Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dreams, Part Four: Working with Dreams

This is Part Four of a four-part series on dreams. Part One looks at the meaning of dreams, and dream interpretation. Part Two explores how Buddhism uses dreaming as a metaphor for life itself. Part Three describes several types of spiritually significant dreams. Part Four offers practical methods for working with dreams and the sleeping state.

Here are a few practical ways to work with your dreams, and with the sleeping state:

Keep a dream journal.
Many people have difficulty remembering their dreams. Although it might sound paradoxical, keeping a dream journal is one way to overcome this. It is also an essential step in unlocking the richness of your dream life and beginning to interpret your dreams.

Julia Cameron's "morning pages" practice (from her book The Artist's Way), although she doesn't teach it specifically as a method for working with dreams, is useful here; it offers a way of opening the door to pay more attention and remember more of your dreams. The practice is simple: every morning when you wake up, before you do anything else, sit down (or sit up) and write three pages of whatever comes into your head. Don't get up and brush your teeth or make the coffee, just write first and do those things afterwards. It doesn't matter what it's about or how dumb it sounds, just fill up three pages.

When I did the morning pages practice for several months, I found that what most often came to mind and emerged onto my three pages were the dreams from which I had just awakened. As I wrote about my dreams in those pages, I was constantly amazed to discover how much detail and depth I could recall through the act of writing. While writing, I would often remember significant aspects, and even entire dreams, that had been forgotten the instant I woke up -- and would be forgotten permanently if I did not evoke them through writing and put them on paper.

Often the only thing that would be left of a dream in my memory, by the time I sat up and grabbed my pen and notebook and started writing, would be an isolated fragment, or even a single image. But sometimes, as I held that fragment in my mind and wrote it down in my notebook, it would trigger other associated memories and more of the dream would reveal itself spontaneously.

A dream journal does not have to be a permanent undertaking. Try it for a few months, and see what happens. If your dreams continue to evade your recollection, be patient and write about whatever comes into your head -- that's the point of the "morning pages" exercise anyway. Eventually, your daily practice of paying attention to -- and writing down -- what is in your mind in those first few minutes after waking up should begin to unlock the door of memory, and you will develop a richer relationship to your dream life.

Set your intentions.
Regard your dreams as a potential vehicle for significant communication and a potential tool for spiritual awakening. Before you fall asleep at night, set your intentions. Make the aspiration that your dreams will communicate your own deepest wisdom, and that when you awaken you will remember your dreams and understand them. Invite your dreams to teach you; let your subconscious mind know that you are paying attention. It might be helpful to create a little ritual for this. You can be personal and creative about it; the point is to make it meaningful to you. It might be some particular words that you say each night, which help you articulate your intention; or it might be some action you perform to symbolize your intention, such as offering a stick of incense, or asking for guidance in your dreams from a higher power (inner or outer).

Nightmares can occur for different reasons, but in my experience they most often indicate a troubled conscience. When you have a nightmare, use it as an opportunity to contemplate what you are doing in your life that might not be sitting well with your own conscience. If you have frequent nightmares, it might be your subconscious mind's way of asking you to perform a complete ethics review of your life. What practical changes could you make in the way you conduct your waking life in order to put your conscience at ease, which would allow you to sleep more peacefully at night? When your conscience is at ease in waking life, then you are able to dwell at peace, and the monsters that appear in your dreams -- if they appear at all -- will not be nearly as frightening.

Lucid dreams.
Lucid dreaming can occur spontaneously, but it also can be developed and practiced intentionally. If this practice interests you, there are many books and teachings that provide specific methods for cultivating and working with lucid dreams, including a few books that teach techniques from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Most of these methods work, as described above, with some way of setting your intentions before falling asleep. They require consistent practice, and it may take some time before the practice bears fruit. So be patient, and keep at it. Your habits of being "asleep" in your dreams are ancient, and not easily undone -- unless you're like my friend Susan and you've been having lucid dreams all your life.

For pure inspiration I recommend Richard Linklater's entertaining and thought-provoking film, Waking Life (2001) which is entirely about lucid dreams.

Pay attention to the liminal moments.
We focus most of our attention on the waking state, and on what we can remember of our dreams. But we can also learn about our minds from paying attention to the liminal moments, the in-between states. In Tibetan Buddhism the moment of transitioning from being awake to being asleep is said to be a "bardo," a liminal moment of high potential for glimpsing and recognizing the true nature of mind. See if you can maintain awareness as you approach and cross over that line (if you can find it).

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold" ) 1. Pertaining to a threshold or entrance; relating to a beginning or first stage of a process; inceptive; inchoative; marginal; insignificant. 2. A state characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. 3. liminal space - A blurry boundary zone between two established and clear spatial areas. 4. The condition of being on a threshold or in a 'betwixt and between space'.

Similarly, the moment of transitioning from being asleep to being awake -- if we can be aware of it -- is highly charged with potential for recognizing mind's luminous nature. Daytime naps can be particularly good for working with this, because in naps we do not descend very deeply into the REM state; there is, so to speak, less distance to cover between being asleep and being awake. If we can be aware during that brief moment of transition, we can catch the waking state red-handed; we can observe it in the very act of returning to its full luminosity. It is as if a dimmer switch that had been turned down to a dim setting were suddenly turned back up to a bright setting: we can observe, in real-time, the different shades of luminosity mind goes through as it returns to waking consciousness.

No comments: