Friday, April 9, 2010

Dreams, Part One: The Dreaming

This is Part One 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.

The Dreaming

Have you ever watched a cat or a dog sleeping, and seen its little face twitching as it dreams of whatever cats and dogs dream of? Clearly, dreaming is not an experience limited to human beings. It is perhaps something that occurs among all the higher orders of sentient beings. But I wonder how far down the ladder it goes. Do fishes and ants and spiders dream when they sleep? As Philip K. Dick asked, in the title of the novel that became the film Bladerunner, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

In any case, the difference between humans and other dreaming creatures is that people have been trying, in various systematic ways, for thousands of years, to understand their dreams. Why do we have these crazy dreams when we sleep? What do they mean? Are they just nonsense, or full of significance? Are they messages from the gods? Why do we dream about certain things and not others? Why do we sometimes have pleasant dreams and other times have nightmares?

This ongoing human project of trying to interpret our dreams has produced all kinds of absurd ideas, such as the notion -- common in New Age circles -- that every dream is a significant communication from the divine source, and that there is a universal language of dreams shared by all human beings that can be encoded in a dictionary of dream symbols. The naive and simplistic approach taken by these dream dictionaries is that a horse, for instance, has a specific and fixed symbolic meaning that is somehow embedded in the human unconscious, regardless of culture or context, and that a dream horse therefore essentially symbolizes the same thing to every dreamer. Once you have learned the God-given symbolic meaning of all the possible things that could appear in a dream, then you possess the magic key to interpreting every dream. In Buddhist terminology, believers in this approach would be called "eternalists," because they reify and ascribe a too-solid reality to dreams and to their own fixed ideas about how to interpret them.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made (Fitzgerald, circa 1858)

The obvious problem is that these dream dictionaries -- and there are many -- each ascribe a different meaning to that poor horse. Which one are you supposed to believe? But the underlying, and more troubling, problem of this approach is that it pays no heed to cultural differences, individual psychology, the context of the dream, or the shifting, amorphous nature of dreams themselves. A thinking, rational person cannot put much stock in the idea that a horse will always symbolize the same thing for two people from wildly different backgrounds, with different experiences of horses and different ideas about them -- or even for the same person dreaming about horses in very different contexts, for different reasons, at different times in his or her life.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some naysayers respond to this inherent difficulty of interpretation by taking their cue from the apparently random, nonsensical nature of many of our dreams. These people are the dismissers, who jump to the conclusion that all dreams are nonsense and they can have nothing important to communicate to us -- a conclusion that is as absurd, in its own way, as believing that all dreams are significant communications from the divine source spoken in a fixed language. In Buddhist terminology, the dismissers would be called "nihilists," because they deny that there can be any meaning or spiritual importance at all in our dreams.

Somewhere in-between these two extremes are many people who apply various templates to interpret dreams from the point of view of specific psychological theories. Freudians see dreams as theatrical enactments of primitive impulses and unresolved trauma stemming from early childhood and parental relations; they pruriently search dreams for indications of such things as Oedipal conflicts and Electra complexes and penis envy. Jungians see dreams as expressions of the individual's potential for a deeper, more multidimensional kind of maturation, and they search dreams for indications of the dreamer's relationship to certain thematic archetypes which are, they believe (and perhaps they are right) embedded in the collective unconscious. While such templates of dream interpretation, and others like them, can be useful and revealing, they are also limiting in their scope. They look at dreams through one particular filter of preconceptions, and by definition they exclude ideas and possibilities that are not part of that set of considerations.

To their credit, all of these theories are on to something. The dismissers have seen, and rightly so, that very often what transpires in our dreams is nonsensical and not worth dwelling upon; not every dream is worth the bother of interpretation. The New Agers have seen, on the other hand, that dreams do sometimes communicate significant and even spiritually charged messages from a deeper part of ourselves, the vast part that lies beneath the surface of our conscious minds -- and these messages sometimes express a kind of magic that defies rational explanation. And psychologists have seen that dreams do sometimes reveal aspects of our personal and collective psychology that can be studied scientifically in order to understand ourselves both as individuals and as a species. The puzzling and amazing thing about dreams is that they can be viewed and interpreted from any of these angles; yet no one angle is sufficient to understand or address the content of dreams in their entirety -- much less to explain the dreaming itself.

And that is how our waking minds are, too -- why should our dreams be different? Sometimes in waking life our minds are full of nonsense and psychobabble: tangled trains of thought that are not worth the trouble of unraveling, that are better let go and forgotten. And at other times our minds are, shockingly, full of timeless wisdom and profound insight. Sometimes we experience within our waking minds aspects of our own personal, psychological growth and our relationship to the collective experience of humanity. And every now and then, we grasp intuitively that we -- and our dreams -- are part of something that reaches unimaginably far beyond this little blip on the screen called humanity: we are part of that infinite Being of which the dreaming dogs and cats and bugs, and the dreaming aliens in far-away galaxies -- and perhaps the dreaming ghosts in hidden dimensions we cannot fathom -- are also part. Maybe what we call waking life is merely the dream of that Being, and what we call dreaming is really a dream within a dream.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

-- Shakespeare, Hamlet

It would be so much simpler if we could look at our dreams, or our waking lives, from only this or that angle -- if we could reduce all our experience and explain it with a single theory or a neat package of theories. But life is complex and multidimensional; it defies simplistic explanations. The truly baffling thing is that we alternate, in waking life and in dreams, between confusion and wisdom, nonsense and meaning, being awake and being asleep. As the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche has said, if we could just be confused all the time, that would at least make for some sort of clarity; the trouble is that sometimes we are wise, and other times we are like idiots. And often, it's hard to know the difference.

Like the thoughts we have in waking life, dreams can -- if we understand their nature and investigate them in the right way -- help us recognize and understand our own minds and make sense of our lives. But they can also be meaningless distractions, and lead us in circles. The trick is in learning to distinguish between the waking thoughts and sleeping dreams that lead us in circles and the ones that lead us in the direction of knowledge and insight. In working with dreams, intuition plays a large role -- because dreams emanate from the same shadow dimension as our intuition does. Both dreams and intuition speak in the expressive but mysterious language of the unconscious mind.

And though the unconscious mind may indeed be the source of Freud's penis envy and Jung's array of colorful archetypes, and though it may indeed harbor a lot of psychobabble that washes up on the shores of our conscious minds like so much hapless driftwood that isn't worth collecting, the unconscious is also the hidden source of all that is fertile, all that is surprising, all that is magic in our lives. In its fathomless depths are buried records of everything we have ever said, done and thought, and everything we have experienced, and everything we have imagined. It is the source of everything we ever could imagine. And "it" is communicating with us, at all times and in all situations, in our waking lives and in our sleep.

Are you listening?

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