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Why Dreams Matter
#1 in a series on dreams
Waking up from a dream is like gazing at a strange polaroid that’s still developing. Perhaps there’s a fuzzy cat, a supernatural gas station, a lost wallet, or fresh tracks from an adventure across worlds unbound by convention. When I come across papers by neuroscientists that describe the activity of dreaming as random, I laugh. Such opinions are amusing, but also concerning. Dreams reveal our relationship with ourselves—conflicted as that may be—and to outright dismiss our mental landscape as mere randomness is bleak. It smacks of that delightful stage of research in the ‘70s, when only 2% of human DNA appeared to have an obvious function, and the geneticist Susumu Ohno declared the remainder to be “junk DNA,” as if it were entirely plausible that our trillions of cells wasted 98% of their energy to carefully preserve and transcribe a code of mostly space-hogging junk. How did that hold up? Well, it’s since been demonstrated that “junk DNA” does indeed play a critical, indispensible evolutionary role in mammalian development. Nature must lol at our explanatory hubris.
As Mick Jagger sang, “Lose your dreams, and you’ll lose your mind.” Our culture tends to regard dreaming as incidental, but there’s nevertheless a mounting stack of evidence that a lack of dreaming is associated with memory problems, difficulty concentrating, inflammation, weight gain, immune system dysregulation, emotional disturbances, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, and yet more complications. At the same time, many common substances, such as alcohol and cannabis, along with widely-prescribed medications like SSRI’s and sleeping pills, actually inhibit REM sleep, thus reducing or even suppressing our natural ability to dream. Not dreaming is not good for you, yet norms, lifestyles, and everyday pharmacology continue to push them further into the periphery of our lives. There’s a growing deficit of dreams.
Despite our technological prowess, we don’t yet know why evolution has compelled nearly every mammal on the planet to perform this mysterious daily function, which might suggest grounds for a tad more humility. In fact, the REM stage of sleep where most dreams spawn accounts for over 7% of our lives. Ponder this: you’ll likely spend more than 5 years of your life in dreams—plenty of time to launch a new career, learn another language, and finally get into ceramics—but for many of us this will remain a foreign continent we fly by nightly, yet seldom recall.
I’ve written down my dreams for over 20 years. I’m casual, in that I only write dreams that stick around. It’s a deal I made early on: they have to announce themselves with enough oomph to warrant the drag of moving a pen across paper, then I pay careful attention. It began out of necessity. Midway through college, a huge creative energy erupted into my life from my dreams, and by writing them down I started to learn about that energy and how to harness it. In a practical way, from the inside out and over a long period of time, I’ve meandered through their transformative potential, which is anything but random. I find that periods where I don’t interact with my dreams are stagnant-ish, and conversely, when I’m curious about them, my growth and creativity accelerate so obviously that it would be dumb of me to stop.
I can’t say this is easy. Working with dreams is like strength training for consciousness. And for a long time, it was a pretty awful workout. Simply writing down a tough dream, or sitting with the difficult emotions they brought up felt agonizing at best. But I’ve learned over the years that if I’m willing to meet the patterns coming up in my dreams, they’re much less likely to rollercoaster their way through my waking life. The Sufi saint Radha Mohan Lal Ji once said, “One second of suffering in dreams is equal to years of suffering in waking life.” I’d rather not do the latter. Looking back, all the conflict I experienced in dreams was necessary. Little by little, it built the mind I needed to grow into myself and do my work in the world.
As I’ve been writing this essay, several friends have asked me about lucid dreaming. I’m sure there are wonderful ways to do lucid dreaming, but my general observation is that it’s often used to escape conflict and exert control. Once a dream is lucid, the dreamer can just zoom away from a difficult situation, which is a form of avoidance. Similarly, when you’re dictating your environment, you’re not free to be fully present with reality. To me, the big gift of plain ol’ dreams is a multi-nightly opportunity to engage factors of consciousness that are outside of my control—that’s absolutely fascinating. That’s the creative wilderness where Friedrich Kekulé first glimpsed the structure of benzene, Dmitri Mendeleev saw the periodic table, René Descartes intuited the basis for his Scientific Method, and Otto Loewi, the father of neuroscience, conceived of an experiment to demonstrate the conduction of nerve signals (making it even more amusing that neuroscience now treats dreaming as expendable).
Besides, regular dreaming isn’t a passive act. It may feel passive if you’re treating it as such, but that’s simply mirroring back to you the current state of your investment. Over the years, my awareness in dreams has grown, and by now, I’m pretty much my full self—exploring, making decisions, meeting challenges, playing with puppies, giving hugs, getting my mind blown by the sheer weirdo miraculousness of life, and cracking the odd joke.
There’s a common misconception that a dream should be “interpreted.” That’s daylight logic. Dreams are like artworks. There’s never a one-to-one match for the meaning of a dream or artwork, because they don’t represent something fixed. Instead, a dream, image, or artwork is a sprawling matrix of potential meaning. It patiently waits for you, as observer and co-creator, to interact with its charged polarities and networks of association, so that you might bring them to life in the light of your unique awareness. When you interact with these meaning-matrices, and spend time with the emotions and insights they evoke, on some level, however subtly, you are changed.
I’m still learning about a dream I had at age 5. In kindergarten, I dreamed that I looked out into the night across a dark field, and saw an incredibly bright, pure light. The light was aware, autonomous, and intelligent. It saw me, and it was purposefully coming to me, which scared the crap out of me. Again and again over the years I’ve dreamed of this light in new ways, as my relationship to illumination, to consciousness, myself, god and creativity have changed. In a sense, I’ve only ever had this one dream, but each time I dream it, I’ve evolved a little bit more, so that as I dream the narrative rolls forward in a fresh permutation, revealing how I’ve grown and what might come next.
Every dream casts a fresh play. The lights dim, and you are the theatre, actors and action. Together with that mysterious playwright we call the unconscious, you co-write the script as you go. Each production, however hazy, is arranged to show you how your consciousness moves. The dream stirs up an alchemical brew of emotion, precisely targeted to illuminate gifts and wounds, nudging you to grow. What happens next is up to you.
This is the first of a series of essays on dreams. The next will dip into a few practical methods I’ve found useful for working with them—would love to hear your thoughts, q’s, and, of course, dreams.
Preview image: Saturn through Titan’s Haze by Val Klavens
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