The dreamer and the dream

When I dream at night, anything can happen. I can be anywhere. I can be anyone. I can do anything.

When I wake in the morning, however, none of the dream remains. It is gone.

Where did it go?

This might seem like it is too trivial of a matter to really care about. After all, all my waking problems are still very much real upon waking. I still have the same unhappiness, the same sense of inadequacy, the same anxiety. And so surely I should forget about a trivial philosophical question such as “where did the dream go” and focus instead of solving my real problems, right?

But actually, this “trivial philosophical question” turns out to be more important than it seems.

Here’s why. Let’s return for a moment to the dream. In the dream, I am being chased by men with swords. They corner me. They begin to cut me.

In the dream I experience pain and suffering. I am afraid. I want desperately to escape, to overpower them, to somehow change this desperate situation into a more favorable one. My very life depends upon it.

Now, when I wake up, what has happened to the cuts, the pain, the swords, the bad men, the desperate situation? Where is it?

I am unharmed, unaffected by the dream.

Of course, even though the waking self is unharmed by the dream, the waking self still has all his or her problems to contend with. And to the waking self it is the waking problems that really matter. The dream problems disappear upon waking, but the waking problems reappear upon waking.

Still, I believe that this seemingly trivial matter is highly relevant.

In the dream I imagine that I am the dream character. I believe that I am the one being chased by the bad men. I believe that I am the one being cut. I am trapped. I am harmed. My life is in danger.

In the dream, that dream self is real. Its problems are completely real within the dream.

This is important. The dream problems are real to the dream character.

This is why in Indian philosophies Maya (world illusion) is described as both real and unreal. We cannot get rid of her by calling her unreal. She is real just as the dream character’s problems are real within the dream. The dream itself is real. It really happens. To say otherwise is dishonest.

But at the same time, Maya is unreal in the sense that her reality is dependent. She is real in a dependent manner. The dream really does happen. But she is not independently real. The dream does not occur independent of the dreamer.

The dream, the dream character, and the dream problems are real. They are also Maya. They are real, but not independently real. They are real because they are witnessed by the dreamer.

But who is the dreamer?

When I wake up in the morning, if you ask me who dreamed, I will tell you that I did. And we can end it at that. There we have a neat and tidy answer. I am the dreamer.

But who is this I? Who am I referring to?

And here is why this seemingly trivial question turns out to be highly relevant.

Who is the dreamer? I am. Who is this I?

I cannot honestly respond to the second question (Who is this I?) just be repeating “I am”. Because that answers the question with the same starting point as the question. Which is to say, it is not a valid answer.

So now I have to look more closely. Who is the dreamer? Who is this I?

I know that I am the dreamer. I know that because it is clear that I dreamed. It must be that I am the dreamer because if I were not the dreamer, I could not say that I dreamed. And I know that I dreamed. So it is fair to say that I am the dreamer.

I am present during the dream. That is implicit. The dreamer must be present during the dream. Otherwise, how can he know that he dreamed?

I am also present now, awake.

So whoever this dreamer is, he is present both to the dream and to the waking state.

Who or what is present both to the dream and to the waking state? I know that in the waking state the dream character and the dream problems and the dream world disappear. So I am clearly not the dream character, problems, or world.

That much is common sense. We all know upon waking that we are not the dream character, problems, or world.

But isn’t it also true that by the same token, since this waking character, waking problems, and waking world are not present in the dream that I must not be these waking things either?

If I can disappear to myself, I cannot say honestly that what disappears is truly me. Only what is aware of what appears and disappears can be what I truly am.

The dream objects, including the dream self, disappear in the waking state. The waking objects, including the waking self, disappear in the dream state.

What I am must be constant in all states. It must be what is common among all experiences. It must be what is unchanging.

What is that?

I am.

What is that? I cannot say. Because I cannot get out of it to see it or experience it. I am it.

The eye cannot see itself. The finger cannot touch itself. I cannot experience myself.

But the eye can see. The finger can touch. I am aware.

My nature is awareness. Whatever experiences come and go, there is one constant, which is that I am aware.

I am the dreamer of the nightly dream. And I am the dreamer of the waking dream.

This is a crucial moment. This moment of pure seeing is awareness of the dreamer, awareness of the independent self. And the temptation is to try to do something with this – to grab it, turn it into a thought, make a plan for the future of it.

Then I’m lost in the dream again. Mistaking myself for the dream character.

There’s nothing to be done about this. Any attempt to do anything is arising from within the dream. Any attempt to do anything is trying to pull myself up by my own bootstraps.

To the dream character this is just another problem to add to the list of problems. I can’t do anything without mucking it up, and that’s a problem.

But again, this moment of pure seeing. This is a moment of lucid wakefulness. In this moment, the problems vanish just as all dream problems must vanish upon waking.

Still, the desire for an end or at least a change to the bad dream arises. Even if I realize that I am the dreamer, unaffected by the dream, I still don’t want a bad dream.

When experiencing a nightmare, what is the means to ending the nightmare? What is required is to wake up.

There is waking up from the dream. There is also waking up to the dream. The only difference is that one ends the dream and the other does not. But the wakefulness is identical.

If I fight and struggle, I am putting myself more to sleep. What I want is to wake up. So I must not fight or struggle. Even if fighting or struggling is happening, I must not fight against the fight or struggle.

How can I determine that I am awake?

Must the dream end? No, it is possible to be awake to the dream.

Must the dream change in some particular, more favorable manner to prove that I am awake? No, it is not necessary that the dream change in any particular way to prove that I am awake.

Compulsive checking to see “has it changed in a favorable way yet?” is a narcotic that lulls one back to sleep, back into delusion. This compulsive checking inverts reality, positing that consciousness is a function of the dream rather than the other way around. And as such, it keeps perception upside down and inside out so that nothing is seen clearly.

Compulsive checking to see if the dream has changed in a favorable way yet is like chasing after a mirage yet again. The mirage is not water and will never be water. True and lasting satisfaction cannot be had in the dream because the nature of the dream is that it is ever-changing. It is unstable. It is dependent.

I used to compulsively check everything. Not only was I compulsively checking to see if the dream had changed in a favorable way, I was also checking the stove to make sure I’d turned it off. I compulsively checked the door to make sure I’d locked it. I compulsive checked all kinds of things.

And let me tell you what I noticed about why I did that. I did it because I wanted a “just right” feeling. I felt unsettled, and the compulsive checking was an unconscious attempt to fix the feeling.

The more a person checks compulsively, the more unsettled the feeling becomes. No amount of checking can fix the feeling. And more checking only makes things worse.

It is a vicious cycle. There is no way to resolve it by doing more of the same.

The compulsive checking is the problem, not the solution.

Compulsively checking “How do I feel now? Has the pain (or depression or anxiety or anger or worry or whatever) gone away yet? Is my life better yet?” results in feeling worse and worse.

What is the answer? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Stop checking. Stop indulging the habit of assuming that the delusion of mind is primary reality and basing all perception on that. Stop assuming that just because I think something or believe something or believe that I remember something that it is necessarily true. Stop assuming that my ideas about what this is are correct.

And just allow. Allow this present experience as it is without the unnecessary filter of “I know what this is and I like it or don’t like it.”

Or as Papaji would say, “don’t give rise to a thought”.

This is being awake now without conditions, without waiting for the dream to confirm or deny the wakefulness. Because if I wait for the dream to confirm or deny the wakefulness, that’s compulsive checking, which only lulls me to sleep.

Waking is now. It is unconditional.


  1. I am experiencing, a rare level of expertise in your essay’s, contemplations Joey, Your winding in and out the differing Levels of the dream-er, as well as your other writing healing stories is a length of fascinating comprehensiveness the I am finding beneficial, basking in the non thinkingly so. . I’ve shared your site, I hope the others make the connection. All the best, Take good care, … and safe travels.

  2. i so relate to this. i lost my beloved healthy partner of 38 years quite suddenly to covid last month. my practice over the years of being present to everything that comes up is helping me. i am surrendered, present to every thought, emotion and sensation that comes up, accepting of everything as it is and even grateful for this opportunity to just be, without a sense of doer-ship. The mind is calm and I am permeated with an abiding sense of peace. The sadness comes in waves and there are moments when thought intervenes wishing i could undo the past. I just stay with whatever is. There is no leaning into the next moment or a desire to reach a place of comfort and security. Even that is noticed as a thought or a habit pattern. Thank you for allowing me to share.

  3. There are some wonderfully enlightening observations in this post…
    “The dream objects, including the dream self, disappear in the waking state. The waking objects, including the waking self, disappear in the dream state.”
    And the deduction from that observation…
    “My nature is awareness. Whatever experiences come and go, there is one constant, which is that I am aware.”
    But, what if the “I” is considered as a verb instead of a noun and the statement “this moment of pure seeing is awareness of the dreamer…” is changed slightly to be “this moment of pure seeing is awareness of the dreaming.” It feels like the “dreamer” (noun) in both the dream state and the waking state is implied by the dreaming (verb).
    To me it then feels less like a frustrating paradox that still needs to be reconciled and more like a comfortably acceptable, and somehow less threatening, mystery.
    But maybe that’s just me.
    Thanks for the inspiration to drill a little deeper Joey.

  4. “buddha sat beneath the bodhi tree
    he sat there for a long long time
    he sat so long that he lost his mind
    he didn’t know what he was sitting for
    didn’t ask those questions anymore’ LYRICS BY CHRIS CALVO

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