What is dreaming, why dream?

Although in some ways the content of this particular essay has been percolating for the last couple months, I have really struggled to put it into words and sentences and paragraphs that lead to a Point. You’ll have to forgive me for the somewhat non-linear nature of what I’d like to share. And after all, how could reflections of dreams and dreaming be anything but a spiral of ideas leading everywhere and nowhere?

I’ve always been a prolific dreamer, since I was a child. Dreaming at night, as well as daydreaming. I’m not saying my dreams are all deep and profound, but they are plentiful, I usually remember them, and they have been mostly lucid since my early 20s. One of the most common dinner party questions posed to me as a therapist is something along the lines of  “So are dreams even important? Or are they just random information?” Invariably such a question is almost always followed by “I had a strange dream, I’m sure it would be so boring to tell you about it…” and a reference to a well known quote “Nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams.” I wholeheartedly disagree, anytime someone has a dream my first instinct is to ask what it was- much to the boredom of many within earshot.

Certainly there has been research that shows that much of our dream content is as mashup of recent images and experiences; in studies attempting to test this researchers would expose dreamers- ahem– research subjects, to images in a lab setting and then ask what they dreamt that night. This is often used as evidence that dreams don’t really have meaning, that it’s just random information, because generally the images shown would appear in the dream content and scenery. But truly there is no way to measure meaning. And perhaps more importantly this is strongly supportive of a common belief among dream analysts and those who practice dreamwork, which is that the images and even scenarios of the dream are symbolic. And they’re symbolic not only of deeper representations (which would more accurately be described as metaphor) but also that they contain multitudes of information at once.
The person in your dream can be both representative of the person you know them to be, as well as similar figures, aspects of their personality, who they are in your life now, or a feeling you also had towards another person.
This is that strange quality where someone might say, “I saw my friend was in the room, but I somehow knew that actually they were my uncle.” Or the way that we can have or existing information about something that happened prior to the dream’s timeframe.

I’m most partial to the Gestalt style of dreamwork which creates a lot of space for the dream’s metaphors to be explored from the perspective of the dreamer, as well as other elements of the dream. It seems to hold the most flexibility for the ways that we have personal symbology that is unique to the individual (though Jungian dream analysis in its use of archetypes is certainly quite interesting). I’ve seen great resolution and insight occur from facilitating this type of dreamwork over the years. And I have experienced it personally as well.

But even this still focuses on deciphering the “meaning” of dreams in a linear sense. I think that in a way this flattens the true nature of dreams. More and more I believe that dreamwork must take place in the actual dream space to work with the fullness of what it represents. And that we can only really understand dreams while dreaming. This is the way that I practice dreamwork personally for the last few years, which is aided by developing the skill of lucid dreaming so you can be more aware in the dream state. There are so many interesting films and books that speak to ways we can be curious about these levels of dream consciousness. Waking Life comes to mind, as well as several by Ingmar Bergman.

In Baba Ram Dass’ well-known book Be Here Now he says:

 “Actually, what we refer to as “dreams” are merely experiences we are having on planes other than the physical plane. Such experiences are going on all the time but usually our awareness is attached to the physical plane and we are oblivious to any other information coming from these other planes.”

I recently encountered a short film someone shared on an online network I’m a part of, Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu, set in a dystopian future where survivors of World War 3 are required to take Dream Suppressants that, among other important reflections, highlights the power of dreams to upset the status quo and lead to greater freedom (at least of mind).

The last few months I’ve been dreaming very vividly, intensely, most nights and resulting in more than a few nights of little rest. As I said, increasing the only way to work with those dreams seems to be during them- I find myself waking up with both a deep understanding of something complex and important for me personally and also unable to describe it beyond some fragments. They are so abstract I can’t really tell the story. Dream references keep appearing in strange synchronicities too, which creates this bridge between night and day dreaming. 

I began reading a book that was recommended to me many months ago by a friend, Buddha in Redface, which has been sitting on my shelf untouched since October.  I didn’t really remember what it was about when I started and it hooked me on the first page of the introduction where it reads:

“There has always been a dream. Everything is still the dream. All that we call creation and Creator is the dream. The dream continues to dream us and to dream itself. Before anyone or anything was, there was a dream, and this dream continued to dream itself until the chaos within the dream became aware of itself.
Once the awareness knew that it was, there was a perspective for other aspects of the dream to comprehend itself. One of the emerging dream energies, or ‘complexes,’ that came from the chaos of the dream and still remains in the dream as a way for the dream to recognize itself, is called ‘human beings.’ Human beings required a way to have perspective and reference, and because of that, another energy emerged from the dream, and this is known today as `time.’ It is from the two energies of dream and time that the third was given birth to, and that third one is known as the dreamtime.’ Dreamtime is also known as ‘mind,’ which is by nature luminescent and pure. And the dreamtime mind is reflected by the emptiness of awareness.”


Dreams are so deeply linked with imagination, more often than not when we refer to our Dreams we are actually referencing things we wish to manifest and achieve in our lives rather than our nighttime dream states. Similarly, often in Western culture we degrade the process of dreaming as something less intelligent or rational, with sayings like “she has her head in the clouds” or “that’s just a pipe dream” (which is a originally a reference to the thought processes of those smoking Opium and generally means something impossible). And yet we rely heavily on dreamers for much of our progress and forward movement, and systems of power and oppression rely heavily on our ability to suppress and repress our dreams.  I’m sure you can think of endless examples of great visionary thinkers and activists whose ability to dream literally opened up new worlds to us.

Much like in dreams I’m finding there is no end or conclusion to this short essay, other than perhaps to say that I’m making a commitment to dreaming in a serious way. And offering an invitation for you to consider what could change if you took your own dreams more seriously- the waking ones and those while you sleep.

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