Life is But a Dream

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

From an ancient text of unknown origin.

This teaching was given to us many years ago by an ancient, giant of a woman we knew by the name of Mrs. Hunt. She taught this wise instruction, along with other mysterious sutras, such as, "I'm a Little Teapot," which we now understand refers to the oneness with the utensils attained by the tea master during the ritual tea ceremony.*
"At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realm of immortals." The poet Lotung, quoted in The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo
Let us break our verse down into its components, beginning at the final line, "Life is but a dream." This refers to the doctrine of Maya, sometimes described as illusion or ignorance. As Meher Baba taught:
"Maya is not illusion, it is the creator of illusion. Maya is not false, it is that which gives false impressions. Maya is not unreal; it is that which makes the real appear unreal and the unreal appear real. Maya is not duality, it is that which causes duality." Discourses Vol. III
Under the influence of Maya we divide the world into categories. We split the world into "myself" and "others." We fail to see the unity of all things and our connection to the ultimate reality. We go through life as if in a dream, failing to see the true nature of ourselves and our world. Unless we are liberated from Maya we fail to see that "Life is but a dream," and we are bound by our attachments to sense-objects and states of mind.

When we realize the dreamlike quality of existence we begin unentangling ourselves from our attachments and cravings, and we open ourselves to joy. Hence:

"Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,"
Moving now to the second line of our verse, "Gently down the stream," we have a reference to the flow of life. This is a metaphor frequently used in Eastern teachings. For instance, in the Tao Te Ching we find:
Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
There are already enough names.
One must know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop averts trouble.
Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea.
Notice how this, like our nursery song, relates the illusory division of things in the world to the flow of Tao, or the way of living unencumbered by Maya.

Finally, looking back at our first line, "Row, row, row your boat," we can easily see that the "boat" refers to our "self," or our life in the stream of existence. "Row, row, row," shows us that we must direct our lives through skillful application of repetitive practice. One does not become a skilled rower on the first try. Rather, one must row, row, row. Thus, like the person giving directions on how to get to Carnegie Hall, the spiritual advisor will instruct the initiate that the way to greater realization is "practice, practice, practice."

Turning now to the practical teachings of Mrs. Hunt we offer this exercise.


 Fold your arms on the desk in front of you and rest your head on your forearms. Allow yourself to enter the sphere of no-thing, which is the heavenly state of no form, consisting only of the mind in contemplation. You may find it helpful to prepare yourself for this by consuming a small portion of Graham crackers and milk. Be sure that you need to go neither number one nor number two before engaging in this practice. If you have had your tongue in your cheek, as we have, it should be placed centrally in the mouth, so that the tip rests lightly in the area just above the teeth.

As you relax, remain aware of the subtle state you enter as your mind drifts toward sleep. Let the restful state of sleep come, but as it does, remain alert to the boundary between waking and dreaming. Practice keeping your awareness as you slip into sleep. Tell yourself that you will remain aware as the dream occurs. Tell yourself that you will remember your experience upon awakening.

Be gentle with yourself if you just fall asleep and lose control of your awareness. This takes practice. In time you may find yourself able to readily engage in lucid dreaming.

On awakening, notice the similarity of your dream state to everyday consciousness. Examine the differences. Remind yourself that your perception of separateness in your waking state is as much a projection of your mind as is the dreamscape in your dreams.

*See also the essay by Kikaku Schmelling Roshi relating the song "Itsy, Bitsy Spider" to the round of birth and death, samsara. (Note: In some translations this is rendered "Eentsy, Weentsy Spider.")

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© 2002 Tom Barrett