I dreamed a dream cloaked in dreams,
Of truth and words that went unheard,
And on waking, I wondered which was the truth for taking,
And which was the theme of the dream I had been asking.
What are dreams?
While we all know what a dream is, there is no universally accepted definition of dreaming. Your dreams are unique and no other can have your personal background, your emotions, your experiences nor your dreams. Your own dreams can only be connected to your own reality. Your dreams are successions of images, ideas and sensations swathed in emotions. They involuntarily coalesce within reflections of your mind during the stages of sleep. Their themes range from the normal and ordinary to the overly surreal and bizarre, frightening, exciting, magical, melancholic, adventurous and sexual. The momentum of dreams is mostly outside the control of the dreamer. The exception is lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is disciplining self-awareness, and in the four dimensional language of classical meditation.
It is now known that memory processing is mediated by the default mode network of the brain (In the Members Section, see: Meditation and Character Development). This is the set of neural structures that normally activate when we are resting, doing nothing in particular but daydreaming with awareness. While activation of the brain’s default mode network has been linked to daydreaming, the recollection of memories and imagining future scenarios, as well as other forms of cognition, it has yet to be demonstrated that this network is also active in dreaming. If this were so, then we could define dreaming as a form of consciousness.
While a dream may be fragmentary, disconnected and illogical, by common understanding, a dream is something you are aware of at some conscious level. If you are not aware of a dream during sleep, then it is not a dream. Many claim, “I never remember my dreams”, but failing to remember a dream when you are awake doesn’t mean you were not experiencing it when it occurred. It means the experience was never coded into your memory, or it decayed in storage, or is just not accessible for easy recall.
That there are real differences between dream states and waking consciousness is beyond doubt. In dreams our consciousness is unable to dwell on, and return to, particular things—such as the sequence that brings us to a current situation of a dream, or the fact that we can only focus on one thing at a time in dreams. While the characters in dreams can transpose into each other, such as people returning from the dead or animals speaking, these dream experiences are not evaluated by us as bizarre. It is a rare occurrence for most of us to consciously know that we are in the dream state, unless we have been trained in classical meditation or lucid dreaming techniques. An important difference between the dream state and consciousness is we are able to mentally backward-reconstruct sequences of events with ease, when we are awake. Whereas it is almost impossible to reconstruct the sequences of a dream back to the start, even with lucid dreaming training.
The neuroscience understanding of dreams
One aim of neuroscience is to map the location in the brain of mental and emotional experiences. Everything we see, imagine or think about is linked to neural responses somewhere in the brain. For example, neural activity in the primary sensory areas of the neocortex creates the impression of seeing things, while neurons firing in the primary auditory area create the impression of hearing things, and so on. Dreams probably don’t have one location in the brain, but like nomads, move about between regions. Consider that if neural activity starts to occur illogically, the perceptive mental experiences can be crazy, random, fragmented, fantastic or metaphysical—somewhat like the mental experiences that are experienced when using street drugs such as LSD. The imagery and sensations created in this way could weave together to present a complex, multisensory series of impressions—which we might call a dream.
Dreaming of memories
What is the most recent dream you can remember? Most dreams incorporate fragments of experiences from our waking lives over the past 48 hours. It is normal to dream about disconnected but important experiences in the day such as a person, a place, or an activity but it is unusual to dream complete sequences of memories. These fragments reflect the importance of your focus and the meanings that you have attributed to what you have focused upon during the day. If you have a car crash today, you are likely to dream about it tonight and it should decrease gradually across the following few nights—although after several days it may appear again once or twice in an associated form, and then disappear forever. Surfers most often dream about surf, family members dream about other family members—but do androids dream of electric sheep?
What is the purpose of dreaming?
Some researchers suggest that dreams are only a by-product of relaxing neural activity that unwinds during sleep. Others suggest that dreams must serve some relevance, for they are observed in many higher vertebrate animals. There have been many different ideas about the purpose of dreams. Sigmund Freud suggested that dreams expressed forbidden sexual desires, while Carl Jung thought that dreams allowed us to reflect on our waking selves and assisted us in solving what we perceived as our life challenges.
It has also been suggested that dreams can provide a virtual reality in which our non-conscious mind can rehearse responses to challenging situations, and thus develop better innate responses to real-life situations—even when we cannot remember our dreams. People living through threatening situations have a much higher occurrence of threat in their dreams and often experience reactions to these threats in relevant and reasonable ways. Because these mental rehearsals could provide plausible solutions to threatening situations, some researchers have been led to believe that dreams can provide survival responses to potential real-life situations.
Dreams certainly influence the way people feel during the day. When individuals recall challenging dreams, such as nightmares where solutions are not enacted, they are more likely to express negative emotions throughout the day, while those who had dreamed successful dreams are more likely to express positive emotional states. One study of dreams experienced by divorced women showed that those who dreamed positively about their ex-husbands appeared emotionally better adapted to the divorce than those who did not. Another study has showed that people who had been deprived of water before they slept, and then drank in their dreams, felt less thirsty when they awoke. Pleasant dreams tend to occur if nice smells are occurring in the sleep environment, and negative dreams occur if unpleasant smells occur.
It is well known that suggestions in hypnotherapy can induce individuals to experience in their dream state, such menacing things as snakes, spiders, and dark things about which they have a phobia—and through appropriate suggestions to reduce the impact of these things, the phobia can be removed. Hypnotherapy has been extensively used to make dreaming experiences pleasant and it has been used to remove nightmares.
People can be taught techniques to achieve lucid dreaming, in which they use their willpower to influence the sequence of events in their dreams. This is highly intriguing of course, because it suggests we might not only be able to set ourselves up for pleasant experiences while we sleep, but we might also eventually be able to use these techniques to treat emotional negativity, phobias, and other psychological problems. Unfortunately lucid dreaming cannot dictate the format of the dream in the first place. The dreamer becomes conscious that they are in the dream at some point and then attempts to ‘bend’ the dream in a particular way as it unfolds.
Although we do not quite understand how dreams achieve their innovative recombination of material, it seems clear that the sleeping brain is freed of specific constraints that are associated with: the conscious collection of sense perception and conscious use of analysis, rational, intellect and memory. Thus they can create sequences of free associations which have the potential of being beneficial for the individual as they are confronted with their life challenges. We know these creative associations as dreams.
Classical meditation, dreaming and spiritual journeys
Thousands of years ago in India, mental exercises had been developed to interact with the dream world, to direct the free associations in ways that would construct higher purpose character traits through disciplined repetition. People with higher purpose character traits deal much more effectively with life’s challenges. This was one of the practices of the spiritual life, far beyond what is now known as lucid dreaming and is one of the practices of raja-yoga-astav-angani—the eight branches of raja yoga. The techniques of bringing all facets of the mind together as one in harmony is known as samyama (the techniques are: dharana, dhyana and samadhi). Lifetime practice of these techniques leads to kaivalya with its higher character development and freedom from suffering.
Bill Giles was introduced to meditation in 1971 through the Rosicrucian order. He is a recognised scholar of raja yoga, qualified clinical hypnotherapist and counsellor. Bill runs raja yoga classes and a 10-week Unleash Your Happiness program which can take you to higher levels in your practice of meditation and character development.