Perchance to Dream: Part II

by MLHeller on March 11, 2008

in 2008,Dreams,General Archives,States of consciousness,Unconscious processes

The uncanny content of dreams often makes them appear to be communications from afar.  However seductive it is to imagine mysterious and distant origins, the equally fascinating explanation is that dream images are your own mental products.

Dreams clothe the unconscious mind.

Though not inserted into your mind by someone or something else, they do have inner and outer sources.  Each dream element or character represents a particular part of your core self, frequently a part that remains out of conscious awareness most of the time.

While I have no statistics for those of you who like empirical facts and figures, it’s likely that over ninety percent of human thought processes occur outside of conscious awareness.  Dreams permit you to glimpse some of this unconscious mental activity, bidding you to examine yourself more deeply.  They reveal and clarify unseen personality features, giving them recognizable shape and form, so you can reflect upon them.  Like the suit on the invisible man, they “clothe” your unconscious mind.

The sources of actual dream imagery vary.  Your mind functions as antennae receiving on multiple levels, grabbing interesting images it finds useful and later inserting them into your dreams.  Daytime experiences, even trivial ones, often appear theatrically in dreams.  These remnants known dryly as “day residue,” function like magnets attracting deeper unconscious concerns.  A dream links your outside world to your inside world, facilitating creative contemplation.

Dreams have multiple meanings

For example, if you spent the day sailing and then dreamt of frothy white caps on a slightly troubled sea, you might consider that the surface of your mind was stirring deeper, unsettled emotions.  It’s true you might have been equally concerned about the disturbances on the actual sea, but in your dreams, you were invited to look beneath the surface of your mental sea, perhaps all the way to your sea bed.

Underwater vision

Underwater vision

You stirred the deep waters of your mind.  After all, you were sleeping in a nice, dry bed and could have dreamt of the sails or horizon, the sun or clouds, but you dreamt of the slightly dangerous surface of the deep sea.

Consider your own day residue and ask yourself why a particular image found its way into a dream last night.  After all, you see and do lots of things during the course of an average day.  Ask yourself why that particular image was a magnet for something more deeply embedded in your unconscious mind, something that wanted expression and attention.  A dream makes us mindful of powerful feelings by saying, “Hey, look here.  Think about this.”

But I never remember my dreams

People often ask why they don’t remember their dreams.  Dreams belong to a sleep state, so when you wake up, you don’t always have access to them.  You can’t watch two television programs at the same time, at least not on my TV.  You tend to remember dreams immediately upon awakening, because you’re still shifting states from sleep to wakefulness.  You’re just changing the channel.

If awakened immediately after a REM or rapid eye movement period, you generally recall your dreams.  After a few minutes, though, you begin to forget details about the program you just viewed, because you’re now watching something else.  Children often become confused or frightened, because they cannot distinguish dreaming from waking states.  They don’t know exactly which program they’re watching.

Sometimes you don’t recall a dream, because you’ve resolved the concern in your sleep and awaken simply feeling good without knowing quite why.  Grinding away under the surface, your unconscious sleeping mind has simply not needed your attention this time.  Sometimes you don’t recall a dream, because the subject stirs disturbing feelings you prefer to avoid.   If pressing, it may repeat itself in another dream.

Recurrent dreams

A recurrent dream suggests a concern that has yet to be resolved completely.  The dreamer keeps going back to rework it.  Recurrent dreams reveal some of your most significant life themes, and everyone has had them.

One of the most common is the amusing, though anxiety provoking dream about school exams.  Though there are many variants, the most familiar pertains to arriving at school to find you’re being tested in a class you never took.  Uh-oh.  Teachers dream they’re supposed to test a class they never taught.

I had a recurrent dream for years that my university degree had been revoked.  I would receive a letter saying, “Upon reviewing our files, we have found that you didn’t actually complete your 180 units…”  Shock and awe.  So, I had to go back to college.   Not that I didn’t consider lying for a very brief moment, but I’m far too honest for that.

Girl with death mask

Girl with death mask

In the worst variant, the glitch went all the way back to junior high, and there I was, wondering, among other things, where to park my car.  The teachers’ lot?  Would I have to take the bus?  Would I have to wear that really ugly gym outfit, the one that fit like a starched hospital sheet?  I rejoiced when I threw it away decades ago.

Some years later, when I returned to graduate school, the dreams simply stopped.  As an important life task was being completed, so were my compelling dreams.

A dream is a letter waiting to be read

It’s written in a religious text that an unexplored dream is like an unopened letter.  Dreams beg us to look more deeply into ourselves.  Begin by being curious about yourself.  Yes, it’s okay to do that.  Really sit with yourself for a while and pay attention to each feeling or thought that comes to mind, even if it seems silly or irrelevant.  It’s not.  You’re decoding clues.

In Perchance to Dream Part I, I said that dreams are personal myths while myths are communal dreams.  Myths and fairly tales have longevity because they have multiple meanings.

Mythology, fair tales and dreams

Beauty and the Beast is a good example.  While your child might enjoy the surface entertainment value of the tale, as an adult, you might glimpse a deeper meaning, realizing that the story addresses the beauty and the beast that dwells within each of us.

Los dos Fridas

Los dos Fridas

We each have beautiful facets and beastly facets.  Our goal is to integrate all these facets so they shine like a gem.  Beauty “marries” the beast.  This mythic task is the psychological work of a lifetime.

As you begin to forge links between your own day residue and dream imagery, you will catch a glimpse of your unconscious mind at work and play.  Without these vital dream links, you would have few other ways to see what is generally out of awareness.  Pay attention to feelings that emerge.

What did I just say?… Freudian slips

Everyone has laughed at “Freudian slips,” those little hiccups of speech that reveal what someone is really thinking or feeling.  Many years ago, a friend of mind was in a middling restaurant and heard her boyfriend order a “latrine” of soup.  Of course he meant to say “tureen” and was unaware of his slip until everyone at the table laughed.   He had revealed an unconscious feeling-thought.

A dream affords us a brief glimpse of unconscious mental processes.  Why?  If you experienced total awareness all the time, you’d be too bombarded with thoughts and feelings to function.  Instead, you get measurably tolerable doses on a regular basis, like eating small regular meals that are easily digestible.  A daily onslaught of Thanksgiving-sized portions would make you ill.  Such is the stuff of nightmares.

Understanding your dreams

Now consider how each dream image speaks specifically to you.  Dream imagery is condensed, meaning that one image may represent several different things.

A woman who dreams of her daughter may be dreaming about her actual daughter, but she is also dreaming about herself as a young girl.  The image of her daughter magnetizes deeper thought-feelings as her inner and outer worlds meet, prompting her to consider her own youthful attributes.  She can now reflect upon them more completely, perhaps tapping into youthful possibilities she may have been ignoring.

Here’s a fun exercise to loosen up your analytic playfulness.  I don’t remember when or where I learned this technique but will share it with you.  The next time you awaken and remember a dream, run to the computer and write it down, even if your recall is fuzzy.  Allow for double spaced typing then print it.

Slowly read what you’ve typed, and above each word, immediately write the words or thoughts come to mind, whatever they are.  Don’t censor yourself.  Nobody but you will see this.  Now rewrite the dream using your associations and compare the two.  If you do this for a while, your own mythic themes will emerge, and you’ll access your inner muse.

Dream on.

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975

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