Dream and Reality

Any reaction to any situation–external or internal, waking or dreaming–that is rooted in grasping or aversion leaves a trace in the mind. As karma dictates reactions, the reactions sow further karmic seeds, which further dictate reactions, and so on. This is how karma leads to more of itself. It is the wheel of samsara, the ceaseless cycle of action and reaction.

The karmic traces left in the mind are like seeds. They require certain conditions in order to manifest. The karmic trace manifests when the right situation is encountered. The elements of the situation that support the manifestation of the karma are known as the secondary causes and conditions.

Once we really understand that each karmic trace is a seed for further karmically governed action, we can use that understanding to avoid creating negativity in our life, and instead create conditions that will influence our lives in a positive direction. Or, if we know how, we can allow the emotion to self-liberate as it arises, in which case no new karma is created.

You may ask why it is better to liberate emotion rather than to generate positive karma. The answer is that all karmic traces act to constrain us, to restrict us to particular identities. The goal of the path is complete liberation from all conditioning. This does not mean that, once one is liberated, positive traits such as compassion are not present. They are. But when we are no longer driven by karmic tendencies we can see our situation clearly and respond spontaneously and appropriately, rather than being pushed in one direction or pulled in another.

The relative compassion that arises from positive karmic tendencies is very good, but better is the absolute compassion that arises effortlessly and perfectly in the individual liberated from karmic conditioning. It is more spacious and inclusive, more effective, and free of the delusions of dualism.

In dream the karmic traces manifest in consciousness unfettered by the rational mind with which we so often rationalize away a feeling or a fleeting mental image. We can think of the process like this: during the day the consciousness illuminates the senses and we experience the world, weaving sensory and psychic experiences into the meaningful whole of our life. At night the consciousness withdraws from the senses and resides in the base.

If we have developed a strong practice of presence with much experience of the empty, luminous nature of mind, then we will be aware of and in this pure, lucid awareness. But for most of us the consciousness illuminates the obscurations, the karmic traces, and these manifest as dream.

The karmic traces are like photographs that we take of each experience. Any reaction or grasping or aversion to any kind of experience–to memories, feelings, sense perceptions or thoughts–is like snapping a photo. In the darkroom of our sleep we develop the film. Which images are developed on a particular night will be determined by the secondary conditions recently encountered.

Our consciousness, like the light of a projector, illuminates the traces that have been stimulated and they manifest as the images and experiences of the dream. We string them together like a film, as this is the way our psyches work to make meaning, resulting in a narrative constructed from conditioned tendencies and habitual identities: the dream.

If we abide in awareness during a dream, we can allow the karmic traces to self-liberate as they arise and they will not continue on to manifest in our life as negative states. As in waking life, this will only happen if we can remain in the non-dual awareness of rigpa, the clear light of the mind. If this is not possible for us, we can still develop tendencies to choose spiritually positive behavior even in our dreams until we can go beyond preferences and dualism altogether.

Ultimately, when we purify the obscurations until none remain, there is no film, no hidden karmic influences that color and shape the light of our consciousness. Because karmic traces are the roots of dreams, when they are entirely exhausted only the pure light of awareness remains: no movie, no story, no dreamer and no dream, only the luminous fundamental nature that is absolute reality. This is why enlightenment is the end of dreams and is known as “awakening.”