I. Awake & Ascend

~ Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by

Caspar David Friedrich

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich depicts a man standing on the edge of a cliff with his back facing the viewer. Draped in a dark green overcoat with a walking stick by his side, the wanderer gazes out into the barren landscape covered beneath a sea of fog. Try as he may, he is unable to see past the mist-covered mountains and must be content to view the several ridges that jut above the cloud-filled sky. The wanderer symbolizes a person’s attempt to gaze into an uncertain reality, a reality that exists mostly in his dreams.

~

Vivaldi Violin Concerto In E, Op. 8 1, RV 269, The Four Seasons (Spring) – 1. Allegro

Vivaldi Violin Concerto In E, Op. 8 1, RV 269, The Four Seasons (Spring) – 2. Largo

Vivaldi Violin Concerto In E, Op. 8 1, RV 269, The Four Seasons (Spring) – 3. Danza Pastorale

~

We are all in a dream and dreams are lies. To believe in one’s dreams is to spend all one’s life asleep[1]. Once upon a time a Chinese philosopher awoke from slumber and stated, I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.[2] How do we know whether we are awake or we are but in dreams awake? Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream[3]? For there are no certain marks to distinguish being awake from being asleep[4]. Does it not sometimes feel as though we wake up from one dream only to reemerge into another dream?

‘Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one’, said Einstein. The world that we live in is a changing reality. Every single day, we see changes in the things around us. Small but certain these changes accumulate until they will one day redefine the lives of future generations. It is commonly said that a mere flap of a butterfly’s wing can make the difference between a hurricane occurring and not occurring[5]. Such unpredictability and uncertainty is the norm of our everyday lives. Even our most careful actions may result in unintended consequences.

We live in a world whereby change is imminent and our very actions may affect the lives of millions. It is thus an imperative that we understand the nature of such changes and their constant underlying concepts to give us guidance towards good conduct. To do this, it is necessary that we awake from our intellectual slumber and study the reality around us through observation and reasoning to reverse engineer the natural laws[6] of the world.

But to awaken one’s mind, one must first acknowledge that he is intellectually asleep. Which is more difficult asked Kierkegaard, “to awaken someone who is sleeping or to awaken someone who awake, is dreaming that he is awake?” Socrates once claimed to be the wisest man in all of Greece by stating, “I know, that I do not know[7].”  For who is wiser? The man who claims he knows of something although his knowledge is incomplete or the man who professes that he knows nothing of the subject when he is still in the process of learning. How can we say we know anything with utmost certainty when we do not even know the number of hairs on top of our heads?

The journey to awake one’s mind starts when he knows how ignorant he is to the many happenings in the world. To awake we must first doubt our existing knowledge of the world and scrutinize our most cherished beliefs. Doubt is the key of knowledge[8] and to awaken we must first reexamine ourselves. It is evident that the understanding of what is within must come before the understanding of what is without. As a Chinese proverb goes, ‘only those who knows himself knows others[9]’. It is by no coincidence that the words ‘know thyself’[10] were inscribed on the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. As Carl Jung stated, “your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.”

We are awake when we know the reason for being[11] of our own existence and of the existence of the multitude of things. We are awake when we see the changes in reality and understand transformation of things. We are awake when a man standing before us is revealed of his hidden motives, thoughts and desires. We are awake when we feel one with the world and in harmony with the Creator and men. We are awake when we have achieved a point of clairvoyance and being able to catch a glimpse through the fog that clouds our reality. We are awake when we are at peace with our own soul.

Only those that are awake can ascent. The ascent of the mind begins when we ask the right questions to kindle curiosity. And in a world filled with unanswered questions, our curiosity should be endless and restless. The variations present in our world seem to produce infinite combinations. The laws of cause and effect are often inconsistent even when we apply into practice our greatest theories and ideas. The contradictions and incoherence of things provide fertile ground for intellectual growth and food for thought. Those without the spark of curiosity count for little as their lives are but a presence and an existence that are both inconsequential and negligible. The lives of such men are but an empty void, absent of passion, purpose and vitality.

The ideal man is both a speculative and reflective being. He looks into the sky at night and ponders if the universe has an end. He hears the crying of a child and wonders how humanity came into existence. He applies reason to form the fundamental principles behind every thought and action before turning back to reflect on the rules of reasoning itself. Our intellect defines our identity. Without it, we are but any of the beast of burden that we tame to help us on our fields. But the ideal man is not homogeneous. He has the very intellectual vitality that has helped his ascent in the animal kingdom and has allowed him to survive amid the forces of nature that threatens his chance of existence.

In Plato’s masterpiece, the Republic, the unenlightened individual is represented as a prisoner chained from birth in an underground cave unable to see anything but moving shadows of the outside world that he took as the whole of reality. The escape of the prisoner from the cave is the process of philosophical enlightenment. Such enlightenment can only be attained after a continuous lifelong process of self-reflection, observation and improvement. There might be some who are not able to break forth from the cave of ignorance and there are some that may not have the opportunity to do so. But for those who have the will and a way out of such dark a cave, bear in mind that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living[12]’. It is only by being awake can we ascent and it is only by ascending can we enjoy the fullness of life.

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.

~ Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49)


[1] A Chinese proverb.

[2] Adapted from the Book of Chuang Tzu, chapter 2.

[3] Adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, A Dream within a Dream.

[4] Adapted from the Meditations of Descartes.

[5] See Chaos Theory.

[6] The natural law here can be translated as the Greek word logos or the Chinese word tao.

[7] See Socratic Irony.

[8] A Persian proverb.

[9] A Chinese proverb.

[10] Translated from its Greek form, gnothi seauthon.

[11] Raison d’être.

[12] Attributed to Plato.


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