Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi). Date unknown.

The more I write, the more I dream. I tumble out of sleep and straight into writing when I can, carrying the elements of new stories with me. I meet characters in my dream life that could never struggle out of my waking mind: the lady wrestler from Louisiana, the young male circus performer who flies through the air with consummate ease and dreams of a life on the ground. Who are these people? Why are they here?

I’ve long been fascinated by the notions of dreams as keys to our inner selves. Who isn’t? From Shakespeare to Freud and beyond, poets, philosophers, and psychologists have looked for truth in our sleep-time wanderings. Shamans traverse the dream world deliberately, honing their ability to pass from waking to trance with the beat of a drum, gathering clues to heal their communities.

Remember Hamlet? “To sleep, perchance to dream…” When I talk to a patient about sleep habits, I want to know if they remember their dreams. Dreaming happens at a deep level of sleep and we have to pass through the shallow levels to get there. If sleep is interrupted, we may not reach the dreaming level at all. Certain drugs will interfere with the levels of sleep and keep us from reaching our dreams. Night after night we float along the surface, unable to relax into the depths.

Medicine doesn’t quite understand the purpose of dreams, although speculation abounds. Perhaps they are the mind’s way of searching through the files, purging random and unconnected content (like running a “defrag” on your computer). Perhaps they let us work on problems that exist below the surface, the subconscious working as the body sleeps. Perhaps they are messages from other worlds—the spirit world, the afterlife, a higher plane of being. The idea of dream messengers exists in cultures around the world.

Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963.

One thing we do know: it is better to dream than not. People who are prevented from sleeping for a long stretch of time will begin to hallucinate wildly, as though they are dreaming while awake. Does this prove that dreaming is physically necessary?

Art is full of references to dreaming. Artists are constantly referred to as “dreamers”. What is a dream, really? We use the word to mean those images and stories that come to us while we sleep. But we also use it to speak about our deep desires and plans for the future. We can have bad dreams, “nightmares” that carry us into terror, grief, anxiety. We can dream of relationships past, future, or improbable. We can dream the impossible dream. Martin Luther King had a dream, and his iconic speech is a blueprint for a new vision of the United States.

We all see different things when we dream. Some dream in color, some only in black and white. Sometimes we dream coherently, other times in jumbles of images. I used to have dreams that were like bad adventure movies, one crisis and dramatic rescue after another. I almost never dream of symbolic animals: snakes, wolves, dragons. Does anyone?

Homeopathic medicine sees recurring dreams as symptoms and links different dream themes to different remedies. Conventional medicine mostly ignores dreams, unless they are linked to sleep disturbances.

Dreams can be side effects of medications. Several of the harsher malaria drugs can cause horribly vivid nightmares (psychosis is also a side effect). My father says that a certain over-the-counter nighttime cold medicine gives him “green dreams”. It’s not surprising, since the stuff is mostly alcohol with lurid green coloring added—like cheap drugstore absinthe. Alcohol can cause complicated dreams. Of course, so can almost any food (or at least late-night food often takes the blame for disturbing dreams). Vitamin B supplements are often credited with causing intense dreaming, especially in folks who were not dreaming at all before they started the supplement.

Dream interpretation is a popular topic, and books on the subject abound. I find most of the meanings to be a stretch. I once heard a Cherokee medicine man say that dreams are actually pretty straightforward. When you’re in school, you dream about taking tests. When someone you love is dying, you dream about that person. When your uncle wants you to call, he sends you a dream that asks you to call him (well, if your uncle is a medicine man, he might work that way).

Dream by Imogen Cunningham, 1910.

Many cultures believe in dream-walking, the idea that certain people have the ability to visit others in their dreams. Sometimes it is for a nefarious purpose—controlling the daytime actions of the dreamer, or driving them mad. Sometimes it is beneficial—bringing messages, curing the sick. Sometimes purely utilitarian, as with the uncle who wants a call from his nephew.

John Gardner, in his book The Art of Fiction, compares writing fiction to dreaming on paper. Writers seem to have a special connection to dreaming. Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader, says that she habitually wakes up at 3:00 a.m. and writes. Once she has finished her pages for the day, she goes back to sleep. She cultivates that dream-state and uses it in her fiction.

Writing is a relatively quiet activity, and you can even do it in bed. It is hard for most musicians to lay down a track straight out of their dream state, and dancers have a hard time with this too. This might work for visual artists, depending on the medium.

Here is an exercise: for a few weeks, wake up earlier than usual. If you’re very brave, wake up with the dawn (around 5:15 a.m. currently in Illinois, a few weeks before the Summer Solstice). Have your computer or your sketch pad or your journal ready. Write or draw for thirty minutes to an hour. Don’t worry about coherency or spelling or what this will look like at midday; turn off your inner editor. Let yourself travel through that dream state. Afterwards, go back to sleep if you can.

Don’t look at what you’ve done right away, and don’t work on this piece during your usual working hours. Give yourself some time to grow with it, to leave and enter the dream each night as you sleep. You may find that you’re sleepwalking into something wonderful.

The Soldier’s Dream of Home, Currier & Ives, 1860s.

Read the Brunonia Barry interview here.

If you have more questions about dreams, please contact me.

©2009 Stephanie J. Draus. All rights reserved.

Picture credits:

  1. Zhuangzi Butterfly: Unknown artist. Public domain. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream.jpg, accessed 5/28/2012
  2. Martin Luther King, Jr.: United States Information Agency, 1963. Public domain. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_King_-_March_on_Washington.jpg, accessed 5/28/2012.
  3. Dream: Public domain. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dream_Imogen_Cunningham_1910.jpg, accessed 5/28/2012.
  4. Soldier’s Dream: Public domain. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soldiers-Dream_CI_AmericanCivilWar.jpg, accessed 5/28/2012.

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