“As there are hundreds of dreams uncontrolled till the end of life, so there are hundreds of waking states also in the gross ignorance of the unliberated.”
— Yoga Vasishta
Inception is a film that’s both fascinating and enlightening. In Inception there is this interesting concept of entering into someone else’s subconscious mind and planting an idea into their mind. But we are not concerned with this now. What we are more interested in is the concept of multiple levels of dreaming.
The movie Inception shows four levels of dreaming, a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream, and one level of waking. Now, consider this… instead of just four levels of dreaming, what if in reality there are infinite number of levels of dreaming upwards and downwards? Right now the state you experience as waking is also a dream from the perspective of higher states. Only your assumption that this state is real makes it real, otherwise it’s just a dream. A dream is as real to you as the waking state when you experience it. Can you deny this? So, if there are infinite number of levels of dreams upwards and downwards, then there is no absolute waking state. It’s all just dreams and nothing else.
Here’s a little extract from a non-dualistic text that gives a very similar idea and explains it better.
Disciple (D.): Now, master, the dream is but the reproduction of mental impressions formed in the waking state and lying dormant before. They reproduce past experiences. Therefore dream-visions are rightly said to be only mental creations. Should the same be true of the waking world, this must be the reproduction of some past impressions. What are those impressions which give rise to these waking experiences?
Master (M.): Just as the experiences of the waking state give rise to the dream world, so also the experiences of past lives give rise to this world of the waking state, nonetheless illusory.
D.: If the present experience is the result of the preceding one, what gave rise to its preceding one?
M.: That was from its preceding one and so on.
D.: This can extend back to the time of creation. In dissolution all these impressions must have been resolved. What was left there to start the new creation?
M.: Just as your impressions gathered one day lie dormant in deep sleep and become manifest the following day, so also the impressions of the preceding cycle (kalpa [aeon]) reappear in the succeeding one. Thus these impressions of Maya have no beginning, but appear over and over again.
D.: Master, what was experienced on previous days can now be remembered. Why do we not remember the experiences of past lives?
M.: This cannot be. See how the waking experiences repeat themselves in the dream but are not apprehended in the same way as in the waking state, but differently. Why? Because sleep makes all the difference, in as much as it hides the original bearings and distorts them, so that the same experience repeated in the dream is differently set, often aberrant and wobbling. Similarly the experiences of past lives have been affected by comas and deaths so that the present setting is different from the past ones and the same experience repeated in a different way cannot recall the past.
D.: Master, dream visions being only mental creations are transient and are soon dismissed as unreal. So they are properly said to be illusory. On the contrary the waking world is seen to be lasting and all evidence goes to show that it is real. How can it be classified with dreams as being illusory?
M.: In the dream itself, the visions are experienced as proven and real; they are not at that time felt to be unreal. Similarly at the time of experience, this waking world also seems to be proven and real. But when you wake up to your true nature, this will also pass off as unreal.
D.: What then is the difference between the dream and waking states?
M.: Both are only mental and illusory. There can be no doubt of this. Only the waking world is a long drawn out illusion and the dream a short one. This is the only difference and nothing more.
(Advaita Bodha Deepika, Chapter 1, page 13–14)
Now the most important question… if all is dream and nothing else, then who is the dreamer? You may say, “I am the dreamer.” But who is that I? Who are you? Right now you describe yourself with certain attributes like a name, some age, certain qualities, certain abilities, etc.. But when you fall asleep and start dreaming, you forget most of these attributes and identify yourself with a dream personality who is totally different and who does things you can only dream of! When you experience a dream your waking personality does not exist, and when you wake up the dream personality becomes unreal. So when you identify your personality with certain set of attributes, then that personality should be unreal because the attributes vanish when you wake up to a higher state or go deep into a dream.
But it’s obvious there is some part of you that is witnessing through all the dreams. It is that part of you that remains when you strip off all the attributes, it’s the core you that’s common to all the dreams and all the states. It’s the witness consciousness within you that is silently watching through all your dreams, all your life, all of your experiences. Isn’t that witness consciousness within you the real dreamer? In fact the witness consciousness is the only reality, the real you, the real I. Everything else is just part of a dream and hence unreal, is it not?
The key here is to stop identifying yourself with forms and attributes. You have to look within to find the real entity that’s you. As the popular quote from Carl Jung goes, “Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”