Three of us were on our way to play paintball. My husband suggested that instead of playing with paint we play with rubber bullets. We were about to head into a room, which I understood would take us to the paintball field. Just before entering the room, my husband turned to me and said, “We go to steam.” I grabbed my yellow water bottle, and we walked into a sauna that held three stationary bikes. We each climbed aboard and began pedaling furiously, sweating profusely.
At first we may think of them as being only a mishmash of nonsensical scenes from our daily lives, but in fact, they can be powerful messengers, making sense of things our awakened mind has trouble assimilating. They can offer teachings and be a bridge to a different state of consciousness, such as in lucid dreaming, where dreamers find themselves fully “awake” within a dream and able to manipulate it.
Fact is, dreams, speaking in a language all their own, are invaluable sources to a deeper understanding of one’s life.
Psychologists and spiritual teachers alike encourage not only paying attention to our dreams but cultivating an active night practice, keeping a dream journal and learning to work with your dreams to find clarity and open doors. Mystics advise awareness practitioners to practice day and night, cultivating the possibility of lucid dreaming and paying close attention to the transition between sleeping and waking. For it is there, they say, that a gap might open, pulling back the veil of ordinary consciousness to allow for “self-realization” or “enlightenment.”
We writers, too, need to pay attention to our dreams and allow them not only to inform our lives but to appear in our writing as well, and, sometimes, to speak for us.
If you have not worked with your dreams before, here are a couple of simple tricks:
- Set aside a period (perhaps a week or a month) where you actively try to remember your dreams.
- Keep a dream journal and pen by your bedside. It might help to have a little flashlight or soft light you can turn on to be less jarring in the middle of the night.
- When you wake from a dream, quickly jot some notes about it in your journal. You can even make a list of the things that appeared rather than trying to write the whole narrative. In the end, the story is less important than the symbolism.
- Pay attention to objects, colors, numbers, and particular people who show up.
- Give the dream a title. We writers may appreciate the importance of the title. Somehow giving a dream a title helps lock in the most salient feature of the dream and helps us recall it later.
At a later time, you can mine your dream. Our dreams have a way of using shortcuts to give us messages. For each important thing you note, jot down the first things it makes you think of—kind of like an inkblot test.
For colors or numbers, think of them separately from the object. For instance, I once had a dream I titled “100 orange balloons.” In it, I was in a field and had let go of hundreds of orange helium balloons. I was calmly watching them all float away. At first glance, I had no idea what this dream symbolized, but I did the work. I wrote down “orange,” and the first thing that came to mind, surprisingly, with the word orange was “Halloween.” All of a sudden I intuitively understood the meaning of the dream. I had just decided to give up sugar in my diet. I wasn’t sure I was ready to give it up, but this dream underscored that I was. Halloween—the harbinger of sugar indulgence—was calmly floating away.
Recently my husband and I attended a nine-day silent meditation retreat called “Practicing Emotional Alchemy.” This was a powerful experience, and as a writer, I am moved to share it. It’s not easy, however, to capture something otherworldly and transformational, without boring the reader. That’s why I appreciated the synopsis that my dream-self came up with.
The dream happened on the third morning of the retreat before we had gotten into the meat of the practices we would learn on transforming afflicted emotions. It proved prophetic to the impact of the remainder of the retreat.
Before I dive into the dream symbolism, you should be aware of a few things:
First, it is never easy to start a nine-day silent meditation retreat—just before going, the mind will feel desperate to do anything except sit still and quiet. My husband had quipped on our way there, “We’re going to the soul spa!” That sounded more fun.
Second, we had just started a special “anti-inflammation” diet that included drinking “bulletproof coffee.” At the retreat, I used my bright yellow hydroflask to contain my bulletproof coffee.
Third, the ultimate goal of a spiritual journey is to be free of suffering. Our teacher called this path “The Way of Selflessness.” This retreat was going to have us looking at afflicted emotions, such as anger, fear, jealousy, and pride, which are all ultimately fueled by the small self being perpetually motivated by one of three things: desire, aversion and indifference.
Fourth, on the second day of the retreat, I decided that we humans should think of ourselves as “ADVs”—Attention Directing Vehicles.
Finally, bicycles kept recurring on this retreat. I had multiple dreams featuring bicycles, which I referred to as “self-powered vehicles,” and then oddly some random person arrived at the retreat center and donated a whole bunch of bicycles in the middle of the retreat.
On to the dream.
The dream scene: Three of us decided to play paintball. My husband suggested we play with rubber bullets instead. We head into a room that was supposed to take us there, and I heard the words: “We go to steam.” The room appeared to be a sauna at a spa with three stationary bikes. I grabbed my yellow hydroflask water bottle. We climbed on the bikes and began to pedal furiously. I woke up.
When I unpacked all the symbolism, I discovered it was the perfect description of this retreat:
We entered into a warm and nourishing environment designed to both help us relax and release toxins (i.e., afflicted emotions.) We fueled ourselves with bullet-proof precepts (i.e., vows, such as self-discipline and harmlessness, that all the participants take together, so we all feel safe to explore difficult emotions.) We got on three (desire, aversion, indifference) self-powered attention directing stationary vehicles, where we expended significant effort, even though repeatedly warned that on a spiritual journey there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. We nonetheless set the goal of arriving at a mental playground where we could dramatize and re-enact battles fought with emotional bullets to release the wisdom energies inherent within them and be free from suffering.
My teacher may have called this retreat “Practicing Emotional Alchemy,” but my dream self nailed it: “Going to the Soul Spa with Bulletproof Coffee.” I highly recommend it!
And writers, take heed. Pay attention to your dreams. Mine their content. Your dream-self may be a powerful communicator and perhaps even a creative marketing agent for good.