We don’t have just one dream every night. Most of us have more than one dream. We effortlessly pass from one dream to the next. When we wake up, we remember only the “last” dream, the one we had just before we woke up. When we pass from one dream to another, we don’t generally recall the earlier dream. Waking up is the only way for these series of dreams to come to an end.
The implication of this daily experience of ours can be staggering. If we step back a little, we might notice that our entire life can be seen as a series of dreams. Each of the three states–waking, dream, deep sleep–can itself be seen as a dream. The Aitareya Upaniṣad (1.3.12) says as much when it declares that there are three kinds of dreams: the waking dream, the dream-dream, and the deep sleep-dream.
We can go ahead and include into the “dream” category even heaven, hell, and whatever other celestial worlds there may be. Rebirth—here on earth or anywhere else in the immense vastness of God’s creation—becomes just another dream in the seemingly recurring experience of birth and death.
Our perceptions are mediated through the senses and the mind. The senses have a limited range: it is only within a limited range of light and sound wave frequencies that the eyes and ears can function. The senses of touch, smell and taste also have their own limitations. The mind is by no means a transparent and neutral instrument. It has its own biases and prejudices, its own way to judge and interpret, influenced by its past experiences. No wonder, then, that the world we see is both limited (by the senses) and colored (by the mind). What we see is not what is really out there. For all we know, there may be nothing out there. Nothing is out there anyway for one who is asleep and dreaming.
If dream is defined as “inaccurate perception” (a-yathārtha-darśanam), then every experience mediated through the mind and the senses is a dream. The experience could be a pointer to a reality, but it is not the reality itself. The experience of dream points to the existence of the dreamer. What is seen in the dream is not real, but the one seeing the dream is.
Life is a series of dreams. The dream we are seeing at present is “reality” as we know it, soon to be replaced by another reality when the next dream starts. Our present notion of reality is a joke. Only that which is stable, unchangeable and eternal is really real. We cannot apply these adjectives—stable, unchangeable, eternal—to anything that we see around us, including our own bodies and minds. Real happiness and real freedom are possible only when we discover that which is truly stable, truly unchangeable and truly eternal. For that to happen, the dreams must end. The only way to end this unending stream of dreams is to wake up.
Enlightened beings are those who have woken up. One who wakes up is called a Buddha. Swami Vivekananda’s favorite exhortation may make better sense in light of what is said above: “Arise! Awake! and stop not till the goal is reached.” The goal is to stop dreaming and to wake up.