PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings



The Tibetan Book of the Dead is written to be read beside the body of the newly departed with the aim of guiding the soul through the various bardos or regions of existence between death and rebirth. One of the recurring instructions in this remarkable manual urges the soul not to be taken in by apparitions that might distract it on the path to liberation from the wheel of karmic consequence and reincarnation into the world of separation, impermanence, and suffering. If the soul is seduced by these images, at some point, it begins to entertain sexual fantasies, whereupon it is drawn back into a womb, and the cycle begins again.

The after-death bardo stages are akin to dream states. When we’re immersed in a dream at night, as a rule, it doesn’t occur to us that we’re dreaming. The dream experience is convincing and seems as self-evidently real while we are dreaming it as do the events and encounters of our life when we are awake. Yet the people and situations that present themselves to us in our sleep are constructs of our consciousness. Having no existence apart from us, they are not real, at least in the classical sense, though we certainly may allow that they constitute real experience. This is an intriguing distinction—that we may have a real experience of something not real. A hallucination, which we might think of as a dream we can have while awake, is another example. A man with delirium tremens may “see” snakes slithering along his arms and legs that no one else sees. The snakes are imaginary, yet his experience of them is real enough to be terrifying. Immersed for the moment in this psychotic state, he has no access to the liberating wisdom that would remind him that what he is experiencing is not real, or as one associate of mine put it, under certain conditions, it’s normal to be crazy.

In the waking state no less than in the dream state, moving through the world, we project constructs of expectation, assumption, meaning, and intention that appear real and independent of us. It hardly occurs to us that we are seeing the world, in the words of Anaïs Nin, not as it is but as we are. “Hallucination” is a more radical and unsettling word than “construct,” but it is not overstating the matter to say that when we are immersed in these states, we are in a sense hallucinating or dreaming. Much of philosophical counseling involves piercing the veil of unexamined assumption and exposing these constructs as such, not as inherent features of reality but as features of the projected reality we have, wittingly or unwittingly, chosen or accepted. By deconstructing them, we are able to provide something like the transcendent perspective encouraged in the Tibetan guidebook, only in this case for the living. The experience for the client in session is not unlike waking up from a dream, and seeing things as they are for the first time.

Often, these constructs contain overlays that distort reality, leading to experiences that then “prove” or reinforce them so that we end up reincarnating into the same situation, the same bad relationship, the same financial crisis or health issue again and again, never suspecting that we ourselves are the cause. In such cases, and especially when we have reached the end of our will to cope with these problems, philosophical dialogue can be saving, because the counselor is not immersed in the client’s hallucination, and can call him or her out of the construct so that the client can relate to it rather than from it. When we can catch a hallucination in the act, as it were, it loses its credibility, and we can begin to move through our dramatic infatuation with it to the higher ground of a clear discernment of reality. As with the soul navigating the bardo states, the effect can be immediately liberating.

Deconstructing reality is not for the fainthearted. It requires courage and the willingness to question elements of our experience that seem so obvious, it might never occur to us to question them. The codependent partner or parent whose reality demands that she “help” others even at the expense of self-care, trampling boundaries, never understanding why those she works to serve so selflessly invariably end up resenting her, may find it challenging to unpack the seemingly innocuous word “help” and be willing to relinquish the contradicted payoffs of enabling, but this is precisely what she must do if she is to emerge from her hallucination and return to reality. The martyr, the victim, the rescuer, the persecutor, the individual who must win at any cost, the one who cannot feel and so has no empathy—these are common hallucinatory states that give rise to suffering, to rebirth into the same, relentless circumstances despite all effort of the will to break free.

“We are near waking,” writes Novalis, “when we dream we are dreaming.” To understand and overcome our reality, we must understand and overcome ourselves. We must see through the convincing hallucinations that have had our unquestioning allegiance, and by refusing their claim on us, in the blink of an eye, wake up to the truth that has been waiting patiently within for us to come home.