Dreaming and Waking Up

I don’t often stop to give much thought to the fact that the word Buddha means ‘awakened one’, which obviously gives us the term awakening and the recurrent theme in Buddhist practice of waking up. We can take this to imply that perhaps we are otherwise dreaming. What is it that we are dreaming about though? How do we wake up? And can our dreams be of any use to us in our practice?

Generally when we refer to our unawakened experience as being like a dream we understand this not to mean that we are actually living in a dream state or some kind of alternative reality, but that the ‘dream’ is our deluded view of the world, our perpetual misunderstanding of the world based on the ideas that we create about it.

The Buddhist teachings don’t talk explicitly  about our ordinary experience as being like a dream in quite the same way that other teachings like Advaita Vedanta do, but investigating our ordinary experience through the lens of being like a dream can open up new perspectives for us.

The Buddha doesn’t say much about dreams in the Pali canon, but there is one sutta where he likens sense pleasure to dreaming and this is a useful simile to understand what we are dreaming and why we need to wake up:

“Now suppose a man, when dreaming, were to see delightful parks, delightful forests, delightful stretches of land, & delightful lakes, and on awakening were to see nothing. In the same way, householder, a disciple of the noble ones considers this point: ‘The Blessed One has compared sensuality to a dream, of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks.’ “[1]

When we make contact with a sense pleasure, we imagine it to be something that can bring us lasting happiness, but the feeling can only ever be transient so it will eventually bring us suffering. This is the dream part, we ‘dream’ that sources of sense pleasure are sources of lasting happiness when in reality they are impermanent and always bound to end. When we ‘wake up’ to this reality, then we can do something about how much we suffer by letting go of fantasies that things can make us happy when they can’t.

Dreaming does get referenced directly in explaining the process of becoming though, where the process of going into a dream while we sleep is said to be the same process that happens when rebirth occurs:

“The relationship between birth and becoming can be compared to the process of falling asleep and dreaming. As drowsiness makes the mind lose contact with waking reality, a dream image of another place and time will appear in it. The appearance of this image is called becoming. The act of entering into this image and taking on a role or identity within it — and thus entering the world of the dream and falling asleep — is birth. The commentaries maintain that precisely the same process is what enables rebirth to follow the death of the body. At the same time, the analogy between falling asleep and taking birth explains why release from the cycle of becoming is called Awakening.” [2]

The dream analogy can be problematic though if we use it as a means of spiritual bypassing; it can be all to easy to wave the world and our problems away dismissively by convincing ourselves ‘it’s not real’. This doesn’t work of course, it merely leads to us denying our experience and shutting ourselves off from our feelings. We may well be in a ‘dream’ but that doesn’t mean that our world will disappear when we ‘wake up’, the lack of reality – or perhaps more specifically lack of a realistic perspective – is merely in our interpretation of our experiences not the actual experiences themselves.   

If we follow a Buddhist practice then we know that we need to wake up, but Tenzin Palmo makes the point that even though we know we are dreaming, on some level we don’t really want to wake up:

“The whole Buddhist path is about waking up. Yet the desire to keep sleeping is so strong. However much we say we will awake in order to help all sentient beings we don’t really want to. We like dreaming.” [3]

I found Tenzin Palmo’s statement especially pertinent because I am someone who has an inclination towards day-dreaming when my mind isn’t otherwise occupied, and it was in the middle of such a day-dream that I chanced on that particular quote. The part of my mind that talks about being a ‘good Buddhist’ is always quick to criticise any time spent in idle dreaming as being a waste and something that I should stop, but as I read this quote I saw that I didn’t want to stop dreaming, I like it, and if you like it then where does the impetus to wake up in that particular moment come from?

When we scale this up to the rest of our reality, to our experience of living in the world, we can see that the same problem persists: why would we want to let go of our delusions about the world when we actually enjoy so many of them?

As the Buddha said, if there was no such thing as pleasant feeling then we wouldn’t chase after it and the things that we think can give us it [4]; there are pleasant feelings in the world, this is a fact, and they feel nice. When there are nice things going on in our lives, why would we want to give them up?

Tenzin Palmo makes this point in one of my all-time favourite quotes about practice:

Most people feel cozy enough in samsara. They do not really have the genuine aspiration to go beyond samsara; they just want samsara to be a little bit better. It is quite interesting that “samsara” became the name of a perfume. And it is like that. It seduces us into thinking that it is okay: samsara is not so bad; it smells nice!… We are always looking to make ourselves comfortable in the prison house. We might think that if we get the cell wall painted a pretty shade of pale green, and put in a few pictures, it won’t be a prison any more. [5]

Some people wonder why Buddhism makes such a big point about suffering all the time but the recognition of suffering is what will lead us to see that perhaps our prison cell isn’t so comfortable after all, and that no matter how nicely we decorate it we are still prisoners while we are held captive in it.

The first noble truth  that ‘there is suffering’ isn’t a generalised statement about reality, it is a call for us to investigate our experiences and find out where suffering happens in them. Sometimes suffering makes itself very obvious in our lives when we experience life changing events like loss, death, or sickness, but we can spend many years just trucking along in samsara without the stink of it ever becoming strong enough for us to notice it, yet it is there the whole time.

When we don’t notice the suffering then there is no impetus to change anything. This is a reason why it is said that it is hard for the inhabitants of the heavenly realms to achieve enlightenment, their lives are so consistently pleasant that they see no reason to try to change anything. Those unfortunate souls in the hell realms have the opposite problem, they suffer so much that they don’t have the headspace to figure out how to make it stop. The human realm in comparison is said to offer the just the right balance of suffering and pleasant experiences to be able to see the problem and to fix it too, which is why a human birth is held to be particularly auspicious. Whether these things are true or not isn’t terribly important, but it does illustrate that we need to have some suffering in our experience to incentivise changing our usual habits.

So knowing that we are dreaming isn’t what is going to make us stop, in fact if you think about it in our dreams when we are asleep we can have a very clear awareness of the fact that we are having a dream and have full knowledge of thinking to ourselves that we don’t want to wake up from it. When we start Buddhist practice mostly we don’t know that we are dreaming, that isn’t our motivation, what usually brought us there was realising that we were suffering in some way.

The recognition of the dreaming on its own isn’t enough, and I feel this relates to the point Thanissaro Bhikkhu makes when he talks about us making a tactical error by valuing things based on what we think they do for us instead of based on what they are. [6]We give in to the dream because it makes us feel good, it smells nice; the fact that it is a dream is immaterial to us because we like it and we think it can make us happy.

And we are fully complicit in making the dream;  it is our fabrication, our story about the world, the world that we want to be in.[7] We make these worlds, this is what our dream is. Understanding our experience in terms of fabrications, as I have written about recently, opens up an issue though, which is that waking up isn’t such a simple thing to do. We don’t just ‘wake up’ one day and suddenly stop fabricating our reality, we just make a different fabrication that causes less suffering. If I go from a day-dream to watching my breath instead, I haven’t escaped from fabrication, all that has happened is that my attention went from one fabrication of experience to another.

Does this mean that we can’t ever really wake up? Do we just swap one dream for another? I don’t know the answer to this, but the suttas do seem to suggest that ultimately there is a state that is beyond fabrication so I have to assume that there is an escape of some sort once we achieve enlightenment. What it means until that point though is that we are still inside the closed system of fabrications, but the  skilful use of fabrications does help us to get beyond it.

I know for some people this might sound deeply unsatisfactory to think that all that we are ever doing is making different kinds of dreams, but on some level it doesn’t matter what is ‘real’ and what isn’t, it is our attitude towards these things that makes the difference. If something is ‘real’ but we cling onto it, then it won’t help us. If something is ‘real’ but we don’t cling onto it then it can be of more help to us. The Buddha makes this point when he describes the teachings as being like a raft, we use the raft to reach the other shore but if we then picked up the raft and started carrying it around with us while we were on land it would be a burden to us. The teachings serve a purpose but to cling onto them beyond that point takes us back into the kind of deluded thinking that we had just gotten ourselves clear of, so ideas of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ are still just ideas.

To borrow a line from a teacher in the Vedantic tradition, Nisargadatta Maharaj makes a useful point that we don’t need to wake up to stop the suffering of a bad dream, we only need to realise that we are dreaming and our suffering ends, and perhaps we can apply the same principle to our own ‘waking up’; we don’t need to get outside of the dream to stop suffering, we just need to know that we are dreaming. [8] Ajahn Mun’s ballad of liberation likewise suggests that he feels that we are not going to ‘escape’ from anything; the khandas continue to happen to us and the mind keeps thinking, our release comes not from the cessation of our thoughts but our recognition that they are not important:

When you see the superlative Dhamma, surpassing the world, all your old confused searchings are uprooted and let go. The [only] suffering left is the need to sleep and eat in line with events. The heart stays, tamed, near the mind-source, Thinking, yet not dwelling on its thoughts. The nature of the mind is that it has to think, But when it senses the mind-source it’s released from its sorrows, secluded from disturbances, & still.  [9]

The Buddha was utterly pragmatic about what he was teaching, saying that he taught only suffering and the end of suffering; he had no interest in explaining the world, or whether the method for doing it was intellectually satisfying or not. Our egos delight in the symmetry and magnificence of  a beautifully laid out concept of the world and how it works, but if it isn’t effective for ending our suffering then the Buddha has no interest in it. It doesn’t really matter if the things we have to do are apparently paradoxical such as using fabrication to end fabrication, if it works then that is all we need to know about it.

It could be argued that practices like recollection of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha are a kind of skilful day-dreaming. The skilful element in them comes not because they wake us up from our dream as such, we are after all still using the same mechanisms that support our deluded way of seeing the world, but what they can do is steer us towards better kinds of dreams and away from dreams that lead to suffering.

When we dream of worldly matters we lean more and more towards the world, which in turn increases our likelihood of making more worldly dreams, and with them more suffering. But when we dream of more wholesome things we change our inclination, and that becomes our habit as the opening verses of the Dhammapada say:

Mind precedes thoughts, mind is their chief, their quality is made by mind, if with a base mind one speaks or acts, through that suffering follows him like a wheel follows the ox’s foot. Mind precedes thoughts, mind is their chief, their quality is made by mind, if with pure mind one speaks or acts, through that happiness follows him like a shadow which does not depart. [10]

Our habitual inclinations will come with us wherever we go, and it is that different inclination that using our capacity to dream in a wholesome way that will steer us towards the behaviours that we need to eventually get us away from dreaming altogether.  

So we can think about watching the breath as another kind of skilful dream, a useful fabrication that takes us away from the kinds of worldly dreams that lead to other worldly dreams. Contemplation of wholesome themes is another more direct use of imagination that can lean us away from worldly dreams too.

But I have to confess that just watching the breath, even with all the benefits that come with it in terms of peaceful and joyful feelings, isn’t enough to fully eradicate the part of my mind that inclines to day-dreaming; the immediate rewards of day-dreaming remain too convincing to me to let go of them without a bit of determination.

Silencing the mind can seem like the most obvious route to stopping our dreaming, but if we haven’t seen through the dreams as not being a source of real happiness then our underlying tendency will cause them to keep erupting. Silencing an active mind can be something of a strong-arm tactic sometimes though; I find that my mind doesn’t respond well to being coshed, and often I get a huge rebound effect, so over time I have realised that perhaps it isn’t so much the case that I need to get rid of it but to learn to live with it.

The answer perhaps isn’t to stop dreaming but instead to take control of our propensity to dream and recommission it for better use. So when I have an idle moment of day-dreaming the option is there to have a better kind of dream, why not dream of being in jhana instead, or of being an arahant? Dream of what it would be like to be compassionate, and patient, and all of the skilful qualities that we need to develop, instead of imagining a conversation or of lying on a beach in the sun. It’s still dreaming, it’s not awakening, but it might still have the capacity to nudge us in the right direction.

Of course it’s always important to realise that we are just dreaming, there is a direct experience of metta, jhana, compassion, equanimity, etc. that we need to achieve.  Just dreaming of it is never going to be enough, sitting dreaming of being enlightened isn’t the same as doing the practice that leads to it. But perhaps having these kinds of dreams makes it much more likely that you will then form the intention to develop these qualities, so while it would be better to just do the practice, using your day-dreams like this seems more likely to point you in the right direction in a way that dreaming that you are singing at the opening ceremony of the Olympics or scoring the winning goal in the World Cup  just won’t do.

Even when we know we are dreaming we don’t want to stop, but while the answer ultimately is that we need to wake up  until we get there we can recognise that some of us have an innate capacity to dream and rather than try to eliminate it perhaps we can harness it to incline our minds towards the things that will help us to reach that point in the future.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay


1.       Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) Potaliya Sutta: To Potaliya. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.054x.than.html. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

2.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) Wings to Awakening: Part III. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/part3.html. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

3.      Tenzin Palmo (2021) We like dreaming – Meetings on a Path to Awakening. https://blog.meditation-presence.com/tenzin-palmo-we-like-dreaming/. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

4.      Bhikkhu Sujato (2021) Mahālisutta. https://suttacentral.net/sn22.60/en/sujato. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

5.      Tenzin Palmo (2021) Going beyond samsara. https://lotusseed.com.au/2021/03/25/going-beyond-samsara-2/. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

6.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) The Integrity of Emptiness. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/integrityofemptiness.html. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

7.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2018) Meditations 1: Forty Dhamma Talks: Fabrication. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations.html#fabrication. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

8.      Nisargadatta M (1973 (1979)) I Am That // I am that parts 1 and 2, 2nd ed. Chetana, Bombay

9.      Ajahn Mun (2018) The Ballad of Liberation from the Khandhas: Trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/mun/ballad.html. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

10.    Bhikkhu Ānandajoti (2021) Yamakavagga: Dhammapada v1-2. https://suttacentral.net/dhp1-20/en/anandajoti. Accessed 04 Jun 2021

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