Last night I had the most amazing dream. I was walking along a street when I noticed a bird settle on a tree next to me. It’s feathers were mostly white, but with black edges. At first I thought it might be a woodpecker, then I noticed that it had a long curved beak. It flew into the air and became a confusing mass of white ruffled blotches, then it seemed to hang like a puff of smoke in the air – almost stationery, but floating effortlessly in the light breeze. It was a most extraordinary sight – apparently shifting shape and form as I watched, fascinated in a trance-like state. After a while I sensed that I too could hang effortlessly in the air like the bird. The trick was to lean forward at just the right angle and allow the gentle breeze to lift me from below. As I started to float upwards I looked down at the street below and remembered dreams that I used to have some twenty years ago.
In those earlier dreams I could fly simply by imagining that my thoughts controlled my movements. The more confident my belief was that I could fly, the higher I could rise above the landscape. If I started to doubt in my abilities, then I would lose height. I used to enjoy these dreams – I loved the sense of freedom of being able to soar like a bird above the landscape. I loved the sense that if I could fly merely by ‘thinking myself up’ – that anything must be possible and the sense of empowerment that came from knowing that controlling my thoughts was the key to success. But these exciting dreams came to an end after a short while. The last of my flying dreams included a sky criss-crossed with telegraph and electricity cables suspended from pylons. It wasn’t safe to go too high for fear of electrocution. The fun had gone from flying and for twenty years I never experienced another flying dream until last night.
In last night’s dream I felt the light breeze lift me into the air and remembered my earlier flying dreams. A shocking thought came into my mind. Those previous dreams were wonderful, but I was aware that they were dreams. But last night my dream felt entirely real, and the thought occurred to me that I had better be careful because if I started to lose confidence in my ability to fly, I might suddenly fall to my death on the road below. At this point I became lucid – I was aware that I was experiencing all of this from within a dream. Unfortunately, the excitement that I was lucid-dreaming caused me to wake up.
Making Sense of Dreams
How can we make sense of this dream? Recent research by Joe Griffin has shown that dreams serve a very specific purpose which is vital for maintaining our mental health. They are a mechanism that the brain uses to complete patterns of emotional arousal – by acting out scenes which metaphorically reflect our actual life experiences. The brain processes experiences which hold a strong emotional content and which have not yet been resolved in order to give them a sense of completion. In a sense, to signal that these events no longer need to be held in anticipation. They are dealt with and the file can now be closed – thereby freeing up any pending sense of expectation and allowing us to wake feeling refreshed and ready for a new day. This is why sleep is so important and why serious disruption of sleep patterns can be so detrimental to our mental health.
In the book “Human Givens: The new approach to emotional health and clear thinking”, Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell put it this way:
Dreaming is nature’s solution to the problem that, once an instinct-driven pattern is activated, usually the only way to deactivate it is by carrying it out – which does not give animals the flexibility they need to survive. Animals need to evolve the ability to inhibit, when necessary, arousals such as anger or sexual urges, and deactivate them later, in a different way. Otherwise the arousal is unhealthily retained in the autonomic nervous system. This is why we evolved to dream.
If you have not come across this particular explanation for the dreaming process before, you may find it a lot to take in. I encourage you to look at http://www.why-we-dream.com. I have been working with this view of dreaming for the past ten years and I have to say that it fits both my own experience – and also that of my clients. Quite simply – it works.
Analysing My Own Dream
So what lies behind the mysterious symbolism of last night’s dream? Let’s look at emotional arousal that occurred in the previous day. I had three hours of driving on Saturday night to play a gig with my soul band: Soulville Express. During the long journey I had been listening to a collection of stories by Idries Shah. I always find these stories inspirational – over the years they have changed my understanding both of myself and the world. One of the wonderful things about them is that they contain many levels, the more familiar you get with them, the more insights you discover within them. One of the stories I listened to involved a butterfly emerging from the mouth of a dreaming man. During my long drive I had been excited to discover a new meaning in this story, which I have studied before, but never felt entirely comfortable about. I was wondering where this new understanding would lead me on my journey.
My dream can be understood as completing the emotional arousal during my Saturday night drive in the sense of excitement I had experienced whilst listening to the story. I have never seen a hoopoe bird, and was not even aware of what it looked like. I was not consciously aware of knowing that it has a long curved beak. But I have read “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid Attar and am aware of symbolic connections between the hoopoe and the work of the Sufis – including that of Idries Shah. So I can interpret the regaining of my dream-flight as symbolically representing the new possibilities brought about by this insight – and the hoopoe being a spirit messenger bringing this new understanding. The part of the dream about being lucid (being consciously aware that I was dreaming) relates to the specific content of the story.
Interestingly I can now also interpret the previous flying dream (the one from twenty years ago in which the sky was criss-crossed with dangerous power cables) as representing my frustration with my technical work as an engineer at the time and the unconscious sense that this was beginning to limit my horizons and personal growth.
Since we spend about one third of our lives asleep – it makes sense to consider what benefits there might be for us is dreaming. Over time, species tend not to hang on to behaviours which do not serve them in some way – but human beings have been dreaming for thousands of years.
Since we consider our ability to dream to be one of our most valuable human resources, the in8 Cards well-being resource pack includes a card to represent dreaming (Card number 6 pictured above). If you are interested to learn more about the things that really matter to human beings, then please call us or come along to the first in8 Cards mini-conference in the city of Bath on the weekend of 13th and 14th September.