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For most of us, the dream world is the most immediate and pressing of all alternative realities. Its bizarreness, its sheer otherness, which presents itself to us every night, constantly reminds us that reality is multifaceted and malleable, and our experience of it very likely illusory.
There seems to be nothing more solid and irrefutable than the fact that we see what we see and we hear what we hear. And yet each night we see and hear things – often vividly – that in waking life we take to have no reality whatsoever. Indeed some Hindu philosophers have said that the only reason that we believe waking life to be real and dream life to be illusory is that we spend more time in one than in the other.
In the West, until the twentieth century dreams were regarded principally in two different ways. On the one hand, they were taken as continuations of everyday urges: a hungry man dreams of food, a thirsty man of drinking, a man with a full bladder of going to the bathroom. On the other hand, dreams were also taken as messages from the other world. If a dead mother or father appeared in a dream, that appearance was often regarded as a genuine contact with that person.
Dreams were also seen as portents of the future. In one famous instance, Alexander the Great, besieging the city of Tyre in the fourth century BCE, dreamt that a satyr was dancing on his shield. The Greek seer Aristander interpreted the dream as a visual pun: satyros in Greek can be read as sa Tyros – “Tyre is yours” – in this case a prediction that came true.
The most famous of dream interpreters in antiquity – Artemidorus of Ephesus, who lived in the second century CE – held that both perspectives were valid. The first type, those that are based on bodily needs and sensory stimuli, he called enhypnia; the second, oneiroi, which he held to be prophetic. He himself focused on the latter, and his interpretations of these were both complex and far-reaching; his treatise on the subject, the Oneirocritica (“Examination of Dreams”) covers the meanings of, for example, dreaming of being beheaded, writing with the left hand, and being sold into slavery.
Even minor details were significant. In a prefiguration of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, Artemidorus wrote, “The case of [intercourse with] one’s mother is both complex and manifold and admits of many different interpretations – a thing not all dream interpreters have realised. The fact is that the mere act of intercourse by itself is not enough to show what is portended. Rather, the manner of the embraces and the various positions of the bodies indicate different outcomes.”
Artemidorus’s dream manual – the only one to survive from classical antiquity – is not widely read today, but it is the forefather of all modern texts that discuss dreams as portents of the future. This has been a popular genre for generations, and I can remember a copy of a work entitled 10,000 Dreams Explained on my mother’s bookshelf, though I do not remember that she ever consulted it.
By the end of the nineteenth century, no serious thinker would give any credence to interpretations of this kind, no matter how popular they remained among the masses. Instead some psychologists attempted to characterise all dreams as what Artemidorus called enhypnia – that is, as expressions of bodily needs and functions. The German psychologist W. Weigandt, for example, argued that all dream images “have their immediate cause in sensory stimuli.” Another psychologist of the era, Philippe Tissié, insisted that “dreams of an exclusively psychic [i.e., psychological] origin do not exist.”
These quotations are cited in Sigmund Freud’s landmark work The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1900, which marked the definitive break with the reductionist notion that all dreams can be explained by sensory stimuli. Freud did not deny that some dreams were caused this way, but he took exception to the idea that all of them were. He went a step further and suggested that even dreams that could be explained by sensory stimuli had a deeper meaning: “There are no trivial initiators of dreams, and thus no innocuous dreams… The dream never wastes its time on trifles; we do not allow a mere nothing to disturb our sleep.”
At the simplest level, Freud argued, the dream is a form of wish fulfilment. We dream of things of which we are deprived in waking life. He cited a case from his own experience. When he was young, he said, he had what he called “dreams of convenience” frequently. “Accustomed to working late into the night, I always found it difficult to wake betimes; then I used to dream that I was out of the bed and standing at the washstand.”
Instances of this sort are easy enough to understand, but even wish fulfilment dreams have a way of disguising their content. At one point a friend of Freud’s told him, “My wife has asked me to tell you that yesterday she dreamed she had started her period. You will know what that means.” Freud commented, “Indeed I do; if the young woman has dreamed that she has had her period, then she is missing it. I can imagine she would have liked to enjoy her freedom a little longer before the difficulties of motherhood begin.”
This relatively simple example points up a central fact about dreams: their content is not obvious. As Freud indicated, this is partly because the portion of the mind that dreams cannot express its own meaning in verbal discourse; that is, it cannot come out and say directly what it is trying to express; it speaks in symbols. But there is another consideration. As in the case of the young pregnant woman above, we often have desires that we cannot admit to ourselves. Thus the psyche chooses a roundabout way of expressing it. This is a way of getting around the inhibitions and taboos of our conditioning.
Toward the end of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud provides a preliminary summary of his findings:
“Dreams are fully paid-up psychical acts; their driving-force is a wish in need of fulfilment; their unrecognisability as wishes, and their many oddities and absurdities, derive from the influence of the psychical censorship which they have gone through in the course of their formation; as well as the compulsion to escape this censorship, the following factors have shared in forming them: the compulsion to condense the psychical material, regard for representability in visual or other sensory images, and – though not invariably – regard for a rational and intelligible appearance for the dream’s structure.”
Freud admitted that not every dream could be interpreted, and that there were many that made sense only in the context of many weeks of dreams that were interrelated, whether they appeared to be or not. Furthermore, he said, no interpretation of a given dream is exhaustive; there is always more that could be said and learned about it. But a central part of his theory was that the wishes that dreams attempted to fulfil arose out of the libido – the sex drive.
This drive, constantly present and constantly frustrated in civilised humans, was the energy that gave life to dreams and indeed to the psyche as a whole. (Later in his career, in an enigmatic work entitled Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud would argue that another drive existed: the urge for an organism to return to its primordial inanimate state. This countervailing “death wish” existed alongside and in opposition to the drive toward reproduction.)
Freud’s greatest student, the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung, took exception to these views. To begin with, he questioned Freud’s idea that dreams were obscure because they concealed things that the conscious ego did not want to admit to itself. Jung wrote, “Some of the pioneers of psychology” – presumably including Freud – “came to the conclusion that dreams did not mean what they appeared to mean. The images or symbols that they presented were dismissed as bizarre forms in which repressed contents of the psyche appeared to the conscious mind. It thus came to be taken for granted that a dream meant something other than its obvious statement.
“Why should they mean something different from their contents?” Jung countered. “Is there anything in nature that is other than it does not mean something it is not. The Talmud even says: ‘The dream is its own interpretation’. The confusion arises because the dream’s contents are symbolic and thus have more than one meaning. The symbols point in different directions from those we apprehend with the conscious mind; and therefore they relate to something either unconscious or at least not entirely conscious.”
Jung also disagreed with Freud’s view that libido could be reduced to the sex drive. In an early work entitled Wandlungen and Symbole der Libido (“Transformations and Symbols of the Libido”; its English title is Symbols of Transformation), Jung wrote: “We know far too little about the nature of human instincts and their psychic dynamism to risk giving priority to any one instinct. We would be better advised, therefore, when speaking of libido, to understand it as an energy-value which is able to communicate itself to any field of activity whatsoever, be it power, hunger, hatred, sexuality, or religion.”
From these two ideas – that dream symbolism had an intrinsic meaning of its own and that the libido could not be characterised only as the sex drive – sprang Jung’s mature theory of the psyche, which centred around what he called the archetypes: “The archetypes are the numinous structural elements of the psyche and possess a certain autonomy and specific energy which enables them to attract, out of the conscious mind, those contents which are best suited to themselves.” That is, the archetypes are centres of force within the psyche. We can never see them directly: they can only be approached through the symbols by which they manifest.
Jung went further than this. The archetypes, he contended, do not only make use of symbols that they manage to unearth out of the conscious mind. They also produce symbols of their own that best express their nature. Since the structure of the human psyche is common to everyone, it thus follows that the same archetypes and symbols of the psyche would be discovered throughout the world. These symbols would also spontaneously appear in the dreams and fantasies of people who had never been exposed to them. And this, Jung argued, was in fact the case.
In his late work Man and His Symbols, Jung describes the dreams of an eight-year-old girl that she wrote down and gave to her father as a Christmas present. The father, not knowing what to do with them, showed them to Jung. “They made up the weirdest series of dreams I have ever seen,” Jung wrote, “and I could well understand why her father was more than just puzzled by them.”
In one of the dreams, for example, “‘the evil animal’, a snakelike monster with many horns, kills and devours all other animals. But God comes from the four corners, being in fact four separate gods, and gives rebirth to all the dead animals.” Jung observed that this dream resembled the motif of the apokatastasis, or restoration of all things, that appeared in early Christianity. Moreover, the four gods who come from the “four corners” form a fourfold figure that he called a “quaternity” – “a strange idea, but one that plays a great role in many religions and philosophies.” In the Bible, this quaternity appears in the chariot vision that opens the book of Ezekiel, with living creatures who have the faces of a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle (Ezekiel 1:10).
The Christians took up this motif and used it to represent the four evangelists, each of whom was symbolised by one of these animals. We see the same theme in the four sacred directions of Native American religion, and in the Tibetan mandala, which combines the motif of a circle with that of a square. But where could the little girl have learned of these images? “She had very little religious background,” Jung observed. “Her parents were Protestants in name; but in fact they knew the Bible only from hearsay.”
Jung, with his compendious knowledge of the myths and symbols of the world, would have this experience often with his patients. Another case was that of a professor “who had had a sudden vision and thought he was insane. He came to see me in a state of complete panic. I simply took a 400-year-old book from the shelf and showed him an old woodcut depicting his very vision. ‘There’s no reason for you to believe that you’re insane’, I said to him. ‘They knew about your vision 400 years ago’. Whereupon he sat down entirely deflated, but normal.”
What does this all come down to? For Freud, dream images of this kind were merely coping mechanisms, enabling men and women to function in some kind of way among “civilisation and its discontents” (the title of one of his works). But Jung believed that the psyche had a purpose and a direction of its own. Its ultimate drive was not toward sexual fulfilment, but toward its own wholeness and integration. The term he gave to this was individuation. The archetypes were the primordial forces that drove this process; the symbols of dreams and myths were their manifestation.
Individuation consists of a long process in which certain archetypes in the psyche are confronted and (to a degree) made conscious. If this process continues long enough, eventually the archetype of the Self will appear in dreams. It can take the form of a wise old man or woman, a guru or guardian, a divine youth, a helpful animal, or even a stone. (The Bible alludes to this last motif when it says, “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner”: Psalm 118:22). Jung’s associate Marie-Louise von Franz described the Self as “an inner guiding factor that is different from the conscious personality and that can be grasped only through the investigation of one’s own dreams.
These show it to be the regulating centre that brings about a constant extension and maturing of the personality.” It is this “extension and maturing” that is the goal of Jungian analysis.
Although Freud and Jung remain the greatest dream interpreters of the twentieth century, their views are unfashionable in psychology today. This is in large part because neurology has made great strides in mapping mental states onto neural events.
While this is useful work in its own right, it has led many modern researchers to conclude, with J. Allan Hobson of Harvard, that dreams are merely the result of random energy signals that reach the brain’s cortex during certain phases of sleep. The idea that there are hidden meanings to dreams are, Hobson says, nothing more than “the mystique of fortune cookie dream interpretation.”
It seems that we have come full circle in our understanding of dreams. Modern researchers are telling us that, to use Artemidorus’s language, all dreams are enhypnia. They do not convey messages from the gods or from higher levels of reality; they do not even convey any meaningful messages from our own psyches. This is the state that psychology has reached in the early twenty-first century: we are back to a reductionism that is telling us that all mental activity can be reduced to the activity of the nervous system.
Unfortunately, this approach is not only narrow but self-refuting. If all mental activity can be reduced to mere functions of our nerves – and hence can be dismissed as illusory or nonsensical – that would have to include waking experience as well, including the neural outputs that accompany scientific reasoning. We are left with no good reason to believe in a world “out there” beyond our own brains – certainly not in any world that has any genuine correlation to what we experience.
This leads us back to the most difficult and most fascinating question about the dream world: is it real? If so, what sort of reality does it have? As I said at the beginning of this article, some Hindu philosophers have claimed that the only reason we take waking life to be real is that we spend more of our time in it than we do in dreams.
To this we might add the consideration that there is an indefinable something in waking life that we call awareness, or perhaps clarity. But even this is not as decisive as we may think. We need point only to the existence of lucid dreams – that is, dreams in which the dreamer is aware that he is dreaming.
Lucid dreaming has been studied at great length – notably by Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University – and, as with other types of dreams, it is associated with certain types of brain states, notably rapid-eye movements or REMs. LaBerge even trained his subjects to show that they were having lucid dreams by moving their eyes in certain directions. For the scientific materialist, this leads to the same inevitable conclusion: that lucid dreams are the products of certain brain states and nothing more. But I am not so sure.
I myself had a lucid dream a number of years ago. I remember surveying the landscape of the dream and asked myself, “Is this really different from waking life? If so, how?” I concluded that there was a difference, but it was a difference in feeling-quality: the dream world simply felt different, in a way that I found difficult to characterise. But I did not have the sense that one world was “real” and the other “unreal”; each had its own independent reality.
Among the world’s most proficient lucid dreamers are certain schools of Tibetan Buddhists, who practice a “dream yoga” that is meant to keep awareness unbroken between the waking and dream states. For them, it has a highly pragmatic function: to enable an individual to continue spiritual practice during sleep. The Tibetan lama Namkhai Norbu observes, “The night is very important for people because half our lives pass during it; but often we quietly sleep away all that time without any effort or commitment. There has to be real awareness that practice can occur at all times, even during sleep or eating, for example. If this does not happen, progress on the path is difficult to make.”
In his book Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light, Norbu describes the practices that are used to maintain awareness into the dream state. In essence, the practitioner visualises the Tibetan equivalent of the letter A in the centre of his body until he falls asleep. “If one is capable of falling asleep like this,” Norbu claims, “one would find the full presence of the state of natural light. One falls asleep, and one is asleep with virtually full awareness.” Even if you don’t succeed with this practice the first few times you try it, Norbu says, eventually you will be able to attain a state of lucid dreaming this way.
The reason for doing this at all is, as I have said, highly practical: it enables the aspirant to continue spiritual work even while asleep. According to Norbu, certain texts claim that a spiritual practice is nine times more effective carried out in the dream state than it is in the waking state.
As even this brief description suggests, the motive for Tibetan dream practice is completely different from the dream analysis practiced by either Freud or Jung. Tibetan Buddhist practitioner Michael Katz says, “Although there seem to be clear relative benefits from the extensive examination of dream material, it is quite possible that these benefits are only for the beginner. For the advanced practitioner, awareness itself may ultimately be far more valuable than the experience and content, no matter how creative. Great teachers have reported that dreams cease completely when awareness becomes absolute, to be replaced by luminous clarity of an indescribable nature.”
As for the ontological reality of the dream world, the Tibetan Buddhists hold that it is ultimately no different from that of the waking world. In the words of the Mahayana Buddhist Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” Namkhai Norbu writes:
“In a real sense, all the visions that we see in our lifetime are like a big dream. If we examine them well, the big dream of life and the smaller dreams of one night are not very different. If we truly see the essential nature of both, we will see that there really is no difference between them. If we can finally liberate ourselves from the chains of emotions, attachments, and ego by this realisation, we have the possibility of ultimately becoming enlightened. ”
It would be possible, of course, to go much deeper into ideas and theories of dreams than the space of this article allows. But even the little we have been able to see tells us one important thing: our views of the dream state are inextricably linked with our views of reality as a whole.
For materialistic researchers like J. Allan Hobson, dreams arise from the firings of neurons and nothing more. Freud and Jung held that dreams were the expression of primordial instincts – for Freud, the sex drive; for Jung, a more comprehensive urge within the psyche for wholeness.
For Tibetan Buddhists, they serve to remind us that the phenomena that pass before the screen of the mind – whether seen in waking or in sleeping states – are devoid of an ultimate reality. Our own views of dreams will almost certainly reflect our own beliefs and preconceptions. The question that faces us then is, are these views expanding our knowledge of reality or limiting it?
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