Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher who lived in the 4th century BC, once had a dream in which he was a beautiful yellow butterfly, fluttering gracefully, blissfully unaware that he was dreaming. Without warning he woke up, suddenly conscious that he was a man and that he had been dreaming. But as he pondered the vividness of his dream, he realized that he had no way of being absolutely sure whether he was a man who had been dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who was now dreaming he was a man.
It is this realization about our perception of reality that writer and director Chris Nolan exploits in his latest blockbuster Inception, in which the action moves dizzyingly from dreams to reality to dreams within dreams, blurring the lines between the dream world and real world.
Think about it. No matter how bizarre a dream gets, you never question its reality until after you wake up and realize how strange the whole thing was. The main character in the film, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), comes up with an ingenious solution to the problem of separating dreams from reality: He spins a small metal top—if he is dreaming it just spins and spins forever, but if he is not dreaming the top will eventually fall over.
The inception of Inception was Nolan’s own experience with lucid dreaming (in which the dreamer becomes aware that it is a dream yet doesn’t wake up). The film is a brilliant exploration of the human subconscious as expressed through dreams—a kind of thinking man’s Avatar—with all the strangeness, wonder, and fascination of exploring an incredible new world of alternate perception, minus the fantasy creatures and simplistic dialogue.
The concept of lucid dreaming has been around for thousands of years—historical references to it are found in the writings of Tibetan monks who as early as 700 AD were practicing yoga dreaming—a kind of sleeping meditation which allowed them to consciously explore the dream world. They were the first to discover that the dream world exists entirely in one’s own mind and that the reality of dreams can be altered by the dreamer.
My own first experience with lucid dreaming was not born of a desire to explore my subconscious or create new realities. I simply wanted to escape the torments of a recurring nightmare that I had been having since I was a little boy. The dream unfolded in the same way every time—I was trying to escape from some unnamed, unseen, but nonetheless terrifying force and found myself unable to run or shout for help. My feet felt like they were stuck in molasses or as though I was running the wrong way on a moving walkway, and no matter how much I tried to call out to the people just ahead of me, I could never get the slightest sound to emerge from my throat as my inner demons closed in.
By chance I came across a book which mentioned lucid dreaming, and for the first time I heard about the practice of becoming aware that you are dreaming while still in the dream state. Usually we don't realize we are dreaming until we wake up, but lucid dreamers can learn to recognize their dreams and, the book told me, change them in interesting ways—even to overcome nightmares. I resolved to remember this the next time I found myself inside that nightmare world and just a few weeks later it happened—I was trying to run and my legs wouldn't move and the terror began to grip me and my throat tightened up, when it suddenly occurred to me that this had to be a dream. Once the realization struck, my pursuers disappeared instantly and the fear lifted. My next thought was that I wanted to try to fly—something I had read was possible in dreams—and I spent the next half hour (who knows how long it was in "real" time) flying around my own dream world, exploring strange amalgams of places I had been and seen, watching figments of my own imagination walk around a world that, I was suddenly aware, my own subconscious was creating.
Once I had overcome my recurring nightmare, I began to explore my dream world in subsequent lucid dreams, and found a few surprises along the way. It makes sense that Nolan is himself a lucid dreamer, because his depiction of the dream state in Inception is so uncannily accurate. I do find that I can alter reality in interesting ways, just as the young architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) does in the film; but also like the film, there are limits to what I can do.
The "projections" as they are called—the other people who populate my dream world—are always difficult to talk to. I have found it impossible to manipulate their behavior (“It's my subconscious, remember. I can't control it,” Cobb tells Ariadne at one point in the film) and I often find them to be downright stubborn and uncooperative. Most of the time they ignore me, say unintelligible things, or even resist my will as I move through my dreams—a projection once yelled at me angrily in a dream when I told her she was a figment of my imagination, giving me a bit of a shock and causing me to suddenly wake up. None of them have ever actually attacked anyone the way that Mal (Marion Cotillard) does in Inception, but in the wrong subconscious mind, I wouldn't put it past them.
There are other surprising limits to what I can do in a lucid dream. I can, just as Ariadne does, alter certain elements of the dream world. But I also find that some things just spring up completely unbidden, and that often my attempts to change things breaks the dream reality down to the point where everything simply falls apart and goes black, causing me to suddenly wake up. I have also tried some experiments like flying through a ceiling, expecting to pop out through the top of the strange room I was in. Unfortunately, as I made contact with the ceiling I found my way blocked and as I tried to force my way up and out of the room everything went black, leaving me floating in empty space for a few moments before I woke up.
It had been a couple of years since I last had a lucid dream, but seeing Inception twice now in the last two weeks triggered another one just the other night. Finding myself in a dream state, I decided to fly away and accelerated up through a strange cartoonish world of floating Christmas trees and dancing lights. I woke up that morning in a euphoric state—there's something invigorating about the freedom and wonder of lucid dreams, and wished I could go right back to sleep and continue dreaming.
It’s strange to think that Oneironauts (explorers of the dreamworld) are exploring a world that their own subconscious mind is creating at the exact same time that they are experiencing it. It’s a profoundly empowering and self-reflective experience. But still, I wouldn't want to get lost in the dream world the way that Mal and Cobb do in Inception. There's something essential missing in the dream world, and it’s always comforting to come back to reality. That is, if I really am awake right now. How can I really know for certain? Maybe I should get myself one of those little tops . . . just to be sure.