Living Someone Else’s Dream

February 12th, 2017

On Friday evening, Zen Master Dae Kwang made the statement that, in order to really help another person, it is necessary to live their dream. We all live our own dreams, but that isn’t enough for us to answer the question: “How can I help?”. If I am going to do my job as a human being, then I have to live somebody else’s dream.

I have been thinking about that. It made me remember an event from many years ago, when our kids were in the Waldorf school. I was sitting with a group of parents before the start of a class play. Barb Danner, the drama teacher, spoke prior to the performance. She tried to explain why each class did a show each and every year. She said the reason for having these plays was to allow the student to slip into another person’s role. She went on to say that the school taught the kids Spanish and German for a similar reason. Barb said,


“We don’t necessarily teach Spanish and German so that the children become fluent in the languages. We teach them so that they get to experience a Latin soul or a Teutonic soul.”


That comment has echoed in my mind until this very day. It fits in well with the Zen master’s remarks. How better to live somebody’s dream than to learn their language? I had an Arabic professor at West Point who told our class that we truly know a language only when we dream in that language. I guess I never really learned Arabic that well, but I have dreamed in German, which means that at a very deep level I sometimes think and feel as a German. I have connected with that Teutonic soul.


I think that Zen Master Dae Kwang used the term “dream” specifically and on purpose. A dream isn’t real, unless you are stuck inside of it. Usually, I am stuck in mine. A dream is a narrative, a story, a way to make sense of a fundamentally irrational world. Both Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell said that human beings need this narrative, this personal myth. We need a story to keep chaos at bay. Does my story resemble reality? What does the world look like if I wake up from my dream?


Living somebody else’s dream can be beautiful. It can be exhilarating. It can also be damn scary. I can tell you that, when Hans tells me his war stories from Iraq, he is asking me to live his dream and to shake hands with the ghosts of his past. When Hannah hurts herself, I bleed with her. Many times I have gone through the looking glass with our daughter, and it’s been a bitch trying to find my way home.


But it has to be that way. I can’t help Hans or Hannah or anybody if I don’t live their dream for a while. I have feel their suffering to the extent that I can. If it is real for them, it has to be real for me. I have to know. I can know if I have a clear mind. I get a clear mind through regular practice. Time on the cushion enables me, at times, to shift from my dream to that of another person.


Zen Master Dae Kwang also cautioned that, while it is necessary to live somebody’s dream, it is also necessary to avoid getting attached to it. No kidding. That’s another place where practice is useful. Living in a bad dream takes a toll. Sitting in silence enables me to breathe deeply and slow my pounding heart. At some point I can sigh and say to myself, “It’s okay. It was only a dream.”


So, how do I help? Living in somebody else’s dream doesn’t mean that I can or should fix anything. However, I should understand what the person needs, and act accordingly. When I go to the VA Hospital and hang out with guys in psych. ward, I am living their dream. That gets pretty wild. Their dreams are consistently interesting and often tragic, but I can’t do much for these vets. I can just be there with them. I can listen to them talk, and we can sit together inside their dreams. Maybe that’s enough. At least they don’t have dream alone.


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