My last role in the university theatre at Cal was as Segismundo in my classmate Tony Taccone's thesis production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life Is a Dream (La vida es sueño). Calderón was the great Renaissance poet of the theatre in Spain as Shakespeare was in England, and La vida es sueño is his masterpiece.
In the play Segismundo is a prince who's been imprisoned since his birth, never seeing another human being except his jailer, because of a prophesy that he would bring ruin to the kingdom. Without another heir, his father decides to test Segismundo by bringing him to the court. He's drugged and transported to the royal palace where he awakens to luxury, but with no social experience to temper his animal instincts, he kills a servant who angers him, attempts to rape a woman and attacks those who come to her aid until he's subdued, drugged again and returned to his prison. When he re-awakens in his cell, his jailer tells him that everything he remembers about the palace was only a dream. Unable to distinguish between the reality of his imprisoned life and that of his supposed dream, he has an epiphany, expressed in a soliloquy that recalls Hamlet's "To be, or not to be":. . . ¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.
What is life? An illusion,
a shadow, a fiction,
and even greatness means little,
for all life is a dream,
and dreams themselves are only dreams.
Segismundo is freed by rebels and becomes the leader of their army, all the time convinced that he's acting in another dream. On the eve of the final battle in which he will overthrow his father's rule, he encounters the woman he attacked. Through her he comes to understand the thread connecting the episodes of what he has perceived as his waking and dreaming lives, and to face the reality that his choices and actions matter and have moral consequences, even if life is only a dream from which we awaken on our deathbeds.
I have a clear memory of Tony pitching the part to me. We were at a party, probably stoned, and with manic enthusiasm he described the story of the play and the character's arc, wrapping it up, "He achieves consciousness, man! He achieves consciouness!"
Consciousness. Christ consciousness, Buddha consciousness, cosmic consciousness. That was the quest for so many of my generation. We sought it with meditation and psychedelic drugs, we sought it in love and sex, tantric or otherwise. We took pilgrimages to find it, we pored over the writings of Alan Watts, Ram Dass, Carlos Casteneda, Black Elk, Hermann Hesse, Fritjof Capra and too many others to name, as well as sacred texts, especially of the Eastern religions. We looked for teachers, we taught each other, we sat up in all-night bull sessions fueled with music and pot, arguing what is real and what is not.
It's been decades since my life felt like a spiritual quest to me, though I still remember when nothing else seemed more important. Taking responsibility for a family had a lot to do with the change, as did succumbing to ambitions in the material world, but mostly I think I just settled into a comfortable homegrown roll-your-own flavor of pagan religious sensibility.
I don't believe that life is a dream, though a younger version of myself may have entertained the possibility. Didn't we all see that Twilight Zone episode? But even if it were true that the universe is maya/illusion, what difference would that make to the universe or to anybody's life within it? This is where we have our being, and if it isn't "really" real, then reality isn't a very well-defined concept. If when I die I wake up to a different reality, I suspect there'll be time enough then either to figure it out on my own or to get some help with the answers. In the meantime, who can say they know completely and with absolute certainty the nature of this reality, the familiar one we inhabit?
Once you open your mind to questions like that, you find yourself going down a rabbit hole, and the question at the bottom of the hole is what do you really know, or to put it a little more finely -- where's the line between what you know and what you only believe?
I find the answer to that question in consciousness, not cosmic consciousness, but my own consciousness, the one I wake up to every morning. Descartes wrote cogito, ergo sum -- I think, therefore I am -- one's conscious awareness of oneself is the evidence of one's own existence. Add to that incontrovertible self-knowledge two axioms -- that the world revealed through our senses is really there, and that we share it with other conscious selves -- and you have everything you need to construct from perception and experience a coherent and functional worldview. That's the intellectual journey upon which each of us sets out at the moment of birth, and if we stay mindful and open we get to continue the trip until our last spark of consciousness is extinguished.
On this trip we have the benefit of the accumulated experiences and speculations of countless generations before us, witnesses whose recorded testimony allows us to retrace the steps of observation and reasoning from the first ape to lift her eyes in wonder at the sky to our current understanding of the evolution of matter, energy and time, beginning with a burst of creation fourteen billion years ago. We hold in common this inheritance of settled knowledge and can feel as certain of what we've so far been able to discover and demonstrate as we are of our own existence and the reality of the physical universe.
But our inheritance is much richer than just our scientific understanding of the workings of matter/energy in time. It includes all the shared creative output of billions of minds, living and gone, preserved in oral tradition, marks on stone and paper, ordered binary arrays of electromagnetic impulses. Stories, poetry, music, dance, drama, paintings, tools, structures practical and esthetic, edifices of reason, and perhaps the very oldest creative impulse, progenitor of all others, wonder. Religious awe, if you will.
There's a lot of room outside what we know, individually and collectively, for what we can suppose to be possible. Many widely held beliefs, especially those founded in fundamentalist dogma, are demonstrably delusional. But where spiritual beliefs are understood to represent mysteries, where fantastical tales can be interpreted poetically and faith is tempered with doubt, there's great wisdom in religious tradition and systems of knowledge that predate the scientific method.
Is God necessary to explain the existence of the cosmos? I'd say no. Is God a useful metaphor for everything discovered and not yet discovered -- perhaps undiscoverable -- about the reality we inhabit? To me She is. She is the word spoken in a fourteen billion year old burst from the void, reverberating forward in time to this moment . . . and this moment . . . and beyond. And in one of the echos of that word, energy allows matter to arrange itself into elements and self-replicating spiral molecules that express as patterns of intercellular electrochemical interactions corresponding to dreams.
We minds exist, we know ourselves, we see each other, with each other we see Her, through our eyes She sees Herself.
Sum, ergo credo. I am, therefore I believe.