I awoke this morning from a series of dreams so remarkable that I was lost in reverie for a good twenty minutes. Usually I only remember a few brief snatches and the dreams themselves are interesting but not compelling. But sometimes, like this morning, I have awesome dreams, dreams that open me up, dreams that make the effort of remembering dreams worthwhile.

I'll not bore you with the details except to say that there was a theme of looking back: a carefully crafted letter from a past love, attics full of old junk, echoes of dreams I had as a child. Several aspects of the dream touch upon issues I've been pondering lately about how and why dreams work. Please bear with me as I ramble a bit...

Even after all these years of dreaming I am still dumbfounded by the intricacy and originality of the "props" that lie scattered across the dream stage. That carefully crafted letter, for instance, included a map of the Pacific Coast near Seattle with a cardboard sailing ship that slowly sailed south by southwest as I lifted the page. It was so clever that I wondered out loud "how did she do that?" and turned over the page to discover a small slit made rigid with a careful application of black wax. The ship was attached by a pin which passed through the slot; the pin had a small black plastic cap that kept it in place. The mechanism was crafted so that the force of gravity caused a stately procession of the ship shortly after the page was lifted.

So that's how the letter worked, but how did the dream itself work? I won't ask what it "means," but, in general, how do dreams do what they do? Are there any patterns we can detect? If I could turn my dream over what kind of pins and slots would I find?

The basic pattern I sense is a dichotomy, two distinct and often opposing forces: the dreamer and the dream.

The dreamer is like a hobbled version of my waking "self." Perspectives in a dream often shift in bizarre ways - one minute I am watching a movie, the next I am in the movie, first as one character then as another - but there is generally a "me" in the dream. When people describe dreams they say "I did this. Then I saw that." Despite all the shifting imagery we perceive ourselves as being "in" the dream.

But the me in the dream is different from the me I experience in waking life. For one thing, I can't seem to think clearly in dreams. I've had dreams in which I struggle at great length with some simple mathematical problem; upon waking the answer is obvious. I sometimes try to take notes in my dreams but to no avail: the dream "me" cannot read. (I can "pretend read", that is, I can look at a newspaper or letter and seem to read a story, but I'm not actually seeing the words; even if I try to write I cannot see the actual words I've written.)

The dreamer is also naive, an easy mark for the silly plot lines and constraints of the dream. If the dream says I am late for class then I accept the situation without question and begin to madly rush about. The dreamer is easily manipulated and sometimes, like a little boy, reduced to tears by forces utterly trivial to the waking man.

Here lies both the peril and the power of dreams. All my adult skill and defenses are left behind when I dream. This means that I am at the mercy of my dreams and so face the real possibility of monsters and nightmares. But it also means that I am open to experiences which are automatically deflected by the habits of my waking self. The dream I had this morning allowed me to re-experience feelings long since repressed or forgotten. By day I analyze my feelings - by night I feel them.

The dream, on the other hand, plays with the dreamer like a cat playing with a helpless mouse. There is no stopping to think over the situation, no consideration of alternatives. And if the dreamer starts to resist, the dream changes to distract him, to keep him from waking. There is a constrant struggle between dream and dreamer.

Who, or what, then, is this opponent? I am taking a bit of a leap here by presenting the "dream" as a single entity. But that is my experience. The images shift, but beneath it all I sense a singleness of purpose, a mind, a "dream-maker."

It's tempting to speculate that each of us has two minds, a "left-brain" and a "right-brain," and that, during the day, the left brain is in charge. After all, the left brain can speak - the right brain cannot. Our human society functions primarily through words, not images. During the day the rightbrain, every bit as deep and complex as the left, is forced to listen to the pontifications of its cellmate. At night, however, the leftbrain's magical gift of language is stilled and the rightbrain struggles for dominance. It's a life-and-death struggle that the rightbrain inevitably loses each morning with the coming of the dawn.

I have no idea if the actual biological basis for dreaming has anything to do with this mythic left/right struggle. I am probably projecting and anthropomorphizing. But as a metaphor it captures the two-sided struggle I have experienced over the years.

At least that was how it began. My left/right metaphor presents the leftbrained dreamer as a helpless child and the rightbrained dream as a dangerous opponent. Over the years, however, I have managed to educate and empower my child dreamer. Once the element of fear was removed I was then able to, in essence, make peace with my dream-maker by loosing the reins and letting it take me where it will.

When I was about five I had a terrifying nightmare which featured an overweight witch, with silky black robes and a pointed hat, buzzing around my bedroom on her broomstick. I woke screaming and had to be comforted by my parents.

In college, after reading Patricia Garfield's Creative Dreaming, I set about overcoming all dream monsters. The first step was to get into the habit of remembering my dreams. This was difficult at first, but by turning off my alarm clock and forcing myself to keep a dream journal it soon became automatic.

Then, every night before I fell asleep, I told myself never to run from dream monsters. In the morning I first spent a few minutes recalling the night's dreams and then, if I had stood up to a monster, I gave myself a little pat on the back. If I had run from the monster or behaved in a cowardly fashion, I scolded myself and then tried to visualize how I might have turned the situation around.

Gradually my dream self became bolder and more resourceful. As I improved so did my monsters, becoming more abstract or difficult to deal with. It is, for example, very difficult to reason with a charging moose. The solution to such situations requires magic.

In my morning visualization sessions I was forced to devise magical solutions to the dream situations. Thus, with the charging moose I imagined myself simply standing directly in its path and commanding it to stop. I found it useful to picture myself holding a wizard's staff. I even fashioned a rune-covered staff which I carried with me even in waking life.

My greatest triumph, and this was many years ago, involved another confrontation with a witch, this time in a dark city full of witches. I challenged her and she fled from me onto a hillside crowded with witch-houses that rose up like an amphitheater. Staff in hand, I pursued her up a winding road and found myself confronted by a thousand witches. When I planted my staff in the earth I could feel the power running through me like electricty - the staff and I both began to glow with power. The witches fell back and I strode among them like a colossus.

During my twenties I started to change the way I dreamed about rivers. As a teenager, a powerful river often threatened my dreams, perhaps as a symbol of death. I was always forced to walk a tightrope over a raging torrent or balanced on a bridge over a mighty river with a dark undertow.

As I gained mastery over my dream monsters I found the courage to begin swimming in dream rivers. These dreams are now among my most cherished, with much of the freedom and ecstasy of a flying dream, but without the breathless pace. I swim with dolphins and explore strange coves.

These days I am not so much a warrior or wizard as I am an explorer. And although I have made peace with my dream-maker I still find him (her? it?) utterly mysterious. Upon careful analysis I can often identify the materials out of which a dream is crafted: images seen in the last 48 hours, an overheard phrase, a revised prop from an earlier dream. But the dream itself is always foreign, full of things I would never imagine in my waking life, and is woven together not at random but according to some strange purpose. There is someone else in my head, someone I can only encounter in my dreams.

Copyright 1996 by John Cartan

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