Feed on

by Karen Messer


Commonly seen as a conduit to another dimension of ourselves, dreaming is a mysterious aspect of human biology that has countless cultural, social and symbolic meanings. Whether this is a connection to our spiritual self–our soul–or to a deeper part of our psyche, dreams allude to the presence of hidden messages. Like participating in a treasure hunt, we race from clue to clue, desperate to decode the embedded secrets in our dreams before they disappear. Some dreams are epic narratives with complicated plots, while others are simple but disquieting. We all dream, but a diverging ability to remember our dreams and to distil possible meaning keeps dreaming in the clouds. Is this a skill to hone, a neurological byproduct, or an unrecognized sixth sense? Dreaming often presents us with a bizarre embodied perceptive–a glimpse into another realm of our existence. To consider understanding this multifaceted language using our waking minds is challenging and requires a more sensorial way of reading the experience. Looking beyond the narrative, dreams communicate layers of emotive messages through colour, sound, touch and sight in unusual combinations difficult to comprehend.


This brief exploration looks at the act of dreaming as both a biological and spiritual form of dialogue with our unconscious. However, the mystery of what, how, or whom we are in communication with, and the potential significance of this knowledge, require further investigation.


The Act of Dreaming

During the 1960s and 1970s, medical studies in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep–the physical state in which most dreams occur–led to greater knowledge of the biology of dreaming, but virtually no insights into the “dream itself” (Hartman, 2011). During REM sleep, the dreamer is in “an organismic state–a state of the entire body” (p.3). This physical state differs from the ways in which our body and brain are regulated when we are awake. More recent investigations into the brain by neuropsychologists have revealed detailed information regarding which parts of the brain are used during different phases of dreaming (Schwartz et all, 2005). A consistent theme within dream investigation is the idea of dreaming as a kind of processing tool. Andrea Rock, author of The Mind at Night (2004) comments, “You don’t turn off thought. It just takes a different form” (p.viii). This is precisely what makes dreams so intriguing. These “hallucinatory narratives” (p.viii) are not completely cut off from reality, but a different manifestation of it. This alternative reality becomes an opportunity for our consciousness (some of which is aware during sleep) to process “daily emotion and [the] cognitive world … free of the contextual inhibitions that are imposed during our waking life” (Maltz & Walker, 2008).  If we consider this relationship between our body and mind in these two different ways of being, it raises the questions: Is the dream state more authentic, honest and trustworthy?  Would increasing our ability to access our dreaming mind create a more intuitive way of being?

While slightly outside the realm of dreaming, it is perhaps relevant to look at our conscious internal response systems in this context. Varela (1999) argues that our automatic impulses provide a more authentic picture of our individual moral framework. In these split-second actions we access our immediate coping mechanisms, which he says represents “the most common kind of ethical behaviour” (p.5). This contrasts with what he refers to as deliberate, willed action, which can be explained based on conceived and arguable goals. When we look at this in a dreaming context, it’s interesting to see our waking life as being guided by rules and regulations fostered by generations of societal conditioning and norms. Considering reality as a social construct (Gergen, 1994; Berger & Luckmann, 1967), how might increased awareness of our dream state enhance our ability to navigate life?  Edgar Schien, (2001) a social scientist, says connecting to our unconscious can “encourage us to broaden the range of perceptions and feelings” (p.81). In drawing attention to our unplanned and unconstrained impulses, can we access greater depths of our intrinsic experience?


Freud & Jung


Traditional views of dreaming in psychology provide insight into our contemporary relationship to dreams. Freud’s introspective view on dreams, as evidence of our unconscious selves, saw the content of dreams as a direct result of repressed desires and  “psychic forces [in] conflict or co-operation” (1997, p.5). Dreams, when studied by a professional, thus became part of a “psychological investigation” for a diagnosis. Freud’s view of dreams as manifestations of our unvented psyche differed from Jung’s belief that dreams are linked to a greater collective unconscious. For Jung, dreams contained representations of the “instinctive, emotional parts” (Rock, 2004, xii) of ourselves, which revealed themselves as symbolic archetypes inherited from ancient images, myths and lore. In both cases, dreams contain information relevant to understanding behavior in our waking life. The key is to understand the language and symbols through which our dreams communicate.


Symbolism and experience


You’re being chased, or perhaps your teeth fall out… The content of dreams often seems to be a representation of common anxieties and therefore many people have claimed to have similar dreams. However, the meaning of such dreams is different for each person. While some believe that dream symbols have a common, collective meaning–if you dream this, it means that–others believe dream content is highly subjective. For example, if someone with a paralyzing fear of dogs dreams about a dog, that person will have a very different understanding of the dream than someone who adores dogs. The sensorial experience surrounding the symbol is equally, if not more, important. We may have a dream laden with confusing and violent imagery, but feel extremely calm. Do we trust the symbolic image or our experience with it? Alfred Margulies speaks of dreams, which he refers to as “inscapes” (1989, p.22), as being “bizarre, disorienting, and otherworldly” (2000, p.305), qualities that could trigger skepticism or mistrust. But how we feel in these dreamscapes is real. In this regard, Margulies believes “reality is the reality of our feelings” (p.305). Consider recurring dreams, which don’t often change in plot, but can change in temperament and perception. The symbol only becomes relevant when we can attribute personalized emotional meaning.


Swami Radha advises students to build their own unique dream dictionary based on associations and experiences they’ve have had with particular symbols. This is part of what Radha calls dream yoga, which she explores in her book Realities of the Dreaming Mind (2004). Her approach considers the act of dreaming as a way to communicate with your “Higher Self” and to develop intuition. Through practice and guidance from a spiritual teacher, practicing Dream Yoga can help bring together the conscious and the unconscious “with a desire to gain mastery over the mind” (p.18).  She maintains that enhanced dreaming ability can release us from our minds’ tricks, which hinder our capacity to see our unconscious clearly. So rather than decoding a secret language, understanding the messages in our dreams requires taming the beast of our conscious mind. Think about when you’re writing down a dream you’ve remembered: have you ever filled in the blanks, slightly altered an event to make the dream sound “better” or perhaps hide an aspect you were embarrassed about? This manipulation can take the form of subtle changes we make outside our awareness. One exercise in Radha’s dream analysis involves replacing the characters in your dream with aspects of yourself. Rather than see “Fred” entering the room, this figure becomes “the part of you that Fred represents” entering the room. The next step is to figure out what Fred represents to you. Radha also draws our awareness to conscious influences–aspects or events in our waking life that may influence the content of our dreams. Watching science fiction movies before bed may explain the medium your unconscious is using to communicate. These types of exercises allow us to get past some of the initial surface or literal assumptions we might have about the dream and pushes us to into other forms of communication such as colour, texture, sound, mood, or our bodies. As we become more familiar with our waking patterns and influences, this lucidity can increase the depth and method of conversation we have with our unconscious. This shifts the emphasis from the dream narrative or content, to sensorial cues that are difficult to translate. Experiencing overlapping sensations, such as synesthesia, “[leave] the dreamer with an ineffable moment” (Margulies, 1989, p.29). Describing these experiences strips away the embodied experience that holds the message. Even the memory of a dream is missing the complete sensory configuration. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to recreate a dream’s “curious music of sensory transpositions” (p.29) in our waking life. Margulies questions if this difficulty is in fact a learned ability – if during an earlier time perception was not as clearly demarcated (p.29). Our current separation and cultural hierarchy of senses contributes to how we perceive our dream and where we put emphasis. The fleeting nature of our senses contributes to the inclination to increase the significance the narrative.


Beyond Time and Space


Robert Moss, creator of Active Dreaming–a blend of dream work and shamanism–has written extensively regarding his own dreams. In Dreaming the Soul Back Home (2012), Moss recounts moving to a farm in upper New York state where he began to dream of a woman who spoke to him in an unknown language. After phonetically transcribing what he heard during these dreams, local Mohawk speakers confirmed the words were from an archaic Mohawk language spoken roughly 300 years ago. The woman was an atetshents–a Mohawk word meaning “one who dreams” (p.3).  The “one who dreams” is not bound by time and acts as a medium between the dreamer and the spirit realm by entering dreams to provide information during times of importance or danger. Moss sees dreaming as a form of self-healing and “inner guidance” by way of re-connection with our soul or “Greater Self.” However, he emphasizes our ability to transcend time and space (into others’ dreams) while re-connecting with our soul. This concept of “soul loss” and self-healing, though similar, goes beyond an acceptance of the Jungian shadow self, in that the dreaming is actually “retrieving pieces of [the] soul that have literally gone missing”(p.6).


Time is another fascinating aspect of dreaming. Even in terms of duration, dreams don’t seem to follow our normal experience of time. Despite intricate narratives, significant conversations and detailed experiences, dreams can occur in a matter of just minutes. Our measurement of time doesn’t seem to apply. J.W. Dunne, in An Experiment with Time, explored a multi-dimensional time. The book, first published in 1927, looks at past, present and future as equally accessible during the dreaming state (Dunne, 2001). According to Dunne, it is because of the dreamer’s ability to exist in the future that people experience déjà vu, the eerie feeling of having experienced something before is caused by the memory of your dream of the future. It is this type of exploration that pushes the boundaries of our conception of dreaming and time. What if our unconsciousness (individual and collective) is providing information, currently untapped, about the future?


Collective Dreaming


William Domhoff, an American psychologist, says the dreamscape can provide enough information to “give you a psychological profile that is almost as individualized and accurate as fingerprinting” (as quoted in Rock, 2004, xiii). Our dreams are unique to us, which is perhaps why listening to someone else’s dream isn’t nearly as interesting as exploring your own. That said, when shared on a larger scale, this “dreaming fingerprint” offers researchers a unique glimpse into people’s minds. What is Montreal dreaming about? Can symbolic patterns, found in our collective unconscious, reveal trends about age groups, nations, and beyond?  With recent technological advances, dream databases are becoming more common and extensive. Thousands of dreams are being collected and coded by groups like the National Dream Centre, and through the Sleep and Dream Database, who state on their website that they’re developing an automatic dream interpretation system “based on systematic empirical research [to show] the broad patterns of dreaming form, content, and meaning.” The value of collective dream collection seems relevant when looking at dreams at the symbolic level; however, the subjective experience of each dream is lost.


Other collective dreaming methods involve co-creating a dream state. During an Action Research conference in Vienna last year, I joined a Social Dreaming Matrix session led by Ruth Balogh. The group was organized into a seated arrangement referred to as a “snowflake” design, which resembled alternating concentric circles. Participants, were then asked to begin the dreaming process which used free association to ping-pong dream fragments around the room slowly weaving our dream threads into a collective narrative. What emerged from the experience were patterns of clocks, time, rushing, and anxiety the group later attributed to being at the conference. Similar to mass dream collection this process seems to achieve no more than common anxieties felt and manifested by the group.



Concluding thoughts


Whether grounded in neurobiology or mystical experience, dreams are a fascinating and mysterious aspect of being human. Each night we delve into the depths of our mind and body to experience its full creative and expressive potential. Regardless of memorial evidence each morning, these episodes impact our waking life by helping us process emotion, explore alternatives, and make new connections (Hartman, 2011). It is through this alternate sense, experienced free from conscious constraints and through an unconscious mind / body intelligence, that we access information to increase our understanding of our self.


Is this a sense we can develop further? To what extent can dream knowledge can be utilized or cultivated? And does this communication remain within our individual selves or within a collective unconscious? The answers to these questions remain to be seen.  






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Varela, F.J. (1999). Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.