Inner Visions: Learning From Our Dreams

Einstein first discovered his General Theory of Relativity in one; Jack Nicklaus corrected his putting stroke in one; Mahatma Gandhi used them to perfect his non-violent political action program. Elias Howe completed his invention of the sewing machine in one. The philosopher/mathematicians Bertrand Russell and Rene Descartes attributed important discoveries to them, and the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Otto Loewi acknowledged their importance to his work.As Friedrich August von Kekule, the organic chemist who, in a dream, discovered the structure of the benzene ring, advised his colleagues: "Let us learn how to dream, and then perhaps we will discover the truth."We know from the many studies of dreamers in sleep labs that we all dream when we sleep, usually at least four or five dreams in an average night. Most people do not recall these nightly adventures for the simple reason that they have not believed dreams important enough to remember. "It is only a dream" is the most common message that children get about their dreams, as parents misleadingly suggest that there is little meaning in a child's dreams, both the more ordinary ones and nightmares. By the time children have grown to adulthood, the message that dreams are unimportant often has seeped so completely into people's beliefs that they recall only their most powerful dreams.THE POWER OF SUGGESTIONFrequent dream recall is simply a matter of will and practice. For a person who wants to remember his or her dreams, it may take a few days or weeks of practice to begin recalling one or more each night. Once regular recall commences, the extravagant adventures, the fascinating beings, and the available wisdom of our sleeping selves help quicken dream recall. One of the functions of dreams is to increase the quality of our lives by engaging in a unique blend of mental work and play.Remembering dreams, which is the first step to learning from and working with dreams, requires only a few simple steps. If you want to recall your dreams, do the following:First, keep a notebook, pen, and reading lamp next to your bed. Second, as you are going to sleep, tell yourself several times, "I can remember my dreams and write them down when I awake." This simple auto-suggestion is remarkably effective for most beginners at dream recall, and it is a step you should not skip.Third, immediately upon waking, write down any dream memories in your journal. Since dream memory tends to fade quickly, do not get up to make coffee, and only in an emergency should you take pen and notebook into the bathroom with you. Such details as color and smell fade particularly rapidly, so note any such sensations first. Also note any strong emotions associated with the dream. Then write down the dream in your journal, start to finish, in as much detail as you can recall, censoring nothing and making no judgments as to the importance of any aspect of the dream.Since alarm clocks can cut through dream memory, try to wean yourself of needing one. Other things that can negatively affect dream memory include sleeping pills, valium, and over-tiredness.For some people, recall is difficult because they fear dreams, often based on scattered and fragmentary memories of nightmares. But with a bit of persistence, anyone can begin recalling one or more dreams nearly every night.Once you have begun recalling dreams regularly, the real fun can begin, as you master dream incubation and, possibly, "lucid" dreaming.SEEKING SOLUTIONSThe list of famous people who have used their nightly dreams to solve problems and challenges is impressive, but the ability to solve problems using one's dreams is not limited to the talented, the intelligent, or the famous. Any relatively sane person can learn to remember, understand, and incubate (or program) his or her dreams with a little bit of training and a sense of open-minded curiosity. Everything from work or health-related issues to relationship problems to creative issues can be material for dream incubation.At its most basic, dream incubation is nothing more than soliciting your inner self's help to solve a challenge or problem you are facing. Whether the source of dream information is called the "unconscious," the "inner self," or the "soul," it is a repository of knowledge that can be extremely valuable to anyone struggling with a personal decision. To access this inner information superhighway, all you need to do is ask directions.To program an answer to a challenge, problem, or creative issue, take the following steps. First, state a request to gain information from your inner self in a single, clear sentence. "Please help me understand why I am afraid of heights," or "Please give me an idea for my next painting," or "Help me understand my relationship with X" are examples of such incubation phrases.Second, as you are drifting off to sleep, repeat the incubation phrase several times. If distracting thoughts interfere (such as "Will this work?"), clear your mind as best as you can and refocus on the incubation phrase.Third, record all dream memories when you wake, paying particular attention to anything that might touch on the incubation issue. As with normal dream recall, include any feelings, thoughts, descriptions of place, fantasies, songs, or images.Of course, the answer that the inner self gives to a dream incubation may not be the one the dreamer was looking or hoping for, and frequently there is a well-developed sense of humor in the inner self's responses, even to our most anxious concerns.Beyond working with dreams to help solve life's issues and problems, the truly adventurous can experiment with "lucid" dreaming, in which the dreamer realizes that he or she is in a dream and consciously explores the dreamscape. Such excellent books as Stephen LaBerge's Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming can lead people into areas of consciousness that offer unique opportunities for learning. LaBerge's strong advocacy for learning how to become awake in dreams is backed by his many years of experience as director of the Stanford Dream Lab in Palo Alto, California.For many people, their first lucid dream is a life-changing event, and even those who have had many such dreams rarely tire of the miraculous possibilities that open to lucid dreamers. Some 20 percent of people who have never consciously worked with their dreams recall having had at least one lucid dream, and some particularly talented dreamers lucid dream spontaneously or intentionally quite frequently. For those interested in learning how to lucid dream, LaBerge has exercises in his book that are relatively simple and quite effective. These exercises also are given in the Practical Dreamer workshops described later in this article.Understanding dreams requires neither a $100-an-hour psychotherapist nor a dream dictionary. There are some exercises that can help the dream explorer understand the confusing or complex portions of dreams. The simplest of these exercises (here adapted from Gail Delaney's book Living Your Dreams) involves asking a series of "key questions." If you have time, answer the questions immediately after recording the dream, but this exercise can also be done later in the day or week. Obviously, not all the questions will be pertinent to each dream, but answer those that are pertinent as fully as possible.What are your feelings upon waking?What waking memories or prior dreams does this dream remind you of?What is the setting of this dream? Is it someplace familiar?What are your associations with the colors in this dream?What were the previous day's events that might have influenced this dream?What are the key symbols of the dream, and how do you relate to these symbols?DREAM THEORISTSThere are a number of conventional psychological approaches to dreams. Sigmund Freud, for instance, called dreaming "the royal road to the unconscious." Freud's one-time disciple, Carl Jung, believed that in dreams we come into contact with a level of self that is connected to what he called "the collective unconscious." In general, however, Western psychology's theoretical approaches to dream work severely limit and downplay the reality of the realm of dreams in favor of analyzing their symbolic content.Among non-psychologists, there are a welter of alternative ways to examine dreams. One of the most intriguing was proposed by the author Jane Roberts in a dozen or so books published before her death in 1984. In her 1979 book The Nature of the Psyche, she speaks about the broad creative framework we enter when dreaming. "The ability to dream presupposes the existence of experience that is not defined as physical fact...That reality represents your origin...Your beliefs, cultural background, and to some extent your languages set up barriers so that this dream dimension seems unreal to you. Even when you catch yourself in the most vivid of dream adventures, you still do not give such experiences equal validity with waking ones."Many cultures have integrated dreaming into daily life far more deeply than ours does. Several Native American cultures, including the Ojibway and Iroquois, developed dreaming techniques and practices that made dreams an important part of everyday life. But perhaps the most famous group of dreamers are the Senoi, a now-extinct tribal group native to Malaysia.The anthropologist Kilton Stewart lived with and studied the Senoi in the early part of this century, before successive Japanese and Allied invasions during World War II, followed by a post-war communist insurgency, put an unfortunate end to this remarkable culture. As Richard Corriere relates in his book Waking and Dreaming: The Functional Approach to Dreams, the Senoi believed that, "if you cooperate with your fellows or oppose them with good will during the daytime, their images will help you in your dreams." Stewart reported that the Senoi were an entirely peaceful people -- there was no war, no fighting, no mental illness, and virtually no crime in the society, a fact that Stewart attributed to the taboo among Senoi regarding thinking, doing, or dreaming harmful things to or about one another. If, for instance, someone dreamed he or she had a fight with a friend, the proper Senoi response would be to pay a call on the friend, bringing a gift and offering an apology. Then the person would attempt to have a lucid dream in which the friendship is reasserted.Perhaps this is an indication of the healing power that dreams hold for our own communities.

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