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INCEPTION: Art, Dream and Reality

A cinematic meditation on the elusive nature of reality.

The Zen teacher Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly. When he woke, he wondered, "Am I a man who dreamt about being a butterfly ? Or am I really a butterfly who now dreams about being a man?"

This summer's mega-hit movie Inception, is a welcome, albeit excessively frenetic, confusing, manic meditation on the elusive nature of reality. While its premise is ostensibly about the main character's uncanny ability to enter into and lucidly influence the dream world of others, what it fundamentally asks is whether the inner world of dreams is any less real or inhabitable than the outer world we typically call "reality."

This basic question regarding the nature of reality is partly philosophical, partly spiritual, part psychological, and partly scientific in nature. But it is not merely academic. For how we perceive, understand, experience, interpret and respond to reality has concrete and practical repercussions in both our intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, for psychotherapy, as well as how we relate to the planet and cosmos. Over the past eighteen months or so I posted a few thoughts on the topic of subjective or relative reality here. Now, with the release and, to me, surprising popularity of Inception, it seems a good time to review what was said, and continue our conversation here on what is real and what is not.

For me, reality is something both subjective and objective. What I mean is that objective reality, say the existence of the physical universe, does not necessarily depend on subjectivity to be real. But then, subjective reality, say the experience of an emotion, impulse or dream, doesn't necessarily depend on objective reality for its existence. The subjective world is as real as the objective world. Both have their own reality. One is not "more real" than the other. But when subjectivity trumps objectivity, or vice-versa, we get into trouble. When hallucinations or delusions, for example, become so real for a person that they overpower and nullify objective reality, we call this dangerous state of mind "psychosis." And when objective reality totally dominates subjective reality, we lose touch with who we really are. Interiority and exteriority are two sides of the same coin we collectively call reality. Interiority is associated with introversion and subjectivity; exteriority with objectivity and extraversion. Too much of either can become pathological. (See my prior posting on C.G. Jung's psychological types.)


pays respect to the powerful reality of dreams. In the film, the main infiltrators of the dreamworld (along with the audience) tend to become so confused between outer and inner reality, dreaming and waking, that one of the only means they have of distinguishing between the two is by carrying with them a "totem": something they can use to tell them whether they are still dreaming or not. For Cobb, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, it is a tiny metal top: if it eventually slows and topples after spinning it, he is presumably awake; if it just kept on turning into perpetuity, he is still asleep. Another problem faced by the "dream team" is how not only to deeply penetrate the dreamer's unconscious, but how to find their way back from the "underworld" to the outer world of waking reality. This is an archetypal motif found in many myths, including that of Theseus venturing into the labyrinth to meet the Minotaur.(See my previous post.) It is no coincidence that DiCaprio's female (Ellen Page) co-star's name is Ariadne: it was Ariadne who, after falling in love with the young Greek hero Theseus, secretly provides him with both a sword and ball of string to help him defeat the Minotaur and find his way back out of the winding, dark, maze-like labyrinth and into the light. Dreams, which Freud famously referred to as the via regia, the royal road into the unconscious, can, like the unconscious itself, be perilous places to dwell too long in, precisely due to their sometimes immensely seductive and convincing reality.


What are dreams? We all dream repeatedly each night, though most tend not to remember much detail about their dreams. Even when we do recall a vivid dream, or some partial dream fragment, we may dismiss it out of hand as meaningless, insignificant or ridiculous. A random misfiring of neurons. Or a "bit of undigested meat," as Ebeneezer Scrooge rationalizes his soon-to-be-life-altering series of dreams on Christmas Eve. (See my prior post.) But dreams have been highly valued and taken seriously for tens of thousands of years by our ancestors as prophetic, cryptic messages sent by spirits, daimons, God or gods. In this sense, the dream world, distinct from the external, material world, is a spiritual, immaterial, irrational reality through which divine, daimonic, transpersonal powers indirectly communicate with us.

Dreams gained modern credibility when Sigmund Freud, in 1900, published his groundbreaking book The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud postulated that dreams indeed do have symbolic psychological (rather than supernatural or spiritual) significance, and are in fact disguised messages sent not by divine or demonic entities but rather by our own personal "unconscious." For Freud, dreams were mainly masked, metaphorical manifestations of wish fulfillment, containing, in deliberately disguised form, those unacceptable instinctual (especially sexual) strivings and impulses that could not be consciously expressed or satisfied. In studying dreams, his own and those of his patients, Freud discovered, explored and mapped a relatively unknown new world: a mysterious, surreal interior realm radically different than outer reality, with radically different rules, laws, language and logic.

Upon first reading Freud's revolutionary publication about dreams, the then twenty-five-year-old Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was deeply impressed, later seeking Freud out as a mentor and collaborating closely with him for many years on the early development of psychoanalysis. Eventually, Jung came to understand dreams somewhat differently. He came to see them as much more than mere wish fulfillment, though he never denied this partial function. But Jung considered the dream a relatively undisguised attempt on the part of the unconscious to compensate the conscious personality or provide guidance and direction regarding our psychological development or what he termed individuation. For Jung, dreams symbolically convey the vast, collective wisdom of the unconscious rather than merely its frustrated libidinal desires. And the unconscious itself was perceived by Jung as possessing an "objective" reality every bit as powerful, palpable and important as so-called outer reality. Jung once made this conviction unequivocally clear to his incredulous student Marie-Louise von Franz when he asserted that a particular patient of hers who dreamed about going to the moon, really was on the moon. What did Jung mean by insisting on this seeming nonsense?

Having himself suffered through his own traumatic, profoundly disorienting period of confusion between inner and outer reality (see my prior post and Jung's recently released Red Book), Jung came to recognize that reality does not include only the outer world, but the inner world as well. And that what we collectively agree to call consensual objective reality is no more important or real than our subjective, inner reality. The truth is that we live in two different worlds: the outer world of objective reality and the inner world of subjective reality. Jung went so far as to refer to aspects of our inner reality as the "objective psyche," emphasizing both its relative autonomy from ego-consciousness and its inherent universal or archetypal reality. While the physical laws of outer and psychological laws of inner reality differ, both are vitally important in daily life. Like the Zen master who poses to his disciples the reality-testing koan or didactic question, When a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if no one is around to hear it?, physicist Werner Heisenberg's basic contribution to quantum physics, writes one commentator, "would imply that reality is created by the observer; in other words: if we take Heisenberg literally, the moon is not there when nobody is looking at it. However, we must consider the possibility that . . . the moon may be there after all. This conflict is the philosophical essence of the Uncertainty Principle."

So reality may not be as objective as we once believed. But recognizing this unsettling possibility is a far cry from the postmodernist rejection of the existence of objective reality out of hand. This throwing out the baby with the bath water regarding reality is employed, for example, by some psychotherapists to negate the need, clinical utility, reliability and validity of psychiatric diagnosis. Certainly, various contextual influences and subjective factors come into play when supposedly objectively diagnosing mental disorders. To not recognize this reality would be naive. This is why diagnosis in psychiatry and psychology, like psychotherapy, is really more of an art than a science. (Which, for me, is not a pejorative but rather realistic statement.) Similarly, neo-Freudians (see, for example, Dr. Robert Stolorow's work on intersubjectivity) are just recently recognizing that the analyst is not the sole arbiter of objective reality in the therapeutic relationship. So we psychologists and psychiatrists are finally starting to recognize the limits of our understanding about reality, our unconscious biases, and to reconsider reality's very nature.

One radical reaction to this recognition of reality's relativity and partial subjectivity is to reject any and all prior claims to our capacity to know reality, and, in some circles, to deny objective reality altogether. This is a type of psychological solipsism: refusal to recognize the objective existence of reality beyond the mind or psyche's subjectivity. But the solution to this dilemma does not call for or warrant such extreme rejection of our capacity to apprehend reality because of our becoming more aware of its inherent uncertainty and complexity. On the contrary, reality consists of both objective or external phenomena and subjective, internal experiences which are constantly acting upon and influencing each other. Denying either is a simplistic, cowardly and convenient reconstruction of reality as we would like it to be, rather than a courageous, organic acceptance of reality as it truly is--in all its glorious ambiguity, messiness and mystery.

In our culture, when this boundary between interior and exterior reality becomes blurred or lost completely, we typically tend to view it as severe psychopathology. Such extraordinary but profoundly imbalanced states of mind can be extremely debilitating and potentially dangerous to both self and others, sometimes engendering evil deeds. We see precisely such a pathologically disoriented state in the character of Mal, Cobb's wife, who, not unlike some psychotic patients, fatally confuses inner and outer reality to the point of self-destructive behavior. Reasoning (wrongly) that we never die in our dreams, always waking first, Mal commits suicide trying to extricate herself from what she mistakenly believes to be a dream. Cobb (DiCaprio) is racked with unresolved grief, regret, anger and guilt regarding this tragedy. Mal (meaning "bad" or "evil") can, in Jungian terms, be seen as a symbolic representation of Cobb's shadowy "negative anima" as it might typically appear in his dreams: his repressed, dissociated, destructive feminine or feeling side dwelling deep in the unconscious and always sabotaging his rational plans.

Throughout the film, we witness Cobb attempting to work out his inner relationship with his bad anima, with the support and assistance of a positive anima figure, in the person of Ariadne. Finally, with her practically psychotherapeutic help, Cobb recognizes the need to confront his past, let go of his guilt and morbid attachment to the dead Mal, and move on with his life.

But this potentially destructive non-dichotomous or non-dualistic mental state has also historically been associated with spiritual enlightenment as well as artistic creativity. As Pablo Picasso put it, "Everything you can imagine is real." Surrealist Salvador Dali declared: "One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams." The great Italian director Federico Fellini confessed: "Our dreams are our real life. My fantasies and obsessions are not only my reality, but the stuff of which my films are made."

Filmmakers like Fellini, Bergman and Polanski--and now Inception director Christopher Nolan--have long played with the fine line dividing dreams and reality in their art. Some philosophers suggest that the real problem regarding subjective and objective reality is that distinguishing between them to begin with is a false dichotomy, one increasingly fostered and foist upon us by Western science over the past several centuries. The famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (mentioned earlier) demonstrates to at least some social scientists that life cannot be cleanly divided into the roles of observer of reality and observed reality itself, since reality can be subtly affected by the very act of observation.

Primitive peoples made, and, in some places still make, no such artificial distinction between subject and object, treating reality more organically and wholistically, dwelling in a perpetual state of consciousness (or really, unconsciousness) referred to as participation mystique. Similarly, I would contend that there is no clear boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, since these states constantly interact, intermingle and influence each other.

The movie's action (or is it all a dream?) concludes with Cobb returning to the United States and reuniting with his two young children, just as he had dreamed of doing. Viewers are left to wonder whether DiCaprio is indeed back in waking reality or still living in a dream. The fact that his totem top never slows or falls down indicates he has chosen to inhabit his dreams rather than reality. When outer reality proves too painful or overwhelming for the fragile human psyche, retreat, regression, avoidance and escape into the dreamworld, the unconscious, can provide temporary respite. But lingering there too long leaves one exiled in limbo, unable to return to the land of the living. A much better solution is to learn to keep a foot firmly planted in and move freely between both realities, without too much attachment to either. To be in both these worlds, but not totally of either. Honoring both realities, but still knowing the difference between them.

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

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