Sleep to dream
Is there anything more fascinating than our dreams? Dreaming is something we all do, regardless of our age, gender, race, or class. We spend roughly five to six years of our lifetime engaging in this universal yet private activity. Dreaming occurs during our REM sleep cycles, which clock in for most of us at one to two hours a night. Even if we don’t remember doing it, dreaming makes up a significant portion of our days—and thus our lives—while remaining one of the most mysterious aspects of human experience.
Are dreams supernatural, the muscle of some greater psychic energy attempting to unify us across space and time on the astral plane? Or, are dreams the messy byproduct of the brain attempting to process and store memories as personal and quotidian as the day that preceded them?
Are dreams a perfunctory evolutionary mechanism, whereby we practice our lizard-brain responses to threatening situations? Or, does this unique kind of sleep serve something far more basic, like, as some ophthalmologists suggest, to oxygenate the cornea?
The answer here depends a lot on your cultural context and personally-derived beliefs, as well as what, if anything, you’re looking to get out of your dreaming life.
Living the dream
Dreams are unpredictable and chaotic, both in the sense of what appears and transpires within them, but also in the emotional effects that may linger long after waking. A seemingly benign dream where little happens can feel uncanny or even ominous to a dreamer—at times even more so than those that are narrative, action-packed, or fantastical. This uneven alignment between what we see and how we feel in dreams is often what leads us to analyze them.
Within Western psychoanalytic traditions like Jungian dream interpretation and Gestalt dream play, and especially in Native American and global Indigenous cultures, dreams are full of personal and collective clues laying in wait to be received, deciphered, and incorporated into our wakefulness.
In Jungian and Gestalt dream analysis, dreams are not merely a remix of the day’s sensations, but are traces from a depth of consciousness that we can choose to tap into to explore our inner selves and possibly even receive existential communication. To those who ascribe to these modalities, dreams are fertile ground seeded with symbolism.
“A symbol doesn’t just tell us about what the dream may appear to be about on the surface,” one article on Jungian dream interpretation explains, “but has meaning and resonance above and beyond the particular situation. As Marie Louise von Franz said, ‘The unconscious doesn’t waste much spit telling you what you already know.’”
Carl Jung believed and taught that dream work was a necessary step in the process of individuation, i.e. the process of forming a stable personality. Relying heavily on an individual’s personally-defined associations as well as archetypes, Jungian dream analysis allows the dreamer to establish a cosmos of their interior lives.
Taking note of where your consciousness goes when you’re sleeping and your guard is down can also serve as a useful temperature-check for how you’re doing in a general sense, even if you go no deeper into analysis (think of the anxiety ridden classics, like teeth-falling-out or naked-on-the-first-day-of-school dreams).
“A new wave of anthropological research is expanding our knowledge of how dreams reflect and actively respond to cultural, social, political, and religious influences in people’s lives,” writes Kelly Bulkeley PhD for Psychology Today. “Especially in times of collective change and crisis, dreams become a powerful source of insight into the dynamic interplay of psyche and culture.”
For Indigenous groups, dreams are regarded as metaphoric, literal, or prophetic, delivering important messages about the self and/or the collective, and often inviting communion with others—living or deceased, human or more-than-human.
Many Native American nations believe that humans contain three souls: the ego-soul that provides breath and life force, the body-soul that is active in waking life, and the free-soul that travels in dreams, trances, and comas. The free-soul frequents the astral plane, where the dreamer meets with animals, ancestors, and other guides. These shamanic visitations are honored, shared and passed down, and understood as both connective and instructive.
“Your soul dreams those dreams; not your body, not your mind. Those dreams come true. The soul travels all over the world when you dream,” says Chippewa Elder John Thunderbird.
Awake to the dream
If you’re curious about the scenarios that emerge in your sleep, there are several things you can do to increase your recall of dreams: namely, setting the intention of tuning in, establishing good sleep hygiene, and recording details in a dream journal immediately after waking.
Science also indicates that how we wake up plays an important role in our ability to remember our dreams. Neurochemically speaking, our memory faculties are compromised when our adrenaline is spiked, as it almost always is when we use a traditional alarm clock.
If recall and analysis are not enough to satisfy your interests, you can also train yourself to engage in lucid dreaming.
A lucid dream is “the dream that you guide, the dream you wake up in,” writes Jesse Ball in his book Sleep, Death’s Brother, which he explains as a guidebook for lucid dreaming uniquely written for children, incarcerated persons, and others looking to escape their conditions by exercising autonomy in their dreams.
Ball believes dreams are experiences from waking life reflected through a warped mirror. There’s “the world (what you see and feel)” while you’re awake, he explains, and then “dreams (things you have seen and felt, in new combinations).” For Ball, this reconfiguration holds no great meaning, but it does indicate there is a porousness between the activities of day and night that can be utilized for empowerment and enjoyment.
While some of us might bristle at Ball’s very blunt declaration that the objects, persons, and events that appear in our dreams are inconsequential, what he offers in Sleep, Death’s Brother is nonetheless generous. If you follow Ball’s clear instructions for encouraging a lucid dream—which involve adopting habits that bring you greater awareness for determining whether you are awake or asleep—your dreamscape can become an endless playground starring you, the intrepid oneironaut.
“You will be awake in the dream and able to do whatever you like,” he writes. “After a while, you will probably fall back into sleep, and then in the morning you will wake up and life will continue as usual. There is nothing to worry about and nothing to be afraid of.”