Edited by HENRY REED, Ph.D.
December 11,   2008
Dreams as a Guide to Our Meaningful Life


Dreams as a Guide to Our Meaningful Life

M.B. Sharan

Emeritus Professor

PIET, Rourkela

E-mail: mithilasharan@yahoo.co.in


The Nature of Dreams

A dream is an illusory psychic activity, particularly of a visual nature which occurs during sleep. It is essentially a psychological phenomenon with many philosophical, religious and moral implications. It can be natural or supernatural. If they are supernatural, their origin lies in soul or God. Dreams are so complex that what causes them can seldom be traced back to a well-defined external or internal stimulus (Augustine, 1996). They are perhaps brought about by many interacting factors of a perceptual, emotional, motivational, devotional, and physiological nature. They occur in cycles following the fluctuation of sleep stages. As suggested by some of the researches, generally, a person dreams for 1 to 2 hours distributed in three to five periods lasting from 20 to 30 minutes, and each sleep period followed at intervals of about 90 minutes.

We all dream but we do not remember all of them. And those we remember are also full of confusions. Only some dream we find to be somewhat meaningful and associated with our memories and experiences of that day or of the past. This is the reason why Jacobson (1999) has said that (i) there is no dream without nonsense, and (ii) there are some in a form of prophecy. But the real problem is how to distinguish between the two. Since it is all bundled into one snowball, the question is: how to interpret which part is meaningless and which part is meaningful.

Beginning of the Systematic Study

A dream is a glimpse into the subconscious or unconscious minds which functions differently from the conscious mind. Therefore, we cannot expect dreams to be systematic and logical. Moreover, when we try to interpret dreams, we try to do so through our conscious mind. As a result, dreams remain distant and illogical hallucinatory experiences most of the times. Credit goes to Freud that he kept the conscious mind in the background and interpreted dreams with whole emphasis on the unconscious mind. This led him to say that dreams were meaningful and attempted wish fulfilment of unsatisfied desires. In his book, Interpretation of Dreams he argued that the unconscious mind liked to depict the wish fulfilment wholesale but the preconscious could not allow it. As a result, the wish or wishes remained disguised within a dream. He further claimed that the counterintuitive nature of nightmares represented a clash between the super ego and the id -- the id wished to see the past fulfilled, while the super ego could not allow it. He also added that in nearly all cases these anxiety dreams were products of infantile, sexual memories (Wikipedia, 2007). Dreams were thus "a tree for secret erotic desires, a hat for oedipal tendencies, a pillar for adultery, a bird for a phallic symbol in Freudian interpretation" (Bhattacharya, 2000).

Freud's student-turned rebel, Jung, however, did not agree with his teacher, and proposed many things additional. He believed that during the rapid eye movement (REM) state, the mind got in touch with the unconscious, which consisted of not only the 'personal unconscious' -- with its repressed desires and fears -- but also the racial memories and experiences of the 'collective unconscious'. He further maintained that the interpretation of dreams was largely based on the personality and circumstances of the dreamer. The general function of dream was thus "to try to restore our psychological balance" in Jung's writings (Bhattacharya, 2000). Adler also saw this past, present, and future influence on dreams. His main contention was, however, to interpret how a person's lifestyle was reflected in his/her dreams.

Present Status of Dreams

Everyone will agree that Freud and Jung were the two masterminds in the field of dream analysis. Jung, however, had an edge over Freud. Agreeing with his teacher reluctantly, Jung was also pointing out his missing points that dreams represented the various layers of the mind and contained ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, irrational experiences, and telepathic visions. Today, many of the researches are supporting Jung by saying that dreams have an almost unlimited source of creative inspiration, psychological insight, and spiritual guidance. Researches on brain are also showing that when a person falls asleep, he/she has a steady pattern of alpha waves on the electroencephalograph (EEG). "These are accompanied by regular breathing, slow pulse rate, and a drop in the body temperature. This is the non-REM sleep. In the REM state, dreams occur four to five times a night. REM is also marked by intense motor activity, increased pulse rate, and a brain pattern similar to alert wakefulness" (Bhattacharya, 2000).

Kaplan (2002) has elaborated these different stages of dreams in her book, Dreams are Letters from the Soul very nicely. She says that the first stage of dreaming is directional, goal-oriented, with a more masculine feel. In this stage, we discern and integrate information about the dreamer. In the second stage, which is spherical, spiralling and receptive, we learn to access and decode information that lies beyond our individual awareness. These collective nature of the dreams include the telepathic (information about something that is happening or has just occurred), clairvoyant (awareness of an immediate future possibility), and prophetic (awareness of a distant future possibility) experiences. The third stage dreams are transformative which include healing, teaching and oracular dreams. This stage of dreaming is a sacred marriage of the first two stages -- a coming together of our directional and goal-oriented dreams with our receptive dreams. The fourth stage dreaming is what the author calls "philanthropic" dreams in which a person can "work" through the dream world, in complete service to others. Most people will reach this stage only after years of spiritual work, both in the dream space and in waking life (Denwiddie, 2003). Thus, according to Kaplan, "Our sleep is not merely a time for decreased consciousness and rest. It is a time to awaken to the collective conscious of the soul, to communicate with our Creator. Let us use them to help us become truly awakened, that we may be used to awaken others."

Michaels (2005) has also written in her book, A Bedside Guide to Dreams that both insights and meanings emerge in our dreams. "Remember, dreams are letters from your soul, not generally meant to simply entertain you. Under most circumstances, applying the dream's insight will produce a constructive change in you as you align yourself more closely with your soul's purpose." After documenting 27 types of dreams, she summarized that dreams were related to the following six basic life issues:

1.      Body and Health: When we learn to pay attention to our dreams, we realize that we have our own built-in doctor. Sometimes when we dream that certain foods disagree with our body, we also see how to heal ourselves.

2.      Relationships: Very often, our dreams give us feedback about our behaviour in the    relationship and how to clear up our acts to make room for a better relationship.

3.      Decision-making: Decision-making dreams do not give direct answers to our problems but offer a clearer view of the situations, which can help in taking right decisions.

4.      Male and Female Balancing: We may see ourselves doing something that is not characteristic of us but the opposite trait needs to be brought in for maintaining balance.

5.      Strength: Strength dreams act like meters to show us the level of strength or vulnerability we are feeling.

6.      Sex: Sometimes we have sex dreams as a way of balancing our own sexual energy or resolving our psychological feelings about sexuality.

Thus, many of the researchers (e.g. Thurston, 1978; Bhattacharya, 2000; Todeschi, 2002, 2004; Reed, 2003; Holloway, 2006) are of the opinion today that dreams do not come unbidden or without purpose. They come to help us in some way. They do this by having us reach beyond our individuality into timelessness and spacelessness. We, therefore, need to realize that all parts of the mind (conscious, subconscious and unconscious) merge in dreams into one and become universal to give us a window view of our soul (Michaels, 2005). 

Creating Meaningful Dreams

We have seen that dreams occur in cycles in different stages. The first stage dream, which is directional and which is more concerned with dreamer's unsatisfied desires, perhaps comes at its own. Therefore, many of us experience such dreams as wish fulfilment of the day-today desires as claimed by Freud in his first theory of dream interpretation. But when we go deeper and deeper into our unconscious mind to have second, third or fourth stage dream, we find them changing in many ways -- becoming more and more informative, constructive, meaningful and prophetic. Dreams of such stages, however, appear only in such persons who want to have them and also want to remember them. Otherwise, only some persons can experience even second and third stage dream and that also occasionally. Kaplan (2002) has rightly said that people can have third and fourth stage dreams (prophetic and philanthropic) only after years of spiritual work in both the dream space and waking life. Michaels (2005), therefore, has suggested the following steps to remember dreams and to reach the fourth stage:

1.     Get a note book: You may find that you will recall your dreams better when you record them in the note book. And the words you choose to describe dreams also give you an insight to what the dreams mean later on.

2.     Relax before you retire: By relaxing beforehand, you allow your psyche to shift gears away from the outward, and enter into the inner role-oriented public life you want to lead.

3.     Notice what is on your mind: If you are aware of your thoughts and feelings just before you go to sleep, you may find yourself halfway to interpreting your dreams when you awake.

4.     Don't forget to give yourself a suggestion: "I will remember my dreams" may suffice, or you may wish to pray for guidance, or understanding a particular dream.

5.     Wake up comfortably: Try to wake up at your own by giving suggestions to your mind. If you use an alarm clock, use a soft one with quiet music.

6.     Don't move too abruptly: It is difficult to hold onto the thin, filmy material of the unconscious. A quick movement, even a stretch as you lay in bed can plant you firmly in the conscious world, only with a wisp of feeling that you had some great and important dream.

Comparison Between Eastern and Western Thinkers

Bhattacharya (2000) has examined the views of some of the Indian researchers in her article elaborately. We find that the world of dreams has been a mystery for many of them. Therefore, each one has been interpreting dreams in his/her own way. There was a time when many were holding the view that during sleep the soul of a person was coming out and wandering here and there, and was having all sorts of experiences known as dreams. Today, however, there is a shift in their thinking. For some, it is a reflection of repressed desires; for some, it is a desire of the jiva (individual consciousness) to merge with Shiva (cosmic consciousness). "The Indian tradition believes that the pre-dawn moment is the Brahama muhurat or Brahama time. When the last stars are still twinkling in the sky, a window opens in the cosmic consciousness and reaches out to the individual consciousness" (Bhattacharya, 2000). This results in prophetic dreams in some devoted persons. Thus, Bhattacharya and some other Indian thinkers have been considering dreams to be prophetic in nature (like "letters from the soul"). They have not been, however, talking about other stages of dreaming as Kaplan (2002) is saying today which seems to be more logical and convincing.

There is another similarity between Eastern and Western thinkers. Both the groups have been saying that lucid dreaming is possible only by affirming again and again by the dreamer that he/she wants to have meaningful dreams. Unless a person gives importance to such dreams, it is not possible for him or her to have it. Castaneda (1993) has rightly said in his book, The Art of Dreaming that dreaming is an art of shifting our assemblage point -- a point of brilliance inside the energy field of human body. "The greater the displacement, the more unusual the dream." Thus, according to him, nothing is impossible in the dream world, if a person wishes genuinely. Wahiduddin (2005) has also written in his article, In an Eastern Rose Garden that mastery lies not merely in stilling the mind, but in directing it towards whatever point we desire, in allowing it to be active as far as we wish, in using it to fulfil our purpose, in causing it to be still when we want to still it.

Sri Aurobindo in India presented a similar view during Jung's lifetime. He said that dreams could be classified as those occurring on the subconscious levels and those occurring on the corresponding but the higher levels of consciousness ("subliminal" or "supraconscious" levels). "All the subconscious level dreams will be composed of various impressions from the environment or physical nature and from deeper levels of the subconscious related to the personal and collective past. The supraconscious dreams are due to activities of our higher levels of being, involving perceptions or experiences.... These levels of consciousness are seen as the origins of inspirations, creativity, intuitions, ideas, will-suggestions, sense-suggestions, and urges to action".

Thus, many of the great Indian thinkers have been thinking about dreams to be a feedback mechanism of our subconscious mind and Higher Self from the very beginning which the Western researchers are emphasizing today after so many years of research. They were, however, not accounting dreams stage-by-stage as these researchers are presenting today.

Critical Evaluation and Conclusion

From the above discussion, it is clear that every person is dreaming almost every night. It is another thing that many of them don't remember them because they don't have the intention to remember. Similarly, even if they remember some, they don't give much importance to their dreams. Therefore, for them, dreams appear to be meaningless. Otherwise, any person who wants to remember his/her dreams can remember them and can find meanings in them. Stone (2004) has rightly written in his article, A Spiritual Perspective on Dreams and Sleep that since for the Senoi Indians, dreams are more important than their real lives, every morning upon rising they are sharing their dreams with each other as a sacred ritual.

Dreams are definitely complex in nature. We, therefore, need to understand how our subconscious and unconscious minds function during sleep and how our conscious mind interprets them in the morning on awakening. For this, first of all, we need to understand: (i) what is mind? and (ii) how does it matter for dreams? Though mind has been defined in many ways by different authors, an appropriate definition has come from Vedanta. It maintains that mind is like an internal instrument which is getting the power of consciousness from soul. And it is functioning like a mirror which can perceive things clearly only when it is neat and clean. Soul is like the sun which is throwing lights on it constantly. Now, it depends on the absorbing ability of the mind that how much it gets illuminated. Only a well-illuminated mind can have correct perceptions and decisions; otherwise, it will have distorted perceptions. Since there are layers in it, from functional viewpoint, psychologists have divided it into three parts: conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Otherwise, as a whole, these three parts constitute one mind best known as Superconscious or Universal Mind -- Superconscious because consciousness comes from the soul and Universal because it has infinite intelligence. This Universal Mind is thus functioning like a mega computer that orchestrates the activities in every little computer of conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds connected to it (Reed, 1989; Koh, 2004; Sharan, 2007).

During sleep, the mind gets a chance to function better because the person is at rest and dreaming. It is not possible for the person to have this kind of mind when he/she is awaken (except in meditation) because it is actively involved in day-today problems dealing with anxieties and worries. But the moment a person goes to bed, he/she starts feeling relaxed and at peace. This allows the person to go deeper and deeper into his/her mind and have all sorts of dreams, including prophetic dreams. Wahiduddin (2005) has rightly said that "The mind has no leisure; it is perhaps worrying, or planning, or thinking over the struggles and anxieties of which life is so full. There is hardly ever a time when the mind is at rest, except when nature gives it a rest because it is too exhausted to work anymore." This is the time when mind says, 'I will have a good sleep.'

For prophetic dreams, however, a good sleep is not enough. It needs to function in a particular direction to go deeper and deeper and to have more and more meaningful dreams. Therefore, the person needs to have a genuine interest at his/her conscious level first to have meaningful dreams. This kind of intention and expectation prepares the subconscious and unconscious mind to have incubating dreams of the second and third stage. Thus, only in the case of strong desire to have prophetic dreams, the dreamer reaches the fourth stage and has prophetic dreams. Actually, this kind of request or instructions to the conscious mind conveys a message to the subconscious and unconscious minds to find out something meaningful by filtering the dreams. This process of filtering thus changes the dream pattern from one stage to another and is successful finally in having prophetic dreams of the fourth stage. Wahiduddin (2005), therefore, has rightly suggested that unless the mind is directed to find out meanings in dreams, it cannot do it at its own.

Secondly, a good sleep starts with the first stage dream of personal nature including satisfaction of some of the unsatisfied desires of the dreamer. Then, in second stage, the dreamer has a different kind of dream which is more concerned with the information that lies beyond his/her awareness. Then, if sleep is uninterrupted, the dreamer experiences third stage dream which is of transformative nature -- saying more about solving a difficult problem. Then, when the dreamer's mind is fully (spiritually) prepared, it enters into the fourth and final stage where he/she has prophetic and philanthropic dreams which reflect more about future of the dreamer. Since a person is reaching the Universal Mind only in this stage, it becomes possible for him or to her to glimpse spiritual and moral possibilities hidden in it only in this (fourth) stage. According to Ellis (1994), "It holds possibilities which are locked away from the conscious mind, for it has at its disposal all subliminal psychic contents, all those things which have been forgotten or overlooked, as well as the wisdom and experience of uncounted centuries which are laid down in its archetypal organs...." J. Krishnamurti is also of the same opinion that "In oneself lies the whole world and if you know to look and learn, then the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself." All of us, therefore, need to learn how to have such dreams to reach the Universal Mind and to know the "whole world." Michaels (2005) has already given steps to remember dreams and to reach the fourth stage. However, the most important thing in this context is what Kaplan has said that people can have third and fourth stage dreams (prophetic and philanthropic) only after years of spiritual work in both the dream space and waking life. This includes repeated affirmation and prayer by the dreamer that he/she wants to have meaningful dreams.

Thirdly, for understanding such prophetic dreams meaningfully, we need to learn about the art of interpreting them. Scientific methods have not been found to be of much use in this regard. Psychologists, therefore, need to realize the limitations of their experimental and other methods which can explore only up to REM and some other physiological changes involved in dreams. But for getting hidden meanings in dreams, they have to change their mindsets and have to accept Intuition as a method of psychology. This is the reason why many Indian thinkers like Dr. S. Radhakrishnan (McDermott, 1970), Swami Vivekananda (2005), Sri Aurovindo (1996) have been pleading strongly for having Intuitive Awareness for getting truth. The same view is now being supported by many Western psychologists like Thurston (1978), Todeschi (2002, 2004), Seale (2002), Reed (2002) etc. It has been rightly said that without following Intuition, intellectuals will remain imperfect and divided, and blind to the truth behind appearances. According to Swami Omkaranand (1999), "Intuition is the only way by which Absolute can be realized and experienced in all its totality. The mortal, finite, limited senses and the intellect cannot comprehend the Reality which is immortal and all-pervading."

Not only dreams, psychologists can also understand topics like love, trust, confidence, concentration, creativity, spirituality, wisdom, etc. better by accepting Intuition as a method of psychology. Since they are trained to address only such questions which can be tested in a precise, objective, and publicly verifiable fashion, they are unable to capture these topics. But once they come out of such mindsets, they will enjoy Intuitive Awareness of all these topics including dreams. All of us, therefore, need to realize the limitations of our methods, which offer only a few subjective and objective factors, involved in each of these topics but not the "Gestalt effect" created by these factors. Only through Intuitive Awareness this Gestalt effect (as a whole effect) can be appreciated which is full of spiritual meanings in each of these topics including dreams. These spiritual meanings actually serve as a guide to one's meaningful life. Ashish (2007) has rightly said that "Movement on the spiritual path necessarily involves taking light into the dark corner of our psyche, and it is there that dreams provide an open window into the inner reality.



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