A few nights ago I had a dream that upset me. I was in Buenos Aires, in one of the nicest avenues, except that in the dream it was grotesquely fancy. The street was lined with designer store fronts that were gilded with gold leaf and the side walk was tiled with white Carrara marble. It was crowded with shoppers carrying Christmas bags. I had just parked my car and I walked carefully carrying two stacked trays of ham and cheese croissant sandwiches and a fruit platter on top. I was taking the food to a meeting at the goodwill offices which were right up the street.
A woman accidentally swung a shopping bag over my trays and they fell to the ground. The croissants and fruit scattered all over. Within seconds, a half a dozen orphan children dressed in rags were diving for the sandwiches and the grapes which still rolled every which way on the crowded sidewalk.
I went up to a little boy of about six who was collecting green grapes in between the people's feet. I helped him pick up a few that had landed under a mail box. I said, "Sweetie, can you wash them before you eat them?" He looked at me with his big sad brown eyes; his face smeared with dirt, and nodded, then kept reaching for more. As I looked up, the shoppers wearing nice clothes and carrying bags with expensive gifts, walked by as if the children did not exist. Some walked around them; others pushed them to the side avoiding eye-contact. Nobody wanted to notice the children. It was as if the integrity of their perfect lives could be preserved ONLY if they didn't look.
When I woke up my eyes were wet. I had a feeling of helplessness that stayed with me even though the dream was over. My instinct was to move away from the pain, just like the shoppers in the dream, but I stayed with it for a few minutes and as soon as I became fully awake the pain left me, instantly.
It is tempting to believe that the circumstances within a dream can have an effect on us. Dreams can be convincingly real and while we sleep, they seem to be the cause of our suffering. For a while, I really believed I was sad because I felt sorry for the orphan children. But once I woke up I realized that in reality, there is no posh street with stores gilded in gold leaf; there are no croissant sandwiches, no indifferent shoppers and no orphan children. Even the character with which I identified in the dream, while she looked like me, in reality, does not exist. The real source of my pain is that I forgot I was dreaming and I got emotionally involved in a non-existent situation.
In the same way, what causes us to suffer in our lives is not what happens to us, but that we believe we are someone we are not. We believe we are separated selves living in the world apart from our Source. In Lesson 5 in the workbook we practice repeating that: "I am never upset for the reason I think." I think I'm upset because some circumstance made me upset, but the real reason I'm upset is that I believe I'm a character in a dream subject to the conditions of the dream.
The practice of A Course in Miracles is about remembering that we are the dreamer and not the character in the dream. Only the dreamer who caused the dream can choose to awaken. The goal of our practice is to get back to the mind of the dreamer because only he can choose to be whole again. But day in and day out instead of learning that we are the cause of the dream and not the victim of it, we give the world power over us by making it the cause of our pain and suffering. Every time we suffer, we demonstrate that the world must be real because it had the power to cause us pain. Only what is real can cause an effect.
The daily practice that can help us decrease our identification with the character in the dream is quite simple. Whenever something upsets us, we stop and look at it. We don't run away from the anxiety or the pain. If we do, we give the dream power and a reality it doesn't have. We first recognize that if we are upset, it must be because we are looking at the problem from the perspective of the character of the dream. The character of the dream believes the world is real and can have an effect on her. The character in the dream is identified with a vulnerable body she thinks she needs to protect. It's pretty scary being a character in a dream and believing the world can strike at any moment. So we look again, but this time instead of looking at the problem from the point of view of the character of the dream, we look at it with the part of our mind that knows our real identity. The Holy Spirit, which is the memory of God within our mind constantly reminds us that we "are at home in God, dreaming of exile but perfectly capable of awakening to reality." (T-10.I.2:1) And while the situation that upset us may not change, the anxiety and pain associated with it will fade because we will, at least temporarily, become aware that we are dreaming and that dreams can have no effect on our true identity.
It's very easy to become invested in the situations of our lives and to believe that by changing the circumstances we can have peace. This is nothing more than a trap. If I knew that waking up would instantly heal all suffering, why would I try to ease the pain by focusing on changing the circumstances? Had I been lucid in my dream of a couple of nights ago, I could have given every orphan child a loving adoptive parent. I could have clothed them and showered them with beautiful Christmas gifts. That would have made the dream much happier. I might have found a temporary feeling of peace and wellbeing like we have in our lives when we get what we want, but that peace is not the perfect peace of God which can only be experienced by knowing who we are in reality.
The practice of ACIM is not concerned with making the dream more pleasant. If the world is an illusion created by the ego to keep us mindless, why would we invest in changing it? As we obsess over global warming, war, poverty and we fear that we might catch the next flu virus, the ego is fulfilling its purpose of keeping us identified with the character in the dream. The Course doesn't tell us what we should or should not do. When we are called to help others, or if we want to champion a cause that we believe in, we should do it, but without joining in the suffering. We can use any activity we choose within the world for the purpose of overcoming the dream. All professions, causes and activities are equally suitable for that purpose.
What we don't want to do is focus on changing the circumstances because as long as we do, our investment will be on keeping the dream real rather than on waking from it. What we are here to demonstrate is that the dream can have no effect on the peace of God in our mind. Whenever I feel stress or anxiety, I look at my investment in the dream which shows up as attachment to outcome. Do I 'need' for a situation to be resolved in a certain way for me to experience peace? Whenever I notice a need, I can be sure I am looking at the situation from the perspective of the character in the dream whose happiness depends on the circumstances of the dream.
Once we make the shift from identifying with the character in the dream to looking at the world from the perspective of the mind, everything changes. If someone attacks me, I don't blame her because in the attack I recognize that like me, she is just trying to hold on to her false identity. I begin to realize that we are all the same. We all fear awakening from the dream. We all cling desperately to our false identities because they are all we know.
But the more we practice looking at our guilt and fear, which show up in the world in symbols such as orphan children, suffering victims of natural disasters, war, etc., and we recognize that what we are seeing is just a picture of the fear in our minds, we begin to awaken to our true identity. Progressively we experience more and more of the peace that is our natural inheritance.
From the section entitled "The Hero of the Dream." T-27.VIII.9: 1-8 In gentle laughter does the Holy Spirit perceive the cause, and looks not to effects. How else could He correct your error, who have overlooked the cause entirely? He bids you bring each terrible effect to Him that you may look together on its foolish cause and laugh with Him a while. [You] judge effects, but [He] has judged their cause. And by His judgment are effects removed. Perhaps you come in tears. But hear Him say, "My brother, holy Son of God, behold your idle dream, in which this could occur." And you will leave the holy instant with your laughter and your brother's joined with His.