Life Is but a Dream

by Robert Perry

What does it mean to say that life is a dream? If we tell people that we believe the world is a dream, what are we thinking when we say that? Obviously we mean that the world is not actually real. Yet I think we mean more than that. Most of us believe that dreams reflect deeper dynamics in the mind, that they spill out of unconscious forces. In this view of dreams, every figure and every image in the dream is symbolic of thought-patterns in the mind.

Hence, to say that life is a dream is to say that our own personal life is populated with figures and images that are put there by our minds as symbols of unconscious thought-patterns. Look around you. That chair is not a real chair. It is just a dream image, a symbol of hidden dynamics in your mind. That person is not a real person (at least as you see her). She is just a dream figure, a symbol of hidden dynamics in your mind. Everything you see was put there by your mind because it symbolically expresses something in your mind.

It certainly does not seem as if this is true, does it? You seem to be just one more player in some larger (rather chaotic) script. You definitely do not seem to be the scriptwriter, nor the director. Surely you are not the one controlling all those figures. You appear to be just one figure moving amongst a collection of many others, all possessing the same independent, unpredictable will that you have. This raises the question: Given how real and objective this world seems, how can we actually see it as nothing more than our own dream?

There is a fascinating section in A Course in Miracles that answers this question. It answers it within the perspective that dreams are symbolic expressions of thought-patterns within the mind. The direction it takes with this perspective, however, is completely unexpected. It is a picture that we never would have come up with on our own. I think it is safe to say, in fact, that no one ever has come up with this picture. The section is called "The Forgiving Dream" (T-29.IX). It is not easy to decipher, but once deciphered it offers a vision of our lives here that is both disturbing and illuminating. After digesting this vision, we may well never see our lives the same again.

A dream of judgment

The section opens by discussing idols. What is an idol? The literal image, of course, is of a stone or wooden figurine to which we pray and which we hope will protect us from the ravages of the world, but which, being lifeless, can do nothing. The term, however, has taken on a much broader meaning in our culture. It refers to any object of extreme devotion. The Course takes this meaning and broadens it even further: idols are those things in the world which we look to for happiness, which we think will save us. In the end, they include all the things we value here. You name it—if we value it to fill the hole in us or to give us strength to face a hard world, it's an idol.

The Course calls us a slave to our idols, and then asks a heartrending question: "What happened to the holy Son of God that this could be his wish; to let himself fall lower than the stones upon the ground, and look to idols that they raise him up?" (1:3; all references, unless otherwise indicated, are from "The Forgiving Dream"). Do you hear the poignancy in this question? How could this divine being, God's Own Son, fall so far that he looks to cars, hamburgers, jewelry, and money to lift him out of the dirt?

The answer: "A dream of judgment came into the mind that God created perfect as Himself" (2:1). How is this the answer? How does having a dream of judgment lead us to become a slave of idols ? The rest of the section explains that, and in the process unfolds a fascinating picture of how our lives are nothing but a dream, a dream of judgment.

This simple phrase "dream of judgment" provides a crucial piece of the whole puzzle. It implies that the thought-pattern that produces the dream symbols around us is none other than judgment. Dreams spill out of mental forces, and the dream of our lives spills out of the mental act of judging. What, then, is judgment? Judgment in spiritual circles is often identified more or less exclusively with condemnation. However, the word itself has many meanings, all of which share a single idea: that of measuring something against a standard, and selecting or rejecting it based on how well that thing measures up. The simple process of choosing a tomato to buy from the supermarket involves judgment. We have in mind the ideal tomato we want to buy—plump, ripe, unblemished. That is the standard. We then measure a particular tomato against that ideal. If it comes close enough we select it. If it does not, we reject it. The Course points out, however, that "judgment always involves rejection" (T-3.VI.2:4). We always have some slight regret about the tomatoes we select. They are never the perfect tomato.

This process of measuring against a standard, and selecting or rejecting based on that measurement, is the process by which we erect the complicated structure of our lives. We are always deciding what to include in our lives and what to leave out, whose calls we return and whose we don't. Somehow, the Course is saying, this process not only builds our lives through guiding our behaviors, it also reaches out directly from our minds and literally dreams our lives into place. To understand how it does that, I will ask you to get out a piece of paper and draw a diagram consisting of three concentric circles. Draw the outer circle so that it fills the page. Then draw the inner circle about two or three inches across. Then draw the middle circle in between these two. Label the outer circle "the dream," the inner circle "the dreamer," and the middle circle "the idols." At appropriate points I'll invite you to fill in parts of this diagram so that you can see how this whole picture applies to your own life.

You, the dreamer

In the center of the picture is you, the dreamer. In this perspective, you are more than just the central figure in your life. You are the one dreaming the whole thing up, and doing so, as we said, via your judgments. These judgments, of course, are quite often about weightier issues than what tomato to buy. They are about who to include in our lives and who to include in our heart—and who to exclude. We use the same process as with the tomato: we measure people against an ideal, we select or reject them accordingly, and even the selection is never completely wholehearted. Since no one measures up perfectly to all of our standards, there is always some element of rejection.

The toll this constant rejecting takes on our psyches is incalculable. We turn the weapon of our judgment on ourselves. We decide that we do not measure up to God's standard, that we have made ourselves sinful, that we have put out the light within us (4:2). We condemn ourselves and become afraid to look within upon the terrible deformity that we assume is at the core of our being. As the section says, "Nor can he know the Self he has condemned" (2:8).

If you will, go ahead and write your name in the center circle. And under your name write "judgment," to identify the dynamic in you that produces the dream.

The dream

The colossal guilt we feel over our judgments is almost entirely unconscious, yet this guilt is the key to how our judgments produce the dream of our lives. Under the sway of our guilt we lay a penalty on ourselves (see 3:5, 3:6, 3:7, 10:6)—the punishment we think we deserve for being so judgmental. This penalty is more than just internal; we cannot keep it safely confined within the walls of our minds. It overflows into the dream. Ask yourself: If your mind was consumed with guilt, filled with the conviction that you deserved to be punished, and if this very mind was what was dreaming your life, what sort of life would it dream?

Wouldn't you dream a life in which everything was constantly punishing you? Wouldn't you dream a world full of disease and earthquakes and auto accidents and fires? Wouldn't you dream an existence in which you were always looking over your shoulder, ceaselessly building dikes against the flood, always wondering when danger would catch up with you? And wouldn't you dream a life story in which, in the end, you inevitably received the death penalty?

According to the Course, that is exactly what we have done. It calls this world "a dream of punishment" (T-27.VII.1:3). It claims the world is "the delusional system of those made mad by guilt" (T-13.In.2:2). The reason the world always seems to be punishing us is because, quite simply, we dreamt it out of a massive guilt-complex.

Thus, the outer circle of the diagram is filled with all the horrible things that we fear will happen to us and that we spend our lives trying to stave off. If you will, then, please spend a minute writing in that outer circle those disastrous things that you try to make sure never happen to you. Lesson 14 in the Workbook asks you to list "your personal repertory of horrors" (W-pI.14.6:1) and mentions wars, airplane crashes, cancer, and heart attacks as possible examples. What I'm asking you to do is write down this personal repertory in the outer circle labeled "the dream."

Once you have written these horrors down, look at them and realize that these are all the things that you secretly believe you deserve because of how judgmental you are. That is why they are part of your dream. That is why you have to expend so much energy pushing them away, because you are unconsciously drawing them to you as your presumed just desserts.

The idols

This is where the idols come in. They are the middle circle, the buffer zone between you and that repertory of horrors. Their purpose is to protect you from those horrors.

I said earlier that the idols are all the things we look to in this world for satisfaction, pleasure, and security. In this section, however, idols are primarily people . This is especially clear in paragraph 7. It says that when we see the idols differently, they will be "perceived as brothers" (7:8), and that at this point, "no one is used" (this phrase occurs twice, in 7:4 and 7:5) to meet our ego needs. "No one" refers to the idols, and this implies that an idol is some one rather than some thing .

Function #1: to protect us from the dream

In this context, then, idols are the people we surround ourselves with to protect us from the army that is constantly threatening to invade the peaceful sanctuary of our lives. Isn't that exactly what we hope that the people around us will do—protect us from life's travesties? Our doctor is there to protect us from disease. Our mechanic is there to protect us from our car not working. Our spouse is there to protect us from a life of loneliness. Our friends are there to defend us when our character is attacked. Our therapist is there to protect us against falling apart. Our employer is there to protect us against having no paycheck. Our local police force is there to protect us against criminals. And our parents (if still alive) are there to protect us when all the other systems of protection fail.

These people are essential, aren't they? Just imagine what our lives would be like without either them or their equivalent. All the threats the world holds would come crashing down on us. We would be alone, sick, homeless and destitute, prey to anyone and anything that came along.

Take a moment now, if you will, and write down in the middle circle the people you have collected to yourself to protect you from all the terrible things that could happen to you if you didn't have the help of others. While you are writing down their names, you might think about what, in your eyes, each one is there to protect you from. It may be a positive danger, such as disease, or simply a lack—a lack of companionship, a lack of money, a lack of pleasure, etc.

What does it mean to say that these people are idols? It means that, in our minds, we have turned them into mute pieces of stone who have no life of their own, whose only purpose is to magically protect us from the dream. We might imagine ourselves surrounded by a ring of stone idols. As we look closer, we see that each one closely resembles some person in our lives. He has been stripped of personhood; all he is now is a mere brick in the wall that keeps the dark unknown from overrunning our lives.

This section uses another image which conveys much the same content. It says that we have made these people into our toys:

You do but dream, and idols are the toys you dream you play with. Who has need of toys but children? They pretend they rule the world, and give their toys the power to move about, and talk and think and feel and speak for them. Yet everything their toys appear to do is in the minds of those who play with them. (4:4-7)

Have you ever felt as if you were other people's toy? That your only job was to "talk and think and feel and speak for them," to be the instrument of their will in their private war with the world? If you have, you know what the Course is getting at here. Only it is applying this not to others, but to ourselves. It is saying that we have made our friends and family and colleagues into our toy soldiers, whose job is to fight our battles for us exactly as we order them to.

Now we can see the answer to the question I asked near the beginning: How does having a dream of judgment lead to us becoming a slave of idols ? The answer seems so obvious now. Because your dream spills out of guilt over being judgmental, you are desperate for idols to protect you from the punishment you lay upon yourself. As the section says, "Idols [middle circle]…are interposed between your judgment [center circle] and the penalty it brings [outer circle]" (3:7).

This, however, is just the first of the functions we assign to our idols. We have given them two additional, more hidden and perverse functions.

Function #2: to protect us from our own judgments

The toy soldier discussion leads right into the second function of our idols. As we saw, our idols are there to fight on our behalf. They are the instruments of our goal of keeping the undesirables out of our life, to keep our enemies outside the gate. This, of course, is a function of judgment. As we saw earlier, judgment rejects. It measures things against a standard and then rejects those things—and those people—that don't measure up.

In other words, we have hired our idols to carry out our judgments on our behalf. We have hired them as implements of rejection, making sure the undesirable people and things are shut out of our lives. That is how they protect us. Yet it is these very judgments that are the whole problem. Our guilt over them is what causes us to dream into place that outer circle, whose horrors are always pressing against our outer wall.

Rather than giving up our judgments, what we have done is to hand them over to our team of hired thugs. We are like a Mafia godfather. Not only do we surround ourselves with underlings as protection, we order hits that never get traced back to us. The hit man goes to jail, while we stay free, even though he was just carrying out our will. Can we not see this principle in our own lives? Our spouse is supposed to refute attacks on our character so that we don't have to. Our lawyer is supposed to play dirty, and when he does we can say, "That wasn't me. That was just my lawyer being a lawyer." The people in our lives are supposed to side with us against our enemies, and even fight those enemies off, while all the time we stand in the middle, looking innocent.

I saw a great example of this recently. A TV news magazine was investigating the questionable financial dealings of a famous televangelist. They were unable to get a response from him, and so they finally approached him on the street, only to be roughly pushed away by his bodyguards. Somehow, though, they managed to speak to him there, and he was surprisingly agreeable and cooperative. He promised to talk to them later, but when "later" came, he again refused to talk. There on the street, he appeared so innocent. The bodyguards, in their hostility, clearly did not understand him. Yet in the end, they were shown to be the pure instruments of his will. They were his own judgments moving about in the world, masquerading as independent people.

This is the second function of our idols: to make it appear that our judgments are not our own, that they belong to our supporters instead. This serves the crucial purpose of preserving our innocence, not only in the public eye, but in our own eyes. Now we can say to our troubled conscience, "That wasn't my attack. My husband was just sticking up for me." The section puts it this way:

The child…fears his thoughts and gives them to the toys instead. And their reality becomes his own, because they seem to save him from his thoughts. (5:5-6)

We can easily picture a scenario that fits the literal sense of this passage. Imagine a child who has murderous thoughts toward her parents. Just think of how frightening such thoughts would be for her. Thus, to maintain her stability, she gives her thoughts to her doll. Now it is the doll who talks about murdering Mommy and Daddy. The child is innocent; it is her doll that is evil. Of course, in this metaphor, we are the child, and all of our protectors are the doll. While they carry our evil thoughts for us, we appear to be innocent. That is how frightened we are of our judgments.

Our idols, then, serve the dual function of saving us from all the dangerous things outside us and from our own dangerous thoughts within. As the middle circle, they protect us from the outer circle and the inner circle.

Function #3: to betray us

The final function of our idols is to betray us. That is what they end up doing, isn't it? We ask them to protect us, and they seem to consent, but then they stab us in the back. In fact, when it is all said and done, they are the ones we need protection from . We buy a handgun to keep out intruders, and then we are shot with it by a member of our own family.

This betrayal is such a basic part of the human experience that it hardly needs pointing out. However, the point will be driven home more fully if you will go to your diagram. Look at each one of the names you listed in the idols circle. With each one, ask yourself, "Do I feel that this person in some way betrayed me?" Perhaps he failed to carry out his function of protecting you. Worse yet, perhaps he ended up doing to you the exact thing he was supposed to protect you from. If you feel that this person betrayed you, then draw an arrow, a line of attack, from his or her name to the inner circle, to you. (At this point in classes I often ask students to take their Course hats off, which means: don't try to answer according to Course theory; answer according to how you actually feel inside.)

It is remarkable how betrayed we all feel. It is as if we hired a team of bodyguards, paid them lavishly, gave them bonuses, only to have them all come after us. We all know how this feels, but do we know why it happens?

According to this section, the idols simply carry out our wishes. True, they are people with their own mind and will, but our life is our dream. We are the scriptwriter. If they want to be in our play, they have to read our lines. They have to play the role we have written for them, or they will have to leave and take part in someone else's play. And the role we write for them requires them, sooner or later, to betray us. Yet why would we write this into the script? The section gives this subtle explanation:

Whenever you feel fear in any form…be sure you made an idol, and believe it will betray you. For beneath your hope that it will save you lie the guilt and pain of self-betrayal. (9:1-2)

What does this mean? Remember that we give our idols our thoughts of judgment to carry out for us. Yet these are the very thoughts that lead us to feel guilty and to encircle ourselves with a dream of punishment. These thoughts, then, are an act of self-betrayal. To hand them over to our idols is to subtly hire those idols to betray us. Think of the girl with the doll. Her thoughts of wanting to murder her parents are thoughts that so attack her sense of stability that she has to offload them onto the doll. But now the doll is expressing thoughts that attack the girl. To act out these thoughts the doll has to attack her. Given this, how could the girl not secretly fear that the doll will turn on her? And if the girl was in fact in a dream, in which all the events were puppeted by her own mind, isn't this exactly what the doll would do? The section mentions this very thing:

Nightmares are childish dreams. The toys have turned against the child who thought he made them real. (5:1-2)

This all may sound a bit weird, but it makes perfect sense if we reflect on the following:

1. Images and figures in our dreams symbolize thoughts in the mind.

2. Our idols are figures in our dream. They, therefore, must symbolize thoughts in our minds.

3. These dream figures symbolize our judgments. Our judgments keep unwanted people and things out of our lives, and that is precisely the function of these dream figures.

4. Our judgments betray us. They purport to serve us, but they instead make us appear guilty and deserving of punishment in our own eyes.

Thus, if these dream figures are our judgments personified, their behavior will actually be the behavior of our judgments. Therefore, they, like our judgments, will betray us.

This has power to change our perspective on all the betrayal we have experienced over the course of our lives. It says that all those people who turned on us were just reading the lines we gave them, just playing their role in our dream. With this in mind, look at your diagram. Look at all the arrows of betrayal going from your idols to you. Try to realize that those betrayals were just a case of those people playing the part you assigned them. As dream figures, they symbolize thoughts in you. They symbolize your judgments. Your judgments police the borders of your life, keeping out the undesirables, which is exactly the function of these particular dream figures. As your protectors and defenders, they are your judgments personified. And just as your judgments betray you, so do these dream figures. Just as your judgments bring punishment to you, so do these dream figures. That is the role you hired them to play in your dream of judgment. All they did was read their lines well.

A vision of our lives as a dream

This is a disturbing vision, to say the least. It offers a powerful explanation for how life is but a dream. But rather than picturing us rowing our boat merrily down the stream, it seems to show us being up the creek without a paddle. There are immense benefits to this view, however. To really appreciate those, let us first review it on two different levels, a more superficial level and a deeper level.

On the first level, even though it looks as if we are just trying to make the best of a tough life, we are really playing the role of king. We stand in the center of a grand drama, a drama that is all about us and our interests. We keep at a distance all those who might compromise our safety. We exclude all those whose low status would sully our highness. And we surround ourselves with all those who can help in this enterprise. Consequently, the buffer zone between us and the rest of the world is filled with bodyguards, ministers, attendants, servants, and armies. They are nothing more than pawns in our chess game. If they play their role well and keep the king protected, we reward them. If not, we toss them out on the street. All of this excluding and including based on the standard of our personal interests is one continuous game of judgment. We are in essence playing god:

The dream of judgment is a children's game, in which the child becomes the father, powerful, but with the little wisdom of a child. What hurts him is destroyed; what helps him, blessed. Except he judges this as does a child, who does not know what hurts and what will heal. And bad things seem to happen, and he is afraid of all the chaos in a world he thinks is governed by the laws he made. (6:4-7)

After all of our vigilant managing of our world through judgment, we can't understand why everything goes wrong, why our generals attempt a coup, why our bodyguards abandon us in our hour of need, and why our lover stabs us in the middle of the night.

To explain this we have to go to the next level down. On this deeper level, we are not a king or a god at all. We are just a child playing a game, having a dream. All the figures in this dream appear to be animated by their own independent will, but in fact they are all just toys, just dream symbols. We are the ones pulling their strings. "You do not realize that you are making them act out for you" (T-18.II.5:6). Because the central dynamic of the dream is judgment, we, the child, are filled with guilt. And out of this guilt comes a dream in which everything turns against us. We lose control, not because it's not our dream, but because we are using the dream to pay ourselves back for our sins. As the above passage said, the dream is governed by the laws we made-the laws of crime and punishment.

What I love about this vision is that it deals with the nitty-gritty of human life, things that we often avoid talking about in spiritual circles. It deals with the calamities and brutalities we spend our lives trying to escape. It deals with the pervasive fact of betrayal. It deals with our act of playing god through judgment, by which we choose friends and enemies, and then use our friends against our enemies. While looking all this ugliness straight in the face, it then offers a logical explanation for how this could really be our own dream. What makes it so hard to see this life as our dream is that so many things seem to happen outside of our will, so many cruel and senseless things that we cannot imagine actually choosing. According to this vision, the very dynamic of judgment that stands at the heart of this dream leads inexorably to a dream full of pain that seems to be thrust on us from the outside.

• It leads to a life in which punishment for our judgments is always looming on the horizon, threatening to rain catastrophe down upon us.

• It leads us to enslave ourselves to idols, who become our protectors against this looming catastrophe.

• It leads us to have these idols act out our judgments for us, so that we no longer seem to be the owner of those judgments.

• And it leads our idols to betray us, for they are simply acting out the judgments that betray us.

In light of this, look around you, look at your diagram-could it be true that this life quite literally is just a dream, a dream of judgment, a dream of punishment for your judgments? Could this life be your own private passion play, in which a divine mind wraps itself in the imaginary drama of paying for its sins against love?

If we can see this life as just a dream, however dark a dream it may be, then we have in our hand a great gift. We don't have to take it all so seriously. After all, we are not really here. This is just our dream. We dream that we are judgmental. And so we dream a world that punishes us. And so we dream that we have protectors. And we dream that they betray us. None of it is really happening. It's all in our mind. We are just perceiving certain thoughts as if they were outside our mind. We take our thoughts of deserving punishment, externalize them, and see them as enemies and disasters. We take our thoughts of wanting to keep the enemies and disasters away, externalize them, and see them as friends and protectors. We are so invested in disowning our thoughts that we convince ourselves that all the dream symbols we look upon are truly external to us, and that we are "but a part" (5:9) of their world. Given the way those dream symbols behave, however, we can thank God that life is but a dream.

The way out

What a mess this dream is! How do we get out? The answer is elegantly simple:

How can God's Son awaken from the dream? It is a dream of judgment. So must he judge not, and he will waken. (2:3-5)

It sounds simple, and it is, yet judgment is not some minor detail in the dream; it is the engine that drives the dream. That engine is running all the time. Judgment is the constant act of measuring everything against our standards, and the constant reaction of displeasure when things do not measure up. Let's face it, virtually nothing measures up completely. We never find that perfect tomato-or partner, or house, or job, or life. We never even find the perfect traffic conditions. The amount of displeasure that can result from a quick drive to the supermarket is amazing, and unsettling. Giving up judgment means training ourselves to turn off that steady reaction of displeasure to the daily stream of events.

To the extent we can actually turn it off, our guilt will drop away, and hence our fear will, too. Now we will no longer fear those catastrophes, for with our newly cleansed conscience, we will no longer see them as our just desserts. "Forgiving dreams remind you that you live in safety….So do your childish terrors melt away" (10:1-2). And as our fear level goes down, there will be an added benefit: we will no longer need to use our friends as toy soldiers to defend the castle. Simply put, we will stop using people. We will awaken from our game of being the lonely king surrounded by toys, pawns, and idols, and find that we are surrounded by brothers :

No one is used for something he is not, for childish things have all been put away….And the forms that enter in the dream are now perceived as brothers, not in judgment, but in love. (7:5,8)

All we have to do is give up judgment and the whole painful structure of human life is solved. The enemies who punish, the friends who betray, the self we condemn-all of it is gone. "And what was once a dream of judgment now has changed into a dream where all is joy" (7:6). All it requires is giving up judgment. Do you think it is worth it?

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