I’ve got the window open to catch the breeze, but I’m easily distracted by sounds outside—tinny jangle of radio plus the occasional weed whacker—so I’m listening to some white noise of ocean waves to muffle the noise of the neighborhood. What kind of dream might this be, if this were a dream? I hear the shush and rush of ocean, and imagine waves lapping at my back door. There’s a print of the ocean hanging above my desk, facing me—so I can easily imagine the waves sweeping in from all directions. This is okay, because it’s warm and sunny. The breeze is easy, and the waves are gentle. My desk is a dinghy, riding in and out with each sliding swell. This is great. But it’s a daydream, not a dream.
What’s the difference between a daydream and a dream? Here’s one way of making the distinction: a daydream is an imaginative diversion, while a dream is an actual event. I make up the scenes of a daydream, and they tend to make sense, because my conscious mind tends to make sense of things. But with a dream, my conscious mind is present more as observer (the one who may or may not remember the dream) than as creator. The dream occurs in the same way that daily life occurs—I can assent to it and participate wholeheartedly, or I can dissent, and wrestle with it until I wake up, but it doesn’t require my consent in order to continue.
A daydream does require my consent (even if it’s reluctant consent—as when I’m carried away by worry scenarios). I make the daydream happen. So, for instance, when I stop imagining the water rising around my house, it stops rising. The white noise is still playing away, but I’m not listening anymore, not daydreaming anymore, because I’m thinking about something else.
But the ocean in my recent dream was just there—I didn’t make it up, and it isn’t the way I would have imagined it, if I were imagining it.
The ocean in my dream is both ocean and lake at the same time. The texture of the water is warm and almost viscous. The pebbles are slightly slimy when I feel them with my bare feet underwater, and the sand slips and slides rather than bunching up under each step…
Okay, now I’m daydreaming again, because I’ve started to embellish. The actual dream wasn’t quite that detailed. In the dream, things just happened and I experienced them without noticing every particular. Like when I’m awake.
Dreams, daydreams, and ordinary waking life are not entirely distinct experiences. They exist on a continuum—or coexist. Any flat statement about what sets them apart is bound to be disprovable, because they are not really set apart from each other at all. Yet, they are usually distinct enough that we can tell the difference. Am I awake or dreaming? At this moment, I’m awake. I don’t know how I know, but I know. Right?