Dreams – What Are They?

Experts discussing any subject will disagree, and expert opinions on dreams and what they are differ considerably. A neurologist might describe them as random firings of the brain; a biologist would consider them in the light of their evolutionary emergence and advantage and say they are a way of practising life skills. Psychologists such as Freud and Jung also disagreed, but both saw them as doorways to deeper self understanding; while in his book Dreams and Nightmares, the psychiatrist J. A. Hadfield says dreams reproduce difficult or unsolved life situations or experiences. They thereby aid the dreamer toward solving or resolving problems.

But for myself I believe that if you really investigate dreams, first you will meet yourself. You will walk again the long road of your growth with the etched-in experiences that shaped you into the person you are. You will however, if you persist, see that there is a vaster self than this present personality, one that can reshape who you are, if you so dare.

Example: When someone falls asleep, he takes the stuff of the entire world, and he himself takes it apart, and he himself builds it up, and by his own bright light he dreams. … There are no chariots there, no harnessings, no roads; but he emits chariots, harnessings, and roads. There are no joys, happinesses, or delights there; but he emits joys, happiness, and delights. There are no ponds, lotus pools, and flowing streams, but he emits ponds, lotus pools, and flowing streams. For he is the Maker.

Finding your way through these different theories may be difficult. However, if you remember that there countless ways you could examine or relate to a house, some of the difficulty drops away. You could see it from the perspective of a builder, a buyer, a sociologist, a historian, a chemist, or even a psychologist, as the place and environment of where we live greatly influences us. We can’t say any of these approaches is wrong. They all have value. But none of them by themselves cover every aspect of the house and what it is or can be.

The same applies to dreams. The neurologist who from that particular study might refute the possibility of precognitive dreams, or their psychological meaning and benefit is telling the truth – from that perspective and discipline. And the biologist and psychologist are giving their truths from their perspectives, disciplines and experience.

So if you are actually serious about understanding your dreams or their relevance in your life, there are bits of information you can take from the various disciplines that can clarify and help, remembering of course that all theories are constantly being revised.

At one time one argument was as good as another about what dreams were, how often they occurred, and what length of time a dream took to experience, but in 1953 Eugene Aserinsky stumbled upon a way to begin a science of sleep and dreams. This occurred while working under the direction of Nathaniel Kleitman in a sleep study laboratory, and Aserinsky was the first to observe the Rapid Eye Movements – REM – now known to occur during dreaming. As Aserinsky had seen this in the sleep of babies, it was first assumed only to occur with infants. Later investigation proved it occurred with all people observed. This finding started a period of intense research into the psycho-physical functioning of dreams. See: Aserinsky.

To sum up what such science found, we now know that –

1 – When we dream the brain produces full sensory and muscular impulses to express what is done and experienced in the dream. But the impulses to move the body are suppressed by a small area of the brain called the pons, otherwise we would perform all the movements dreamt. It is only the eyes that are allowed full movement.

2  – While dreaming our voluntary muscles are thus paralysed making it difficult or impossible to move. This is probably what gives rise to such dreams as feeling your limbs are like lead and hard to move. Also it is behind the experience of sleep paralysis in which the dreamer struggles to wake from a dream, often with great fear, and is unable to move. See: Sleep Paralysis.

3 – Waking a person each time they dream quickly leads to psychological breakdown. Animals died when this was continued. We can therefore say that dreaming is not simply random firing of the brain. It is in some way vital to physical and psychological health. See: Dream Deprivation.

4 – Almost without exception, we all dream every night, on average about five times in regular periods of dreaming. The longest of these periods is just prior to waking.

5 – The most ancient creature to show signs of dreaming is the duck billed platypus. As this creature has existed for 250 million years, dreaming has been around for a long time before human emergence.

6 – Some neurological research has shown that a learning process is observable during dreaming.

These scientific insights have done much to dispel older speculations about what dreaming is and what it does, but it has not done much to help us understand and relate to our own very personal dreams and nightmares. As an aid in doing this we are often directed to the writings of experts on how to interpret or analyse our dreams. Unfortunately these are intellectual activities, and as the platypus connection suggests, dreaming existed long before the rational mind. A dream is an ancient and primeval process, and to actually experience it you might need to strip off your civilised veneer of thinking and enter into the jungle of the deeper parts of your nature – the unconscious – the unknown parts of yourself that lie beneath your usual awareness, the parts that actually do all the work of your existence, like heartbeat and cellular integration.

Having trod those ancient pathways of dreams for the past forty years, I believe that thinking about a dream is like attempting to know what swimming is without getting into the water. Swimming is a total physical, emotional and sensory experience. As with swimming, the surface of a dream – the dream imagery – often holds beneath it a vast depth. Beneath the image lies enormous data, emotional response and created patterns of behaviour. So when you actually plunge into a dream you are in a full surround databank of fantastic information. Even the trees and animals in your dreams are enormous reservoirs of information, linking back perhaps infinitely with your potential, your memories and experience, and your biological past through the millennia.

This need to dive beneath the rational mind exists because it is your ancient self, your platypus self, the process of life in you, that is creating the dream imagery as a primeval form of problem solving or ‘thinking’.

But, and this is a key to such dream swimming, all the data held in the dream imagery and drama is unconscious. Most of it has never ever been brought anywhere near language, and language is what we use to think and analyse with. The dream is imagery and drama expressive of issues and processes that are still without words, without a voice. Thinking about a dream is, as already said, like thinking about swimming without getting into the water. You can only really understand after directly experiencing immersion. Words will come later.

Nevertheless, the thinking questioning mind is vital in bringing this massive and ancient unconscious life experience into awareness. Dogs and cats dream, but they cannot take the lantern of personal awareness back into the usually unconscious process of their being to investigate it. That is what you do when you truly know a dream.

As for how you can directly experience your dream beyond thinking, it is a learning process. You have to discover how to be something of an animal that experiences life without words or thinking. You need to learn how to be aware of your feeling response to what is around you and the imagery and drama of your dreams. You must learn to enter into things with your feelings wide open. So instead of thinking about a friend who sits beside you, imagine yourself in their body, with their movements and their expression, and observe what happens, what you feel. Then do the same with your dream characters, animals and places. Eventually you will arrive at very positive felt responses that give you recognisable insight into yourself and others. You will touch passions so deep, so felt, that your whole body will experience excitation and depths of things that only great adventurers, mystics and lovers usually know.

As for what you will find if you do that – well anything and everything. The ancient world of the unconscious is not, as Freud suggested, full of dark repressed infantile urges, though of course it has its share of those. Like an ocean it stretches away gradually from the shores of personal, limited awareness – limited to sensory impressions and what has been learned and experienced. From the reasonably stable and concrete world of the physical it moves to the more plastic world of what has been called the psychic – the world of dream imagery that can be shifted by a thought or change in attitude. But it moves far beyond that into realms only suggested by quantum physics in the last century – where everything is at the same time past, present and future, where here and there are the same yet separable, where life and death do not have fixed boundaries.

But first you will meet yourself. You will walk again the long road of your growth with the etched-in experiences that shaped you into the person you are. You will however, if you persist, see that there is a vaster self than this present personality, one that can reshape who you are, if you so dare. See Techniques for Exploring your Dreams

Copyright © 1999-2010 Tony Crisp | All rights reserved