We are multi-faceted beings: logical and imaginative, made of clay and made of stardust. Warning: I am a little bit of a neuroscience geek, so the first part is a bit scientific; but I think very cool. Apparently, science has figured out why our eyes move (REM) while we are dreaming: Our brains do not discriminate between waking and sleeping realities: they think that the dream imagery is real!
A very short tour of the relevant brain structures: The left side of our brain helps us out with logic, linear thinking, and sequencing; while the right side of our brain supports our creativity, imagination, and poetry. Our dreams are most likely generated from deep within our limbic system (our emotional and non-rational brain) which straddles both halves deep inside the brain. We then remember and work on our dreams from our prefrontal cortex (our thinking and declarative memory brains): the surface area under our foreheads and right behind our eyes. In between the night dream and the day remembering, the medial temporal lobe, the part that serves as a bridge between memories and visual recognition, helps us process things that we saw and that happened to us in life. And, of course, as we dream we also create or remember worlds apart, embarking on mythic and soul-stirring journeys, make meaning out of metaphor, and weave gossamer strands of silk and stars in our nightly sojourns. This post gives equal time to both sides of our brain: a fascinating study on why our eyes move when we dream, and then a poem on the nature of a dreaming.
For your left brain’s pleasure, an article published in Nature Communications (8/15) by Peter Dockrill describes a new study by Tel Aviv University researchers Yuval Nir and Itzhak Fried. It seems that each flicker of our eyes is accompanying a new image in our dream, with the eye movement “essentially acting like a reset function between individual dream image “snapshots”. Using electrodes planted deep in patients’ brains as they were prepared for brain surgery to alleviate epileptic seizures, they found that the neural brain activity while seeing new images in a dream (or in our imaginations when awake) was essentially the same as when actually seeing new images in waking life. In other words, the brain does not distinguish between the “real” images we see and dreaming ones. No wonder they seem so real – to our dreaming brains, they are.
And now, for your right brain’s pleasure (and as a reward for getting through the neuro-science lesson): A poem by Antonio Machado (with thanks to Belle for reciting it and then sending it to me).
Last Night As I Was Sleeping,
By Antonio Machado (translated by Robert Bly)
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.
Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.
Or possibly- not an error? That word struck me as not exactly fitting in with the poem, or my sense of a dream, so I looked up the poem in the original Spanish. The word actually used for “error” is “ilusion”! Robert Bly seems to color his translation through his own psyche (as, I suppose all translators do to some extent). But “illusion” is illusion- not a mistake or error. This fits in more with the sweetness of the dream. For me, illusion gives options, choices, and does not negate, as the word “error” can do. In addition, as we learned early, the brain does not distinguish between dream images and seen waking images; so it may also be that this “illusion” Machado dreamt and wrote about is as real as the words you are reading now. I would love to hear your thoughts on this dream!
In any case, as Machado suggests: may you find in your dreams a source of refreshment and sweetness and warmth for your heart. May we live into our best dreams and have the luminous reality that our dreaming brains can hold as truth be true on both sides of the threshhold.
“Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions”
When we dream, we are in a place, a world that is just as real to us while we dream it as the one we inhabit while we are awake. In this dreaming place we talk, walk, run, play, interact with others and have whole adventures without needing to adhere to many of the rules we are subject to in our waking lives: rules such as the earth’s gravity, or social proprieties, or linear time, or three-dimensional space. As such, we are fully embodied beings living inside the dream. The images that make up our dream are quite alive as we are experiencing them, such as the following:
“I dream I am a circus performer, balancing on the back of a horse.”
When we come out of the dream to tell about it we often find that language is inadequate to the experience. We are translating a lived, moving experience into the two-dimensional limits of language, often losing some of the richness and texture of the images and the experience in the process. Like the old story of trying to describe an elephant to a blind man, we can only capture part of the experience with words alone: just the trunk, or just the legs, or just the hide. The artwork brings it much more alive; now imagine yourself enacting that scene: You are kneeling on one knee on your white horse as it trots around the ring. What does that feel like in your body? What if you put your body into that position and tried it?
“Embodied imagination” by Robbie Bosnak, and Jung’s method of “active imagination” carry the stance that the dreamed images belong to this real and embodied world; it is our job is to develop a relationship with them in order to understand why they have come to visit us and what they might want from us. Bosnak says, “Images belong to the involuntary imagination and embody their own intelligence.”
Jean Houston talks about an intelligence beyond our own called the “Entelechy”, from the Greek, that contains wisdom from our highest selves in contact with the collective unconscious. We can access this self while in altered states such as trance, meditation, dreams and the in-between edges of dreams and wakefulness. Flashback memories, déjà vu experiences, and being in the “zone” or “flow state” in art, athletics or any creative endeavor can also allow us to access this realm.
When we practice dreamwork with our bodies as well as with our words, we can get closer to the reality of the living images. By letting the images enliven our body and using our felt sense, we can create dream theater or dream movements or dream sculpture that allow our bodies and those of our dream circle to get into the act and re-create the aliveness that we felt in the dream itself.
“I dream of a field mouse being stalked by a panther. The grasses are high and the sun is beating down on the field. It feels so immediate in the dream.”
In my works the group collectively becomes the field mouse, the blade of grass, the stalking panther, the hot sun, and thus feel into the dream through the different characters and parts of the landscape and experience a whole which is then greater than the sum of its parts. Now we can see where is it going. By enacting the dream-drama, we get a greater sense of how it has meaning for our lives, and perhaps the lives of others.
It’s an interactive experience with participants that can lead to unexpected results and insights, and can provide a very different approach to working with dreams than the time-worn road of analysis. Contact Linda Schiller () to discuss scheduling her for your next event to teach a Dreams Alive! embodied dreamwork workshop. See Linda’s trainings page for more information.
“I told my therapist I was having nightmares about nuclear explosions. He said don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world” Jay London
Understanding the meaning of our dreams can move us in surprising directions. The art of interpreting or understanding a dream has been referred to in several ways: working on the dream, dream tending, dream exploration, dream journeying, and unpacking the dream. All imply mining the dream for treasures from our emotional, spiritual, physical, mental, and/or neuro-anatomical selves (yes, I just made up that last phrase in order to differentiate our innate biology from the particular neurological wiring that is part of REM sleep.) I like all the phrasings at different times and for different purposes. I am particularly fond of the term “unpacking” (from Jung) however, because I like the metaphor of unpacking a tightly packed suitcase, one piece at a time; examining each item as we unpack it until we have emptied the suitcase of our dream of all of the baggage that was in it.
That reminds me of a therapist cartoon (my favorite kind- you gotta be able to laugh at yourself in this biz) in which an airline counter attendant is presiding over a counter labeled “emotional baggage check-in”. He asks the prospective traveler “Has your baggage been with you at all times?” to which she replies “Unfortunately, yes.” He then asks, “Has anyone asked you to carry anything?” To which she responds, “You have no idea how many times!”
Having referenced the process of unpacking a dream many times over the last few years of this blog, I though it might be fun and perhaps enlightening to see how this process unfolded for one of my dreams. So to begin with, my disclaimer: I don’t usually have toilet dreams. Some people do, and when that symbol re-emerges for them, it’s “OK, here it is again!” So I laughed as I recorded this one, and wondered right away about the significance, since it was unusual for my dream lexicon.
The dream: “I have to use the bathroom and the toilet is dirty. I gingerly clean it up as best I can, and use it. It still overflows a bit. My colleague M is waiting for me.” I title the dream “Dirty Toilet”. At this point I just let the title emerge, I don’t really know what it means yet.
Before working on the dream with my dream circle, I listed my own initial association: my colleague “M”, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while had recently participated in a dream retreat day I held. That was all I got at first, since my alarm rang and I had to rush off to my day. A few days later my dream circle began asking me questions: “Any practical plumbing problems?” (No) “Any health related ‘plumbing’ issues?” (No). Since my initial association was to my work life, one friend asked, “Are you feeling overwhelmed or over-flowing in any way at work?” This one hit for me – “Yes”- here’s my first “aha”. (Significantly, this friend frequently has dreams related to her own work – and I usually don’t -, so her resonance with my dream followed her own associations).
My first association to that question was to the larger than usual number of workshops I had been preparing for recently – although I love to teach, I am feeling a bit “over-flowing” with all the preparation. The next association I have is to doing some dream work with a particular person, let’s call her Polly, – something resonates here too.
I then ask myself – OK, what is the central image (thanks to Ernest Hartman of blessed memory for this concept) in this dream? – The toilet.
So using the Gestalt method, I asked myself, “If I am the toilet, what do I need?” Speaking as the toilet itself (yes, we do that in dreamwork!), the answer was “I need to enlarge my bowl, to enlarge the container to be able to hold everything that gets dumped in here without overflowing and making a mess on your shoes”. Now we’re getting somewhere. I could feel the rightness of that answer in my bones. Becoming the object in my dream allowed me to have a perspective about my work with Polly that I hadn’t had before. Another “aha”, 2 fold this time: 1.) Part of my work was to help Polly to enlarge her own Self capacity to be able to hold the pain in her life without overflowing, and 2.) I also needed to enlarge my own Presence and capacity as I sit with her to safely contain her and her work.
Now I associate to a Buddhist teaching tale- (stick with it, the connection will emerge): A woman who had lost her child was in deep despair, and after months of wandering she approached the Buddha and asked for help. “Oh Enlightened One, I am suffering so much with the loss of my son- can you help me?” He replies, “Of course, my dear. But first, you must walk throughout the land and bring me word of at least one being that has not experienced suffering in their life; that is the first step. Now go, and come back to me with that information.”
So the woman goes back and walks for days and weeks and months, and everywhere she goes, she finds one who has lost a child, or a parent, or their leg, or their crops, or their home – on and on. Finally she returns to the Buddha and says “Oh Enlightened One, I have searched and searched, and I cannot find anyone who has not had some suffering in his or her life.” The Buddha responds “Exactly right. Every being at birth is given 10,00 measures of joy, and 10,000 measures of sorrow. The difference between a life of joy and a life of suffering is the size of the container we hold them in.” He went on to offer the woman a cup of water into which he put a large spoonful of salt. “Taste it”, he said. “It is salty” she replied. Then they went down to the lake. The Buddha put the same large spoonful of salt into the lake, the scooped up a cup of the lake water for the woman to taste. “It tastes sweet and fresh”, she said. Same salt, same water. Difference is the size of the container.
May all your containers be large enough to hold all they need.
A dream is a microscope through which we look at the hidden occurrences in our soul.
When we have a strange or wonderful dream, we want to know “what does it mean?” when we awaken. Sometimes our dreams are bizarre, “hallucinations without drugs” types, and sometimes they are full of everyday things put together in strange or unusual combinations. Many people have the urge to grab the nearest dream dictionary off the shelf and look up what it means to dream about horses, or lemons, or typhoons. This is perhaps the most frequently asked question–What are my dreams trying to tell me? This is a topic of almost endless inquiry.
Dreams are very personal—they are idiosyncratic to the dreamer. What does this statement mean? We all dream in our own lexicon of symbols and images. In other words, the meaning of each character, landscape, and object in our dreams has it’s own meaning to us, our own set of associations. An image that means one thing to me in a dream might mean something very different to you. For me; dreaming about a bird might have to do with flight, or soaring; but for you it might have to do with nesting, or even panic (think Hitchcock’s “The Birds”). That being said, there are some common associations that we may share, since we belong to the same culture and therefore have a similar cultural context. These over-arching images are part of our collective unconscious (a term coined by Carl Jung implying a universal “group mind”). We share in this dream-weave of thought and spirit, and so share in some of this universal symbolism.
However just because a dream dictionary may tell you that X means Y, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily true for you. The most important indicator of the “right” meaning of a dream or symbol is the one that resonates as “right” with the dreamer. Only when you get the “aha” is the interpretation true for you. Pay attention to not only your thoughts, but to your body sensations as well. Did you get what can be called a “bone knowing”- a tingle; a pop; a shiver of recognition? Pay attention to these subtle signs that indicate that you are on the right track. Eugene Gendlin calls this uncanny bone knowing our “felt sense”. Dreamwork is not about a “top-down” expert telling you what it true; rather the friends, relatives, or therapists you work with on your dreams should serve as guides asking good questions, perhaps offering options or pointing things out that they may have noticed, but not telling what your own truth in dreaming is. That’s your job.
To help you find the meanings of your own dreams, pay attention to emotion and context. Ask yourself- “What was I feeling in this dream, or this part of the dream?” The emotional tone will give you the best clue as to the meaning of the symbol for you. Back to those birds, if I felt elated or light-hearted (pun intended) when I dreamed of them, that points me in one direction (where/how am I “soaring” in my life?). If I felt cozy, comforted, warm, that points me in another direction (am I “nesting”, settling into a home, caring for my young?) and if I felt scared, or a sense of impending doom; that points me in yet another (where am I overwhelmed, or feeling out of control, or feel like things are “flying at me”)? The type of bird may also have significance- here’s where you might want to look up the meaning of a gull, a puffin, a loon, an owl either in a dream dictionery, or a shamanic guide. My personal favorite is Ted Andrews text Animal Speaks.
Context refers to what was going on in the dream—and in your life when you had the dream. Those birds—were they in flight, pecking for worms, or huddled up with their heads under their wing asleep? All different potential meanings. Had you seen a particular bird, maybe a bright cardinal or a long legged blue heron that caught your attention recently in your waking life? Does your child have “Big Bird” on his bed sheets? Did one let loose on your car window yesterday? Again- all different contexts, this time in waking life, that may have infiltrated into your dreamtime. As you work with your dreams over time, you may develop a lexicon of familiar and common themes that can short cut some the process of decoding, your own personal Rosetta Stone.
So, my suggestion in regards to dream dictionaries is to proceed with caution. Don’t accept some one else’s idea of what your symbol may mean unless it really feels true to you as well. Take the dictionary suggestions with a grain of salt- and then see just what kind of salt is flavoring your dream: Is it just a pinch, or is it making you thirsty (too much), or tasteless (not enough)? Did you associate to Lot’s family who turned to pillars of salt when they looked back on Sodom? Or the Dead Sea (called in Hebrew Yam Ha-Melach; literally the Salt Sea), salty tears, salt of the earth, salt in your wounds, blessings to your home (bringing bread and salt), or that salt brings out the flavor?