June 3, 2002
At some point every day, most of us fall asleep and dream. When people "don't dream," what they're really saying is that they don't remember their dreams. We all create imagery in the form of thinking, talking, imagining, and daydreaming, and that process doesn't mysteriously stop when we fall asleep.
Dreaming is a vast wilderness that we explore every night. And even though science can't seem to crack the world of dreams, it doesn't stop us from exploring our own back yard. After all, we didn't need to know the mechanics of a bike in order to ride one.
Some dreams are like free therapy sessions. The cognitive, thinking brain takes a back seat, and the parts of us that hold the keys to awareness get a chance to drive.
Dreams often seem confusing because we try to translate the experience by thinking and analysing. Thinking, however, is the limited "language" of the cognitive upper brain. The language of the mid-brain or limbic system is emotions, and the language of the lower brain stem or Autonomic Nervous System is sensation. To keep it simple, I lump emotions and sensations into one word - feelings.
Feeling is the key to unlocking dreams. It is the feeling in the dream that is most closely connected to its true message. Let me illustrate with a fictional story based on many factual accounts.
Lucy has terrible nightmares in which she is surprised by an attacker who starts to tear her apart and kill her. She awakens screaming. The scenes in the dream and the attackers are never the same - bears, tigers, sharks, spiders - even mythical monsters. The only commonalities are the attack and the life-and-death fear Lucy feels.
In session, Lucy describes the dream from her point of view - in the dream itself. When the attack comes, she stays with the horrible fear and expresses it by thrashing and screaming. As she does so, she finds herself propelled into the shocking memory of being attacked and severely injured by a dog when she was two years old. As her shrieks turn into sobs, she realizes on a very deep level that the dream feeling of horror and impending doom was the feeling she had as a toddler. To Lucy at that age, the dog was a monster, and she truly felt that she would die. Her shock was so severe that she had repressed the memory, only to have it rise up in her dreams.
Dream symbols are often different than the original event, but the feelings are the same. This happens because the original event is often imprinted in the lower brain centers - and their language is feeling. When these imprints rise to consciousness in dreams, the upper brain often reinterprets them with varied imagery in order to protect us from the trauma.
Dreams with strong feelings and emotions are often repressed material rising to the surface of consciousness. If you keep a dream journal, pay as much attention to the feelings and sensations as to the content. If you are in a supportive environment, you can even stay with the feelings when you awaken to see what the deeper message is. If possible, take your dreams into your next therapy session.
Every night is an adventure. Dream on.