How Wide Can We Open the Door to the Mystery of Ourselves?

Last night, I woke up in the middle of a dream. And almost immediately, the world of conscious reality reappeared with only a hint of the dream remaining. Only a hint that I had dreamed at all and that there were worlds aside from this conscious one. This fascinates me.

When I was teaching secondary school, discussing dreams, as well as learning more about their own psychology, fascinated most students. They wanted to understand from where or why these crazy images or stories showed up in their lives. Many people, as they age, lose this drive for self-understanding or it is socialized out of them.

But regarding sleep ⎼ teens get too little of it and tend to push the limits or even rebel against it. Each night we go to sleep ⎼ or should go to sleep. This is the rhythm of life. We sleep and wake. We forget our dreams in the daytime and lose or reshape the daytime world in our dreams. We might have no awareness that we dream at all or resist the very idea. Yet, we do dream. It is a necessity. Exactly what dreams do is not known. But when we don’t dream or don’t get enough sleep, we pay an enormous price.

Scientists say when we dream, we show rapid eye movements (REM) under our closed eyelids, as if we were watching a scene played out before us. But the rest of our body remains mostly immobile. Our brains are active; the large muscles of our bodies inactive (REM atonia). This is called paradoxical sleep.

According to Mathew Walker, in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Dreams and Sleep, during dream sleep our brain is free from noradrenaline, which produces anxiety. At the same time, emotional and memory-related areas of the brain are activated. This means that, in dreams other than nightmares, we can experience emotional content without all the stress. We can process emotional experiences more openly and heal.

Walker discusses the negative health consequences of the consistent loss of even one or two hours of sleep including accelerated heart rate and blood pressure, an overstimulation of the threat response system, weight gain, and an increased risk of dementia.

Lack of dream sleep negatively affects memory and creativity and increases emotional reactivity. Dreams seem to help us integrate or make sense of the experiences in our lives, as is shown by the expression, “sleep on it.”  Other studies show a loss of dream sleep can result in an increased inflammatory response. Some theorize dreams help us form our sense of self.

Because we dream while we are asleep, we might think we are totally unconscious of it, but what does ‘unconscious’ mean, aside from not being able to readily recall it? We know so little of the unconscious (or of consciousness itself). Many psychological theorists have written about this, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and many others, but I particularly favor Jung’s ideas. Carl Jung said: “When we say, ‘the unconscious’ we often mean to convey something by the term, but as a matter of fact we simply mean to convey that we do not know what the unconscious is.” (Tavistock lectures, par. 11)

One thing it means is that the conscious world of daily life can seem so bright, so rational in comparison to dreams. Even when the sky is cloudy for days or months, or when the social reality is cloudy or delusional, the awake-world still feels clearer than the fluid, imagistic dream-world.

Yet, we must be at least partly aware in a dream. Otherwise, we couldn’t potentially become conscious of it, as we do in a lucid dream or when we remember a dream image after we awake.

And even in the daytime there is an underlying stream of imagery running through our mind of which we are only partly aware. It is dream-like, in that it is more emotional in organization than rational. So, there is a bit of dreaming (daydreaming?) in the day and a bit of awareness at night.

We can notice this stream when we close our eyes, and thoughts, images, dialogues rush through our mind. When we read a novel, images evoked by the book can appear inside us. When we meditate, we can notice our “monkey mind” taking off from the object of the meditation and getting lost in images of other people or places. Even with our eyes open, when we look at another person, imagery of which we are barely aware can color what we see. This is one reason why we can pick up a pen and a whole story can emerge fully formed from its tip. This stream of imagery waters both our creativity and delusions.

Some of us might have trouble sleeping because of not understanding this stream running through us. We might dread a possible tidal wave or, to switch images, dread what curtain might be drawn back when we close our eyes. The more threatening or unstable the physical, personal, or social-political environment around us, the more likely this will occur.

We can get so involved in the social aspects of our daytime lives that we don’t notice this stream of images. We may think of ourselves as set or continuing as we are from moment to moment and don’t notice that we’re constantly changing. We don’t notice how we open our eyes and one world is constructed and we close our eyes and a very different one can appear.

Our moods, thoughts, sense of self and reality shifts and is recreated throughout our day dependent on so many factors ⎼ memories, location, people present, time of day, the weather, etc. We may doubt this; but just think how different we behave with our closest friends versus our boss, or parents. Or how we act in a church versus on the football field.

We often notice just enough to keep us from noticing anything other than what we habitually perceive. But the large shift in consciousness, which occurs every morning when we wake up, can also wake us up, if we allow it, to these other shifts and changes which occur from moment to moment. There is more to us than we know.

We need to train our awareness so the social world does not blind us to these changes. We greatly benefit, and our neighbors greatly benefit, when we better understand and are more comfortable with this mystery that lies at the heart of who we are.

How can we access and be more comfortable with this mystery?

*Mindfulness practices can strengthen our ability to be accepting and kind to ourselves and more aware of subtle movements and shifts in awareness and state of mind and heart.  Before we sleep, we can also close our eyes, focus on the breath, and feel the air entering the nose and leaving. This is also a way to let go of tension and anxiety.

If you’re dealing with a serious psychological issue, instead of beginning these exercises on your own, you might find a therapist or trauma-informed mindfulness teacher to support you.

*We can lie down and progressively relax our body, and take inner visualized journeys. Visualization can help us become more familiar with the stream of inner imagery.  Progressive relaxation can also be a way to let go of anxiety and tension and get a deeper sleep.

Before going to sleep, lie down, close your eyes, and: Turn your attention to your face, the area around your mouth or jaw. Feel how, when you breathe in, the muscles around your mouth expand a bit. And when you exhale, they relax, let go, settle down. Then move on to other parts of the body—the shoulders, chest, belly, feet, etc.

Once you are relaxed: Allow to come into mind a place where you feel safe and protected, a place you can relax and let go. Maybe a place in nature or a room you love. Picture the place.  What stands out for you? What colors, sounds, objects do you notice? How does it feel to be there?

Simply lie there for a moment and feel what it is like to be safe and relaxed.

*Martin Walker’s book explains the benefits of learning more about sleep and dreams, not only for ourselves but for society in general, and provides methods for improving sleep.

*An intellectual introduction to metaphoric imagery can help our self-understanding. There are so many books, videos, blogs that can help us better understand a Jungian approach. I’d start with counselor and author Elaine Mansfield’s blog on 9 Ways to Unpack A Powerful Dream, and then go to Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols and Esther Harding’s The I and the Not-I

In a dream, when a frightening creature chases us and we turn and run, the creature gets bigger. If we face it, the creature changes into something we can face. Likewise, in our daytime lives, usually if we acknowledge what challenges us, we can find the strength to meet the threat.

How much can we commit ourselves to learn how to face different modes of perceiving ourselves and the world? How much can we open the door to the mystery of ourselves so we can think and act using more of our mental and emotional capacity?

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