Dreams: Working with our Nightly Visitations

Dreams: Working with our Nightly Visitations

written by: Dr. David Alter
by: Dr. David Alter
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Our Nightly Visitations

Dreams are nightly visitations that dance about and enchant our minds with their unpredictable plot twists. Dreams disregard the laws of physics making time travel natural and shape shifting second nature. Myriad mythic creatures teleport from distant galaxies into our beds and commingle with the people that populate our lives. Dreams have fascinated us for thousands of years. We have come far in our understandings of why we dream but agreement about what dreams mean, if anything at all, continues to be mired in energetic scientific and mystical debate.

Of What are Dreams Constructed?

For some, dreams are nothing more than random, meaningless events that are a waste of our mind's time and attention. For others, dreams are the seedbed from which the power to change the world rises.

There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other," (Douglas H. Everett).

Still others don't limit their dreams to their sleep. They dive into the mystical power that night itself has always held and extract from the night and their dreamy denizens the power to inspire, to create and to cause to bring into being that which has never before existed.

"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world," (Oscar Wilde).

We all dream every night, whether or not we remember our dreams. Day dreaming reflects a different process, more associated with wandering attention, although both types of "dreaming" can revitalize our souls and re-energize our passions. We dream during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, but during other stages of sleep, too. When sleep scientists deliberately awaken subjects whenever their EEG's signal they are in REM, the brain's need for REM and dreams becomes so urgent we drop into that brain state immediately upon falling asleep as though engaged in a desperate effort to make up for our dream debt. Moreover, without regular, nightly doses of REM and dreams, people's daytime functioning rapidly deteriorates. Memory and learning fail. Emotional self-control short circuits. Planning goes awry and accident rates skyrocket. Most disturbingly, people deprived of REM and dreams can begin to show psychotic features. We begin to "lose our minds!"

What Purpose Do Dreams Serve?

What is going on? Dreams are just one of a multitude of activities that go on during sleep. Cellular tissues are repaired. Metabolic waste products are scrubbed clean from the brain's rounded peaks and valleys. Hormonal fine-tuning is accomplished. New cell growth sprouts. Depleted energy reserves are replenished.

1) FILTERING, FINE-TUNING, DELETING...

Simultaneously, two primary and deeply interconnected neuro-cognitive activities go into high gear. The first involves the challenge of figuring out what to do in response to the massive neural imprint of the prior day's activities fragilely suspended in the brain's neuronal networks. Neuroplastic rewiring of the brain's circuits activated by big and small encounters with the prior day's activities either reinforces what we already knew, slightly modified what we knew by adding new information to it, or radically modified our neural circuits in the face of experiences that were "mind blowing" such as experience of awe, shock, surprise, mystery, trauma, or ecstasy. Sleep is the time during which the brain culls what no longer matters, strengthens what does, or dramatically changes itself in response to encountering the unexpected, all in the service of consolidating the past so we are more prepared for our unlived future, which begins the following morning.

2) CANVAS ON WHICH OUR DEEPEST YEARNINGS ARE SKETCHED...

The second activity works in tandem with the first. During our conscious waking hours, we are absorbing experience through our senses and temporarily encoding it in our minds. At night, the mind plays back those experiences in the "theater of the mind." Each night, vivid and sometimes phantasmagorical programs are projected onto our mind's theater screen in the form of our dreams. The dreams are like a two-way mirror. Dreams reflect what happens when our brain is reviewing, revising, rehashing, rejecting, or reinforcing our daily experience while we are disconnected from the external world. Dreams are private screenings of our daily lives.

From this perspective, dreams are a reaction or response to brain activity, a mere by-product of the process of cleaning and straightening up the flurry of the previous day's activities. But, dreams also drive brain activity. Dreams are a process by which the emotionally significant issues, challenges, and themes coursing through our lives can be revisited and reflected upon free from the distractions of our day. Dreams are a nightly soulful retreat to which we hold a standing (or laying, actually) invitation. Our response to that invitation can either be as passive audience members, unconsciously watching whatever happens to be playing on screen, or we can be engaged actors, active in selecting the program and mindfully participating in the rewriting of the existential screenplay.

Learning how to make use of our nightly dream theater, regardless of how the display is generated, is ultimately what is important when it comes to improving our health and our lives.

Learning to Use Our Dreams to Enrich Our Lives

In ancient Greece, use of dreams involved elaborate rituals that included immersion in scented baths, consuming of special foods, anointment with fragrant oils and the donning of special robes preceding a meeting with a seer who would interpret the significance of the dreams of the dreamer visiting the sleep temple. Today's rituals surrounding the exploration of dreams' meanings often occur in therapist's offices. While less dramatic than in ancient times, the work's rationale is unchanged. It stems from the belief that the contents of the dreamer's "theater of the mind," when understood and applied, is relevant to trajectory of the dreamer's life's arc.

There are different schools of thought as to how to understand dreams and apply them to help enrich a dreamer's life. Dreams are meaning-filled and not merely random discharges within and across a neural net. Here are several ways to get the most from them.

1. Dreams are often most useful when we gather recurring themes over time. Keep a pad of paper and a pen at your bedside so that you can briefly record your dream's content. Just as a single journal entry may be less helpful in understand trends in our lives than tracking journal entries over a series of days or weeks, tracking dream content over time can provide you a better sense of what matters most to you, what has moved to the forefront of your mind, and what your unconscious mind is urging you to face and consider.

2. When your days are filled with worry, concern or the need for a decision, learn to utilize your dreams as a resourceful ally. Before going to sleep, take a few minutes to review in your mind's eye what the issue is that you are facing. Then, ask your mind to reflect on this dilemma while you sleep and during your dreams. Be specific. Define what the question is to which you are seeking an answer. Then, upon awakening, record your thoughts as you become aware of them, and as their relevance to your quandary becomes more apparent.

3. We separate time into daytime and nighttime. But, time doesn't really abide by that division: time marches on, second-by-second, regardless of how we arbitrarily divide it. Therefore, learn to see your nights as extensions of your days, which, in turn, ease into the following night. Each part of the 24-hour day can be a useful resource for other parts of the day, and all of them are important components of your overall life.

a. In the morning, ask yourself if anything from your dream journal seems relevant to the day you are about to begin. Set an intention. A recurring dream theme might encourage you to set an intention about how you might work with that issue in your day. MIndfully doing so can fuse your day's attention to your intention, making it more likely you will take actions to address it.

b. At night and in bed, ask yourself how your day unfolded. How were your concerns faced? What came of your actions and how did they jibe with your intentions? What might a next step be in moving forward toward your goal(s)? Then, set a dream intention by suggesting to yourself that in your dreams, some resolution, whether big or small, to a concern you are addressing will emerge from your deeper mind. Then, upon awakening, record your thoughts or reactions.

c. Over time, this see-sawing between the mental contents of your days and nights can help them to inform and shape one another. That integration and collaboration, especially when coupled with regular meditative practices that quiet and focus your mind, can help you to feel less fragmented. As you bring together the mental/spiritual resources of your dreams into your waking hours, you can be actively enlarging your life by living more fully throughout all your days and your nights.

I bid you sweet, restorative, and inspiring dreams.

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