The Tears of the Bank Robber

J U N E

I was standing in line at a bank when a man suddenly pulled a double-barreled shotgun from under his coat and shouted for everyone to get down on the floor. I jumped behind a wide stone column shotgun3and held my breath, hoping he hadn’t seen me. But the man must have noticed my movement — he shouted at me to come out from behind the column. I was terrified.

This was a dream. I was twenty-six when it happened, and I had suffered nightmares like it since I was four years old. I’m telling the story because of something that happened in this particular dream that caused my nightmares to stop, and I’ve never had one again.

My nightmares always followed the same pattern: a murderous character would pursue me, and in utter panic I would try to escape. Sometimes the bad man was a cutthroat pirate, sometimes a vicious cowboy, sometimes an evil criminal; all of them were intent on killing me. When I was a teenager the nightmares became so strong that several times I climbed out of my bedroom window just as the villain in my dream burst into my room. I still remember crawling out onto the roof and huddling next to the chimney until the cold night air woke me up.

When the bank robber dream happened I was living in a Sufi community in England, gardening, milking cows, and learning to meditate and pray. The meditation practice was having a wholesome effect — little by little it was helping me slow down and take notice of what was happening before I reacted. So when the bank robber shouted for me to come out as I hid there frozen with fear, I suddenly realized this is a dream! I can’t tell you how relieved and happy that made me feel! I was still in the dream, the bank and the bank robber were still there, and he was still shouting that if I didn’t come out he’d blast me to hell, but now I knew it was a dream.

I stepped out from behind the column and faced him. I remember his wild face, and the look of the shotgun pointed at me. Everything slowed down then, as if a great peace had settled everywhere. I smiled, opened my arms, and walked toward him. He screamed, “Stop!” and aimed the gun at my face. I took another step and then, point blank, he fired both barrels.

There was a brilliant light; the bank and my body vanished. After a moment the scene reappeared, but now I was sitting on the floor of the bank with people standing around me in a circle wondering what had happened, and pointing at me. There, curled up in my arms, was the bank robber. He was weeping. I was rocking him back and forth, saying, “It’s okay now, everything’s all right, everything’s all right.”

After twenty years of running in my dreams from what I was sure would be my death, I stopped. Facing what terrified me brought an unexpected healing. This is essentially the same healing process (turning in to the direct experience of the painful) at the heart of many forms of trauma therapy, including EMDR, Peter Levine’s somatic therapy, and the “One Rule” we use in Open Path inquiry work.

My dream-healing experience was precipitated by the sudden, mysterious recognition that what I feared had no more reality than a dream. Curiously, the tables were turned — what I was afraid of became afraid of me. When I came out of hiding, when I opened my arms and stepped toward the bank robber, he was the one who was afraid. (Some years later when I was working with a Karen shaman in northern Thailand, a woman came to tell the shaman she was afraid to go into the jungle because the spirits and ghosts might attack her there. He smiled and said, “Human beings and ghosts have one thing in common: they’re both afraid of each other.”)

My bank robber was a ghost, a dream-ghost. The moment I realized I was dreaming not only did my fear dissolve, but I was flooded with a sense of kindness and ease. Longchenpa, the great 14th century Tibetan mystic, wrote an extraordinary text called Finding Comfort and Ease in Enchantment. In it he suggests a “dream yoga” to be applied not only to dreams during sleep but to every aspect of our waking experience:

The outer world, its mountains and valleys,
villages and towns, and its living beings,
compounds of earth, water, fire, air and space,
all forms, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations,
the five sensory objects,
and the internal world of body-mind
and its sensory consciousness,
all experience, should be attended to incessantly as dream.

                                            (from “Maya Yoga,” trans. Keith Dowman)

Recognizing our everyday reality as dream is one way of expressing the nondual view: the realization that all phenomena, though they are clearly apparent, have no substantial existence; that is, they never actually come into being as independent entities. As it is said in the Prajnaparamita Sutra:

“…no personal self exists substantially or independently, just as no apparent structure of the universe exists substantially or independently. This principle of ontological transparency applies to every subjective or objective structure or process that can possibly be experienced by any consciousness.”  (trans. Lex Hixon)

The words “no substantial existence,” "ontological transparency," and “dream” point to the same realization, a realization that is corroborated by quantum physics. However, this realization is not something that can be apprehended solely with our intellect. It takes a willing suspension of our belief in the substantial reality of all “apparent structures.” This doesn’t mean that all apparent structures are fraudulent. They are just as they appear, clear and precise, but they have no claim to be existent entities substantial in themselves. Longchenpa again:

The actuality of all experience is like a dream
and in its momentary groundless gleaming,
undeniably perceptible, it is uncrystallizing light-form…
a diaphanous form of emptiness.

Recognizing the dream-like nature of everything we experience doesn’t diminish the vibrancy of life — just the opposite. It simply frees us from being obsessed by fears, since we see that we, too, are dream-like and ungraspable. Within the “dream” of relative reality, a dream that is constantly appearing in new forms, our bodies and senses of identity are as impermanent as everything else. Of course, we can’t help but become attached to body and identity and the forms we perceive. That attachment, as we know, results in the fear and suffering we are so familiar with.

So what are we, if not these changeable forms — this dream? The good news is that what we are is inseparable from the identityless pure presence that is the transparent ground of all being and becoming. We are the essence of “uncrystallizing light-form,” pure awareness appearing in all these infinite ways. Recognizing this, we wake up from the dream while still in the dream, and take the world in our arms, where its tears — and our own — are tears of homecoming.