Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dreams, Part Three: Significant Dreams

This is Part Three 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.

For the most part, Buddhism doesn't dwell much on the content of dreams, and it doesn't pursue a methodology for interpreting them. The focus in Buddhism is more on the act of dreaming itself, and on recognizing the nature of dreams as a vehicle for realizing the nature of mind. Dream content is regarded as being somewhat like the thoughts we experience in meditation: it's neither good nor bad, but the bulk of it is imaginary, and in most cases no particular importance is to be attached to it. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and several types of dreams are considered to be potentially significant.

"Lucid Dream E," Parke Harrison

Precognitive Dreams

In Tibetan Buddhism -- the most mystical of the Buddhist traditions -- some dreams are considered to be prophetic or revelatory. This is particularly common among highly realized meditation practitioners. The Dalai Lama, for example, has spoken about having dreams that helped him locate or confirm the identity of reincarnate lamas. But even at a more mundane level, ordinary people sometimes experience dreams that seem to have a precognitive aspect.

I once dreamed of an old friend I hadn't seen in years, someone I had lost touch with and rarely even thought about. The very next morning after I had that dream, I had an appointment with a doctor, and was waiting in a subway station on the Upper East Side, a part of New York City where I did not usually go. The subway car doors opened, and it so happened that the old friend I had dreamed about the night before was standing right there in front of me. In a city that holds 12 million people on a typical day, he just happened to be riding the same subway, at the same time, in the same car, at the same door, and I happened to be waiting to step through that door, and I happened to have dreamed about him the previous night after not having thought of him in a very long time.

A nihilist would scoff at the suggestion that there was any connection between the previous night's dream and that chance encounter in the subway; he would argue that it was mere coincidence. A New Ager might make too much of the whole thing, and perhaps suggest that we were meant to be soul mates, or that we have unfinished karmic business whose nature can be revealed in the Akashic records or the Enochian scrolls for a low fee of just $100. A Freudian would probably brush off the coincidence and focus on the friend's appearance, with the goal of suggesting that I subconsciously equate this friend with my mother or father. A Jungian, at least, would allow space to contemplate the mystery -- the astronomically unlikely synchronicity -- of the convergence between that dream and the following morning's chance encounter in an out-of-the-way part of town.

Lucid Dreams

Among the most advanced meditation techniques taught in the Tantric Buddhism practiced in Tibet is dream yoga, or lucid dreaming. In the Kagyu lineage, dream yoga is usually introduced as part of the Six Yogas of Naropa, a set of esoteric teachings that are practiced extensively during the traditional three-year retreat. Dream yoga, therefore, is regarded as a practice for a few highly trained individuals. Through lucid dreaming, the meditation practitioner is able to train in recognizing and resting in the nature of mind right within their dreams. It is said that very advanced practitioners of dream yoga are able to maintain the same unbroken level of awareness and lucidity 24 hours a day, through all stages of waking and sleeping.

But again, on a more mundane level, many ordinary people also experience lucid dreaming -- either occasionally, or cultivated through regular practice. My friend Susan has been a frequent lucid dreamer since childhood, and says that her dreams are more often lucid than not. When she was a child, her grandmother, also a frequent lucid dreamer, used to teach her methods for working with her dreams; after her grandmother died when Susan was 15, Susan continued for years to meet up with her in lucid dreams, in the old Penn Station, whenever she needed guidance.

Sometimes lucid dreams, even if they don't occur frequently, can happen spontaneously. I recall once having a nightmare, and becoming aware -- within the dream itself -- that it was a dream. With that awareness, I made a conscious decision to wake myself up in order to put an end to the nightmare. And it worked -- I woke up.

Teaching Dreams

Another kind of dream that many Buddhists regard as potentially significant is when one dreams of being visited by, or receiving a message from, teachers or gurus or other enlightened spiritual beings. These kinds of dreams usually take place at the end of the sleep cycle, shortly before the dreamer wakes up. Tibetan Buddhism is full of legends about advanced meditation practitioners being visited in their dreams by great masters, and receiving significant teachings or guidance. The nagging (and probably unanswerable) scientific question of whether these dream experiences originate from beyond the dreamer's individual consciousness is somewhat beside the point; in either case, such dreams can be surprising, provoking, and enlightening. Jungian analysts would say such dreams reflect an encounter with the esoteric archetype of the Magus, the guru or wisdom principle that is embedded within the collective and individual unconscious.

Again, even ordinary people sometimes experience this phenomenon. Long before she became a Buddhist, my friend Susan says she repeatedly encountered in her lucid dreams -- often accompanying her grandmother -- a mysterious, large, shirtless Asian man with a kind face, wearing the dark red skirt that forms the lower half of a Tibetan monk's robes. She says it was only years later when she saw a photograph of the Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche that she recognized him as the man in her dreams. Dilgo Khyentse often appeared in public -- in real life, not only in Susan's dreams -- shirtless. Susan says she found his recurrent presence in her dreams annoying, for he was one of the few dream figures that she was unable to manipulate -- and whenever he was around, her grandmother seemed too busy with him to pay any attention to her.

The first time I ever gave meditation instruction was at a weekend spiritual retreat in the Catskill mountains. I had been invited to lead a meditation workshop -- or I had volunteered to do so -- because it was a much-needed part of the retreat, and I seemed to be the person in that particular group who knew the most about meditation. Still, I had never actually given meditation instruction before, and had no formal training in how to do so. Suddenly I was about to lead not one but two full-blown meditation workshops -- of one hour and fifteen minutes each -- for a group of about 75 people.

We arrived at the retreat center on Friday afternoon and settled in. I was to lead the first workshop the next morning. As I went to bed that night, I was petrified -- not only with the usual fear of public speaking, but with disbelief at my own audacity. Who did I think I was, leading these workshops with no formal training or experience? I feared the weekend would be a disaster. I slept restlessly that night. But right before I woke up, I had a dream that radically transformed the entire situation.

In the dream (as in waking life) I was at a retreat center with a group of people. But this was a retreat being led by Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan teacher and meditation master who died in 1987, and who founded the Shambhala Center where I had been studying meditation at that time. Chogyam Trungpa sent us all off to bed, and he stayed up late into the night preparing a huge, elaborate Mexican feast. When the feast was ready and he had laid it out on picnic tables on the front lawn, he began to beat a drum to wake us up and call us outside, in the middle of the night, to enjoy the feast.

I emerged -- easily and pleasantly -- directly from that dream into the waking state, seemingly with no interval of unconsciousness in-between. As I lay there in bed with the dream still washing over me, I realized I had a huge smile on my face. And I realized, too, that something in me had fundamentally changed: with that dream, my massive anxiety over the workshops had mysteriously vanished, blown away like dust, and in its place was a quiet but very tangible feeling of complete confidence and joy. I felt empowered, and totally -- unbelievably -- relaxed. I went into the workshops with that relaxed, confident and joyful mind, and I never questioned it. And those workshops turned out to be quite beneficial. A few people made their first genuine connection to meditation that Saturday morning, and continued to practice what they learned there in the years that followed.

It would be grandiose to say, and impossible to defend in a rational debate, that I was actually visited in my dream by Chogyam Trungpa, or affected in some way by some energy outside myself. And yet I cannot deny that my unusual dream that night took me utterly by surprise and caused a dramatic shift of energy inside me. Where did that inexplicable charge of confidence and relaxation come from, when I had gone to bed the previous night almost trembling with anxiety and neurotic worry? Call it Chogyam Trungpa, or call it my own deepest self, or call it Jung's Magus archetype -- it makes no difference in the end. It was, for me, a significant teaching dream, one that directly and profoundly altered my experience and indirectly touched the lives of 75 other people who were there that morning.

That is the power of our dreams, or at least some of them. Through dreams, we can -- if the conditions are right, and if we are open -- receive guidance and inspiration; we can connect with a part of ourselves that is deeper and wiser than our rational, neurotic little conscious minds. But dreams, like intuition, creativity and everything else that springs from the unconscious, speak obliquely, and mysteriously, in ways that defy logic. To comprehend their communications, we must look and listen with an open mind, and learn to sense when something significant is being communicated. Not every dream is worth dwelling upon, but every now and then a dream can change our lives.

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