Open your eyes, for this world is only a dream.
Dreams are slippery little devils. Sometimes in the groggy early morning, Frank and I tell each other any dreams we had. But I have to be careful. If Frank tells his dream first, even if mine was vivid, it can slip away and dissolve before I can say it. It’s like holding onto a handful of sand in rushing water: it slides away between my fingers, irretrievably lost.
It’s not just night dreams that are slippery. Future dreams are elusive, too. Things I care deeply about like my personal future, or that of my children, or my country might feel clear in sweeping terms. I dream of traveling to Patagonia. I dream that my children will earn advanced degrees. I dream that America be a place where everyone is equal. But without clear steps toward making them happen, dreams tend to hover vaguely in the fuzzy, foggy sometime-future.
Fears for the future can be this way, too. I, like Mark Twain, have “had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” I can put a pile of energy into fretting over troubling upcoming scenarios. Either those things happen and I deal with them or they don’t and they float down the dreamy stream of the next thing I’m worrying on.
The past is weird. I mean, does it really exist? It feels like it exists, but where is it? And if it did exist but doesn’t now, then where did it go?
~ A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozenki
The past is similarly slippery. Think about what you had for breakfast. You may well remember the granola and blueberries, but even recent memories quickly take on a watercolory quality. Memories from childhood or your early adulthood or even last year, slide into that same dreamy zone as if you are remembering the events of someone else’s life.
Brain research suggests that three things impact the memorability of an event. If something is novel, if we play close attention, and it is associated with a strong emotion, the memory will stay vivid. Mostly, though, the past is as easy to pin down as a fresh watermelon seed. Put your thumb on it and it squirts away and disappears under the fridge.
Row, Row, Row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
~ late 19th Century nursery rhyme
If day dreams and night dreams and the past are all amorphous, diaphanous aspects of our consciousness, what about NOW?
In Ruth Ozenki’s A Tale For The Time Being, the young Japanese character, Nao, struggles with the transience of now. To her, it feels like now is as slippery as a fat tuna. She says,
NOW felt like a big fish swallowing a little fish, and I wanted to catch it and make it stop.
…In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then.
Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. (pp 98-99)
I can think of now as a thing to pin down but like a wriggling minnow, it squirms away instantly. If I get too tight with it, now feels like a tiny rowboat that I’m precariously perched on in the stream of time.
Alternatively, I can see now as the biggest space there is, the only space there is. Now is where everything is happening. The most direct entry point to this expansive view of now is through the body and sensation. The body can only be right here and now and we can be there, too, when we practice directing our attention. Whether you are remembering when the mean kids picked on you in 2nd grade or dreaming forward to your future seaside home, your body remains right here and gives you information about how those dreams feel now. Staying in the expansive now is simply a matter of practice.
This is no news flash. The practice of staying present isn’t anything new, but recognizing the dream-like quality of past and future can help me remember to stay anchored in now. Fear, regret and excitement about things that have happened or haven’t happened yet, just make me miss the life I’m offered in the present.
The body lives only in the flow of now. With tight, narrow eyes, I feel myself teetering precariously in a tippy little row boat of now, or I can relax and open and feel it as a big, steady river boat floating merrily along.
Much of life feels like a dream but with practice we can choose to plant our feet on the sturdy deck of now.