[This is a recent article I wrote for DreamTime Magazine to take my exploration of Virtual Reality and dreaming a step further.]
I enter a hidden workshop, and find the tools for making and decorating an ornate mask. Wearing the mask I’ve made, I’m transported to another world where I glimpse a figure in the distance who is also wearing a mask. I return to my workshop, make a copy of the stranger’s mask, put it on, and become that stranger. I’m standing where the stranger was standing, doing what the stranger was doing! By wearing different masks, becoming different people, I am able to travel further and further into an unfolding story….
This doesn’t sound exactly like a dream—the events and images are a bit more predictable than in a typical dream—but it definitely has some dream-like elements: identity and perspective shift, and the mythical settings, vivid sense impressions and compelling narrative create a pervasive quality of significance and wonder. The experience of maskmaking prompts me to question myself and examine my own responses as if responding to a dream. I ask myself: How does my personality change in different contexts? Am I driven to acquire more and more powerful disguises, to conquer more and more worlds, or am I searching for a meaningful relationship with my own creativity and integrity?
You may have guessed by now that I’ve been describing a Virtual Reality game. A couple years ago, I wrote a column about VR here, but at the time I was a newby and by now I’ve become something of an “expert,” at least on the softer side of VR (there’s a whole range of hardcore violent VR that I’ve avoided). Although VR games are not entirely dream-like, they’re more like dreams than like ordinary video games, and I’ve been studying them extensively to learn not only how they can contribute to my own healing from PTSD, but also to better understand how this medium might be helpful in responding to much greater questions and concerns in the world today. In short, I’ve come to believe that, at its best, VR can contribute to our sense of safety and belonging by supporting our natural creativity, resilience, patience, playfulness, and openness.
VR mobilizes some of the same inner resources as dreams. Like a powerful dream, a well-crafted VR game gives us problems we can solve; it engages our bodies and emotions, as well as our minds, in finding answers and facing challenges. So, if you haven’t yet experienced it for yourself, I’d like to invite you to try on the “mask”—a VR headset. Now, you are the mask-maker, stepping into the stranger’s VR world, and I can give you a brief guided tour.
The Maskmaker falls into the genre of problem-solving VR games, and many of our dreams focus on problem-solving as well. These games or dreams can be fairly mundane and practical (basic VR puzzles or simulations might be compared to dreams about doing the dishes or studying for exams), but the better ones are wildly imaginative and immersive. Ordinary activities in dreams or VR like gardening, cooking, driving, crafts or sports (there’s VR snowboarding, believe it or not) can activate the senses and refresh our mindfulness about the things we do in our everyday lives. In fact, dreams and VR both improve our “real world” problem-solving skills because our brains don’t distinguish between dream experiences, Virtual Reality experiences, and “Real Reality” experiences: as far as our brains are concerned, they are all learning experiences. But dreams and VR also offer possibilities that RR doesn’t offer. Sure you can fly, you can breathe underwater… but did you know you could raise manatee-triceratops-cows and feed them kebabs? or solve a mystery at an abandoned space outpost? or figure out how to pickle a tractor? These dream-like games become their own real reality and you forget that they are “virtual” just as you might forget that you are dreaming. You are challenged to consider different ways of approaching not only the virtual or dream worlds, but also the world you inhabit every day. When you are fixing breakfast, could you manage it if you had baseball bats for arms? Do you suppose your computer might be curious about where you go on vacation? What would your shadow look like if you were living inside a mirror within a mirror within a mirror?
It’s so easy to become stuck in patterns of thought that not only make our own lives smaller, but actually endanger those around us and the earth itself. Climate catastrophe, rampant bigotry, brutality and greed are all the results of limited, shallow thinking, choices and actions. I believe that dreams deepen us by giving us a glimpse of possibilities beyond our own immediate interests and expectations. VR can do the same. Both VR and dreams regularly use humor (especially silly exaggerration and surprise) to keep us from being too sure of ourselves, inviting our minds to do absurd stretching exercises that will ultimately make us more flexible.
The biggest stretch for the mind might be to fully include the body. Yes, a lot of VR games literally give you a workout, but there are a few that go far beyond the virtual gym. Some VR sports, and some music games like the one called Beat Saber, approach the ecstatic. Our “real world” teaches us to be bodiless, except when we are taking exercise like bitter medicine. In VR, exercise can be bliss. In Beat Saber, for example, you are simply cutting colored blocks with a light saber but the exquisitely choreographed rhythm patterns become increasingly complex with each level, and your body becomes joyously, magically, more and more free. It’s remarkable what the body (even a tired old body like mine!) can do without the mind’s excessive coaching from the sidelines.
If you dream that you are strong, beautiful, capable—it’s not just “pretend.” You actually wake up feeling stronger, more beautiful, more capable. The nerve pathways and micro-muscles have been sparking; you’ve been expanding your idea of who you are, and extending your body’s limits (limits that probably aren’t as absolute as your mind believes). In a VR game like Beat Saber, you discover this same dream-like potential of the embodied self, and you suddenly know, really know, body and soul, that you have greater inner resources than you could have guessed. And, when you can know this in an embodied way, it means that maybe we all have far more resources than we could have guessed. With such resources—just maybe—there’s more hope for our present lives, and for the future of our world.
The power of dreaming, and of Virtual Reality, can be abused, of course. When you put on a mask, the disguise can define you or disguise you in dangerous ways. But if you take responsibility for who you become, you can create all kinds of masks and choose how to wear them. I hope that those who know how to dream deeply and wisely will be the ones to create the future of VR, and the future of our shared “Real Reality” as well. Those dreamers could be us.
[This article was originally published in the Spring, 2023 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]