the language of dreams

In chapter seven we observed that lucid experience with dreams would challenge some familiar habits of self-identification. Once we acquire conscious experience with the dreamscape, the real mystery is who is responsible for creating the dream.

he dichotomy we sense between our self and our dreams is quite real. Even when we know, somewhere in the back of our mind, that we are creating the dream we are simultaneously interacting with, the dream maintains its structure and identity apart from “us.” It is impossible to totally control the events of a dream, as the transformations and symbolism continually surprise us. Thus, even though we are the creators of our dreams, we find we exercise only tenuous control over them. We may truthfully say that we are engaged with another element that insists on its own identify. Paradoxically, however, we also are this other element—who else could it be? So if we both experience the dream and create it, what does this reveal about our true self?

Dreams, despite their nonsensical appearance, obey a few simple principles of construction. The sooner we can learn these principles, the sooner we will learn to speak the language of dreams. When we do, we will find a faithful correspondent within our self, and also a great ally. Dreams, once we are able to understand them, complement our limited waking abilities. They give us access to levels of awareness that we otherwise might never know exist.

A Strange, Emotional Dream

To illustrate, let’s say a woman learns in her waking life that her lover of two years’ time is being unfaithful to her. But to make the situation more difficult to decipher, let’s say she learns of this infidelity only unconsciously—that is, something her lover did recently tipped her off that something was wrong, and the vibes between her and her lover are different. Unconsciously she suspects—indeed, she is aware—that her lover is being unfaithful. But let’s also say that she is repressing this awareness, that she hasn’t allowed it to become conscious yet, because at a certain level, she doesn’t want to know. She wants the relationship to be different from how it is.

A day or two after becoming unconsciously suspicious of the infidelity, she dreams that she is with her lover on an ocean cruiser, far out at sea. She is at the bow of the ship, looking forward at the board expanse of ocean, and holding on to the railing; a gentle breeze brushes against her cheek. Suddenly the boat develops a huge gash in its hull. She rushes to the side and peers over the edge. She sees that a giant fish with a red, pointed collar around its neck has hit the boat, and the boat is now sinking rapidly. The fish, killed by its collision with the boat, floats alongside. Suddenly she is at the bow again, but her lover is gone. She looks about anxiously to discover where he is. Down a walkway she sees one of her lover’s old friends, someone she met once at a college reunion. At this point she forgets about her lover. The ship is listing badly; and this distant acquaintance is having difficulty climbing toward her. Interestingly, she does not try to help the person. Rather, she watches intently as she tries to move toward her. The individual is grabbing the railing and crying out for help. The dreamer says to herself, “If she had worn the right shoes, she wouldn’t be getting wet.” With this thought, she awakens.

Unconscious Awareness in Everyday Experience

In everyday experience, we often become unconsciously aware of information, only to later become actively aware of what we have known unconsciously for some time. Says a few nights before you are planning to leave on a car trip, you have a disturbing dream. You are on a highway heading off to some mountains in the distance, when suddenly the car swerves and fishtails. You barely miss having an accident. In the dream, you were aware that one of your tires had gone bad, and this was the cause for loss of control. Because of this dream, the next day you inspect your tires. Much to your surprise, you find that one of your tires is indeed bald. Was the dream portentous? Was it a communication from a guardian angel? Perhaps, but another explanation is that, at some point in the past, you became aware unconsciously that the car was steering poorly at high speeds. Or perhaps you noticed the tire one morning when you entered the car but didn’t devote any thought to it then. As you began to anticipate your trip, this significant detail of information became represented in a dream. Thus you became actively aware of information you were already aware of inactively.

In another illustration, you see one of your coworkers at your desk one morning. You do not notice anything awry. You speak with your coworker briefly, and accomplish the tasks of the morning. That night, however, you have a vivid dream that your coworker is in a fight with his lover. The following day, you tell your coworker of the dream and express concern for their relationship. Much to your surprise, you learn that your dream identified your coworker’s situation precisely. Are you psychic? Maybe, but an equally plausible explanation is that you perceived something wrong the previous morning. During that brief encounter, you may have recognized emotional stress and even succeeded in identifying the source. But while you absorbed this information, at the time you were concerned only with whatever work detail brought you together. The information you held unconsciously made the transit from inactive to active awareness through a dream.

In yet another example, you meet someone only casually at a party. Later you dream of being romantically involved with that person. The dreams takes you by surprise. You think, “I met this person only once, and I never even thought about him (or her) again.” But apparently that’s not true. When you think it over, you admit that you did find the person attractive.

Or maybe an old friend comes to town, and you spend a night out on the town together. You have dinner and some drinks, and later visit a nightclub. The following week you dream your friend is arrested for driving while intoxicated. You make some casual inquiries and find out that your friend actually has been having problems with alcohol. You didn’t notice it the night you went out, but maybe at the time you were giving your friend the benefit of the doubt.

While the idea of unconscious awareness appears paradoxical at first, as you become more familiar with dreams, you will be more comfortable with the concept. You’ll find that dreams are frequent conveyers of information between our conscious and unconscious awarenesses. This is the primary reason why, throughout time, dreams have been considered valuable psychologically: They reveal our unconscious awarenesses.

Do dreams really show us things we do not already know? The answer is twofold. Dreams show us that there are two stores of knowledge within our mind. Consciousness contains everything we are actively aware of, while the unconscious—and this is the tricky part—contains everything else we are also aware of. The mystery is how we can maintain unconscious awarenesses without being aware of this knowledge at the conscious level. At this point, however, we should be able to overcome our conscious bias enough to recognize that unconscious awarenesses are as valid as are conscious ones.

Dreams do not show us things we do not know. In fact, precisely the opposite is true. Indeed, the revelatory capacity of dreams attests to the fact that at some level in our beings, we must already know whatever it is that our dreams are reflecting. Accordingly, the real question to ask of dream experience is whether we are aware yet, on the conscious level, of the knowledge that dreams make manifest.

For example, in the dream of the unfaithful lover and the sinking ship, if we examine the sequence of events, at some point we much acknowledge that prior to the dream, our dreamer was already aware that her lover was being unfaithful. This awareness is what gives rise to the construction of the foreboding dream. The distinction in this case is whether she allowed this awareness to become conscious—whether she allowed herself to feel this unconsciously possessed awareness. In the above circumstance, we said that our dreamer did not allow herself to become actively aware of this suspicion (prior to her dream) because, quite simply, she did not want to become aware of it. Even though she was aware of the infidelity at an unconscious level, she avoided acknowledging or addressing this gut feeling, sixth sense, intuition, or nervousness—or however else this awareness manifested itself during waking experience. To have acknowledged her suspicions would have been painful, so she resisted its becoming part of her active awareness. In simpler terms, she saw what she wanted to see and she did not see consciously what she did not want to see. Yet as her dream shows, her unconscious awareness of the infidelity persisted.

©1995 Charles McPhee. Excerpted from Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep published by Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

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