Twenty years ago, I taught a course of dream analysis at the Cancer Support Association in Cottesloe. In the class was an elderly refugee from Eastern Europe whom I will call Zelda. At first she claimed to have had only one dream in her life, but it had repeated for years. She dreamt that she was running away from a witch. She was able to escape because the witch was hobbled by tightly laced boots. “What does it mean?”, she asked.
In return, I asked her “What was your mother like?”, and you could see the penny drop. Zelda had run away from her violent mother when she was fourteen and never saw her again. There was far more to the dream than this, but it illustrates the first principle of analysis. A dream is likely to be a symbolic illustration of some highly charged event in your day or life.
Zelda then told me that when she was twenty-one, she had deliberately stopped dreaming. She lost her infant daughter in a house fire, and suffered terrible nightmares thereafter. To escape them, she resolved never to sleep again. For the next forty years, she spent her nights virtually awake, keeping herself occupied with reading and tasks. I’m sure she lapsed into sleep periodically – she would have been dead or mad if she didn’t – but this was nonetheless an astounding achievement. Only the onset of her cancer broke this habit.
She then asked “Could I start dreaming again?”, and I say what I always do to people who feel they never dream: “Everybody dreams, whether they remember them or not. If you go to bed resolving to remember your dreams, within a few days you are likely to start doing so.”
A fortnight later I got a letter from Zelda. She said she had done as I suggested but with the proviso that she wanted ‘good’ dreams. She then recounted the breakthrough dreams she had on three successive nights. I no longer remember the details but they were dreams to die for. They did everything that divinely inspired dreams are supposed to do. I like to think that when she did finally succumb to her illness, she had made peace with her soul.
Dreaming is essential for health and sanity. People deprived of dreaming get paranoid and dysfunctional within days, even if they get sufficient non-dream sleep. Dreams usually relate to events in the recent day, and their emotional tone is most likely to be negative. Zelda’s experience of immensely positive dreams is quite rare.
Dreams seem essential for the consolidation of memory and learning. They select what is important from the recent day’s events, and store them in their appropriate places in the memory bank. They also seem to dump the trash and do vital underground work toward solving problems.
Given that strong dreams seem so important, it makes sense to try to decipher them. Dream analysis is not that difficult. The main problem is the time involved. We only have to write down a dream in as much detail as possible, then talk about it, then revisit it later and let our imagination do the rest. I’ve done this for long periods in the past, and it pays
massive dividends. Because most people just take a stab at a dream rather than invest that amount of time, they frequently miss the target altogether.
Dream analysis easily falls prey to the distorting influence of delayed recall. To remember a dream, I know that I have to repeat the story in my head three or four times in the process of waking up. Each time I revisit not the original dream, but the previous re- telling. By the time I am fully awake, the story has changed enormously, usually becoming simpler, more coherent and more like a narrative. If I then write it down, or talk about it, the dream assimilates richer associations from memory. It takes on a fully fledged life in the outer world, able to influence waking life, but it is no longer what it was.
We know that dreams occur at the threshold of sleep, in what is called Stage One, or Paradoxical, Sleep. This means that we enter the dream world either from above, as we fall asleep, or from below, as we wake up. Dream analysts usually examine the remnants of the dream that remains in the mind as you wake up. However, some people enter the dream world from above, as they slide down from the waking state into sleep, and this completely changes the nature of the experience.
Some meditators, artists, musicians and other creative people specialise in this skill, but it is available to all of us. We only need to notice what is passing through our minds as we fall asleep. If we resist the temptation of oblivion, and stay alert at the threshold, we can consciously enter the world of the dream. It takes a little effort and quite a bit of practice. It is like riding a bicycle very slowly. You relax enough to abandon linear and outer-oriented thought, but stay awake enough to see what is still happening.
The first signs are usually flashes of so-called ‘hypnagogic imagery.’ These are like dream images, but lasting for just microseconds. I often find they contain far more detail than an ordinary dream, and yet they are so subtle that I’ll miss them completely if I’m just a little tired or absentminded. Auditory and tactile hallucinations are also fairly common, as are passing thoughts of great brilliance and irrationality.
The hypnagogic state is typically fragmentary and brief – a spectacular flash on the way to oblivion – but practice can make it much more stable. This can result in extremely elaborate and emotionally rich images. A perfect illustration of a hypnogogic vision is one of Salvador Dali’s masterpieces.
It is called ‘A dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before awakening’, and even this long title sells the work short. As well as the fruit and the bee, the picture depicts two tigers leaping from the mouth of a fish towards a naked woman on a rock, while a stilt-legged caparisoned elephant strides across the ocean. I am sure Dali first saw that whole image in a flash, and committed it to memory in order to reproduce it.
Hypnagogic imagery probably gives us a more accurate picture of what happens in the sleeping brain than does our recollection of dreams, which tend to be smoothed-over re- tellings. Dreams can often feel a bit tired, which hypnagogic imagery never is.
The Yoga tradition says that there are three natural states of consciousness, namely waking, dream and deep sleep. Each of them are ‘real’ although they differ from one another. Each of them has its own quality of consciousness and way of seeing ‘the world’.
The ultimate goal of a yogi is to be fully ‘awake’ in each of them, even, paradoxically, the state of deep sleep.
There is a Tibetan practice called Dream Yoga, which we know mostly from the literature since I am not sure if anyone seriously practices it these days. The yogi tries to extend his dream consciousness both ways into deeper sleep and full wakefulness. While awake, he tells himself ‘this is all just a dream’, thereby enhancing the irrational elements of everyday life. He also trains himself to wake up repeatedly during the night, so he doesn’t wallow in total oblivion when he sleeps.
His goal is to see and feel that everything is illusory, and so devoid of lasting significance. By understanding that nothing is worth taking seriously, and that nothing lasts, the yogi tried to attain perfect indifference. This is how the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is supposed to lead to perfect peace.
But the very name that the Tibetans give the dream state reveal another reason for entering it. It is called the ‘Sambhogakaya’, which translates as ‘the body of bliss’. It is the playground of the gods, Mt Olympus transported to Tibet. Through his dreaming, a yogi locked away in his cave can explore the infinity of imagination.
Most dreams have an anxious quality, which undoubtedly relates to their problem-solving function. The hypnagogic state, on the other hand, is much more inclined to be radiant, beautiful, delightful, witty and playful. Many people never experience it, because it tends to be so subtle and transient. If you blink on the way down into sleep, you miss it. For others, however, it is the most satisfying state possible.
I go there every day, if only for a few seconds at a time. I find that music can enhance it, but that it really can occur at any time. It is the temporary antidote to all but the worst of depressions. It is the place from where you see Paradise, even if you can’t live there permanently.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2009