Life is but a Dream Within a Dream

Confucius on Wisdom

Confucius reckons we obtain wisdom in three ways:

“The first way is the way of meditation. This is the most noble way.

The second way is the way of imitation. This is the easiest way.

Thirdly, there is the way of experience. This is the bitterest way.”


Such is the way with gaining perspective, as well as wisdom, which are much the same thing.

From Confucius’ standpoint, we learn life lessons and gain perspective by either reflecting on life (meditation), by learning from others (imitation), or by blundering through life and learning as we go (experience).

Your average Joe or Jolene will have some blend of the three, for the most part growing from the experiential stage into imitation and then into meditation.

When you’re young, you make mistakes and learn from experience; as you grow older, you imitate and learn from parents and peers; then you come of age, and you can learn by reflecting on life, without the need for trial and error or imitating others.

As ancient broad-brush wisdom goes, I think Confucius nailed it. Timeless stuff.

Changing Perspectives

We are wise and have things properly “in perspective” when we correctly see the size and importance of different things in relation to each other.

We see that enjoying the game of Monopoly is more important than winning it; that our families matter more than football; that life is too short to be selfish and not to make others happy.

Confucius reckoned we grow into this wise perspective – enjoying playing Monopoly rather than winning it, focussing on family before football, valuing others before yourself – through meditation, by just thinking, or imitation, by copying others, or experience, by living life trial-and-error. Or a mixture of these three.

Yet something Confucius could not have accounted for 2,500 years ago is the universal and immediate availability of every bit of humanity’s recorded art, knowledge and information.

This changes things somewhat, no?

More Media: More Wheat and More Chaff

In the 21st century, we can – in theory – obtain wisdom and perspective from not just experience, imitation and meditation, but from innumerable media: books, radio, television, even handheld phones (in theory, I said).

We can watch and read and listen to humans, in the present and the past, be they modern bloggers or ancient emperors, and we can reflect on their reflections and experiences, and obtain wisdom and perspective in the process.

One just has to sort the wheat from the the never-ending torrent of chaff.

The different media vary in terms of their wheat-to-chaff ratio, obviously.

Hands up who feels wiser for an hour of flicking through Tik-Tok?

Television is very chaffy, but still there’s plenty to be learned there.

Radio, like TV, can go both ways.

News in general is just a write-off, ‘informing’ you but leaving you none the wiser.

The new podcast-led format of unedited long-form conversation seems conducive to actually learning, rather than being merely informed or entertained.

Wisdom in Words

As a writer and a reader, I would like to believe that wise perspectives can be condensed and made entertaining in good books or insightful quotes.

The sorts of novels and kinds of quotes that stop you in your tracks, instantly changing your perspective, giving you a newfound appreciation for life in its fullness.

Such enlightening words I see as shortcuts, past the need for the trial and error of direct experience, and past the need to copy others in the hope that they are wise.

Wise words offer shortcuts into higher positions of perspective, attained without really having to ‘do’ anything, except meditate on the wisdom contained within the words you read.

What follows are a few of example that gave me, and still give me, pause for thought.

They even made me feel wiser, at least for the stretch of time after reading them, when I enjoyed a peaceful state of pensive disorientation.

I hope that you are blessed by such a state after reading them, too.

1. Enlightening Alarm Clock

Two years ago, I had a loud wakeup call.

A former serial-snoozer, I was using an obnoxious phone application, called ‘Loud Alarm Clock’, which contained such charming alarms as ‘Sirens’, ‘Chalkboard Nails’, and—who could forget!—’Most Annoying Sound’.

I would have to belt out of bed to switch off the sirens or the screeching nails before I woke the house up. Snooze was not an option. Getting back to sleep, out of the question.

Once the sirens and screeching are silenced, Loud Alarm Clock graciously rewards you with a quote, which I would rarely bother reading, with bleary eyes and ringing ears at the crack of dawn.

One morning I did bother, and read the following:

“The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality.

The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature, and has learned that he is mortal.

But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them.

Like an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.”

Augustus Caesar in Augustus by John Williams

I sent this quote to my family, not fully understanding it, but knowing it was worth sharing. Going to print a copy of the quote, I found my Dad had already printed himself one on A4 paper.

I wonder if you, Dear Reader, feel similar in reading this quote?

Echoing Confucius, it beautifully broad-strokes the development of a wise perspective: from the energetic spirit of invincible youth, through the tragic grownup-ness of disenchanted adulthood, to the soaring standpoint of the ‘man of age’, who recognises life as a series of games, games immaturity thinks are separate pictures of epic triumph and failure, but maturity knows are but dainty brushstrokes in a much bigger, unknowable picture, upon the canvass of which we are blessed to ever be painted and give colour to.

In mere minutes and a few words do we transcend ourselves, tugged upwards from the triviality of our specific space and time; granted a zoomed-out birds-eye perspective on ourselves and our lives and life at large.

We return to the same small slice of space and time, but with a newfound awareness and ability to look far beyond it.

This quote offers us an opportunity to reflect on life, to climb to a higher perspective, to breathe in some of the wisps of wisdom at its peak – to become steadier, better, wiser in the process.

Considering the bigger picture in life, we are better placed to look at the colour we give to our little corner of it.

2. Stargazing with Marcus Aurelius

Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, dealt with plague and wars in the east and the west of his Empire during his 20 year reign.

Still, with the colossal Roman Empire weighing upon his shoulders, world-historic wars to fight and deadly partisans to please, would he lay back at night, and in a sheerly detached fashion, look up to the skies and remind himself to:

Survey the circling stars, as though you yourself were running with them.

Visions of this kind clear away the chaff of our earth-bound life.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

That, in a much more physical and cosmic manner, is the practice of ‘zooming-out’ from one’s particular problems, earthly attachments, and ultimately inconsequential discomforts.

For all the wheat available, the sheer quantity of chaff that torrents through modern media makes it hard for us to step out of our present slice of space and time, tumultuous as it is, to be reminded that we – and our ‘problems’ – are but infinitesimally small specks on the surface of atomic dust, the same dust we see spread across the night sky.

Aurelius reminds himself – for this quote was written in his private diary – that he needs only to look upwards, to be able to see himself from up on high, to put himself in proper perspective.

(This technique has now been formalised and is known as cognitive distancing, used to treat many ailments of both mind and body.)

3. A Japanese Warlord’s Death Poem

Lately, I reread James Clavell’s epic novel, Shōgun, a fictionalised account of a true historical story.

Again, I was involuntarily jerked skyward, high over my miniature speck of space in time.

This time, by a poem.

To be precise, a death-poem, which the Japanese have for time immemorial left to the living before they themselves go onwards into the Great Void.

Like dew I was born
Like dew I vanish
…and all that I have ever done
Is but a dream
Within a dream

Taiko in Shōgun by James Clavell

This is Clavell’s slightly adapted version of a real death-poem written by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a 16th century general and one of the great unifiers of feudal Japan.

For a man of such historic consequence and earthly power to condense his life into the space of a lawn-cradled dewdrop is quite something. No pomp nor ego nor clawing back at the attachments and vestiges of living; like Aurelius, his life is put in its proper cosmic perspective.

Like a dewdrop, so ephemeral, its existence and importance in the great canvass of life barely perceptible; burned off earth’s lawn at dawn, to become but a fleeting memory of a memory, of a dream within a dream.

Ashes to ashes, dewdrop to dewdrop, stardust to stardust.

4. My Favourite…

Last one.

This is my favourite, one I often sing when pushing little humans on the swings.

My singing voice is hazardous to health and nearby glassware, yet I never mind singing the following nursery rhyme for eternity, and into eternity:

Row, row, row your boat

Gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream

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