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Human beings spend about one quarter or so of their lives asleep. Similarly we spend about one quarter of that sleep in the active dream state, which is characterized by rapid eye movement (REM). When people are awakened during the REM phase of sleep, they usually remember vivid dreams; when awakened from any other sleep phase, they rarely even recall vague dreams. Men who are not impotent usually have an erection during the REM phase, and this may help explain why Freud found sex so important in his psychoanalysis. He believed that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious.” The dream state recurs several times during a night’s sleep for increasingly longer periods in each succeeding cycle. This dream state of consciousness is clearly distinct from the rest of sleep consciousness. Sleep consciousness is obviously distinguished from waking consciousness, although the twilight periods with their hypnagogic and hypnopompic images bridge the transitions. To these three primary states of consciousness I would add a fourth transcendental consciousness, which is an awareness that transcends the limits of physical organs and is able to travel consciously in the subtle realms of the astral, emotional, mental, intuitional, and the soul. This transcendental consciousness can be glimpsed or entered through lucid dreaming as well as through conscious spiritual awakening; it is to normal waking consciousness as waking is to sleep. A lucid dream is when we become conscious that we are dreaming, thus becoming aware that we are traveling in one of the subtle realms. Such experiences are very rare for most people; but as we become more self-aware, they do occur.
Nevertheless everyone dreams regularly, although we usually only recall the tiniest fraction of our dreams. Dreaming is very therapeutic; in fact, a person who is prevented from dreaming will soon become psychotic. In the dream state the subconscious is able to release the many psychological tensions that have built up during the waking period. Consciousness naturally seeks equilibrium and therefore balances all the subtle causes and effects, energies of impulses, desires, wishes, fears, hopes, angers, aspirations, frustrations, etc. Dreams are a multidimensional expression for integrating thoughts, feelings, memories, and images into patterns and sequences that help the consciousness to accept and understand them in relation to the various aspects of the whole consciousness. The subconscious creates these dream dramas out of the unresolved tensions of all our experience.
Much of this is the fulfillment of wishes we were unable to achieve in waking life. If part of the consciousness has repressed some of this awareness and does not want to acknowledge it, the subconscious may disguise the energies by displacing them into different but related images. Dreams are very economical at combining various qualities together in condensation, resulting in complex, unusual but remarkably meaningful combinations. As in waking life, psychological balance may be attained by compensation. What one part of our consciousness wants to ignore or disregard, another aspect of ourselves may bring into prominence in a dream. Everything in our dreams comes out of our own consciousness and is working toward an awareness of our wholeness, balance, and harmony. Most of our dreams are working to resolve and integrate the experiences of the previous day, although these naturally fall into the context of the tendencies and characteristics of our ongoing personality with its basic life pattern and recurrent themes. This subtle karma is worked out and balanced within our own subjective astral, emotional, mental, and intuitional bodies. When this karma is fairly clear, we may be allowed to travel in the universal realms, usually the astral plane, where we may be accompanied by a spiritual guide, or we may study in one of the mystery schools; occasionally we may meet and converse with someone who has died and no longer is on Earth.
Learning from our dreams is one of the best means of self-understanding. Since our dreams are entirely created by our inward consciousness, everything in them tells us directly about ourselves. Occasional exceptions to this are when a sound, sense of touch, temperature, light, smell, or digestion perceived while sleeping may be incorporated into a dream so that we can go on sleeping and not be awakened by the disturbance. Even in these cases our subconscious decides how to symbolize the intruding perception so that it fits into an ongoing dream.
By studying our dreams we can become aware of our tensions, conflicts, imbalances, desires, fears, yearnings, etc., especially those we have hidden from ourselves in the subconscious. Although abstract ideas and feeling responses are integrated into our dreams, most of the content is usually in images and dramatic situations that symbolize in a holistic way the various aspects of our concerns. Sometimes the meaning of a dream may be obvious to us as a warning, reminder, insight, or prophecy, but most of the time the meanings of the everyday events with their bizarre and seemingly illogical combinations are not readily apparent to us. If we understood these issues about ourselves completely, we would not need to dream about them in veiled symbols. However, our remembering the dream indicates that we are capable and psychologically ready to understand these points.
Interpreting a dream in the last analysis can only be done by the dreamer, although others may give clues, hints, or suggestions which may or may not resonate as true for the dreamer. All of the symbols are based on the dreamer's associations, although by common human experience some associations are universal or archetypal as part of the collective unconscious. People share some of the same associations because of evolution, heredity, cultural experience, similar upbringing, etc. These symbols can be studied in mythology, literature, religion, anthropology, sociology, history, etc. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung has described the following archetypes: persona, shadow, light and dark, anima and animus, trickster, hero and heroine, divine child, animals, great mother, all-father, spirit bird, wise old person, willing sacrifice, mandala, spiral, perilous journey, and death and rebirth. Many natural symbols are also archetypal, such as sun, moon, stars, sky, wind, snow, rain, sea, lake, river, mountain, valley, fire, rock, various plants and animals, etc. Cultural symbols have also become archetypal, such as house, garden, building, car, boat, train, airplane, rocket, gun, knife, rope, dishes, furniture, bag, clothes, glasses, musical instruments, artwork, book, movie, etc. Similarly there are various social archetypes of people in different roles, such as teacher, doctor, boss, salesperson, police, government official, parent and other family relations, athlete, movie star, etc. All of these symbols and many more have meaning from our collective experiences with them. One important symbol is unique because it is not directly experienced on Earth, and that is levitating or flying. This archetype symbolizes transcending the physical plane and is an immediate clue that we are traveling in the inner realms.
Our understanding of life and these archetypal symbols is helpful in interpreting our own dreams and others’; but the most important meanings are those that are personal, specific, and particular to the dreamer, though they may be in the context of the larger symbolism. When we dream of a particular person, whether it is someone we know personally or a famous person, it is fundamental to ask ourselves what that person means to us. Sometimes we know or have the feeling that it is one person or thing but looks like someone else or something else. These dreams are making a connection between two different qualities that are related but that we consciously have not yet associated together. The same is true of the different symbols of the dream. Thus the primary method of dream interpretation is to discover the associations we have for each symbol and then relate those associations to the other symbols’ associations. A good Gestalt technique for doing this is to have a dramatic dialog by playing the role of two of the symbols speaking in the first-person present tense. For example, “I am a car driving down the road; I feel powerful and in control. I see a liquor store sign.” Then one switches to the other symbol, “I am a liquor store sign; I am trying to entice people to come in my store and buy alcohol. I want to look as attractive as possible.” The dialog then goes back and forth, revealing the relationship and conflict until some resolution or impasse is reached.
Other techniques for interpreting our dreams are creative writing or artwork to amplify the associations and perhaps draw forth other symbols and meanings from the subconscious. Telling our dreams to family relations or close friends can help us conceptualize our experience. Group discussion among supportive and caring people, especially those who are interested in dreams and personal growth, can reflect back to us possible interpretations.
As for recalling dreams, we can pray, meditate, and suggest to ourselves that we remember. Upon first awakening, even before opening our eyes, is the key time to focus back on our dreams. After reviewing them mentally we can write them down for future reference. For those who consistently fail to remember anything, making up a dream to interpret may open up the process.
Tribal peoples have relied on dreams for spiritual guidance. They often differentiated the normal releasing dreams from the big dream of collective significance. As mentioned before, when our karma is fairly clear or in certain circumstances, we may recall a very vivid and real dream that is qualitatively different from others as an actual experience on one of the subtle planes. These dreams are also more likely to be lucid. They may represent a spiritual breakthrough or initiation to a new level or perhaps a turning point in our life, or they might even be prophetic and have significance for our special group or society as a whole. We must be careful though not to confuse our personal karma and psychological projections as being such a message. Some dream experiences are so different from this world that it is very difficult to even conceptualize them or describe them in our memory because they pertain to another realm.
LIFE AS A WHOLE:
II. The Individual