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© NOVA NOVEMBER 2009
Eric Harrison, a meditator of many years' experience, shows us the way to Paradise.
Twenty years ago, I taught a course
of dream analysis at the Cancer
Support Association in Cottesloe.
In the class was an elderly refugee from
Eastern Europe whom I will call Zelda.
At first she claimed to have had only one
dream in her life, but it had repeated for
years. She dreamt that she was running
away from a witch. She was able to escape
because the witch was hobbled by tightly
laced boots. "What does it mean?" she
In return, I asked her, "What was your
mother like?" and you could see the penny
drop. Zelda had run away from her violent
mother when she was 14 and she never
saw her again. Of course, there was more
to the dream than this, but it illustrates
the first step in dream analysis. A dream is
likely to be a symbolic illustration of some
important event in your day or life.
Zelda then told me that years ago
she had deliberately stopped dreaming.
When she was 21, she lost her infant
daughter in a house fire, and suffered
terrible nightmares thereafter. To escape
them, she decided she would never sleep
again. For the next 40 years, she spent her
nights virtually awake, keeping herself
occupied with reading and tasks. I'm sure
she lapsed into sleep periodically -- she
would have been dead or mad if she didn't
-- but this was nonetheless an astounding
achievement. Only the onset of her cancer
had forced her to start sleeping again.
(And she made the comment, "I now miss
She then asked, "Could I start dreaming
again?" and I say what I always do to people
who feel they never dream: "Everybody
dreams, whether they remember them
or not. If you go to bed resolving to
remember your dreams, within a few days
you are likely to start doing so."
A fortnight later, I got a letter from
Zelda. She said she had resolved to
dream again, but to have "good" dreams.
She then recounted the breakthrough
dreams she had on three successive
nights. These were dreams to die for. They
did everything that "divinely" inspired
dreams are supposed to do. I like to think
that when she did finally succumb to her
illness, she had made peace with her soul.
Of course, Zelda's experience of
immensely positive dreams is very rare.
Dreams are typically more problematic and
confusing. But with reasonable certainty
we can make the following claims about
Dreaming is essential for health
and sanity. People get paranoid and
dysfunctional within days of dream
deprivation, even if they get sufficient
non-dream sleep. Dreams usually relate
to what has happened in the recent day,
and their emotional tone is more likely to
be negative than positive. Dreams seem
essential for the consolidation of memory
and learning. They select what is important
from the recent day's events, and store
them in their appropriate places in the
memory bank. They also seem to dump
the trash and do vital underground work
toward solving problems.
Given that dreams have an emotional
urgency that makes them seem so
important, it makes sense to understand
them. The main problem is the sheer
time involved. Dream analysis is not that
difficult. You only have to write down a
dream in as much detail as possible, then
talk about it, then revisit it later and let
your imagination do the rest. I've done
this for long periods in the past, and it
works really well. But most people will just
take a stab at a dream rather than invest
that amount of time, and they frequently
miss the target altogether.
Secondly, no matter how much we
analyse a dream, we never conclusively
nail it. While good analysis does involve
some intellectual rigour and honesty, it
is much more of a creative art than a
science. It is not like translating a text
from one language to another. Instead, we
use a dream as a starting point to build
deeper layers of meaning by connecting
the image language of the night with the
word language of waking consciousness.
Formal dream analysis easily falls prey
to the distorting inf luence of delayed
recall. To remember a dream, I know
that I have to repeat the story three or
four times in the process of waking up.
Each time I revisit not the original dream,
but the previous re-telling. By the time I
emerge into full consciousness, I know
the story has changed enormously, usually
becoming simpler, more coherent and
more story-like. If I then write it down, or
talk about it, the dream assimilates richer
associations from the memory bank. It
takes on a fully fledged life in the outer
world, but it is no longer what it was.
We know that dreams occur at the
threshold of sleep, in what is called Stage
One, or Paradoxical, Sleep. This means
that we enter the dream world either from
above, as we go into sleep, or from below,
as we emerge out of sleep. Dream analysts
usually work retrospectively, by examining
the remnants of the dream that remains
in the mind as you wake up. But some
people enter the dream world from above,
as they slide down from full consciousness
towards sleep, and this can completely
change the nature of the dream
This approach is typically the province
of (some) meditators and (some) artists
and musicians. They often specialise in
this skill, but it is available to all of us. All
we need to do is notice what is going on in
our minds as we fall asleep. If we resist the
temptation of oblivion, and stay alert at the
threshold, we can consciously enter the
world of the dream. It takes a little effort
and quite a bit of practice. It is like treading
water, or riding a bicycle very slowly. You
learn to relax enough to abandon linear
and outer- oriented thought, but stay awake
enough to see what is still happening.
The first signs are usually f lashes of
so called "hypnagogic imagery". These
are like dream images, but lasting for just
microseconds. I often find they contain
extraordinary detail, and yet they are so
subtle that I'll miss them completely if
I'm just a little tired or absentminded.
Auditory and tactile hallucinations are
common, as are passing thoughts that you
suddenly realise are completely irrational.
Some people see colours or swirling light
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