What is Your Totem of Reality?

What you cling to as real,
be it worldly or spiritual, is your refuge,
even if it is not the true or best one.

— Stonepeace

In the movie ‘Inception’, ‘the dream hackers each fashion a unique totem for themselves, which they always hold on to — an object, such as a chess piece, that is crafted and weighed in a manner that only one knows. With it, they would know if they are in someone else’s dream — as another hacker would be unable to create the exact totem. Methinks Inception has a perfect ending… the totem of the lead character (Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo Dicaprio), which is a top, spins on, but wobbles a little… and we’re unsure if it will fall. In a dream world, it could spin on indefinitely (and unnaturally) if one wills it to; in the real world, no top spins forever (due to friction and gravity). An open-ended scene that summarises the state of our uncertain and unenlightened lives!’ (From ‘The Inception of Illusion or Reality’) What is your totem or anchor of reality, that you hang on to? Now, you might think the top idea seems pretty cool and workable… but the truth is, any such totem would not be totally accurate in helping you to discern dream from reality. This is so because you can also make, use and will totems to work in certain ways in your dreams! In other words, life being dreamlike and dreams being lifelike, there is no way to determine that yours is a dream or real totem! If you think of it, since dream elements are often extensions of our subtly yet exactly willed perceptions and intentions, Cobb could very well subconsciously will his totem to stop spinning in a dream too!

Is there any hope of having a benchmark for a reality check then? When the Buddha deeply observed the nature of the universe throughout space and time, he realised that the entire spectrum of unenlightened physical and psychical experience can be summed up by the Three Universal Characteristics (Tilakhanna/Trilakshana) or the Three Marks (Seals) of Existence (Dharma), which are Anicca/Anitya (the truth of the impermanence of all mind and matter due to constant change), Dukkha/Duhkha (the dissatisfactions that arise from clinging to the illusion that things are not of Anicca) and Anatta/Anatman (the truth of mind and matter to be unsubstantial or empty of a fixed self due to Anicca). When these characteristics are realised fully, one becomes enlightened (attains Nibbana/Nirvana), awakened to ultimate reality.

As such, the Three Marks collectively form a triple totem of reality, which is so universal that it applies even in dreams! The dream world, like the ‘real’ world, is of Anicca too, as no top can really spin forever. Even a dream top eventually stops when one’s perception wills it to, or when one awakes. It is of Dukkha too, as even the most fantastic dream has to be awakened from with a bitter aftertaste. It is of Anatta as one’s self in the dream is just as unsubstantial as the one when awake. The way to awaken from illusions, be it in dreams or ‘real’ life (which is still illusory to some extent due to our skewed perceptions) is to realise this. So long as we mistaken any experience to be the opposite of the Three Marks, we are still existentially trapped in a dreamlike world, where we habitually see things to be permanent (non-Anicca), fulfilling (non-Dukkha) and of self (non-Anatta).

Ending the otherwise endless debates over the final scene, Christopher Nolan, the writer-director of Inception remarks, ‘I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me — it always felt like the appropriate “kick” to me… The real point of the scene — and this is what I tell people — is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing.’ A great lesson indeed, that is again open-ended. While it can be read to mean Cobb doesn’t care about what’s real or not anymore, that he chooses to indulge himself, it can also be seen as his relinquishment of the blur lines that divide illusion from reality — about his decision to seize the moment, whether it is dreamlike or not, to live it fully. Making the best of what is before us, to be alive to what comes and to respond appropriately is the way to awaken. This is the story of our lives. There is no need to doubt the relative reality (and relative illusion) that we experience now. What matters most is to skilfully live from moment to moment, with ever-increasing compassion and wisdom for one and all. The more genuinely we live with mindfulness, the more will we wake up. No matter how real or unreal this moment is, this is always a real opportunity to awaken.

With this moment awake,
further awake to this moment.

— Stonepeace

Related Articles:

The ‘Inception’ of Reality or Illusion? (Movie Review)
‘Inception’ of Some Ideas for Awakening
What If the Top Doesn’t Stop?
Are We Caught in the ‘Matrix’ of Dreams?
The Butterfly’s Dream
Dream-like But Not a Dream

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