[This post is somewhat longer than usual, since it’s a whole “sermon” that I presented at Eastrose Unitarian Universalist Church. It’s about the value of paying attention to dreams and other life experiences, about “dreamwork as spiritual practice,” about what “bad” dreams have to offer, and about the transformative gifts that special, numinous dreams bring—to our lives, and to the world.]
What is useful or meaningful about paying attention to dreams? The same question might be applied to waking experiences, and it really comes down to the larger question: What is useful or meaningful about paying attention to anything? The world’s spiritual traditions agree that paying attention to our lives—being mindful, aware, present—is essential to living fully. Life itself becomes meaningful only when we pay attention to our experience.
Dreams are experiences, in every sense. When we pay attention to dreams, we open ourselves to a fuller life—more meaning, more options, more learnings, more openings, more genuine connection. We spend a third of our lives in sleep and dreams, and during that time, we are having experiences, whether we remember them or not. In dreams, we can experience perceptions in all five senses; we can experience emotions; we can experience states of being that enlarge our understanding of ourselves, others, and the nature of reality: states of being such as love, awe, compassion, grief, gratitude, wonder, humor, joy.
We can also experience unpleasantness, confusion, fear, shame, revulsion, and rage. Events occurring in a dream have almost exactly the same effect on the brain as events occurring while awake; to the brain, dream events are real events. By paying attention to what goes on in our dreams, we give ourselves the opportunity to live that third of our lives as fully as we might live our waking lives.
Dreaming experiences and waking experiences both become richer, fuller, and more “awakened” when we relate to them with gentle curiosity and openness—when we notice what happens and how things change as we respond to each situation. By broadening the range of possible experiences, dreams can give us a wider frame of reference for understanding the nature of reality itself, and the nature of our identity within that reality.
Paying attention to dreams can mean taking time to remember, record, share, and act on our dreams, but even if we can’t remember them, it can be meaningful just to value that aspect of our experience. We would not dismiss the thousands of days of our childhoods that we can’t recall—we know that those days, and all the millions of moments of experience they included, have gone into shaping who we are today. Similarly, we should not dismiss the unremembered dream experiences that have been such a significant part of our lives, such a significant part of who we are. And, often, if we simply acknowledge and honor dreams rather than dismissing them as nonsense, we’ll find that more dream images and stories will become memorable.
Dreams can actually teach us more about who we are than can our waking experiences. In dreams, we are not confined or defined by the same established roles and options that we have come to take for granted while awake. Every night, dreams give us a glimpse of a whole different way of looking at ourselves and our lives. They call into question our certainties and value judgments, and show us a world where possibilities exist beyond our imaginations.
In my dreams, I discover that I am not who I think I am—I can look different, feel differently, act differently. Sometimes, I am just awareness—and the events of the dream occur without “me,” yet with my participation as a disembodied observer or narrator. My identity becomes more flexible, with more potential for change.
Emotions can be exaggerated to the point of absurdity in dreams—helping me to see how disproportionate they are to the situation at hand. I can find myself in a new relationship to things or people I fear or dislike, and perhaps recognize that these things or people represent aspects of myself—so that I might be less likely to project my anxieties onto others in waking life.
The boundaries between self and other can be fluid in dreams, and even the physical environment is part of “me,” and “I” am part of the whole. My conceptions of the nature of time and space can be called into question, so that I begin to have a genuine sense of the dynamic, interdependent, multi-faceted, mysterious and awesome universe I inhabit…
…Why are a lot of dreams so messy? So confusing, frustrating, boring, embarrassing? One reason, I think, is that life itself is also messy, confusing, frustrating, boring, embarrassing, painful, etc. Such chaos is the stuff of life, and we work very hard in our waking lives to make it all make sense. We strive to be happy by avoiding, ignoring, or actively fighting the experiences we don’t like—and this is the source of more suffering. We believe unpleasant experiences shouldn’t exist, so we blame others or ourselves when they happen, which leads to more unpleasantness: violence, and despair.
According to Buddhism, this cycle of suffering—clinging to things that are pleasant, pushing away the unpleasant—can only be broken if we can give our attention to the whole mess, moment by moment, with curiosity and gentleness rather than desire and aversion. Painful and unpleasant experiences will happen, but we don’t need to compound and prolong them with our efforts to make them not happen. Beautiful and pleasant experiences also happen, and we don’t need to destroy them with our desperate wish to keep them for ourselves and make them last forever. Instead we can notice the pleasant and unpleasant experiences: how they come, how they go. And how our feelings about them come and go. It all becomes very interesting, and meaningful, when we pay attention to the flow of changing experiences.
Okay, so in waking life this is much, much, much easier said than done! Of course, we are deeply invested in not having pain, and protecting our loved ones from pain. Ultimately, we can’t prevent pain or protect ourselves and our loved ones, but it’s a natural instinct to struggle against this truth, even though the struggle makes things worse.
This is where dreamwork becomes especially useful. When the messy stuff of life—the ugliness, pain, unhappiness, bewilderment—happens in a dream, the investment can feel very intense (with the extreme emotions of dreams), but then we wake up. We let it go, and move on with our waking lives. This can be practice for a way of responding to unpleasant waking experiences as well.
Unpleasant dreams present extraordinary (and sometimes bizarre) options for how to approach problems—and in dreams we can experiment radically with possibilities we’d never risk trying in waking life. When we wake up from messy, confusing, unpleasant dreams, we can choose to look back at the dream and consider those possibilities—not necessarily as real-life options, but perhaps with a sense of humor and a curiosity about taking the problems less literally and more metaphorically. We might ask: What does this peculiar dream scene or image suggest about my approach to similar emotional unpleasantness in my waking life? The interaction with the dream experience can become playful, intuitive, and creative—whereas similar experiences in waking life tend to be taken absolutely seriously, and understood in only one way.
Again, when we are able to pay attention to our waking experiences—pleasant and unpleasant—with gentle curiosity, even the worst of those experiences become more interesting and offer more possibilities. But it can be very difficult to approach messy waking life situations this way. With dreams, we can pay attention, and even enjoy the experience of unfolding an unpleasant story to find unexpected possibilities.
And then, on a very different note—there are also wonderful dreams! Almost everyone will have at least one special dream in the course of a lifetime, and many people have them at turning points throughout their lives. These dreams take us to the heart of the universe. They give us a direct experience of something beyond the grasp of our minds, something we can know to be entirely true and trustworthy because the experience is as fundamentally real as anything we have ever known. Once we’ve had dreams like this, we see the world and other people differently. Such dreams inspire great spiritual teachers, bless those who are enduring the unendurable, and give folks in the midst of perfectly ordinary lives a glimpse of the extraordinary life we all share.
During a time of loneliness and losses in my teens, I had this dream:
I am a droplet of water, falling into a pool, with circular ripples expanding out from me in a magnificent mandala. I am falling endlessly downward and inward, and simultaneously expanding upward and outward in rings and rings of color and light and natural forms, like a flower blossoming into infinity. And I am clear liquid, reflecting everything as it unfolds, and also merging into the unfolding ripples and petals and colors.
The dream seemed to go on forever, and in a sense continues within me still. I believe it showed me who I really am, who we all really are. And, in a practical sense, it put my own suffering into perspective, allowed me to feel connected and whole. Anyone who has had such a dream will find that it has a powerful influence on how they live the rest of their lives, how they conduct their work and relationships, how they see themselves and their world.
In many ways, dreams open our minds and hearts. It is possible that this is why we dream in the first place. Daily life tends to reinforce habitual patterns of thought, emotion, belief, and action. But when we dream, such patterns are disrupted and rearranged. Dreams are the source of many great creative breakthroughs for this very reason—they change our minds, give us new points of reference. Much of the world’s social, political and environmental suffering is caused by our looking at life in a limited way, with closed minds and hearts. So dreams can make all the difference in the world!