What did you dream of last night? Can you recall it? Were you doing something funny or disturbing? Going somewhere perhaps? How were you feeling? Who was in it? What was the atmosphere like? Was it a recurrent dream, something coming back at you now and again for some time, or something completely novel? How did you feel upon waking up?
We’re inclined to believe that our dreams are nothing but random bits and pieces, strange and incoherent stories that come to mind on a given night for arbitrary reasons. The reality, though, is that psychoanalysts and sleep researchers have been telling us for over a century now that dreams are much more than ‘mere random stuff.’ Experienced by humans of all ethnicities, genders, and walks of life from as far as we can remember, dreams directly connect us to both the worlds of psychoanalysis and the unconscious and, through these –if less evidently– to myths, symbols, our ancestors, and what Carl Jung called the ‘collective unconscious.’ In today’s entry, we dwell a bit on all of these topics to tap into the potential of dreams and their symbolism to account for important facets of waking life. Because, at the end of the day, our dreams have the ability to help us change in positive and helpful ways provided we learn to pay attention to the cues contained in them.
Sleep, dreams, and the unconscious
We take as our point of departure the idea that, to some degree, most of us are familiar with sleep! Granted, we all have first-hand experience to draw upon as to how it feels to sleep and how it sort of happens –even though exactly how it happens is more complicated than we’re normally aware of. We’re not going to go over the mechanics of sleep here, nor its different phases, there’s enough research and materials elsewhere already covering that. But let’s agree that sleep is a fundamental part of human experience and a key tool or inbuilt repair-and-restore mechanism whereby we ‘consciously’ undergo a temporal loss of conscience to allow for necessary “muscle repair, memory consolidation and [the] release of hormones regulating growth and appetite."
An essential part of our daily activity even if we don’t normally think of it as ‘activity’ proper, the quality of our sleep determines to a large extent the quality of our waking life. And this is the reason why paying attention to how we sleep, what we dream of, and how these two things affect our experience of the world while awake can be so important in gaining a thorough understanding of the hidden and not-so-hidden layers and messages of our mind.
Though we sometimes wake up feeling as if nothing had happened overnight, the likelihood of dreaming during some of sleep’s phases is crazy high, with up to 70% of our dreams taking place during one of our many REM phases. But what’s more important, studies on sleep and dreaming tell us that “the neurophysiological mechanisms that we employ while dreaming (and recalling dreams) are the same as when we construct and retrieve memories while we are awake,” and this connection alone has the potential to help us understand the importance of dreams and their content. For, if what we dream seems to be processed by our brains in much the same way as the things we remember or recall while awake, then, it follows that the importance of dreams be at least paramount to that of the memories we so much like to go over in our heads –if not more!
Certainly, “dream content often relates back to what’s happening in [our] waking life”, but do we know how or why this is so? Let’s ask ‘buddy Carl Jung’ yo!
Carl Jung and dreams
Carl Jung was the first to postulate the idea of dreams as a tool used by our psyche to deal with the complexity of (un)conscious life. The human mind that modern-day individuals possess is different from that of our primitive ancestors in many ways, but perhaps one of the most striking is the degree of specialization –or ‘fragmentation,’ to use his wording– it has attained. This fragmentation is responsible for our ability to focus both attention and perception on tiny parcels of reality at a time to maximize output and prevent sensorial overload; but it is also the reason why we speak of things like the ‘conscious mind,’ ‘the unconscious,’ ‘the ego,’ and so on.
According to Jung, in the long and slow process of psychic fragmentation, our most ‘primitive’ instincts and drives have been relegated to a secondary position now currently under conscious control of our most ‘civilized’ part: the part we normally operate under during waking life. This, in today’s world, corresponds to doing life from a ‘rational’ and ego-inflected standpoint most of the time. Which means that, during waking hours, we (un)consciously push a large part of our most ‘primitive’ drives and instincts to the realm of the unconscious, where these are often left to fester until sleep time. And so it is that, once the barriers of wakeful consciousness fall off, the contents of our unconscious spill all over the place bringing us into sweet or terrifying dreamland as soon as we enter a REM phase.
The function of dreams
In many ways, then, dreams can be defined as the language of our unconscious: the method whereby the deepest part of ourselves manages to process (and sometimes communicate) relevant information from/to ‘conscious Us.’ For anyone slightly familiar with Yoga, this part here should already raise an interesting flag, because Jung, like many yogis before him, speaks of the existence of an Ego-identity or ‘I,’ and a deeper, non-egoic ‘Self’ that one can access or enter into communication with by learning to interpret and/or speak the language of our dreams –aka, our unconscious. The tricky bit, though, is that the unconscious does not operate within the framework of conscious or rational life only, and so, the rules of waking time and waking language don’t fully apply. Hence that our dreams can often seem cryptic, random, messy, and impossible to decipher or interpret from a purely rational standpoint. They disregard and transgress all rules and actually thrive by expressing their meaning in highly irregular, emotional, disturbing, symbolic, and grotesque ways. At the end of the day, dreams actually connect us with something beyond the individual ‘I,’ and they do this best by resorting to highly symbolic language precisely because symbolism allows for a greater amount of what Jung called ‘psychic (emotional) energy’ than the type of ‘literality’ inherent in conscious/daytime language. So, not entirely unlike learning to meditate, for example, where the new language of 'not thinking' becomes the tool to help you enter into communication with your truest 'Self' over time.
Furthermore, for Jung –and this is where things get really interesting– we don’t simply dream ‘our’ dreams, but, instead, a great part of the content expressed in our dreams is at once both personal and collective, of the individual’s unique lived experience and of that of our ancestors too –his ‘collective unconscious’ idea. And so, part of the content of our dreams is at once personal and pre-personal, or what he calls ‘archetypal.’ This means that our dreams are the product of centuries of evolution in human consciousness and that certain images have sort of ‘stuck’ with us now functioning as metaphors for certain emotions, life stages, rites of passage, and experiences in ways not entirely unlike those described by Joseph Campbell in his Power of Myths volume (where he speaks of the ‘hero’s journey’ idea).
Dreams have, furthermore, something of a “compensatory mechanism,” helping us ‘make up for’ or ‘make sense of’ whatever the shortcomings of our experiences during waking life because, as it is, we’re not always aware or conscious of the stuff we repress, hide away, or ignore. Yet, just because we are not conscious of something doesn’t mean that we are not already unconscious of it! And so, according to Jung, dreams often also offer us the opportunity for us to tell the future, to a degree. Since there are no limits as to what the unconscious can draw upon to form an impression or image, it is often better able than our conscious part to interpret emotional and sensorial input and thus establish the likelihood of something to happen or the probability of a certain chain of events in our day to day life. Hence, many of our dreams have a premonitory quality to them, being there to warn or alert us to certain tendencies already present in our present, as well as the need for us to do something about these in order to provoke/prevent certain (un)desirable outcomes.
And so, being highly psychically charged –that is, containing a great deal of emotional and personal raw power within them– dreams communicate ‘stuff’ to us even when we fail to fully understand them; which is why paying attention to what we dream, how we feel in those dreams, and how we feel upon waking up can help us learn new things about ourselves, understand many of our most unexplainable behaviors, and point towards the likelihood of certain comportments and patterns already at work in ‘real life.’
So, not bad for simple 'dream stuff,' right?! We can only hope that this entry has done its part and made you sleepy enough to go to bed asap, so you can begin dream journaling now!