Sleep researchers … describe dreaming as a virtual world and sages in many of the world’s traditions describe being in dreams as visiting alternate worlds.
Story & photo Mary Gardner
In an instant, I sense a change in the air and light at the edge of the sea. I change, too. I was plodding along but now I am alert, in a different mode. I throw open my attention to the whole moment and open the shutter on the camera.
Am I plodding partly in response to mid-winter, preoccupied with dark and cold? Or is it also a response to being midway in a three-year research project about the sea? There is so much to think about. There’s something else too: thinking about thinking itself. Sometimes I think everyone has their own body of thoughts and each body takes differently to three basic types of movements.
The first type is like set routines. This unselfconscious movement is mixed with and directed by hidden emotions. You sense this when someone is talking at you, with more heat than the discussion warrants. Neuroscientists use imaging techniques to literally picture this mental movement. There’s the study of staunch US Republicans and Democrats as they responded to political campaign messages. Their brain imaging pictures (MRI) showed the dominant response centres were those areas known for pre-set automatic thinking, not fresh logical thinking.
Out of boxes
The second type is like the physical challenge of getting out of boxes – or into them. Logical thinking, moving without emotion, paying very close attention, figuring out puzzles.
The third thinking is like the kind of dancing you do when no one is watching. Again and again, it asks ‘why…?’ and answers itself with ‘because…’. It heads somewhere it feels and hopes. The flow of its movements fills relationships and dreams.
Dreams, like relationships, are sources of meaning. The thinking in our dreams creates mysteries of us even as it may explain.
But, in the words of Dr Rubin Naiman, its process throughout the nightly rhythms of sleep is ‘a kind of psychological yoga that expands constricted consciousness’. He cites research that links depression and insomnia with badly managed sleep and broken dreaming. He recommends we approach sleep and its dreams with the same mindfulness that we give to the waking world.
Sleep researchers such as Hobson and Fritson describe dreaming as a virtual world, the result of our minds doing a certain type of thinking. Artists such as Caiseal Mor and sages in many of the world’s traditions describe being in dreams as visiting alternate worlds.
Although these perspectives differ somewhat, they all offer a similar possibility. We can become skilled and insightful in dreaming, same as we can in being awake.
To gain such skill, there are many small practices. For me, these seem sensible ways of exercising that third kind of thinking. One is keeping a dream journal and collecting quotes and readings about dreaming. Another is respecting daydreams, both my own and those of others. Every now and then, a dream can be helped into coming true.
One special practice is to ask a significant question before sleep. Many people report gaining insight later that night from dreaming that seems especially vivid and apt. Others say this happens more clearly in that space/time known as ‘hypnopompic’ (when leaving sleep). With practice, hypnopompia can be deliberately lengthened and deepened.
Is this a way to befriend the darkness of winter? Can we exercise thinking and learn to easily shift from one style of consciousness to another? When I say my own plodding broke, my thinking loosened. I was seeing all around me what I had often heard before: ‘as above, so below’.
This is a very old phrase, reappearing in many dream traditions and writings. It’s sometimes stated ‘as within, so without’.
If I say to you, ‘oh, the sheen of sky was on the film of sea water as it seeped into the top layer of sand’, you may nod tolerantly. ‘Thrilled again with the logic of science, are you?’ But with this photo and few words, perhaps you too feel that shift and briefly enter my salt dream.