The World as a Dream

by Robert Perry

We are told, again and again, in A Course in Miracles that our life in this world is nothing but a dream. Yet, no matter how many times we are told, we still react to events in this world as if they were real. If you know something is a dream, you are impervious to it. Nothing in it can hurt you. Yet, every day, we feel hurt by the events of this world. Why do they still have this power over us? Why can we not regard them—on an emotional level—as a dream? The section entitled "The 'Hero' of the Dream" addresses this very issue. It gives us a way that we can actually see the events of our life as a dream.

Our life story as a story of the body

The opening paragraphs say that the 'hero' of the dream, at least as we see it, is the body. The word 'dream' here means something like 'story,' as in "the story of a certain character, moving from his beginning to his end." So saying that the body is "the 'hero' of the dream" means that it is the main character in our life story. This is predominantly true. Think about how you tell the story of your life. In fact, let me paraphrase the first two paragraphs in slightly plainer language. As you read my paraphrase and fill in the blanks, see if the description does not more or less describe your life:

"My body was born into this world on the date ……. , the product of two other bodies called …… . It lives now for a while, until one day when it will die and be buried in the ground, next to other dead bodies. That will be the end of my life story.

Over the course of its life my body has sought for other bodies that could be its companions in life. Some have become its friends, such as …… , some its enemies, such as .……. . Every day it works to keep itself safe, to feed itself, stay healthy and keep a roof over its head. It continually seeks for comfort, looks for pleasure, and tries to avoid pain. Every day it also dresses itself with clothing that it buys with its money. It goes out and works to get this money, doing things like …….. , things which often make little or no sense.

Yet after working so hard for this money, my body often throws it away on things it does not really need or want, such as ……. .

At times my body has been the victim of other bodies, such as when ……. . At times, however, the roles have been reversed and my body has been the victor, the one that commands other bodies, such as when …… ."

Is it not so that when we describe our day or our lives, the main focus is on what our bodies did and what other bodies did? Yes, of course, we have thoughts and feelings, but these thoughts and feelings are usually about what the bodies do, are they not? What makes our feelings go up or down are almost always the events of our lives, which amount to the movement of bodies. In such a view, the body is still the main character, the 'hero.' Of course, not all of our thoughts and feelings are about the events of our lives. As seekers of truth, we do have thoughts and feelings about truths which transcend the outer circumstances in which our body finds itself, but these are probably the minority of what passes through our minds.

Regarding our body as the central character in our life story has two dramatic effects.

1. It results in a picture of our lives that is drained of meaning and sense, that is essentially mindless. Look at the language Jesus uses in those first two paragraphs. The body is the means – it is the one that acts on the stage of the world in order to accomplish our ends – but it is also the end – it acts to secure its own safety, comfort and pleasure. In essence, we have become a meaningless object. Further, the body doesn't interact with other people, but otherbodies – people have become meaningless objects. It does not put clothing on itself; instead "it puts things on itself." It does not spend 'money,' but instead "little metal discs and paper strips." In other words, it deals with physical objects that are devoid of meaning, they are just things. Finally, it collects and does "senseless things" (a phrase repeated three times). Why? Because it is merely a body and 'sense' is of the mind. All in all, we have become meaningless objects moving senselessly through a landscape of other meaningless objects. We can certainly think of lives that look like this. Perhaps many of us got on the spiritual path in the first place to escape a meaningless life that was just about the money and the house and the car. However, we may not have escaped as far as we think. As long as our thoughts and feelings still primarily revolve around physical circumstances – the movement of bodies – we are still mainly living this way.

2. We become the effect of the world. Paragraph 3 says that the dream — the story of our lives — has one lesson it is constantly trying to teach us, in every situation: "that it is cause and not effect. And you are its effect, and cannot be its cause." However, the external world cannot really exercise cause over our minds. Whatever the world does, our minds are still free to think and feel and do whatever they want. But the world can exercise cause over our bodies. To all appearances, our bodies are the effect of the world — produced by its biological processes, at the mercy of its laws, germs and sharp edges, and limited by the span of time it allots. And in this view, we are at the mercy of our body. "You have no power to make the body stop its evil deeds because you did not make it, and cannot control its actions nor its purpose nor its fate." (7:7) So by regarding ourselves as our bodies we play right into the purpose of the world. The world is the cause of our bodies, and our bodies are the cause of our minds. The world, then, becomes the cause of us. We become just a figure in its dream, wandering "idly in and out of places and events that it contrives." (4:2)

Seeing the body as main character puts our minds out of the picture. The mind becomes like a string of cans attached to a car bumper. It is just along for the ride, a very bumpy ride. And there is nothing we can do about it. Is this not how you mainly experience life? Can you see how regarding your body as the main character in your dream has led to you experiencing life in this way?

Regarding the World as a Dream

Do we want to change this state of affairs? The opening lines of Paragraph 5 ask us if we do. Let us go ahead and ask ourselves the questions it poses, as sincerely as we can: "How willing am I to escape effects of all the dreams the world has ever had? Is it my wish to let no dream appear to be the cause of what it is I do?"

The section then goes on to provide a number of different perspectives that allow us to see and experience the events of our lives as our dream. Doing so contains a priceless treasure: "You would not react at all to figures in a dream you knew that you were dreaming. Let them be as hateful and as vicious as they may, they could have not effect on you unless you failed to recognize it is your dream." (10:5-6)

1. That body I see is just a figure in my dream.

On the very simplest level, this section is asking us to look at other bodies out there and realise that they are just figures in our dream, fundamentally no different than the figures in our nighttime dreams. True, there is a real mind behind each one of those bodies, but the body is not the mind.

Try thinking of someone in your life, and say to yourself: "That body I see is just a figure in my dream. It is no more real than the figures I see in my dreams at night."

Again, it's not that the person behind the body is not real. There is a sharp division between the image of that person that you see and who the person is behind your false image. The image you see, and the meaning your mind gives that image, is just a figure in your dream.

2. The murderous thoughts I see in that dream figure are really my thoughts that I have given away.

Paragraph 7 contains this interesting sentence:

"The guilt for what you thought [your murderous thoughts]is being placed outside yourself, and on a guilty world that dreams your dreams and thinks your thoughts instead of you." (7:4)

The picture here is that you feel guilty for the murderous thoughts you have had. To escape the pain of this guilt, you place it outside yourself. Now you see yourself surrounded by guilty people. The particular form this takes is that you see people out there thinking the very murderous thoughts you are afraid to admit you have been thinking. Remember, the bodies you see are just figures in your dream. You do not have direct access to what the minds behind those bodies are thinking. What you perceive them thinking is just your interpretation, your projection. And what you project onto them are the thoughts inside you that scare you — your murderous thoughts — the thoughts you do not want to own.

In play therapy, a psychologist might give a child a doll and see what the child projects onto the doll. Often, the child will project onto it dark thoughts — say, about her parents — that the child is afraid to admit she has. In this sense, we are all children, and all the bodies we see around us are these dolls.

It is important, I believe, not to think of this too specifically, such as: "If I believe that person is thinking about alcohol, that is only because I am secretly thinking about alcohol." If we think of this idea as "the specific trait I see in another is really a disowned trait of my own" then I think we rob it of its real thrust. Instead, I think what we are essentially projecting is the basic content of hostility. When we look into the thoughts of others, we so often see a hostile force aimed at us and having power to hurt us (or aimed at others and having power to hurt them). The Course is saying that all of this hostile power is really our own projection. It is not out there. It is only in our minds. If we saw others truly, we would see in their egoic thoughts nothing but a harmless call for help.

Think what this means: all the hostility, all the harmfulness we see in the thoughts of others, is really our own murderous thinking, projected onto them in an effort to get rid of it, to disown it, because we are frightened by it. We think we are surrounded by a dangerous world full of this harmful, destructive power, but instead we are surrounded by dream figures who are soaked full of our own hostility, hostility which we have disowned and placed onto them.

To apply this, think of a few people you see as out to hurt you, and say: "All the hostility I see in [name] is the projection of my own hostility." "All the harmfulness I see in [name] is the projection of my own urge to kill." "Without the hostility in me, I would see in them only a perfectly harmless call for help."

This does not make sense if you see yourself living in a real world with real, objective bodies running around. But it makes perfect sense if you see the world as literally a dream. At that point it makes perfect sense to think that the dream figures are simply symbols of things in you that you have disowned.

3. The vengeance those dream figures bring me is really my vengeance against myself.

Our murderous thoughts not only frighten us, they anger us. We become furious with ourselves for having such thoughts and want to punish ourselves. And so we assign the figures in our dream the job of carrying out this punishment. This explains a couple of the passages in this section:

"The world but demonstrates an ancient truth; you will believe that others do to you exactly what you think you did to them. But once deluded into blaming them you will not see the cause of what they do, because you want the guilt to rest on them." (8:1-2)

The cause of what they do is only described here by implication. That cause is your own sense of justice. You attacked others; now, in your eyes, it is only just that they attack you. Your morbid sense of justice dreams a dream in which others are getting you back for what you think you did to them. It is almost as if a mafia boss, burdened with the guilt of innumerable crimes, actually hired a hit man to come and kill him. The figures in your dream, then, are carrying out your vengeance against yourself.

I think this works on both the level of form and content, on the level of the form of what those bodies do and on the level of the content or meaning we see in what they do. In other words, our guilty minds actually invite bodies to come into our lives and perform punishing behaviors. And once they do that, our minds see those behaviors as having power to hurt us, because we secretly believe that we deserve to be hurt. This power of dreaming, therefore, explains both the forms of our lives — the actual things that happen to us — as well as the content — the meaning we see in those events.


Think of someone who has really wanted to get you back, who has wanted to punish you for something you did, perhaps for years of 'sins.'See in their mind the thirst to see you suffer for your sins, to reap what you have sown. Now realise that this person as you see them is your own projection, just a figure in your dream. The image you see, the motives you believe this image has—all of it is your dream. The desire you see in them to have you punished is really your own desire. On some level of your mind, how you see this person feeling toward you is exactly how you feel about yourself. All of the anger you see this person have about you, all of the desire to make you pay, is really how you feel toward yourself. And you invited this figure to come into your dream and express that feeling. And once this figure showed up, you projected that feeling onto it, imagining that it was driven by a feeling that was really inside you.


The preceding three points add up to a revolutionary way to see and relate to our world. Rather than being surrounded by real bodies that carry an objective hostility with real power to hurt us, we are living in a dream. The bodies we see are just figures in our dream, figures that have been dreamt out of disowned elements in our own mind. These disowned elements specifically are 1) our murderous thoughts and 2) our desire to punish ourselves for those thoughts. We don't want to let go of these things in our mind, but we also want to distance ourselves from them, disown them. Our compromise solution is to project them a little way away, onto the figures around us in our dream. The result is that we see our world peopled by bodies who represent a threat to us, who are out to get us. Yet all of that is really in our own mind.

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