Picture a young boy, age about 4 or 5, all alone at Day Care. The hour is getting late and the October afternoon has already gotten dark outside, and all of the other mothers have already picked up all of the other children. He is the last one still there, and is all alone.
The day-care workers have already put on their coats and turned off most of the lights, except, kindly, the one light where the little boy is still waiting for his mother. In his little circle of light, he is playing with a toy car, mindlessly rolling it forward and back, trying to keep from worrying about where his Mommy is.
He senses the anger of the remaining workers, who are growing impatient waiting for the last mother to arrive, and he thinks that they are mad at him. He does not understand why Mommy hasn't come to get him yet and thinks that maybe she is mad at him. He can't remember what it was that he did that was bad, but he must have been a bad boy to be left here all alone.
The thought that the day-care workers are thinking doesn't occur to him - that his mother might have been hurt or in an auto accident - as the concept of mortality hasn't yet formed in his juvenile mind. He only knows reward and punishment, and he feels he's being punished for something he doesn't understand. He is afraid. He doesn't know if his mother is ever going to come. So he tries to occupy his mind by playing with the little toy car and not think scary thoughts of abandonment and loneliness but his consciousness is all in his ears, listening for the sound of the door to open and for his Mommy to finally arrive.
And finally she does. Picture the mother: a young woman, attractive, accustomed to the attention of men. She is dressed in a cat costume, with cute little kitty ears on top of her head. Whiskers are drawn on her face in eyeliner and the tip of her pretty little nose is blackened with makeup. She's had a few drinks but is not yet drunk (just a little white wine). She looks cute in the kitty-cat costume, but the boy does not perceive her as sexy - his mind has not yet matured to that point yet, and besides, she's his mother and she's wearing a coat against the autumn cold.
The day-care workers can see precisely what has happened - she was at an after-work Halloween party, and was flirting and enjoying the attention she was getting and had forgotten the hour. Now she finally shows up, late and a little tipsy, and feels guilty and embarrassed that she's now the truant mother. She walks over to her son.
"Hi, pumpkin," she says in a tentative voice. She doesn't know if her son is mad at her or not so her words are like a toe tipped into a bathtub to test the temperature.
"Hi, Mommy." The boy murmurs his reply and is afraid to raise his eyes to her since he still thinks that he's being punished for something bad that he must have done.
Look at these two: they love each other so very, very much but don't have the means to express that love in this moment. The boy continues to just stare down at his toy car and tears are welling up in the mother's eyes, but she just stands there.
Ten years ago, I woke up from this dream of a mother and son with tears running down my cheeks, and was surprised to find myself crying. I still vividly remember the dream and it continues to break my heart to this day - I'm misty eyed right now just from recalling it and writing it down here.
I've wondered for years what this dream meant. I tried analyzing it myself but got nowhere - I never had abandonment issues growing up and as a child never felt anything but loved. I also found it curious that I saw the dream not through the eyes of the little boy but from some sort of third-person perspective. But the boy obviously represented me, although the mother figure didn't accord with my feelings toward my mother. Could the young mother have represented past lovers whom I felt had abandoned me emotionally? Or could she be society in general? None of these explanations seemed to work, and I continued to wonder what my subconscious was telling me, and why this odd little dream had become stuck in my memory.
This dream occurred before I starting practicing Zen, about a year before I started practicing to be precise. Newcomers to Zen all have various narratives they tell themselves and tell the teachers about what brought them to Zen, and these narratives frequently change as they get to better understand the true nature of their selves. I never went so far as to say that the dream had led me to start Zen practice, but my standard newcomer narrative was that I had been experiencing some sort of general episode of unspecified existential crisis, and I might have used the dream and my reaction to it as an example of that crisis.
As it turns out, I can now clearly see that it was something altogether different that led me to Zen, which is really what I wanted to blog about here. But I can see now that it will take several posts to describe my true motivation correctly, so this is just the first installment in a series. Actually, I tried to start into this once before in a post last August but had never gotten around to continuing the thread, much less answering Greensmile's very astute questions on that past post. I will address those questions and any others that arise after I finally get this all off my chest.
But back to the dream. A couple of years later, I had a most astounding moment of sudden insight and understanding into the dream. These sudden insights are not uncommon to meditative practices - once the mind has settled down a little and some level of clarity arises, we can directly perceive things as they actually are, not as our thinking mind wants to interpret them. And as we learn to quiet the constant dialog running through our heads, these perceptions and their implications can come flooding in, unhindered by limitations of language or our mind's attempt to rationalize and categorize the experience.
Let me illustrate - as I was driving home from work one afternoon about six or seven years ago, memories of that dream arose once again, leading me to wonder again what it might have meant. At the time, I was about two or three years into my Zen practice and had been attending several week-long meditation retreats, and my mind was quite capable and accustomed to letting go. As I drove, I suddenly saw the dream from a completely different perspective than I had in the past. Up to that time, I had always taken an egocentric approach to interpreting the dream, assuming that the boy had symbolized my self and seeing all of the other characters only in relation to that boy-self, just as in life. But as I drove, it occurred to me that since the dream was all just a figment of my imagination, just my mind creating its own fantasia, everything in the dream was, literally, my mind. There was nothing in the dream that wasn't a creation of my mind; there was nothing in the dream that wasn't, in fact, my mind.
In other words, there was nothing in the dream that wasn't me. I was the boy, I was the mother, I was the toy car, I was the cat's ears on Mommy's head. I was the day care center and the workers and the little circle of light. There was no center of things to be "me" and no "others" to revolve around that center; it was, quite literally, all me.
Interesting. But then the realization arose, "As in dreams, so in life." Without articulating the words, I suddenly found myself awash in a flood of intuitive insight and understanding about the nature of perception and reality. Everything I've seen and felt and understood, literally the whole world that I've experienced, has been nothing but my perception. It's all been my mind, just like in the dream. Everything that I knew of the past was just memory and inventions of the mind, and at that present moment I was the car I was driving and the road on which that car was riding. I was the traffic and the landscape and the music on the radio. Or the car and the road and the traffic and the landscape and the music were all me. I had the strongest sensation that everything was just boundless "me" and that there was no center, just as in the dream. But at that point the understanding wasn't expressing itself in words and I can't adequately reconstruct the experience here now using words, just as I can't recreate it in my mind - memory is a pale substitute for experience.
The emotional and psychological impact of this flood of intuition was so profound I had to pull the car over onto the side of the road and gather myself back up before I could continue the drive home.
So why, you ask, do I bring this six- or seven-year old experience up now? Especially an old experience that can't accurately be recalled or recreated? At what am I trying to get?
This story is a prelude, stage-setting if you will, for a more recent intuitive insight, one that not only clarified why it was that I came to Zen practice to start with but also tells me volumes about my own personality and nature. This second episode occurred not like a single thunderbolt out of the blue as the first one had, but as a series of events, sort of like an earthquake and aftershocks, starting at the weekend sesshin last September with Zen Master Dae Gok, the sesshin about which I was unable to blog for several days, that had rendered me momentarily speechless.
But this post is already getting long and it's emotionally draining not only to describe a dream that affected me so deeply but also to try and recreate a non-verbal flood of intuition that literally forced me off the road, so please bear with me as I continue this discussion over the next several days.
However, there might be those readers who are still wondering, "Okay, I get it, it's all you, but what did that dream actually mean?" without realizing that "it's all you" means the same thing as "it's all me." I urge those readers to not search for symbols in the dream any more than they search for symbols in waking life. Do you search for a meaning in the splash of a frog diving into a pond? Do you try to decode the sounds of rush-hour traffic? Is there hidden meaning in the pattern of leaves fallen from a tree?
"As in life, so in dreams." All of these are simply manifestations of suchness, things as they are. Modern psychiatry has rendered quaint phrenology, the interpretation of bumps on the head. Having seen deeper into the nature of perception and reality, I can no longer consider it important to interpret dreams.