Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dreams; From Myth, to Reduction, to Transcendence

While browsing Psychology Today magazine, I read the article "Dreams: Night School." The author, Jay Dixit, begins with the description of a lab test on rodents. The experiment deprived rats of REM sleep for a number of days, and then subjected them to go through a series of "survival" tests. Instead of exhibiting typical behavior that would ensure a rat's survival in the wild, they acted abnormally, and perhaps even dangerously, seeming to lack the natural cautious instinct (Grooming in the open instead of hiding, etc). The final stage of this experiment was to give the rat's amphetamines to compensate for the lack of good sleep. To no avail. What the scientists came to conclude was that a rat needed to dream, or go through the normal cycles of REM sleep, in order to function normally.

Dixit goes on to describe the function of dreams themselves, the why and not just the what. Two basic concepts are described: 

The Freudian: Wish fulfillment, sexual or forbidden desires masked as nightmares, working out emotional conflicts.


The second and more modern interpretation tosses out anything that in depth, and merely describes dreams as random thoughts that arise while the body recovers and goes through the cycles of sleep. As Deirdre Barret is quoted in this article saying, "the noise the brain makes while doing its homework."

The author then asserts that these basic descriptions were the final say about dreaming until the latest discovery. The psychologist Antti Revonsuo interprets dreams as a sort of testing ground, where nightmares are a school of sorts in which the dreamer is put through obstacle course for survival. Or, as Jay Dixit calls it, "A Theater of Threats." Multiple scenarios play out, and your skills are tested in the abstract playground in order to prepare you for waking life encounters. This is why, Revonsuo believes, when actually going through dangerous experiences, they actually can be described as "dream-like" and automatic. It is because we have gone through similar scenarios in our dreaming life, and are in some sense trained to handle the situation while awake.

When Revonsuo began studying dreams, he asked his students to start keeping logs of their own nocturnal escapades. He noticed something striking. The dreams were filled with dangerous events, negative emotions, monsters, chases, escapes, fights, and near-death experiences. The dream world was a hellscape of danger, teeming with threatening events far more sinister than in waking life.



Antti explains this through an evolutionary perspective; our ancestors must have dealt with constant danger, always struggling for survival, whether we were fending of animals or being chased by prehistoric predators - the human brain developed a nighttime training ground in order to prepare us for the toils ahead. In theory, the brain uses emotions, particularly the negative ones, and traces them back to what caused the fear. It uses these memories to construct a hazardous scenario that we thus struggle through.

I do have a few problems with this theory. First and foremost, not all dreams are about mere survival. The author does mention this towards the end of the article, describing stunning scientific revelations while in dreams, or even the fact that Paul Mccartney heard the song Yesterday in his dream, woke up, and wrote it down.

It is because of experiences like this, and a variety of others that I feel that the "Dream School" theory is a partial truth.

For instance, I had been meditating consistently last summer, and at one point I actually began to meditate in a dream. It started out normally, and perhaps typical of the dreams mentioned in this article: Survival, every-day life. I was running through a mall trying to beat the clock. For what? Who knows. Physical objects confronted me. I jumped, leaped, ducked, darted through, eventually finding some small wing that lead outdoors. This was it. I looked at a clock to note the time, and then something profoundly different shifted the dream.

I left the mall and found myself in the woods. Breathing, relaxing, letting go, I suddenly found myself surrounded by animals. There was something unique about them though. I felt connected, as if I were a part of them, as if I were ingrained into the environment. A piece of a dynamic and organic unity. The "flowing" open and boundless state of consciousness began to pervade the dream. The forest was vivid, alive, always moving, and the animals began to communicate with me. At first, it was not in language, but emotion, basic thought, and simply "awareness" of each other. Then, the animals began to snarl, growl, and fight each other. I felt somewhat threatened, but the meditative state pervaded over the danger, leaving me relaxed and aware.

A small animal, perhaps a dear or large rodent, looked at me and began to speak, "There's no need to worry," it said, "You see how everything simply is, and this is true even in nature, you know. We are all simply being." I suddenly became aware of the "Witnessing" state described in meditation, but curiously I was aware of it in every animal, every tree, every rock in the forest. I understood this was what the animal meant.

Suddenly, a bear charged across a stream, directly at the animal that spoke to me. It simply looked up, calm, poised and in some mental sense, giving me the 'half smile' in Buddha pictures. "Even now," it said, as the bear came down on the animal and killed it. Throughout this apparent viciousness, there still was a calming, changeless, nameless presence. I awoke from the dream lucid and awake, and profoundly moved.

Dreams like this one convince me that the dreaming state has a multitude of purposes, each existing at different levels. The survival school scenarios I am sure are a part of the dreaming reality - the subsistence, the instinct. Going deeper, dreams appear to have an emotional aspect. They are also as Freud described, emotional-based, confrontation with issues and hidden desires. From instinct, to emotion, to ego. They are also spiritual, transcendent and mystical in purpose. A dynamic dance between our instinctual and spiritual nature, giving us lessons, training grounds and transcendent opportunities. They need not be reduced to mere "survival" school scenarios, but embraced and transcended.

As a side note, I'd be interested to hear what supporters of the Dream School theory would think about the effects of
Iboga, a powerful african psychoactive. After taking this potent shamanic drug, users reported needing a mere few hours of sleep. Daniel Pinchbeck, in his book "Breaking Open the Head," explores this curious drug and its affects. He describes his own experience as a transformative one, likening it to years of psychoanalysis wrapped up in one evening. He reported needing little sleep, and little dreams for months afterward. Pinchbeck suggested this might have something to do with Iboga's balancing affect, somehow healing the rift between left and right brain hemispheres. I'd be very interested to learn more about this.

At any rate, this just goes to show the world of dreams has multiple levels of meaning we have barely began to touch. But what is more apparent now is quite striking: They touch each level of the human experience - from pre-personal, personal and transpersonal. In that sense, I can understand why Tibetan Dream Yoga has such an appeal. Dreaming life, like waking life, has the potential for mystical transformation

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