The movie "Inception" shines a light on a persistent human fear: that of being deceived while we are in a vulnerable, dreaming state. This is not a new story. As far back as Ancient Greece, people have worried about being misled by "false dreams." In fact, that very thing showed up 2,500 years ago in Homer's Iliad, where the god Zeus appears in Agamemnon's dream and falsely promises victory if Agamemnon attacks Troy.
If the ancient Greeks worried that dreams can be deceptive, what does it mean that all this time later we still have the same fear? Has anything changed in our relationship to dreams in all this time? And is there anything new we can learn about dreams and symbols from "Inception"?
One of the things that has changed markedly is our understanding of where dreams come from. To the Greeks, dreams were things they "saw," messages and visions that originated somewhere outside of themselves that they were witness to while sleeping. Like Agamemnon, they worried about being deceived by human and supernatural dream intruders who might thrust their way onto the dream stage.
Today, we say that we "had" a dream, and believe that dreams come from within us, like a cough, a bad mood, or a stirring in our souls. We worry that dreams reveal something disturbed in our psychological makeup, or we try to explain them away by saying they are just random brain activity. "Inception's" success as a thriller stems in part from turning the tables on our "scientific" understanding of dreams, and bringing back the more archaic fear of dream-meddling from without.
Lucid dream expert Robert Waggoner has an excellent article on what "Inception" got right about dreams, and it is a great place to start if you want to separate the film's truth from fiction. I interviewed Robert on my radio show recently and we had a really good back-and-forth over the movie. I have a much more critical view of how the movie handled dreams, but the thing that bothers me the most is how easy it is to plant deceptions and false symbols in our waking minds every day--and how blind we are to it.
As Arianna Huffington pointed out recently, Sarah Palin's "mama grizzly" ad is effective not because it makes any sense but because it resonates at the level of symbol and archetype. Of course, Palin is the idiot savant of this type of messaging, but the technique is used all the time by people who actually know what they're talking about, and invoke those fearful symbols in order to blind us to what is really going on.
It should be an equation that every child learns by the 6th grade: if someone is making you afraid, that means there is something that they don't want you to know, or to think about for yourself. It is as simple as that. Every mention of "death panels" or "the 9/11 mosque" should instantly trigger this response: "Wow, that is a loaded symbol, making me feel all sorts of different things. I wonder what the truth behind it is? Where can I go to get real information and decide for myself?"
To overcome our nightmares, we need to understand and confront the fear in the dream. Similarly, the only antidote to deceptions being planted in our waking minds is to not accept them at face value, not give in to the fear, but find out what lies behind it. If we can do that, then we will have truly moved beyond our archaic fears, toward a wisdom that the ancient Greeks could only dream of.