically real, keeps us anchored in truth. Such conviction prevents us from falling under the spell of the storyline and coming to believe that it is more compelling, random and controlling of our fate and happiness than it actually is. Knowing it as dream, we needn’t get too ruffled about anything that arises before us. It’s all presented for mental, emotional and spiritual processing and learning. Don’t be afraid of any of it. Don’t resist any of it.

It comes from you. It is your imagination. Not the character’s imaginings, but “yours” in the greater sense of the all-pervading “am-ness” of the universe. It is you. It is not the totality of you, but neither is it separate from you. There is only one thing going on. Don’t be afraid of yourself. Likewise, don’t be overly invested in yourself. Don’t be unduly attached to anything that comes up on this virtual screen. It is all fleeting phenomena, generated by you, and will fall back into you. It will not last. Nor can or will it indelibly mark you in any way.

Get to know yourself. You will endure – for better or worse. You are indestructible, being the substratum, the ontological primitive of all that is. Your immortality, your timelessness, is a blessing if you understand yourself in your totality. By contrast, your immortality will be stressful, a source of cyclical suffering, if you know and identify yourself only in part.

As Kathleen, a separate self adrift in a material world, I suffer. As my true self, I enjoy the drama and lore of the Kathleen story, no matter what arises. The first 50 years of this life were quite pleasant. There were ups and downs, but there was always hope that happiness would be attained. The past seven years, which have entailed living with chronic pain and disability, have been decidedly less pleasant, with a gradual loss of hope that lasting comfort or security will ever be attained. This can be a source of anxiety and depression for the separate self. It presents a lot to let go of and grieve.

But for my true self, it’s just another chapter. It’s a time to reflect, learn and work to be as clear and “awake” as can be tolerated. My true self is fine with all that arises.

We don’t want the dream to cease upon awakening. The Advaita Vedantic text the Pancadasi of Sri Vidyaranya Swami states that upon awakening, “The supreme self [alone] remains.” Translation and notes by Swami Swahananda (Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2009), p. 30. This refers to our conviction of the Self’s essential reality in all things. It does not mean that we stop perceiving the phenomenal world. Otherwise, the text continues, there would be no such thing as jiva mukti – liberation in life. Life continues, but the self is free.

This results in the ultimate dispassion. Our story unfolds as it will. But it does not harm or distress us in any way. We are indifferent to whether fortune goes “our” way or not. It is always going our way. In fact, challenges serve merely to emphasize the gift we’ve been given. We bask in the relief of witnessing rather than being dragged into apparent difficulties. We rejoice in noticing that we are no longer triggered or overwhelmed by them. We respond and act with compassion when circumstances warrant, all the while secure in knowing that we and those around us are safe and loved. Awake or not, none of us can be touched.

Experience continues. But you are no longer innately identified with it. You recognize that you are a non-local being having a localized experience. That is the role of the body. It places you on the map, providing a uniquely circumscribed perspective. But this body is never other than pure mental experience, pure imagination. You don’t need it. Enjoy it. Enjoy the illusion of caring for it, directing it, living its life, helping other body-minds to live their lives. The patterns will continue to run. You have been placed in this position to observe these patterns up close and personal. But they aren’t truly personal. Nothing is personal because there is no person. But there is you. All this is you.

When there is no longer a threat, no longer life or death, when there are no longer separate objects, or any objects at all, what remains? Pure dreaming, pure story. And freedom. Absolute freedom.

2/14/2020