Nondual Zen Article:

The Language of Dreams

nondual title

The Language of Dreams
by Kathleen Sutherland

What can be said of a dream, or should be said? Though profound to the dreamer, its recounting often sounds disjointed, senseless. So it is with our attempts to describe this dream of reality. The basic pointers – that reality is illusion, that it's only this, that it's a projection of the mind – can sound nonsensical or trite. Even if descriptions or pointers ring true, they still generally fail to evoke that elusive "aha" shift in perception that we seek.

This is equally true, or perhaps even more so, when the dialogue is internal, when we are trying to reason ourselves into awakening, through inquiry or contemplation. Our thoughts may seem wise and true, but still fall short of enlightening.

Yet many of us do eventually experience that shift. It might be after reading, hearing, or thinking many words, delving into many concepts. Or the “aha” moment might come when we’re relatively free of thought, on a walk or in meditation. Regardless, the “aha” moment transcends cognition. It is so much fuller than any concept and so obvious that we laugh and are amazed we ever grappled with ideas.

Accordingly, thought, reasoning, and concepts are often disparaged in spiritual circles. The moon has always been there, always shining. Who needed the finger to point it out? Many proclaim they spent too long gazing at the finger. But would we have seen the moon otherwise?

We often value the felt experience of unity over the ideas the led us to it. We may even, mistakenly, equate this transcendent experience with awakening. Now we are home, and can drop the words and concepts. But inevitably, the experience fades, as all experience does. It was not It, for It is that which neither comes nor goes.

Where do we turn when our experience of oneness, bliss, or intuitive knowing fades? Back to words, books, conversations, inquiry. Perhaps we delve into meditation, too, which is a more direct experience. But meditation alone is not enough. Even those traditions, like Zen, which rely heavily upon meditation, also make use of scriptures, koan practice and community. It seems we need both – experience and understanding – to consciously abide in our true nature.

In the beginning was the word. Perhaps there was duality, a world, before language. But words helped to solidify the identities of separate objects, to hone their edges. They made the dream more real. Now the actors had their lines. This might seem a powerful argument against words. It is true enough that labeling breaks up the seamless nature of reality. To awaken, we seek the experience of oneness to counterbalance our dualistic conditioning.

But in a world without definition, without labels and separate objects, perhaps God slept. To have the awakening experience, She needed first to splinter the light into its many colors. “I was a hidden treasure. I loved to be known. Hence I created the world so that I would be known.” Hadith Qudsi, کنزاً مخفیاً But we who live and dance among the colors take them as ordinary. To evoke an awakening experience, we look back to the pure light, to the unity of all.

Neither the unity nor the duality is "it." It is both. It is the words and the finger, as much as the moon. What triggers the experience of awakening for us is usually the sense of oneness, after living in separation for so long. But for one lost in oneness, like a newborn child, it seems the "aha" moments arise as the world begins to take form, to shift apart and settle into separation. We may presume that a child’s wonder at the world is a gift of unity consciousness. But more likely it arises from the fading of that view. Amazing – that is my mother! This is a tree, that is a cat! Children are enthralled not so much by unity, but by the specter of diversity opening before them. The womb was a soothing, amorphous existence, but enough is enough. It’s time to discover and explore the multitude of things!

It’s not what you see that enlightens, it’s where you see it from. From a perspective of duality, a glimpse of unity enthralls. From a unity perspective, duality astounds. But neither duality nor Oneness is the hidden treasure. The treasure is the revelation that there are two sides, and together they are whole.

When I fall back into the realm of thought, I will not be discouraged. My thoughts are the word of God. Mind is radiant. I won’t wander among thoughts endlessly, but I will hear them out – their wisdom and their folly – and do my best to glean the gems.

Some say romance was invented, that prior to the concepts and rituals of romantic love, couples paired out of attraction and desire, or convenience and convention. But the feeling of romantic love has always been; the concepts and rituals simply enhanced the experience, made it deeper and richer. So it is with all things. Words and their connotations, traditions and rituals all shape the experience of our primal sensed reality.

And those words, concepts and conversations that we use to explore the true, essential nature of this reality are the most lyrical of all. Reality has always been here. Our experience of reality has always been here. But until it is illuminated with language and deep cognition, full awakening evades us.

Love is just a word, after all. And yet it seems to say it all.