Notes: Talking About Dreams, Sharing Dreams

Note that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

People in the industrialized world — which is rapidly becoming the whole world — rarely talk about their dreams. Dreams are becoming a more and more marginalized part of the modern human experience. Dreams are generally discounted, and not taken seriously. They have become a kind of “brain noise,” explained away by vague references to emerging neuroscience; or, and perhaps this is more problematic, they have become “symptoms.” One talks seriously about dreams only in a psychotherapeutic environment. To talk about dreams at other times risks being psycho-analyzed by others, or even being stigmatized, in a minor sort of way, as a person with psychological “issues.” Revealing dreams to anyone other than, say, your bed-mate is somehow a breach of appropriate social boundaries. Talking about your dreams in other social contexts — at a party, at work, might just be taken as proof that you are a little less stable than you should be.

Very few people actively cultivate their capacity to remember dreams, to think about them, to talk about them with others. But the fact remains that we all dream, every night, four or five times. This is an undisputed scientific fact. We usually don’t remember all (or sometimes any) of these dreams in the morning, but if awakened in the midst of them by a researcher looking for the tell-tale signs of “Rapid Eye Movement” and certain brain wave patterns, we can nearly always describe them.

Dreams are therefore a central, universal part of human experience. And yet, no scientist can yet explain to us exactly why we dream, or how our dreams are put together, or why they often feel so vivid, so real.

Of course, in metaphorical terms, dreams are hugely celebrated: everyone should “have a dream,” the world debates the merits of the “American Dream,” many popular songs reference them (“Dream Weaver,” “Girl of my Dreams,” “Dream, Dream, Dream”). Critics have often noted that people going into a darkened movie theater are essentially having a shared, dream-like experience. And yet … dreams still remain something close to a taboo topic in ordinary conversation.

This is the background for my own reluctance to write about my dreams on the World Wide Web. It feels almost like an act of personal courage, or foolhardiness, to do so. But it would be inauthentic to write a book about dreams — as concept, as metaphor, as phenomenon, as synonym for visions— and not say something about my own, actual night dreams.

Night dreams have in fact been a rich and wonderful part of the experience I call “my life,” for all of my fifty years of cycling between wakefulness and sleep. As I child, I dreamt intensively, and eventually lucidly — “awakening” within a dream and then directing it in ways I found pleasant or comforting or exciting. This was a necessary skill, too, because of trouble with recurring nightmares: lucid dreaming, the practice of becoming aware that you are dreaming and then choosing whether to wake up or continue in some new direction, became part of a solution to a childhood fear of night and of the dark. The habit of attending to my dreams — which were usually not lucid, but were always intense and vivid — followed me through my teen years and into adulthood.

My first professional jobs were in social work and counseling, so naturally dreams became even more interesting then. Encouraged by professional dream therapists and Native American ceremonialists — with whom I was working side-by-side, as part of an experimental treatment program for mentally disturbed young people — I began writing down my dreams, a practice I still maintain. My growing capacity to remember my dreams in vivid detail came in hand when, in New York during my 20s, I saw a Jungian analyst for a couple of years. This experience contributed both to my own understanding of my dreams, but also to the feeling that dreams were somehow private and overly revealing, something one should not talk freely about. Sometimes thinking about my dreams helped me sort out truly difficult problems from my early family life; and sometimes, they provided me inspiration and clarity about my waking dreams, that is to say, my ambitions and aspirations in life. For example, I made the decision to go to New York and try my hand at music and songwriting partly because of a very powerful dream, which came to me while camping in the great redwood forests of Northern California. The central image of that dream — a guitar, spinning ten meters above the ground, on a beautiful fountain of light — moves and inspires me to this day.

These days, I do not write down every night’s harvest of dreams, only those that seem to cry out for more reflection, or that stir me in some way. For example, while at a recent colloquium in France, I had a long, detailed dream about running a different seminar, that was in turn visited by a different teacher. He was showing the participants how to do different yoga-like positions that were “new equilibrium points,” new ways of balancing on the Earth. These positions were so specific that I drew them as pictures in my journal. I could only laugh at the close link between what I was hearing about every day (in French) and what my brain was doing with the inputs, in a “mash-up” with my own personal and professional life, my history, etc.

In this dream, one of the “equilibrium positions” was remarkable, for it involved floating a few centimeters over the Earth. Here is how it worked. You lay on your belly, and took hold of a pair soft cloth handles that looked very much like rabbit ears. These were fastened to the floor. Then you slowly stretched out your legs, lifted your hips, and rose up on your elbows, seeking the “equilibrium point.” When you found it, you could raise your elbows … and you would find yourself floating. It worked, explained the man leading this seminar, because one was in a sort of “mini-orbit” position, a point where gravity and the centrifugal forces were in balance (equilibrium). It required physical precision as well as mental calm and clarity, and he spoke of both angular momentum and personal equanimity. The experience of floating like that, ten centimeters above the ground, holding on to a pair of soft rabbit ears, was both exhilarating and a bit funny, and when one achieved it, one laughed in delight.

In the dream, it all seemed strangely plausible — “Why haven’t physicists thought of this before?” — and of course very vivid and real; but of course it’s nonsense in physics terms, just a confused jumble of concepts. It’s the image, the multi-layered metaphor that’s most intriguing: finding equilibrium, floating above the Earth …

I told this dream to my daughters, aged 5 (nearly 6) and 7, because we talk about our dreams once in a while, over the breakfast table. A day or two later, the 5-year-old said, “Daddy, you know that dream you had about holding onto rabbit ears and flying? I have that picture in my mind now all the time. It’s really fun!” Somehow, sharing my dream with her was a way of sharing a little bit of mental delight.

I wonder what modern life would be like if we talked more regularly, and more freely, about our dreams?

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