One of the most meaningful lessons that my Buddhist teachers left me with was that spiritual realisation was a different ball game from mental realisation. It took me experience to understand what they meant by this: A spiritual teacher can convey profound ideas, but accepting them intellectually is just that. Sometimes the understanding leads us to change our behavior–giving away more of our time, attention, or money. But if any of those actions are accompanied with resentment or a sense of obligation, “holiness” or superiority, then the exercise is purely ego- or mind-based. It doesn’t negate the positive effects of our generosity; but sooner or later the cracks of the shallow realisation will show: You’ll see (or may know) individuals whose acts of kindness always require witnesses, or those who offer help that is actually unhelpful (for the sake of looking helpful), or those whose kindness is inconsistent or contradictory. Thankfully, my teachers never criticised such behavior (that was something the students could manage on their own!), but emphasized that time and persistence was required for any mind-based realisation to reach the heart.
At the same time, the meditations I studied under my Buddhist teachers focused almost solely on stilling the mind and achieving single-pointed concentration. It was useful, but because of the constant arrival new students, I found to my frustration that the lessons never progressed beyond that. Meanwhile, I was starting to meditate whenever I found myself lucid in my dreams, achieving focus and clarity that was indescribable–and outside of the scope of the meditation classes at the neighbourhood temples. I became skeptical of any teachers who dismissed dreams as useless for insight–especially when, being a voracious reader, I confirmed that some Tibetan lamas used lucid dream-time to meditate, teach, or receive lessons. I wanted those guys to be my teachers, but this was logistically impossible in waking time. (I went looking for teachers very often when I was lucid dreaming, however.)
The dream lucidity was helped by the consistent awareness I had during the day (now lost to motherhood…). It felt as if being aware of every thought and subtle emotion during waking moments meant that by the time I went to bed, there was less for my dreaming mind to process from my subconscious, so I became lucid more often. This was easier when my days were easy and fairly predictable–they aren’t anymore!–but I’ve continued to have detailed and multiple dreams a night, which I’ve recorded consistently for years now. And I believe it’s possible to gauge, from these long-term dreaming experiences, how well or how deeply the lessons of life have reached the heart.
Again, mental realisations only change your outward actions. Heart-realisations change the quality of your emotional reactions, if you react at all. These will be apparent enough in your waking actions over time, but in dreams, the feedback is especially clear and relatively quick, considering how many adventures and extreme situations we face in them.
Dreams are a notification system for facilitating healing and wholeness. Dreams demand that we integrate our emotional and spiritual sides into our whole selves. Logic is not paramount for this. So in dreams, objects change appearance, words twist, transitions self-erase. If there are emotions we’ve suppressed or clues that we’ve ignored over our days, our night dreams make us face whatever we’ve tried to hide. Stuff happens–and we react honestly.
If our social programming or learned conditioning run deep, the same worries we have over our appearances and/or respectability (for example) become more pronounced in dreams. We create unfriendly or even hostile audiences to our dream predicaments. Here’s the reality: While it’s true that there will always exist real people who judge us, their judgments don’t matter the moment we stop judging ourselves.
I understand this intellectually, but in my dreams, I still sometimes create characters who tsk-tsk me for one reason or another. In other words, the lesson on non-judgment is still on, because my subconscious still grapples with it. I’ll know I’ve gotten somewhere when something that used to cause me embarrassment or shame has me “not giving a damn” even with others around–real or dreamed. Even here, however, I can see some evolution in my dreams (I hope I’m selling the benefits of long-term dream-journaling): I no longer care of nudity or tears in my dreams, instead I’ve “progressed” to worrying about looking “too good” or exhibiting abilities that break the mainstream “rules” of reality, especially when semi-lucid. ie. Stop being so awesome, other people are going to be jealous.
As within, so without. We create our own antagonists.
I’ve had to speak to the parts of me that obsess over modesty and the fear of speaking out. They haven’t changed overnight, since these were self-protective qualities developed in childhood, perhaps in previous lives. But I’ve grown stronger in understanding how and why they are there–on an intellectual level. What remains is to love, accept and integrate them into the heart–so in the end, it’ll still be the whole me–not the ego or fear-driven parts of me–running the ship.