On the tyranny of our definitions of reality


There is nothing wrong with this picture. It’s just a cherry pie, with or without the benefit of a pie pan, floating peacefully over a flock of sheep, perhaps radiating down angelic beneficence, or perhaps the UFO of alien invaders in a clever disguise, preparing to do some of their nasty experiments on innocent farm animals. 

Dreams and surrealistic paintings like this one, are full of cosmically humorous assaults on our definitions of reality, but to what end? For what purpose? Generally we dismiss them as absurd and irrational, even if clever, and quickly move on to something more relevant to getting things done in the Real World. This is a shame, because challenges and shocks to our definitions of reality are opportunities to question our assumptions and pull off one of the multiple layers of filters that  separate us from life. This is how the tyranny of our assumptions about what is real, important and useful keeps us stuck in a narrow and relatively uncreative zone of thoughts, feelings, actions and relationships.

I have a good friend, David Sunfellow, who was powerfully imprinted with the world view of the Edgar Cayce readings in his late adolescent years, as I was. We were both brought up on the Cayce approach to dream interpretation, which is classical, in that it seeks to interpret dreams as a series of symbols that are communicating truths about our physical, mental or spiritual health. David created and manages the diverse and very helpful New Heaven New Earth (NHNE) website that throws light on various gurus, New Age movements. It’s also where you can find the largest community of near death experiencers in the world (click here). The accounts posted there are inspiring and often challenging.

What is the relationship between NDE’s and dreams? Is there one best way to work with dreams? What do our dreams say about what is real and what is delusional? These are some of the questions that we recently addressed in an email correspondence, which I have edited and elaborated upon below:

Joseph: “Your posting of multitudes of NDEs is like posting multiple “dreams” of reality or the reports of innumerable blind Mystics reporting on the elephant. (I am referring here to the famous story of the six “wise” blind men grasping different parts of an elephant and declaring that an elephant is like a tree, snake, rope, wall, or fan depending on whether they stumbled into its leg, trunk, tail, side or ear.) IDL attempts to do much the same thing, but within the same individual by becoming and interviewing multiple perspectives on the same dream, life issue, or mystical experience. It’s like a number of subjectively experienced blind men who are examining the elephant of your reality and declaring what they find. What is amazing about this experience is how these different interviewed perspectives, from angels to pie pans, can be correct but so different from our own assumptions and conclusions. When they are interviewed and found to arrive at different, but equally relevant and helpful perspectives, the only possible solution is that separateness and multiplicity exist co-equally with universal oneness. Why is it that this is such a difficult concept for us to grasp? It seems that most of us either flee into the oneness of all things or into the multiplicity of all things, amusing and rescuing ourselves with an endless variety of people, activities, thoughts, feelings and dramas. Few seem to grasp this fundamental but profound and important awareness – that both oneness and the diversity created by separateness are both essential – for finding and living a balanced life.”

David: “Near-death experiences clearly insist that life is about relationships; about getting to know, understand, and connect with what appears to be different from us. So, yes, Joseph, you know I love and appreciate this comment. People who insist on standing on only one part of the medicine wheel of life and never moving or getting to know the other creatures they share life with are very stuck indeed (and very low on the totem pole when it comes to development). As far as I can see, one’s development (or lack thereof) is clearly reflected in how many different kinds of people, energy, perspectives, forces in life we can acknowledge and connect with.” 

David: “Along with agreeing with your comment, an interesting thought popped into my head. You often talk about how superior you think your IDL process is when it comes to dreams because you focus on interviewing many different parts of a given dream, especially dream elements that might otherwise be overlooked. It occurred to me that I basically do the same thing by having many different dreams and engaging these many different dreams in many different ways. In other words, we are talking about hologram upon hologram.In a single dream, you focus on interviewing multiple parts. But how deep do you go?”

Joseph: “That depends on a couple of factors: 1) the level of awareness of the interviewed element. There is no observed correlation in level of development between an angel and a pie pan. While you and I are SURE the angel is angelic and the pie pan is well, a pie pan, this innate bias and prejudice is regularly disproven when pie pans are interviewed. No one will believe me if I tell them that they can and will often go deeper with a pie pan than an angel, but they don’t have to believe me. In fact I encourage doubt and skepticism. All they have to do is do interviews and draw their own conclusions. But everyone is quite sure that there is a divine hierarchy and that angels are more evolved than pie pans and so they don’t need to do those experiments because they are sure they are right. This is similar to the Church Fathers being sure they were right knowing it is blasphemous to say the Earth is not the center of God’s creation. It is similar to Lloyd Bankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, one of the “too big to fail” world bankster financial institutions, being sure that he is doing “God’s work.” It is similar to Bush knowing he was chosen by God to be president or for Obama to be sure he is right to violate international law because the US is “exceptional.” It’s the same sort of psychological geocentrism, just expressed in different realms. (Psychological geocentrism” is believing the world orbits around you, just as our senses tell us the sun and universe orbit around Earth.)”
2) “The level of awareness of the subject. If I am five and doing an interview on a nightmare I had I will get awakenings appropriate to my level of development and my particular issues, not according to the level of Gandhi. This is good, because if I have an NDE and am overwhelmed by the glory and beneficence of the entire experience to the place where I am nothing in comparison, have I been helped? Is a jolt of white light always healthy? Ask someone who has been struck by lightening.”
David: “If a dream contains a table and chair and pie, do you just interview the table and chair and pie, or do you also interview the ingredients that made up the table and chair and pie?”
Joseph: “In my experience, it doesn’t really matter. If there is a wake up call that wants to be heard, just getting out of your own psychological geocentrism by interviewing any other element will probably work. You are asking another blind man about another part of the elephant. If the elephant wants to get something across to you about your life, it now has a lot better chance. However, a general rule of thumb is that an antagonist, villain or persecutor is more objective than an ally or some character you have a strong emotional affiliation with, such as your partner  or Jesus. A non-human element, such as  apples, honey, wheat, oil, butter- any may provide even greater objectivity because we do not naturally identify with them. This is my own conclusion based on thousands of interviews by now, but again, it is not a hard and fast rule. Sure you will get wake up calls from interviewing Edgar Cayce, your deceased grandmother, or Jesus, and whether you get more or less from them than you do from interviewing butter is unknown until you interview a number of butter-like elements, that is, inanimate objects. In my experience, life does not make such discriminations – we do.”
David: Do you, for example, interview the apples, honey, wheat, oil, butter and other ingredients that make up the pie?”
Joseph: “Not any more, but I did for years, starting in 1980 until about 1987. I would interview a random assortment of about six elements from any dream so I could compare what they had to say and to see if their preferences agreed with me, with each other, and if so, why and if not, why. This was a research process, based on a deep interest in dreams. I had become discouraged because I found dream interpretation projective. People were pretty much finding what they were looking for in their dream interpretations, either hearing what they wanted to hear or hearing what they were afraid of hearing. It was all psychological geocentrism. But then I discovered JL Moreno’s sociometric methodology in graduate school and asked, “What if you treated the characters in a dream as if they were members of a group? What if you asked them for their preferences and collected them, with explanations of their choices? What might you learn about a dream?” This questioning of a number of elements, such as your example of the apples, honey, wheat, oil, butter and other ingredients that make up the pie, is what first made the process a dream yoga, or spiritual discipline. It was work, but it was a sacred work because it was about getting out of my own way and listening respectfully to other perspectives, no matter what I thought of them or what they might say. I was fascinated by the reality of so much autonomy within what was supposed to be a unified self, and that much of this autonomy was clearer and more awake than I was. But few people have the level of interest in dreams and dreaming, or really, of outgrowing their psychological geocentrism, and so I designed a method that generally interviews only one character or personification of an important life issue. It’s still a dream yoga, but the dream is life, not just night time dreams, and the yoga is less intensive; it’s an integral life practice. However, it still accomplishes the same goal: it expands your sense of self, helping you to slowly but surely outgrow your psychological geocentrism.”
David: “Do you also inquire about the person who made the pie and why they made it and find out about their personal history — who is their father, mother, and children?”
Joseph: “You could. The IDL questioning protocol is like learning musical scales or the basics of photography. Once you do so you are free to improvise. You may be able to make great music or take great pictures without first learning elementary underlying concepts and structures, but your odds of doing so are not great.  A good way to go about it is to ask the question in a way that reflects your assumptions: “Person who made the pie, I assume you must have a family. Do you?” We do something similar in every interview: “Pie pan, you are imaginary. Why should I listen to anything you say?” This is a direct challenge to the credibility of the method and IDL not only welcomes but encourages it.”
David: “What country (or planet) are they come? Do you also interview the wood that made your table and chair and find out where they came from and who made them and why and how they ended up in the house they are in? Such interviews could go on forever, and each one produce interesting insights.”
Joseph: “The object of IDL interviewing is not thoroughness but to answer the question, “Is this dream or life challenge a wake up call and if so have I understood it correctly?” When you interview one element you get one opinion or perspective on whether it is a wake up call or not and what that wake up call is. The more elements you interview the more confident you become that you have heard the wake up call and heard it correctly, because you will find repetition of points or themes.  The blind men are found to be saying some of the same things about the elephant. The more this occurs, the less interviewing of other ‘blind men’ you need. This is why I recommended you interview the corral or cow poop in your dream about turning into an angel. (Here’s the link to David’s dream.) Because there are diminishing returns to interviewing more and more elements, one is generally enough to do a reality check on your waking interpretation, especially if you are doing interviews regularly on dreams or life issues that are important to you. In my experience, such a “check” interview invariably shocks me at how limited my interpretation was.  This is why I gave up dream interpretation; I was invariably much less wise than the elements I interviewed. I got tired of being embarrassed. “

David: “And, of course, you can also drive yourself crazy by doing this.”

Joseph: “Yeah. Like me. I have driven myself crazy interviewing pie pans and piles of dog crap. Irony and sarcasm aside, I know I am much farther along in my development than I would be if I had not developed a practice that boils down to extreme empathy. If we define empathy as the ability to get out of our own assumptions and look at the world and ourselves from multiple other points of view and then act toward others based on that empathy, then IDL is post-graduate training in the development of empathy.” 

“From the perspective of IDL, empathy is a core developmental line. While cognition may lead in that it creates the structures, frameworks and world views by which we organize and make sense of our experience and make our choices, empathy is the measure of selflessness, or how much our sense of who we are has expanded to include all others, perceived in any dimension, real or imaginary. The other two core lines are the self line – who you think you are; the constantly evolving identity that climbs the developmental stages – and morality or ethics – the interior culture that you use to direct your decision making. All four of these lines are interdependent. If one is neglected overall development is slowed; whichever is the lagging line is the one which requires our attention, but unfortunately, humans favor their strengths and ignore their weaknesses. I would argue that empathy tends to be the lagging line and that IDL develops it powerfully, effectively in ways that are largely independent of the cultural matrices in which we are embedded.”

David: “Ditto for the kind of dream work I do. I don’t tend to spend as much time interviewing all the different parts of my dreams that you do, but I do have a lot of dreams, with wildly different casts of characters, that each require a lot of time and attention. And sometimes, especially in the past, I have gone too far with this process and crippled other aspects of myself because I relied too much on dreams and dream work.”

Joseph: “The issue is who is doing the interpreting. It doesn’t matter how many dreams you interview, or how different they are, if you are the only blind man attempting to grasp and understand the elephant. Yes, your view is not only important; it is essential. Yes, the viewpoints of others, whether from dream dictionaries, psychics or dream groups can also be helpful because these sources broaden your perspective. The problem is that they aren’t you. They don’t know you. Even if they are psychics they see you through their filters of their own culture and life experience. The blind men you and I most need to consult are what IDL calls ‘subjective sources of objectivity.’ When you interview a dream character or the personification of a life issue important to you, you are accessing a perspective that knows you at least as well as you do. However, the difference is that it is not stuck where and how you are. It doesn’t have bills to pay, bosses or customers to please, families to support, or physical bodies to grow old, get sick and die. Therefore, their interests and agendas are not weighted down by all the scripted garbage of culture and society the way you and I and all our contemporaries are. This is a huge difference and a huge advantage in terms of clarity and perspective.”

“Most of my interviewing, both of myself and others, is not of dreams but of personifications of life issues that are critically important for the person. These issues involve vital concerns like fights with parents, chronic health conditions, life-threatening diseases, decisions about who to love, where to work, what to study, fears of rejection and failure…IDL views all your life issues as externalized dreams. You can interview wake up calls when they are internal, manifesting as dreams or nightmares, or you can wait and interview them when they externalize as life issues, as part of your waking dream or as a waking nightmare. Life doesn’t care what you listen to in a deep way; it just wants to wake up and it needs us to get out of our own way in order to do so. Therefore, interviewing takes place as only one skill set in a broader integral life practice for IDL. Other elements include recognizing and transcending the childhood scripting we all carry, recognizing and neutralizing our emotional, logical and perceptual cognitive distortions so we wake up out of our current (and never ending) self-generated delusions, and practicing real life empathy in our relationships, and effective, genuine meditation, mostly while doing our lives – cooking, brushing our teeth, out hiking, driving, whatever.  All these elements and more are described and explained in Waking Up.”
David: “What seems similar in my process and yours — and all truly healthy processes — is the attempt is to engage the force we encounter in a deep way. We engage these forces not just to have our own thoughts and biases parroted back to use, but to encounter The Divine. And the mark of The Divine is the same. When It is encountered, It surprises us with unexpected insights, suggestions, and wisdom that feels like it is coming from beyond our own minds. Real encounters shake us up, in other words — and they light us up like Christmas trees. If interviewing all the different parts of your dreams causes your Christmas tree to light up, wonderful. If someone else finds your process too laborious, I think that’s fine too. Maybe another holographic approach is more suited to them and their particular personality.

People don’t have to interview dream elements or the personifications of life issues to grow.


However, they do need to learn empathy if they want to grow beyond a belief-based or reason-based psychological geocentrism. Most people, including meditating mystics, do not. There are many ways to learn empathy: Mother Theresa is one way; Meister Eckhardt is another extreme; the life and teachings of Buddha can and have been used in such a way; another is the political involvement of a King or Gandhi. However, more realistic, practical and unavoidable ways of learning empathy involve the basic tasks of life, maintaining a healthy relationship, raising kids, and getting along with co-workers. These are all incubators of empathy, but generally only to the point of cultural alignment with the context: a harmonious relationship, having healthy, happy kids, and a successful business. But what if you want to develop empathy beyond that? Well yes, you can strive to be Theresa, Eckhardt, Buddha or King or Gandhi or Jesus, or you can interview elements which are wake-up calls tailor-made for your own level and speed of development. Which is more realistic and practical? 

That said, I do think some methods of connecting with The Divine are generally more effective than others. And dreams, because they are alive, because they have minds of their own, because they are directly connected with the deeper realities of life, and because they are master shapeshifters, are better conduits of The Divine than tarot cards, tea leaves, runes, and other lifeless forms of guidance, which also have their place in the grand scheme of things.

From the perspective of life, it doesn’t matter how you practice deep listening in an integral way. If you want to read sheep entrails, clouds or dance around pentagrams while worshipping goats, life doesn’t care. Everything, from its perspective, is a wake-up call. Am I listening? Generally not. Everything, from life’s perspective, is more or less dreamlike. Life has no reason to discriminate between dreams and waking, objects and people, the Divine and Whatever. Humans have reasons to do so, as means to develop an identity and stay grounded. However, believing such distinctions are real is cosmic humor, or, shall we say, tragi-comedy.

Anyway, back to your original comment: yes, embracing multiple perspectives is the way to go, as long as we do this in a way that doesn’t drive us nuts…

Confucius said, “If something drives you nuts, interview the nuts.”