Dream Clearance

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
Edgar Allen Poe

We sleep at night and dreams come. Some say they don’t remember their dreams, but maybe they are just not paying attention. For some of us, the more open, the more harmonious our waking mind becomes, the more vivid our dreams become. It would not be unusual to have increasingly vivid dreams after a period of intense meditation for instance.

Meditation can open the gates of the mind, and who knows what might creep out. Sometimes the dreams are not pleasant. Nightmares come as we turn the light of our psyches onto the shadow. In Jungian psychology, the shadow is the part of our unconscious mind that contains all the aspects of ourselves of which we can’t afford to be conscious. These are the ugly parts that would spoil our self-image, so they are relegated to the dark side of consciousness. We usually don’t know they are there, but they are, and they show themselves sometimes in spite of our intentions.

The usual response to a nightmare is horror. We don’t want this ugly, horrible, frightening stuff to torment us. All we want is a restful sleep. Another way to respond to nightmares is to be grateful that our mind is working hard to clear out the garbage, to grow more unified. Imagine your dream state is like a clearance table at a department store. The stuff on it may be ugly, and you really don’t want it, but you understand that it must go to make room for better merchandise. You can look at it, but you don’t have to take it home with you. Nightmares then are a way of bringing our mental gunk into awareness where we can take it or leave it.

If we approach nightmares as a clearing out process, we can be more detatched from them. We can be more like the movie critic at a scary movie and less like the scared kid in the front row. When we look at the ugly contents of our unconscious mind dispassionately, we can reduce the expanse of the shadow and grow more unified and whole in our knowledge of our self. One of the payoffs is that once we have integrated the dream content, our subconscious mind has no need of bringing it back up and we may be free of the bad dream.

We may as well accept that all of our experience is generated in our mind, whether it is a dream or a waking awareness. The difference is that in dreams, we generate thoughts without external input. When we are awake, we take input from our senses to help us make up the images in our head. A Buddhist aphorism goes: “Regard all phenomenon as if they were dreams.” The point is to wake up, not just from the sleep of dreams, but from the illusion of our usual state of consciousness that mistakes mental phenomena for objective reality. In our deluded state we see ourselves as separate from the rest of the universe, we over-identify with this changeable thing we call the self, and we get caught up in attachment to what is ultimately impermanent and ephemeral.

So let us awaken from our dream sleep with equanimity towards the contents of our dreams. The pleasant will come. The unpleasant will come. Both are gifts from the depths of our minds. Nightmares may be more like the gift of a friend telling you that you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe—not really welcome news, but something you ought to know. Take them as information that your mind contains horrors like everyone else’s mind does. They are nothing to worry about any more than the plot of any other work of fiction. Let the light of consciousness take away their power as turning on the lights in the movie theater obliterates the moving images on the screen.

May your dreams not trouble you.
May you awaken fully.

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© 2004 Tom Barrett