I’m becoming fascinated with dreamwork again, and am appreciating what they can teach us, both in a single dream and in the course of their evolution over time. This is but an introduction to how to work with your dreams, and I look forward to writing more as I learn more about this fascinating topic and practice. I would really welcome any discussion or insights into this work, or any suggestions for further reading or how to more effectively understand the life of dreams.
I am seeing two distinct ways of working with your dreams, the first is dream analysis, and involves recording them and learning from them, as if you are learning to read the messengers from archetype, from the unconscious, or from who knows where. The second, which is known as lucid dreaming or dream yoga, involves becoming aware within the dream, for pleasure, or so that you can learn to use the time you spend sleeping for meditation and development.
The basic theory of the gestalt psychology of dreams is that they have a lot to teach us, and that all characters and aspects of the dream, including landscape and scenery, buildings and fabric, are all a part of self, revealing an aspect of our psyche. So when we dream of a beautiful woman we are not encountering any external being, but a representation of an aspect of our selves. In this case our Anima, our inner feminine, or indeed our longing.
Our longing is an interesting one, often romantically disorientated, our longing is for union, for wholeness, for belonging, for security, for love. I believe that this longing is what drives our endless fascination with romance, with success, with becoming. I believe it is destined to forever being distorted and limited as long as we believe it is romantic or career orientated, I believe that the only way we can truly find that for which we long is in spiritual questing; in meditation or prayer, in union, in the merging with the divine, the other, in whatever form that may take for you.
Memories of dreams, like a reminder of something so beautiful, so whole. As if we met God in our sleep, or knew enlightenment in a dream. We wake up and can’t quite find it, can’t quite visualise it or label it. Its like a faint aroma, or a distant sound, of some ethereal and awesome fragrance or some eternally beautiful music. Like a flash of a landscape which was perfect, which was the place we always sought. Maybe the people were the tribe we were always seeking, beautiful friends.
If we can become aware of this landscape, and learn to decode its teachings, we are allowing our subconscious to become our teacher. We learn its language, and learn to listen to the soft ways in which it can show us what we need, the gentle lessons which our dreams teach us of our love, or our anger, or our control, or our pride.
Jung and Freud both wrote a great deal about dreams, and the analysis of the dreaming life over time has a lot to teach us about our unconscious, our patterns and conditioning. We can encounter the under-developed aspects of ourselves, or the secret yearnings that churn our being beneath the surface. The dream world also seems to show us the ways in which we are trapped in family patterns, or how we are engaging in breaking free of the moulds of parental conditioning, show us in the mythic language of dreaming how we are battling to become free, to become whole.
Psychoanalysis often involves recording and discussing the dream, and I am seeing that in discussing your dreams with a dream buddy, insights can arise, as even the describing of the dream, let alone having another interpretation, can clarify its meanings.
Bill Plotkin, in his wonderful book Soulcraft, suggests that dreams are the nudges of the soul, asking you to surrender your current views of your life and world. Asking the ego to let go into the greater vision and life of the soul. The overall shape of Soulcraft is to enter and befriend the wilds, the wildness in nature and in our soul, not separate, and uncover there our gift which we then can offer to the world.
Learning to Remember and Analyse your Dreams
I have gone through periods of keeping a dream journal, and am currently in one of those, and learning so much. Some of my dreams are so interesting, transformative, affirming, even empowering.
If I am awake to the meaning and content of the activities of my deep unconscious, it is like being aware of a more magical reality we spend nearly a third of our lives immersed within. I believe that this reality has so much to teach us.
It is like learning another language, the language of soul, and decoding its communications seems very important to me. But we know this language, it is the language of myth and wonder, the language of symbol, poetry and creativity. It is the language of ritual and magic. It is easy to see why the ancients, who, in lieu of movies and netflix, saw in their dreams the messengers of the gods.
It is in truth very simple. All we need is a nice journal and a pen by the bed, or a laptop if you prefer. We then need to get into the habit of writing the dreams down, in the moment before we get up to rush to the loo, in the moments before we shrug off the veils of sleep and dream and enter the fray.
We need to take our dreams seriously, and write them down as if they were precious lessons from beyond, which in fact they are. This spirit, taking them seriously, allows us to take care to write them down, and note details, take our time. Once we start writing more details and memories will appear. It is good to talk about them and describe them as well. Take the pad to the loo if you need to, take it to the kettle, but write those dreams out as fully as you can, when you can, for you know how quickly they disappear from consciousness, from memory, like stars at dawn.
There are levels to this practice, and to start with it is enough to note them down. They say that if you repeat the affirmations to yourself as you go to sleep, that you will remember your dreams, or that you will become conscious in or of your dreams, that this is enough. It sets the mind in motion, it is intention or directionality of mind.
If you try this you may be surprised how often you wake with the fabric of the dream fresh in mind. Some people also deliberately wake themselves in the middle of the night, but for me sleep is too precious, and I find the intention is enough to remember my dreams anyway.
I do not believe in cookie-cutter dream interpretations, they need to be analysed within the context a self-awareness in which the themes of your psychic life are known. Once you see patterns, it is easier to see that this figure in the dream represents your yearning for spiritual work, and this the expectations of your parents, and that your shadow, the part of you which was not allowed to be there, the wilder darker self. In the context of analysing dreams over time, you can learn so much about your inner world and its inhabitants.
Dream Yoga or Lucid Dreaming
Later on, you can learn to be fully aware in your dreams, like a conscious dreamer, a dream walker. You can even practice meditation in your dreams, and some traditions speak of developing the ability to visit others in their dreams, but we need not concern ourselves with this.
The Buddha taught the cultivation of psychic gifts is a distraction, and comes about through immersion in meditative states, but the focus is on the path, the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. Everything else is not conducive to the quest, the path from suffering for the sake of all beings, so that your light can light other lights, so that your brightness brightens the world.
Some Tibetan schools embrace dream yoga, as the amount of time we spend sleeping is still precious time in a human body with human capacities, it is time we could spend cultivating the great love, or the deep stillness. This is a higher goal of dream yoga, to be able to be free to meditate in your sleep, using all of the time available to progress towards enlightenment.
In Lucid dreaming, what fascinates me is that you can actually relate to the deeper aspects of your psyche, have a conversation with your anima, question your shadow, and help to bring the light of awareness to the darker, mystical, wilder aspects of ourselves. You can explore magical landscapes, fly, and I cant wait to experience this!
I have only just begun investigating lucid dreaming and dream yoga, but it is very exciting. I feel I ought to write about this more when I have more experience, as Ive only just been able to become lucid in dreams.
There are a range of techniques available to help us become lucid, and one of these is to cultivate the question “Is this a dream?” during our waking hours. It is suggested to pinch the skin or touch the hands to check if its a dream. When I first became lucid I did this though, and could feel my hands. But asking the question piqued my interest and awareness, and I did become lucid not long after.
I will write about this further when I feel more qualified, but for now here is a list of techniques and inductions if you are interested:
I want to listen to the subconscious mind, and become receptive to its gifts. The line between the unconscious and other power is fine, for the giver of those gifts can be thought of as your own deep knowing, or as some other agency.
We all have our ways of relating to other power, and even in tantric buddhism the line is blurry between the messengers of the deep mind and the messengers as deities, as meditation yidams. I love this fluidity, this flexibility, where you are never told not to pray or not to believe, to simply see whether it is helpful, to see whether it is inspiring, and use it if it is.
In exploring shamanism I was reflecting on working with ‘guides’ and spirit animals, but I have enough experience to know that working with forces in the deep psyche, can be extremely healing and powerful. Whether they are inner or outer, imaginal or existing, working with them can be transformative and revealing. After all, can we truly say there is a separation to be made between inner and outer?
Dreamwork is part of so many ancient traditions around the globe, so its value has been recognisd for millennia. Shamans talk about being able to bridge the dream, so a shaman can visit somewhere in a dream, or find something, and then find it in waking life, to bridge the dream into reality. I have to confess some of these practices, although they sound amazing, are far beyond my ability at the moment so I would prefer not to try and write about this as though I know what I am talking about. The mere fact that they are said to be able to find cures for people in the dreamworld is enough to make me extremely curious and excited.
Lucid dreaming and astral travel, which is not unrelated to lucid dreaming, both absolutely fascinate me but have never been the main focus of my practice. I would love to hear from people who do these about how they can benefit your spiritual life.
I love that if you feel connected, then you can read the inspiring words of the Sufi poet and his longing for the Beloved and you can understand, in some way, or a mystic’s union with Brahma, or God, or the sage’s quest to access the universal Tao. Labels and concepts don’t really stack up in this dimension of experience, and nobody, except just maybe a Buddha, can claim to know all that is, when we see just 6% of light and hear a very limited part of the spectrum of sound. We know nothing of the other worlds and universes and dimensions. We don’t even know ourselves fully, or our own world, we certainly don’t seem to know how to look after it.
If it helps to pray then pray, and worry about the metaphysics later. If it propels you to making effort on the path, if it inspires you to cultivate vision and transformation, if it shows you glimpses of the beauty and the union we long for, then it will keep you practising, it will keep you connected to all that is good in the world.
One of my most important dreams was about three years ago now, and I described it in an early article on this blog. I am convinced that the old Tibetan who swooped into the dream was some kind of external agency, or some knowing that had access to knowledge that I did not, like the translations of obscure Sanskrit boys’ names: ‘Arusa,’ which means sunshine or brightness. I was ordained in this dream, and given a name which when translated, means something like ‘Teacher or Farer of the Sunshine.’ Now I know a little Sanskrit, but certainly not boys’ names, so you can see why I might believe that there was something mysterious at work in that dream!
Further to this, the name of the old Tibetan was something like Dorje Sempa, which is actually the Tibetan for Vajrasattva, an adhi buddha who’s activity occurs in a realm beyond space and time, and with whom I have a very real and heartfelt connection. I write about this figure here if you are interested. This dream was a big dream, and changed the direction of my life, since when I returned to the UK I reconnected with a process of ordination training which I had begun in 2004.
I have heard that many people experience these big dreams, the kind that show you what you want, and change your life. Without that dream, I might not have re-entered the sangha (spiritual community) or engaged with the wonderful retreats on offer.
If you have experience of this kind of work I would be very grateful if you would share any helpful tips or insights into it, thanks! I am particularly interested in finding hypnotic or meditative inductions to lucid dreams and astral travel that work!