Read an Excerpt
The Lure of the Dream
'Dreaming is a nightly dip, a skinny dip, into the pool of images and feelings.'
Perchance to Dream
Picture this dream scene in monochrome gray.
Massive boulders edge this portion of the beach. I see a Neanderthal man motionless in a squat, his eyes fixed on a configuration in the sand of five straight, parallel lines extending into the distance. Small iron balls lie in the gullies between the lines.
I'm there too, thinking all this has nothing to do with me. I feel alone, far from home and anxious about being among people who don't look like me. I am afraid of the primitive human. In my hurry to get away, I walk diagonally across his design. It occurs to me that I am ruining the field by tracking across it, and I worry I'll be punished.
I awoke feeling bewildered. In my daytime life, I'd just begun writing this book, and I'd gone to sleep wondering what my dreamlife would have to say about it. But this? I'd expected something more contemporary and more colorful. Maybe some advice about the book. Yet this brief, puzzling scene was what I got. It was my dream, conjured out of my own body and soul, experiences, beliefs and unconscious depths. And I had no idea what it meant.
And so it goes with dreamers. We awake with a puzzle, much like fairy-tale characters begin a journey with a dilemma and find their way through a more-than-ordinary world to a resolution. The expedition changes them just as being with a dream alters the dreamer. It's the journey, the joining with the story that creates new life in the fairy-tale characters and in the dreamers.
Meaning emerges from the encounter. Say you have a dream about picking strawberries. Don't ask what strawberries stand for. At least not yet. First, in your imagination rejoin the dream. Notice how the ripe red strawberries are tucked under leaves in the cool morning. Touch the sturdy leaves and enjoy the scent that rises as you push the leaves aside. Pick a strawberry, look into its pocky red face, taste it. Notice your reaction. What are you feeling and thinking? The dream leads you to the strawberry, and the berry engages all your senses. Meaning comes out of that encounter. That intimate contact, that time spent with night and daydreams, enriches and enlarges our humanity.
You and I are descendants of a 140-million-year-old family of dreamers. Though we now understand the physiology of dreams, we, like our ancestors, are confounded, entertained, frightened and inspired by these images of sleep. Dreams offer entrée to a realm beyond the rational, a nonmaterial reality or spirituality. They feed the human hunger for mystery, adventure, amazement and guidance.
The usual rules of time and space do not apply. Dreams reveal the timelessness at our core. I can be dreaming of a contemporary scene and suddenly I am looking at myself as a fifteen-year-old sitting in my bedroom with that familiar light coming in the windows and family sounds rising from downstairs. Past, present and future mingle, and even the boundary of death yields so that we meet lost loved ones and others who have not yet arrived in waking life. Time is an idea we live in, and dreams give us the opportunity to escape time. The fluidity of dreams shows us the essential undividedness of existence.
Dreams suspend physics, and we fly and travel great distances with less effort than it takes to walk in waking time. The customary rules of ethics and manners lose their authority and dreams move beyond political correctness, censorship, custom and taboo. Aspects of ourselves emerge that are disallowed in daylight. We are rude without remorse, seductive, impish and irresponsible. We can lose control with no lasting consequence, get perspective on our daytime selves, our habits, assumptions and fears. Anything is possible and we can't know what will happen next. It's like watching home movies shot in secret and projected on the screen at the back of our eyelids. Over the course of a lifetime, dreams fill in the gaps in our understanding of who we are. They are our nightly storytellers.
Dreams come as gifts, as learnings, as gossip. They can entice like an amusement park on a warm summer night or draw us into deep-sea terrors. In dreams we seem to live other lives; we find companionship and sometimes magic. They offer us mystical experiences, jokes, surprises and warnings. Dreams draw us, too, because they bring answers and sometimes salvation.
We're enticed by our unlearned ability to turn out new plots several times a night, plots no one else can produce. As with those first teeth, early crayon drawings and grade school compositions, we are proud of the dream products some part of us creates. Look what I did! This is me!
Dreams offer balance to lives that have become skewed. We live in an extraordinarily rational, clock-driven, materialistic era. The relentless sweep of Western values shapes our days and our definitions of success and security. The practical trumps the fanciful, productivity bests creativity. We are encouraged to follow outer rather than inner cues. Even religion in its current fundamentalist incarnation favors literal interpretation of the Bible rather than the individual's unique relationship with the Divine as the source of salvation. It's no wonder that we as a people are overweight, tired, depressed and anxious. Daily demands on our rational selves exhaust us and leave us dry, with no time for soul, no time to taste the deeper meanings of things. The juiciness of life is unavailable and so is concocted artificially by use of substances, consumerism and entertainment.
Fortunately, no one has found a way to colonize, proselytize or advertise in dreams. Falling into bed at the end of busy days, we can escape the linear and the logical for an inner world that is vast, instinctive and unplumbable. What is rejected by the daytime world reigns in the dream world. The impossible and the unknowable, riots of spontaneous images, the expression of deeper experienceall refresh the psyche and immerse us in the vitality of imagination. Those who work with their dreams in the daylight can reenter them and experience the almost physical sensation of shifting into imaginal and intuitive discourse. That state is like being 'in the zone,' where anything is possible. The logical mind rests and the whole physical body relaxes as the imaginative is given room to speak.
Simple superstition also lures the dreamerif I dream of water, this will happen; if I dream of birds in flight, it means that will occur. Dreams offer contact with something bigger than we are. We want amazing things to happen to us. We want to be thrilled and moved, entertained and sometimes frightened. Dreams can do all that.
For some, the lure of the dreams is the exploration, the constant discovery and development these nighttime lives enable.
All dreamers hope for the revelation that will make everything clear, foretell the future and engage the magic realms. Dreaming takes us out to the edge with the visionaries. Dreams enlarge consciousness by bringing new ideas, viewpoints, wishes, fears and behaviors into awareness or by presenting familiar themes in a new light. They open a new conversation, move information from unconsciousness into consciousness and contribute to ongoing personality development. Dreams are a reminder that development never stops. There is always more to become.
In my dreams, it's all about me. At the same time, their themes connect me with all humanity. Dreams tap the underlying blueprint of human possibility and tell the most basic story of who we are. They reveal the generic us as males, females, parents, children, heroes, mystics and lovers. Dreams fascinate because they are the insubstantial parallel to the visible world. Characters, situations, places and themes live and develop there. Events in the dream world affect and even direct waking life. All by itself, that is reason enough to pay attention to them. They are a peephole into the processes unfolding within us, that organic forward motion of our beings, which is larger than the daytime ego and all its doings. Dream work offers the opportunity to join the ego's wisdom to instinctive energies.
The most tantalizing lure and the most frustrating aspect of dreams is their mystery. The dreamer comes to the breakfast table full of the most amazing dream experience. With great animation, he tells the story and finishes with 'I wonder what it means.' There is a moment of silence, the excitement fades into discomfort and frustration, and the conversation shifts to oatmeal and coffee. Their mystery and our not knowing is the doorway to dreams. We can enjoy their company and their humanizing warmth only if we're willing to tolerate that first wave of bewilderment. C. G. Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and dream pioneer, began work with every client's dream by admitting that he had no idea what the dream meant. And there, too, our work begins.
Not knowing creates a psychological tension in us. The brain strains toward clarity and closure and will create an answer rather than remain in limbo. That urge to conclude can create the form of a face in the leaves of a tree or answer a problem before having adequate information. The discomfort of not knowing can also motivate. 'I don't know what this dream means' becomes the sound of the mind's gears shifting from realistic to imaginative mode. We can learn to tolerate not knowing and to remind our busy, lightning-fast brains that there are other ways to arrive at knowing besides deductive reasoning.
Humans have been curious about their dreams for as long as they have dreamed. Robert L. Van de Castle, PhD, writer, dream researcher and dreamer, offers a sweeping study of dreaming in Our Dreaming Mind. As he points out, primitive humans may have dreamed the figures found on cave walls. The earliest written dreams come from 3000 BCE Assyria and second-century CE Babylonia. They were gathered by Artemedorus, a Roman soothsayer, who included them in his work, The Interpretation of Dreams. Over five thousand years later, Sigmund Freud would use the same title for his masterwork on dreams.
Through the ages, dreams have been explained as everything from brain excretions to side effects of digestion to gifts from the gods. Most striking in dream history is the strong connection between dreams and spirituality. And it is an understandable connection. The religious impulse is a core element of the psyche, a channel through which psychic energy is expressed. And dreaming is the voice of the psyche. Dreams and spirituality involve a nonrational dimension, one not visible to the eye. Each uses image extensively. Dreams and spirituality are perceived as a connection to a more powerful entity, larger than humans and, in a way, holding some authority over humans. Both provide access to the numinous, that mysterious power that comes unbidden to touch the heart and soul. So it was inevitable that dreams and religion would intermingle.
Written between 1500 and 1000 BCE, the Vedas, sacred wisdom books of India, address favorable and unfavorable dreams and dream meanings. The Upanishads, Indian philosophical treatises written around 800 BCE, offer several dream theories and set dreaming above waking reality. The dreamer, they say, exists between the waking world and the world beyond and can see both. Mahayana Buddhism sees both waking and dreaming as illusions. The Sufis believe in a third world, a dream world that exists between rationality and sensibility. In the Old Testament, Jacob has a dream in which angels ascend and descend a ladder that leads to heaven and God.
As Van de Castle points out, the ladder is an elegant metaphor for the way dreams connect the human realm with the divine. Also in the Old Testament, Joseph, the son of Jacob, dreams that he is binding sheaves in the fields with his brothers. He sees the sheaves stand, and his brothers' sheaves gather round and bow to his. Later, he interprets the Pharaoh's dreams and enables the kingdom to prepare for famine. In the New Testament, another Joseph is visited in a dream and told of his wife's virginal conception of Jesus. Later he is warned in a dream about Herod's plans to kill Jesus, and in another he's told when it is safe to return home.
But if dreams can come from God, they could also be sent by the devil. By the 4th century, the place of dreams in the Christian church had changed. In the official Latin translation of the Bible, the scholar Jerome equated witchcraft with dreams. What followed were centuries of obsession with the evils lurking in human dreams. Demon apparitions, the incubus and the succubus, were said to sexually possess dreamers, so the church prohibited Christians from attending to their dreams. During the Middle Ages in the Western Christian church, reports of prophetic dreams and dreams containing sexual, aggressive or impious themes could earn the dreamer torture or death.
By the 13th century, the ecclesiastical position had softened somewhat. Thomas Aquinas, in his compilation of Christian theology, warned believers against contacting demons for revelation in dreams but allowed that dreams could also come from God, from physical states, daytime activities or astrological forces. He himself even reported conversing in a dream with Saints Peter and Paul and resolving a block he'd been experiencing with his major work, Summa Theologica.
In modern times, dreams have become the study of philosophy, neurology and psychology, and they have also played a significant role in the arts and sciences. Creative activity requires a blend of hard work and letting go into the richness of the unconscious. Often the answer comes in a dream image as it did for Elias Howe, who patented the sewing machine. After years of frustrating work, he dreamed of soldiers carrying spears and he saw that the spears each had a hole near the point. He awoke with the answer to his problem: a needle with its eye by its point.
Jasper Johns' dream about painting an American flag took him from his job as a window dresser in 1950s New York City to the heart of a revolution in painting. Ingmar Bergman used his own dreams in his films Sawdust and Tinsel and Wild Strawberries. Mary Shelley's nightmare became the novel Frankenstein. And The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to Robert Louis Stevenson in his sleep. Many other writers, including Jack Kerouac, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Mansfield and Franz Kafka, report that their dreams gave them stories or helped when the writing was blocked.
Even what we call 'hard science' has dreams woven deep into its foundation. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleyev of St. Petersburg, Russia, dreamed of a way of categorizing chemical elements and created the periodic table of elements. In Ghent, Belgium, Friedrich A. von Kekule had been struggling to understand the structure of the benzene molecule. He dreamed of long rows of atoms that formed whirling circles and woke to work out the hexagonal model of the molecule.
As historic figures wrestled with the problems of their time, their dreams influenced the course of history. Harriet Tubman, who brought slaves north on the Underground Railroad, credited dreams with showing her safe routes. The idea of nonviolent strikes, which he led in India in 1919, came to Gandhi in a dream. During World War II, General George Patton often called his secretary during the night to dictate battle plans he'd received in dreams. Struggling with the miasma of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson dreamed of himself caught in the center of a river, unable to move to either shore. The dream helped Johnson come to the decision not to run for a second term.
On June 28, 1914, Bishop Joseph Lanyi, who had once been the tutor of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, dreamed of his old pupil. In the dream, Lanyi opened a letter from Ferdinand that announced the fact of Ferdinand's assassination later that same day. It was complete with a sketch of the scene of the shooting. The dream, by its not being reported in time, affected the lives of millions as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand led to World War I.
Lanyi's was a precognitive dream, that kind of dream that foretells the future. In our own contemporary, ordinary lives and in historic accounts, such dreams are fairly common. The Buddha's mother dreamed of her son's miraculous conception. Muhammad discovered his life's work in a dream and the sacred Koran was revealed to him in dreams. Joseph Smith dreamed in 1820 of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which he would go on to establish. Abraham Lincoln dreamed that he would be assassinated and laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
Knowing ahead of time and across space is also possible in waking states where the ego has surrendered control to focused imagination. Charlatans and showmen have given psychic ability a bad name, and even reputable psychics receive little respect from the educated public. So it interested me to learn that the U.S. government has done research since the '70s on parapsychological, or psi, activity. Concern that Russian experiments with parapsychology could be used against the United States triggered the research on Remote Viewing at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. On the International Remote Viewing Association Web site, Hal Puthoff, PhD, first director of the program, describes the now declassified studies, which came to show the existence of what they call 'psi.' Using strict scientific protocol, viewers with various amounts of training were able to successfully identify people and objects at distances ranging from close proximity to the next room to outer space. They found that precognitive knowing was one manifestation of the paranormal modes of perception. They also found that psi operated like the senses in picking up changes in the environment.
Precognitive dreams and Remote Viewing are flashy hints of that other way of knowing also available in our ordinary night dreams and waking intuitions. Perhaps these abilities will gain respectability as times goes on. These transcendent powers of imagination have considerable potential, not as fabrications but as ways of seeing beyond: beyond what we know intellectually, beyond what our other senses tell us is so. Given this proven potential, it's curious that we as a society so underuse dreaming and the powers of imagination.
Ah, There's the Rub
Awake and asleep, we yearn for transcendence. We also resist it. We say it's silly, we don't have time, we can't prove what we're experiencing. It makes us uneasy, in the way I might feel trying to shake an insect off my hand: anxious, impatient, distressed, annoyed, just the beginnings of fear of something so 'other.' I think, 'This isn't how it should be. I'm in charge here. Go away. Do what I say.'
Charles T. Tart, PhD, is a researcher and scholar who has contributed much to paranormal research. One of his interests is the ambivalence and anxiety triggered in people by the possibility of having psi powers. In a lecture, 'Exploring Our Fears of the Paranormal' in an audiotape collection titled 'The Future of Energetic Healing,' Tart describes finding that individuals feared psi power would be too much responsibility, too scary, too intrusive, and it would make them too vulnerable. How would they manage it without being overwhelmed by it? Though they appreciated the fascinating possibilities of having that power, the actual possession of it took them out of their comfort zones, out to where their usual way of thinking faltered. The same is true with dreams. I believe it would be impossible to overestimate our ambivalence about our psychological, psychic and dream lives. My own reaction to my caveman dream is a very simple example of that. I can feel all my 'yes, buts' standing between me and the images, distracting me from the experience of my dream and buffering me from the fact that my waking consciousness is part of something bigger that I need to develop a relationship with.
Individual resistance multiplies into cultural resistance. While not condemning or prohibiting dreams and other psychological activities, we as a society marginalize them by putting time and value elsewhere. We concentrate on 'getting things done,' consuming, conforming, and building isolated controlled pockets of safety and security in a world from which we feel increasingly alienated. We allow our fantasies to be shaped by advertising, politics and religion, by television and radio. The arts subsist on the edge of bankruptcy, while repetitive and violent story lines break the box office. In our increasingly damaged health care system, we short shrift the mind even more than the body. We idolize the intellect, and we believe in getting to answers that can be proven and corroborated. The search for our authentic selves is relegated to 'self-help' activities or crisis-driven psychotherapy, which is itself judged frivolous or shameful. We live as if we are static creatures, and we devote our resources to maintaining that sameness. As far as the inner life goes, we seem to believe that no news is good news. The imaginal and unpredictable are classified either as childish and irresponsible or as threats and not as pathways to broader existence.
Anthony Stevens, in Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming, tells a sad and touching story of C. G. Jung's meeting in Africa in the mid-1920s with an Elgonyi medicine man. With great regret, the old man told Jung that his people didn't need their dreams any longer because 'the white man, who ruled the earth, knew everything.' Over 80 years since Jung's conversation with the Elgonyi medicine man, we've turned even further from the organic dream world. We have come to believe what the old medicine man believed. We think we know, or can know, everything, and we believe that will be enough. We think our dreams can't count in the big scheme of things. Yet, in the face of that social pressure to conform, dreams keep coming to disturb the predictable pace of our lives and balance the solidity of day with the possibilities of night.
Dreams are our own personal court jesters. The jester was the king's fool. His job was to tell the truth, to be the king's reality check in the politicized, competitive world of the court. The jester had a mystique. He lured the king back to reality with jokes and puns, warnings and stories. Shakespeare's King Lear, the tragic tale of a king who comes too late to wisdom, offers a touching portrait of the relationship between king and jester.
Throughout the play, the fool speaks and Lear argues, ignores, threatens him with punishment but keeps him close. Their relationship isn't easy, but their bond is deep and the jester's love and loyalty for the king are evident. Lear is searching for perfect reverential love from his children, but he comes to learn what the fool has been trying to teach him: that life is not what it seems, and reality is both prickly and kind.
The jester guides the king as dreams lure the dreamer. Even as we argue and resist and push in the opposite direction, the dream world and the unconscious persist as a source of life and wisdom. They offer not the perfect love of Lear's longing, but a fidelity, depth and presence that may be the core of love.
Dream Work Practice
So, here I am with my caveman dream. Join me as I step back into the scene and take another look. Using my imaginationmy other way of seeingI recall the scene in as much detail as I can. I enter as I did the first time and go as slowly as I wish. It's like playing a movie on whatever speed I like. I give myself a minute to settle in. I stand on the sand across the lines from the crouching man. I wait; I try to accept what comes to my mind without censoring, without worrying about getting this right. I'm struck by how focused he is on the parallel lines. They remind me of the sand rakings in Zen gardens, which invite attentiveness and receptivity from meditators.
I feel myself beginning to relax. I look closely at the spheres. They're an inch or so in diameter and black. They look like musket ammunition, and I imagine they would feel hard and heavy in the palm of my hand. I am beginning to feel more interested. There's something soothing about looking down this length of lines, something orderly, earthy and safe. As I let my imagination work, I check my emotional and physical responses.
I am feeling curious, content, secure. My body feels confident, relaxed and a bit excited, even though I still don't know 'what it means.'
A few deep breaths and I end the dream work for now and reorient myself to the day world. What have I accomplished? Is this just make-believe? I answer the questions that pop up with more questions. What if I didn't respond with judgments? What if I didn't evaluate? What if I admitted to having the experience I've just had and bring it back with me into the day world exactly as it is?
If I did that, I would notice that my restless intellect followed my imagination onto that beach. I became more comfortable, more curious and open. The scene and the man began to become real. I began to share in the man's experience, its serenity and its captivating simplicity. I saw the worries that agitated the dream-Emma and kept her from entering into the scene. I realized the man posed no threat and had admirable qualities. I practiced being present in the moment, which I had not been able to do originally in the dream.
I've begun to bring into my conscious self a new bit of my unconscious. In small ways, I am changed, added to. My perceptions of this coming day will be colored and informed by this brief encounter. 'What it means' has begun to unfold.
©2007. Emma Mellon, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Waking Your Dreams : Unlock the Wisdom of Your Unconscious. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.