When I close my eyes in bright sun, I sometimes see a field so red its almost black, and filled with motion: waves washing across it, spirals of light like leaves rotoring toward Earth, flashpops and novas.
I dont know what Im actually seeing---electricity sparking through the muscles of my eyes, blood cells moving through capillaries, the vapor trails left by passing thoughts? But in reading these hieroglyphics, I see that Im always in motion, always blooming inside with color, and filled with such goings-on: mad scientists at work, corps of engineers wielding lasers and paintbuckets, dreams being set-designed for the evenings performance.
The dark is a lively place. Through it weaves the storyline of our days, right on through the nightshift. Whatever our wild perplexities and appetites, whatever urgings circle inside us, as the poet Rita Dove puts it, "nosing the surface, hungry and mute," they are worked into tales when we sleep and dream, when we slip the ink-dark isthmus into the Land of Nod. And we have to read those tales. Only then can we maintain continuity with the unfolding Story and partake of the clayworks of making consciousness, making form out of what is unformed in us.
Dreams bubble up from the unconscious, which seems to contain an image of the way were supposed to be, and works toward the expression of this potential the way a sculptor works toward releasing the statue held inside a rock. To ignore dreams is to hide the sculptors tools, to tear out pages from our own stories, to cut ourselves off from that place from which our own callings emanate. Most spiritual traditions clearly regard dreams as revelations from the gods, and they consider the act of separating the waking life from the dreaming, the conscious from the unconscious, the same as tearing a plant from its roots.
Dreams point us toward what we need for growth, integration, expression, and the health of our relationships to person, place and thing. They point us toward a kind of equilibrium. Theyre the imagination at work while we sleep. Theyre meaning machines. And they never lie. "Dreams dont come true," says author Tom Robbins. "They are true." When we wish that our dreams would come true, were really referring to our ambitions.
Dreams tell us how we really feel about something, help us fine-tune our direction, show us our unfinished business, and remind us how much bigger our lives are than what we know consciously. In fact, dreams show us that consciousness itself is a scrabbling around at the hem of something so big it would short us out if we understood its true dimensions. I sometimes wonder: if I can possess such immense powers in my dreams, might I similarly possess powers beyond my imagination in my waking life?
Dreaming is about waking up. The unconscious often knows things about which were otherwise in the dark, things which in the broad daylight of consciousness remain invisible to us, just as the stars play to an empty house during the day when the sun is shining. Some things can only be seen when its dark. Trying to solve our problems or make our way or get a grip on our priorities without the information that dreams provide, says Ann Faraday in The Dream Game, is like "a detective with only half the facts of a case."
Those who contend that they seldom or never dream are, according to science, wrong. Everyone dreams, and we typically have half-a-dozen dreams a night. The problem is forgetting, or lacking interest in them. Carl Jung said that were probably in a dreaming process continually, drawing up material from the unconscious even during the day, but consciousness makes such a racket that we dont hear it. And what were missing are masterpieces of metaphoric communication:
* Youre trying to decide between following passion or security, and dream of throwing a rock through the window of a bank, and then burying your briefcase in the backyard.
* Youre unwittingly losing yourself in a job or a relationship, and dream of losing your wallet with all your identification cards in it.
* Someone with whom youre considering teaming up appears in a dream wearing costume jewelry and fake leather shoes.
* You need to be reminded that the spiritual ascent is not easy, so you dream of Jacobs ladder with the rungs spaced really far apart.
* Youre postponing an important decision, and dream of "missing the boat."
* Youre unsure whether you have the ability to handle what seems like an impossible calling, but then dream about being able to breathe underwater.
SLEEPING THROUGH OUR DREAMS
In the weeks prior to losing a job early in my journalism career, one I was hanging onto primarily for the security and status, my dreams were splitting at the seams with portents of how I really felt about trading off integrity for comfort and a dollop of renown. Although I faithfully recorded them in my dream journal, I did absolutely nothing about interpreting them, and with good reason. It would have had the effect of standing up in a canoe.
In one dream, I was handed a stack of hundred-dollar bills and later discovered that Id been cheated: only the top bill was a one-hundred; the rest were ones. In another, I found a golden calf, deformed and chained to the ground. In a third, I was invited to the bosss estate for an extravagant pool party, but the pool was empty.
Now this is not, as they say, rocket science. The meaning of these dreams couldnt have been more obvious if it had been tattooed across the bridge of my nose. I was being invited to take a good look at what I was doing at that job, and how I felt about being there. But because I didnt want to look, when I suddenly lost the job---the official reason, appropriately, was that "there isnt a fit"---I was completely shocked when I shouldnt have been.
Dreams are a force to be reckoned with, so its understandable why people sleep through them. The kind of self-knowledge they present is a commandment to live always tentwise, ready to move at all times, constantly in process. Fidelity to dreams means leaving the wild card in the deck while playing. It means wobbling the gyroscope, coming into occasional conflict with others, admitting that we feel what we dont want to admit we feel. It also means accepting that dreams are more interested in the design and quality of our lives than in making us rich or famous.
Listening to our dreams, though, is an act of humility, a kind of genuflecting, and is thus unappetizing to some folks. Its conceding that there is at the very least another psychic reality---if not a deeper or greater one---than that by which we generally steer our courses. For people cemented to the rational and scientific, the linear and observable, the ego and the five senses, opening to dreams can be extremely disquieting. Contrary to the rationalist hooey that dreams arent real ("Youre just dreaming"), dreams are very real. They convey real information, real impact, real emotions, and have real consequences if ignored. If we dont obey our dreams, well at the least dream them until we do, or the unconscious will "dream up" other channels for their messages to come through, such as symptoms, neuroses and compulsions.
Dreams are only as dangerous as living, Faraday says, no more, no less. Theyre just a lot less familiar. Dreams are dark lakes in which each night we swim and most mornings we dont even remember having been swimming. We glide into the water on our bellies, our spines fishtailing, breathing once again through our gills. We go primitive. All our conscious resistance dissolves like sugar in water, and we remember everything we claim to have forgotten, because nothing is forgotten by the old gnome that sleeps in the soul.
In our dreams, we roam far south of rational and well to the west of Main Street. We wear the faces of fish, the beaks of birds, the tusks of animals who have answers buried in their fur and written onto the skin on their tongues. We hear them speak the unspeakable. By dawn weve climbed back over the stone wall outside the bedroom window and crawled into bed. When we awaken we find burrs clinging to our bedsheets.
WAKING TO DREAMS
A tribe in Malaysia called the Senoi puts great stock in their dreams, and gathers each morning to share them. When they dream of being chased, they assume that whatever is chasing them is ally rather than enemy, and so turn and face their pursuer to inquire what the chase is all about, what the message might be that the pursuer bears.
This is the heart of dreamwork, of revealing the nature of the calls whose fins break the surface in our dreams, of deciphering the messages they bring. The challenge lies in turning around and facing whatever is there, rather than running from it. Its like being chased by a dog, or a bear or a big cat. The general rule is: dont run! Whatever runs from them they tend to consider food, which could lead to a fatal case of mistaken identity. If youre courageous enough to turn and face your pursuers, however, youre probably also strong enough not to get devoured by them.
Still, it takes some nerve to study your dreams, the same nerve it takes to examine a firecracker that didnt go off. This certainly helps explain why dream recall is such a slippery affair. A part of us doesnt want to remember them, because of the messages they bear, the things they reveal, the directions they point us. The truth may set you free, but theres an even chance that first it will scare the daylights out of you.
Dreamwork is a lot like dowsing, which a dowser of my acquaintance refers to as "the search for anything that cant be apprehended with the normal five senses." In attempting to divine our dreams, were searching for a concentration of energy, a flow of meaning, somewhere to sink a well.
It isnt even necessary, though, to understand dreams or mine them for meaning, writes Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul. Merely giving our attention to them, granting them their autonomy and mystery, goes a long way, he says, toward opening the portals, shifting the center of consciousness from intellection to responsiveness. In fact, much of what determines whether we recall dreams at all is simply the amount of interest we pay them. "Let me treat every moment with reverence," says writer Bharati Mukerjee, "because I dont know what the mission of any of my moments in life is. Thats why Im not embarrassed to admit that I believe wholeheartedly in dreams."
Not only do dreams respond to reverence, they respond to direct requests. You dont have to wait around for them to appear. You can draw them to you by petition. You can bargain with them. If you get in the habit of asking for dream guidance as youre dropping off to sleep, the minions of Morpheus will fairly beat a path to your door. Just be prepared to take dictation: keep a pad and pen by the bedside. Promise the spirits that if they send you a dream, youll write it down upon waking, even if thats at three a.m. Prompt them with specific questions. Ask for directions. Ask for clues. Ask what your next step should be. Ask for clarification of last nights dream.
Just get to your dreams before the world does. Write them down before you even get out of bed, because the moment your feet hit the floor, you ground yourself, and the lightning energy of dreams disappears into the earth. The moment of awakening is make-or-break time in dream recall, and some finesse is in order. A dream is made of spiderwebbing. Its a journal whose pages are the pressed wings of luna moths. It tatters easily. So when you awaken, move as if you were paddling a canoe on a glassy lake, or walking across a room carrying brimming teacups.
As for the dream material itself, some of it is like junk-mail. Only a small percentage is truly useful and worth slogging through. Some of it also comes in such a crazy mambo of images, vignettes, metaphors, and other psychic ephemera, that trying to make any sense of it is like running down the street trying to grab the loose papers of a manuscript the wind has snatched out of your hands.
After you have something in writing that seems gainful, however, dont necessarily run with the first interpretation that comes to you. Brainstorm all associations you can conjure about the dream images or events, especially the most potent one in the dream. What words, ideas, people, memories and feelings does it remind you of? Go with the one that elicits the most energy from you, that has the most oomph.
Avoid using a dream dictionary, an absolutist this-means-that approach to interpretation. Dreams are far too subjective for that. Water, for instance, will mean something very different to someone who almost drowned as a kid than to someone who feels more at home in water than the fishes. Sometimes we dream about drinking because were thirsty, and other times we dream of drinking when were not thirsty, which is an entirely different kind of thirst.
Since most dreams (though not all) seem to relate to something happening in present time, ask how the dream ties in to in your life right now. Where have you seen this particular scenario playing itself out lately? What is it trying to tell you? What is its central message? If you dream of flying, falling, conquering foes, being unable to find something, having extraordinary powers, being chased---ask how these may be symbolic of aspects of your life. Before you settle on an interpretation, though, check the physical world first. If you dream your car loses its brakes, check your brakes. If nothing shows up, check where in your life you perhaps feel unable to stop, out of control. If you dream someone you know is dying, and theyre not, then ask what this person represents to you---integrity, innocence, humor, playfulness, etc---and thus what in your own life or personality may be "dying."
A powerful final step in dreamwork is engaging in a ritual related to the dream material. This is a way of bringing our dreams out of dreamstate and into waking life, into the here-and-now; from the abstract down into our muscles and bodyparts, our emotions and physical life. A ritual is an enactment of the dream message, of whatever change the dream is calling for. Its a way of taking a small step in that direction, making an outward sign of an inward intention. Its a little rite of passage.
Theres an old belief in certain Christian denominations that one is not praying unless ones lips move. This is an expression of the psychological truth that something physical has to happen to establish (to your unconscious especially) that you mean business, that your devotion to growth is real and not merely a high opinion you have of yourself.
If you dream of the necessity of choosing passion over security, for instance, you might ritually burn a one-dollar bill, while entreating the gods of courage. If a dream points to the need to make a break with tradition, take a stick of wood and break it in two. If your dream shows you flying over obstacles, set up a series of rocks in the backyard, give them the names of your obstacles, and make broad jumps over them.
A ritual can be as simple, too, as putting a flower in a vase, making a circle of stones, burying something that represents an old habit, kneeling down in prayer, washing yourself in the river, anointing yourself with oil, visiting the zoo to spend some time with the animal in your dream, planting something, drumming or singing, feasting or fasting, making a mask, lighting a candle.
"I can light a candle because I need the light," says writer Christina Baldwin, "or because the candle represents the light I need."
** Excerpted from Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life (Random House) by Gregg Levoy.