This is something I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, but I wasn’t sure how to present it to the public. Dream interpretation? Statement of faith? Visionary insight? Nugget of truth from the collective subconscious? Jungian symbolism? Wishful thinking fantasy? I suspect it involves a little of all these, and how you see it will depend more on what you read that what I write. I have my own understanding of it. You are welcome to file it under any or all of these categories too.
I am not prone to lucid dreaming, so when it does happen I jump up and take notice.
A while ago, I very lucidly dreamed I was dying. Deliberately, in the presence of my family. I had taken some kind of pill to facilitate the process, though it wasn’t clear why. None of us were afraid though. I could feel the qi/prana/Force slowly draining from my body over time, and it was comforting. I was ready to go.
When it was down to that last pure infinitesimal divine spark, that of God within us, my eyes closed and the spark left. But in that same instant, with no passage of time, my perspective left my eyes and I could see my now deceased previous body there, and my family and everything that had been there in the last scene — but it was motionless. The ever-shifting sands of change that seemed to rule my life and all that surrounded it had ceased, like a movie paused. That’s how I knew I was outside of time.
From that timeless perspective, I was able to look at any given moment in my life. The paused events of my life were like screens that I could flip through and pull out if I wanted to look closer. The best comparison I can think of is searching through old vinyl 33s at a record store, except there was no backdrop, no space in which these “albums” existed. The bin holding this collection of memories in chronological order was as dark and featureless as the Void, yet it held no sense of confinement like the terrifying visions described in The Peasant and the King that plagued my younger years. I felt free to examine this collection, for as long as I desired and with more detachment than I had been able to see my own life before, for “I” was no longer in the images — I was only the one viewing them.
The images were still self-centered and self-referential, but the amazing part was that as I looked at them individually I could also feel what the people around me were feeling at that time. I could go back and inspect any of my most treasured memories, but also my dreaded fears and cringe-worthy moments of egocentricity. For instance, when I inspected a time when I meekly pressured a high school girlfriend for sex because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, I could feel the awkward emotional clumsiness of the person I had been, but I could just as clearly feel her disappointment that someone who seemed to love her could suddenly make her feel so worthless and bad inside for saying no. Not a movie I wanted to replay nor relive for sure. But there was nobody there judging me for what I’d done, just an infusion of empathy I was too selfish to feel in “real time” (which felt false in the light of this very real introspective timelessness).
Not a moment of my existence escaped these files of memory, and i was there to see and learn from it all. Though I didn’t get to this point in the dream, there was the understanding that as soon as i absorbed everything I needed to retain from this lifetime and let go of the rest, I would be free to choose a new starting point and dive back into the stream of linear time and three-dimensional space, and begin acquiring a new karmic chain of experiences.
“Enlightenment is the wave realizing it is the ocean.”Thich Nhat Hanh
This is the extent of what was seen in the dream. Anything else to be drawn from it has been a product of contemplation, and a robust process it has been, especially regarding my ability to articulate a recent blossoming of insights about reincarnation.
You’ll notice that I didn’t simply dissolve into the ocean and lose all sense of “I am.” Once upon a time, this was my sole belief about death, and I wouldn’t fault anyone who holds to it now. Certainly one can make that conclusion from Thay’s statement, and it is consistent with the Anattā doctrine of his Zen Buddhism.
But it is not a necessary conclusion. Contrary to popular misconception, Anattā does not state unequivocally that there is no self having the “I am” experience. As the introductory paragraph to its Wikipedia page states, Anattā simply means “no unchanging, permanent self or essence can be found in any phenomenon. While often interpreted as a doctrine denying the existence of a self, anatman is more accurately described as a strategy to attain non-attachment by recognizing everything as impermanent, while staying silent on the ultimate existence of an unchanging essence.”
The illusion of a permanent, distinct wave separate from the ocean is what is being denied. There is no suggestion that the wave itself is an illusion, nor that, having reached the realization that constitutes enlightenment, the wave ceases to wave — it simply realizes that the waving is an action of the whole ocean.
Furthermore, the Anattā doctrine is not the only possible rationalization that corresponds to this analogy. The Wikipedia entry continues:
“In contrast, Hinduism asserts the existence of Atman as pure consciousness or witness-consciousness, ‘reify[ing] consciousness as an eternal self.’”
In between these two doctrines — the negation of an unchanging self having a temporal experience, and the assertion of a universal unchanging self witnessing temporal experience — there is space for another non-dual understanding: a constantly changing, temporal “I am” deriving the power to witness its own experience from its participation in the pure consciousness of the Self.
There is room, in other words, for a wave that knows it is the Ocean and keeps on waving — and there is no reason to conclude definitively that death is the event that halts the wave experience.
To understand that last part, we only need to look at a basic truth of wave dynamics that might surprise some people. It did so to me at first anyway.
In his acclaimed memoir “The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod,” the naturalist (and some say pantheist or “contemporary animist”) Henry Beston illustrated a fascinating detail about the waves he observed on the Massachusetts shore. As the pattern of activity that we call a wave moves horizontally across the ocean’s surface, the water itself is mostly moving up and down. If you could somehow color a cross-section of ocean water molecules hot pink or red, you would see that vertical plane of water rising and falling, not moving closer to the shore. The vertical movement gets more pronounced as the water depth get shallower, and so a wave crest starts to build, but the water itself is still moving up and down. It is only after the wave crashes that forward momentum pushes the water on the very edge of the ocean toward the land, and from there it recedes and sinks in a cyclic pattern.
You don’t have to paint the ocean red to see this phenomenon though — just go to a baseball game and watch the crowd do “the wave.” In a synchronized pattern aligned with the vertical plane of the seating, the spectators quickly stand up and sit down, in a way that sends an apparent wave of people around the ballpark. But nobody actually moves horizontally through the seating area — the people just stand up and raise their arms, then sit down and lower them in turn.
In this case the wave doesn’t crash so much as peter out when people get bored with it and watch the game again. The illustration should be even more clear though: there are two related but distinct patterns of motion in an ocean wave. The material substance that constitutes the wave — the water itself — is moving up and down, but as any surfer can verify, there is a discernible energetic pattern moving horizontally toward the shore.
Is that energetic pattern an illusion? It hardly stands to reason to call it so. Not when a surfer, bobbing up and down on the ocean surface, can suddenly climb upon her board to “catch the wave” and ride it toward the shore. Not when we can build turbines that harness this continuous energetic pattern and convert it into electricity. There is of course a certain mind trick caused by our perspective outside the ocean that tells us a wave is an integral body of water moving horizontally across the ocean surface, and Anattā is sufficient to clear up that illusion. But it says nothing definitive about the energetic pattern — which is, of course, a pattern of the ocean itself, and no one is claiming otherwise. But the pattern isn’t equivalent to the ocean; it is a manifestation of the ocean in a specific time and place, and though it does not exist as an integral “thing,” its movement toward the shore can be observed and tracked.
I hope the applications of this analogy are becoming clear. The energetic pattern is the soul. The body of the wave, the thing that we see rolling and cresting and crashing as we watch from the beach, is a constantly changing assortment of water molecules entering and exiting the energetic pattern. The water itself should be seen as the potential for energetic patterns to form and dissolve…and then form again. Don’t forget the cyclical pattern within the wave’s break.
The ocean, of course, though an almost inconceivably vast body of water that acquires at least four names as it spans the entire planet, still has boundaries — the ocean floor, the continents and other land masses, and the sky above — and it is the ocean’s interactions with all these (plus the wind and gravitational pull of the moon) that causes the energetic patterns we call waves. To extend the analogy to souls and the substance of Existence itself, we need to imagine an ocean that is infinite and omnipresent, an inside with no outside, surrounding us omnidirectionally as well as filling every subatomic particle and intracellular space in our bodies. We would be made of the same water in which we live and move and have our being, except, like a fish who has never been outside the water in his whole life, we would have no sense of this substance of our existence; we would only notice its energetic patterns. The disturbances that create these patterns would similarly be internal to the substance since there is nothing external to it.
But the idea behind the “waves” in the ocean of Existence itself is exactly the same: material in binary movement patterns on one plane create an energetic pattern on another. Instead of one pattern moving unidirectionally toward the shore, these waves move omnidirectionally in the unlimited potential of ocean “water,” (which you can correctly translate as “atoms”) according to the binary movements (or “frequency”) of the elements of the latter.
Everything that you have ever perceived with your senses, in other words, including the “you” perceiving them, is an energetic pattern, a wave caused by yes-no fluctuations occurring at the simplest level of existence.
The cause of these fluctuations is an impenetrable mystery that we mystics like to tag with clever names (I call it “the play of LightDark” in The Peasant and the King), but we’re just deducing their existence from what we learn by watching the patterns. Like everyone else, the pattern — the relatively stable essence of a thing or being that endures through constant change — is all we can sense; the spectators making this kind of wave in the stands are far too fine for our unaided senses.
But consider for a moment what that really means…when you look out at the world outside your body from this particular vantage point, you may think you are looking at a variety of objects and living creatures. What you are really seeing are overlapping layers of soul.
This is not at all to say that the physical plane doesn’t exist — clearly there are spectators standing up and sitting down, water molecules rising and falling all over the place to create these sensations. But the experiential vector of your sensations is not the physical plane. You are a soul, moving through a world of souls. You are watching the waves, not the up-down motion that creates them. Your entire visual field would be a blinding blur of subatomic vibration if you truly saw the physical, so thank God you only perceive the energetic patterns.
Conversely, those who look out at the physical world and say, “I see no evidence of any souls” are completely missing what is in front of their eyes. Imagine the visual cacophony around a single tree if you could see the constant intake of carbon dioxide and output of oxygen, let alone all the other defining interactions with its environment from its rhizomatic structure to its outermost leaves! The image you take in and reproduce with your nervous system, the 80-foot maple near the northwest corner of your property that shades your front porch in the summer and should do so for at least another hundred years, is but a wave, a relatively stable energetic pattern — indeed, a mapley soul. Everything you can see and identify is a soul as well, created by the vibration of atoms.
The ancient animists don’t seem so crazy anymore, do they? (Or we both do, but not them more than I nor vice versa.)
And your hippie and New Age friends on social media who recycle the memes that say life is all about “vibrations” and whatnot? They’re still wrong about a lot of things, but not that.
In fact, a lot of auxiliary ideas that I’d have once dismissed as fanciful wish fulfillment come back to the table as possibilities — including reincarnation of individual souls.
Part Two: we’ll look deeper into the energetic pattern of the soul and speculate on what causes them to move cyclically rather than the linear motion of ocean waves. Hint: it’s a matter of time.
I and I:
an Omniperennialist Theory of Reincarnation and Cyclical Time