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A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

This has always been one of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poems. It goes well with questioning the nature of reality, the nature of the self, the passage of time in that reality, of life. We structure all these in our perceptions from our own nature. We have a beginning and an end (at least in this plane of existence) and a structure that we feel we perceive accurately based on our existence in our reality. But even our concept of time in everyday life -for example linear time or sequential time or synchronous time – comes to us from our culture and beliefs.

amelia-island-march-2011-049Some philosophies see no beginning or end of time, no boundary to the universe. Infinity is a difficult thing for our minds to conceptualize and comprehend. A few weeks ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “Star Talk” discussed “Is Our Universe a Stimulation?” Perhaps we are all just part of a computer program similar to “The Matrix,” except it is just a machine with a programmer somewhere writing the code. We would have no way of proving of disproving the assumption. There could even be an infinity of universes or multi-verses. Whenever any decision is made, a timeline is created. That would theoretically make time travel a possibility since new timelines would create the logical possibility for paradoxes. I love reading counterfactual history. The speculation is always intriguing. What if Churchill had died when hit by a car in New York City in 1931? In some timelines, he would have.

An interview with Donald Hoffman called “The Case Against Reality” is a very interesting read. He uses physics to argue that the world is not hereas we see it. You can read it here or here. Even the concept of universal mind and the oneness of eastern philosophy is possible in his model.

I will end with these words from Alan Watts in his “Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking“: – “The world that we see is a creation of eidetic imagery. We select the human concerns as the significant areas. In a way, this is our answer to the cosmic Rorschach test. So, in that manner we have performed maya, the world illusion. But maya also means “art,” and it also means “magic.” Therefore, the magical evocation of the world of things from the formless world – which means from the world of pure Tao that simply wiggles – that is the real creation of the world.”


Setting goals is important, and how you frame them is critical to succeding. A goal can be as broad as “I want to live a life of integrity” to as specific as “I want to run a four minute mile.” With the former you need to define just what integrity is – how will you know when you are living that life and when are you veering off course. How do you get back on course? For the latter, you need training, a workout schedule and a sense of just how realistic that goal is. Whether your motivation is internal or external also has an effect on succeeding. You are less likely to burn out if you are focused on getting better for you.

One thing both those goals have in common is that they are positive goals. Positive goals are “I am going to do something.” They are action oriented in that something will happen and you will know it. It gives you a place to move towards. All too often we define our goals in a negative fashion – “I am not going to do something.” There are many problems with that. First off, you are activating your brain to think about what you don’t want to do. Do not picture a blue jay in your mind at this moment. What picture just appeared in your mind? I spoke with someone recently whose goal was, “I don’t want to be lonely.” “Well, what do you want to be?” I asked. How will you know you are not lonely? Focusing on loneliness tends to leave one lonely. So we began to look at how she wants to connect with people, what kinds of relationships does she want, and first off, what kind of relationship does she want with herself. It is much easier to be in the company of someone who is comfortable and secure with themselves. Negative goals too often become self fulfilling prophecies. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I didn’t want to be like my parent.” And then they realized that in focusing on what they didn’t want to become, they took on those qualities and became what they vowed they would not be.

A negative goal is inactive. Tough to prove a negative. So when you are setting goals, make them positive, something you will know is present. Put in as much detail as you can. It is like writing a good story of what you want to do or become. You can even use a 10 scale to track your progress. A ten is you have achieved the goal.  A zero is you haven’t even begun. Where are you now? Track your progress up the scale. That gives you some flexibility, too. Stuck at five? Reevaluate and redefine and see what you need to do to move up even to a 5.1. Edit your story.  One of my favorite exercises is “start-stop-continue” from Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang. What do I need to start doing, stop doing and continue doing to function at a higher level? And remember the concept of wu wei or effortless effort. Sometimes when you push too hard, you push yourself into the ground and get stuck. Have a plan but relax into it and have fun. It is hard to stick with a goal when the process is something you hate or find punishing. That is why so many resolutions for diets and exercise programs fail. Flow and adapt, and make your goals positive.

When you study Eastern philosophies, you learn that there really is no objective reality. We see things through our own experience and filter accordingly. We tend to look for what reinforces what we already believe and miss or discount that which negates our beliefs – exactly the opposite of the scientific method.  To really find out how valid something is, you see if you can falsify it.  No matter how many times you prove something, that is not the final say. You may have just missed the one thing that proves it wrong.

But what happens when one is proved wrong?  Do we modify our beliefs accordingly? Sometimes, but often we modify our reality and our experiences to once again “prove” what we already believe.

Remember this conversation from the movie, “The Big Chill”?
Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.
Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

Rationalizations, or trying to make something unreasonable seem reasonable to ourselves, is one way to justify our beliefs, despite the evidence.

Festinger, Reicken, and Schachter studied a group in Chicago in 1954 and published their work in a 1956 book called “When Prophecy Fails.”  The group’s leader had been given a specific date for the end of the world.  The group of believers would be spared, rescued by a flying saucer. Members sold and gave up their possessions and on the prophesied date of destruction, waited all night for the saucer to arrive.  The world didn’t end, the saucer never appeared.  But that didn’t end the members belief. A new prophecy arrived and said that through their diligence and belief, they had shown a light on the world which led the deity to spare the earth.  Instead of ending the group’s belief, it actually strengthened their beliefs and led to proselytizing.  From this study came Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.  We have an innate need to have inner harmony in our beliefs and actions and use whatever psychological defenses we need to maintain that harmony despite reality.  “Smoking doesn’t cause any harm. I don’t believe all that talk. I know people who lived to be 95 and smoked every day,” words wheezed between puffs and hacks.

The University of Buffalo has done a lot of work during the past ten years on resiliency of individuals after disaster.  One of the factors in positive coping skills is to not watch much television news.  The problem with news these days is that most of it is not news.  The advent of 24 hour news networks led to the advent of filler provided by pundents and self anointed experts who fill in what is not known with speculations. Most of it is just information resulting from motivated reasoning, directed perceptions, and sometimes outright misinformation designed to appeal to political/religious beliefs despite reality and to boost the network’s revenue by playing to the demographic.  William Randolph Hearst (whose journalism helped spark the Spanish American War based on the misinformation that the Maine was blown up in Havana harbor when in fact, the ship’s boiler blew up in an accident) and P. T. Barnum would be proud. Or maybe disillusioned at just how gullible our discomfort with cognitive dissonance makes us.

Once again, critical thinking and questioning and mindfulness are keys to finding harmony between beliefs and the evidence of our world. Attachment to that which is clearly proved false has the potential to do great damage.

“The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new horizons, but in seeing with new eyes.” Marcel Proust

After decades in public mental health, I am moving into the private arena.  My new location is Psychological Associates of Williamsburg.   Right now our website is at until we get a domain name. I will also be doing consultation work in areas such as fostering collaboration and leadership in organizations and also in web site development. Check back here for articles and updates or just subscribe via RSS feeds.  You can also contact me at

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