Over the past half century, sleep has been abducted from its natural home in our hearts and minds and become exceedingly medicalised, says Dr Rubin Naiman, sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine, US, and author of HUSH: A Book of Bedtime Contemplations.

“We’ve been encouraged to view sleep as a strictly scientific and mechanistic phenomenon shrouded in medical complexities – a perspective that significantly limits our personal access to it,” he says.

There is no doubt that sleep supports a healthy waking life by restoring our energy, promoting immunity, facilitating learning and memory and much more, says Dr Naiman. However, our challenge is to appreciate the physiological mechanisms of sleep without sacrificing its essential transcendent qualities.

“Viewing sleep and dreams solely as functional limits our personal experience of them,” he says.

“This is similar to viewing food exclusively in terms of its nutritional value. Just as good food is both nourishing and delicious, sleep and dreams are health-promoting and also a potential source of serenity, joy and wonder.”

Because we can never fully understand sleep as an intellectual concept we must learn to be comfortable with its mystery, says Dr Naiman. Part of that mystery is dreaming, something that he – as well as many yoga practitioners, psychologists and Buddhists – believes plays a key role in regulating our feelings and moods and in the psychological assimilation of daily life experiences.

Our dreams, our selves

Dreams are the mythic back story of our daily lives. Think of them as the brain, or the ego, sifting and sorting.

“Our dream symbols and themes are the pictures our individual dreaming minds come up with while our brains are processing our conscious and unconscious experiences of the last 24 to 48 hours, trying to make sense of our world,” says Brisbane-based dream therapist and author Jane Teresa Anderson. “As we dream, we try to fit our recent experiences in with our current understanding of the world, and mostly we manage to do that, even when our current understanding of the world is not serving us well.”
Regardless, those dream symbols and themes are the closest we can get to the language of our unique unconscious mind, the closest we can get to the language of our brain wiring.

Dreams and yoga share similarities in that they are both about achieving balance, oneness and a connection to the divine.

“Every night, as you dream, your hard drive is updated: some memories and beliefs are strengthened, some are replaced and some remain in conflict,” she says. And the main purpose of all this is “to aid your survival and to help you to cope with future new experiences”.

Both Dr Naiman and Anderson believe that through our dreams we get an opportunity to better understand ourselves and why we experience life in the way we do.

“Dreams can allow us to see our unconscious belief system,” explains Anderson. “Often a feeling or symbol, or even a whole dream, that keeps coming up can give us a good clue about where we are stuck.”

Even a bad dream can help us in our lives if we’re able to develop our awareness of the emotions surrounding it and understand the symbols produced by our unconscious.

Dreams and yoga

Anderson, a long-term yoga practitioner, says dreams and yoga share similarities in that they are both about achieving balance, oneness and a connection to the divine.

“When I am looking at a dream I am looking at where balance is needed in life,” she says. “If you have an issue that has conflicting beliefs or emotions surrounding it, your life is out of balance. Dreams can also help you process a lot of the emotions that yoga poses stir up.”

Yoga teacher Josie Cain believes that both yoga and dreams share similarities in that they can both help us to open up to new experiences.

In her own life she has managed to manifest many dream intentions successfully – for example dreaming about travelling and working in India with a friend and actually making it happen.

Cain adds that she often has what she calls “waking dreams” as well as “sleeping dreams”, both of which she believes can be powerful, something that Dr Naiman confirms.

“We believe we dream only at night for the same reason we say stars come out at night,” he says. “The truth is that stars are always present, but obscured by sunlight during the day. Likewise, our view of the dream by day is obscured by the glare of waking life.

“What archetypal psychologists call the ‘waking dream’ refers to a subtle, dream-like narrative that meanders softly through our day. In contrast to a daydream, which functions as a cognitive escape hatch from boredom, the waking dream immerses us more deeply into the rich flow of life.”

Awakening the unconscious

Anderson says recording sleeping dreams in a diary will help you reach a greater understanding of your dreams and yourself. She suggests setting the alarm 20 minutes earlier than you would normally have to get up.
“Turn into the sleeping position you’re pretty sure you dream in and simply try to remember one symbol or feeling from a dream,” she says. “Think about summarising your dream in one sentence and remember the feeling associated with it, too. That’s very important to interpreting the dream.”

As well as recording your “sleeping dreams”, you may like to bring your awareness into the dream state that permeates your waking life and connect all your mystic experiences. One easy and effective way of accessing the waking dream is also to keep a daily journal, says Dr Naiman.

“But instead of recording your experiences the way you would in an ordinary diary, write about them as if they were dreams,” he suggests. “The practice of viewing daily life as a dream restores our sense of continuity between the night dream and waking life. It reminds us of one of the simplest and most important universal truths – that life is but a dream.”

The key to transformation

With dream alchemy, or transforming the dream, you visualise a key dream symbol transforming, or a key dream theme resolving, says Anderson. If, for example, you have a dream about climbing an endless staircase, you might visualise seeing that last step and stepping effortlessly onto it. Repetition is key – you need to repeat the visualisation 20 or 30 times a day for two weeks, then a couple of times a day for a few more weeks.

“In sports psychology, it’s known that if you practise a move a few times and then visualise it many times a day for weeks, when you try that move again you will have improved or even mastered it,” she says.

There’s one other important factor with dream alchemy, and it’s something that can make people feel so uncomfortable that they hold back from doing the visualisation fully, or stop doing the repetitions, says Anderson.

“You need to visualise transforming the negative emotion you felt in the dream (eg, confusion or irritation) into a positive emotion.”

First identify the emotion. Secondly, feel the emotion. Then let it go, leaving its positive counterpart emotion free to take its place within you.

Interpreting your dreams

A recurring dream or recurring dream theme
If you have a recurring dream or theme with an unresolved or unsatisfactory ending, try to identify the issue, your inner conflict about the issue (which may surprise you), the usual approaches you try (which fail) and the unconscious beliefs that are blocking you from resolving it successfully.

An emotionally-charged dream

A dream in which you feel a heightened emotion – especially an uncomfortable emotion – is invaluable to work with. The emotion is usually linked to an unconscious belief or behaviour pattern that is restricting your growth. This kind of dream can help you to identify an emotional event in your past that’s still affecting your life today, and – when you apply dream alchemy techniques – can lead to powerful release and healing.

A vivid dream

An uplifting, colourful, intense, vivid dream can reflect a breakthrough or near-breakthrough. Working with such a dream can support you as the effects of the change ripple through your life in unexpected ways.

A dream that poses a problem or question

Most dreams involve trying to solve a problem or finding an answer to a question, and these reflect a waking life problem or question. Look for a dream with a bizarre problem or question, the more surreal the better. This technique can help you to question your question, or understand why you see a particular situation as a problem. It can totally transform your life.

A dream that refers to the past

Although dreams usually reflect the last one or two days, they may include references to the past (your childhood home, ex-partners, people or places you once knew). These dreams can help you see how your past is still shaping your present, and to work with dream alchemy to change this.

A night of dreams

Don’t be too quick to choose just one dream from a heavy night’s dream recall. Those four or five dreams you may remember from one night’s sleep often reflect the same situation from different angles

Courtesy of Jane Teresa Anderson, dream.net.au.

Helen Hawkes is a freelance journalist and author from the NSW mid-north coast.