Volume 2 Number 4
Dreams have been thought alternately biological, psychological, religious, and creative forms of experience. Rather than choose one of these rubrics, to the exclusion of the others, it may be more illuminating to choose them all. To consider these, we’ll make use of a particular anthropology, considering persons an integration of body and ‘soul’. In referring to the soul, we’ll borrow the tripartite Western model: mind, will, and emotion, coming back to these at the end. Dream interpretation will be left on the side. We are concerned, at this point, with what dreams are rather than what they mean.
There is no question that dreaming is, in part, a physical state. This can be measured scientifically, in the sense that dreams correspond to certain documentable, when not measurable, biological patterns. Human experience cannot be separated from the body, since we are thoroughly corporeal beings, so, of course, it is to be expected that dreams correlate with physical experience.
Dreaming as a physical state must necessarily be, and for the same reasons, a mental one. Dreams, as products of the mind, occur in ways that cannot be measured and accounted for as easily as patterns in the brain. Brain waves, even unique wave signatures, despite science fiction to the contrary, cannot be directly mapped to particular dream content. The discipline of psychology, as well as general experience, indicates that dream content commonly reflects the mental attitudes -- the anxieties, conflicts, and preoccupations -- of the dreamer. It is these mental attitudes that contribute the psychological symbols, as Jung observed, even if they cannot account for all of the precise details of a particular dream ‘script’.
In this sense, one can agree that dreams are prophetic. Not discounting their religious significance, dreams, as products of the personality, can be predictive. One can predict, though not with certainty, a person’s reactions to stimuli, based on a sufficient experience of the personality. It follows that dreams, as products of personality, can add to that experience, offering something on the lines of a predictive text. The fact of uncertainty is what relegates this to prophetic rather than scientific phenomena. Dreams may contribute prophetic insight to the dreamer to the degree that the dreamer possesses self-knowledge and can process the experience of dreaming in predictive ways.
Beyond this, religious myth is replete with references to dreams as communication, so that this experience cannot be accounted for solely by reference to the personality of the dreamer. It is not the goal of this essay to reduce that experience by categorizing it as either ‘true’ or ‘false’, nor attempt to fully account for it by offering alternate explanations located, as those must be, in one of the other types of experience we have introduced. The notion that the soul communicates itself by various means, consciously and unconsciously, is acknowledged by all. Its conscious language is evidenced in any normal mode of communication including, for example, this essay. Its unconscious communications are measured, from without, by scientists who intrude upon dreams with probes and computers and who obviously have no direct part in the dreamer’s mind. The stretch from originating to receptive communication is, then, not one of principle but merely one of direction.
The argument that such dreams are merely the product of the individual – perhaps ‘a bit of undigested pork’ – is begging the question and suggests a false dichotomy. Dreams, in myth, are not represented as excluding the mental, emotional, volitional, or physical state of the individual. When myth refers to the experience of the wholly other, that for which there is no reference and to which there is no analogy, it refers to a type of vision rather than to dreams. Prophetic dreams, as analogous to inspired writing, far from being represented as ‘automatic’, are experienced as collaboration between dreamer and something else. The mere fact of comprehension indicates that the external stimulus is always mediated by the dreamer’s mind, will, and emotions – his soul. The obvious fact that outside stimuli (objects, events, and experiences) affect dream content supports the premise that, in fact, all dreams as collaborative. In this light, there is no conflict between psychologists’ analysis of dreams as indicators of personality and the devout search for their religious significance.
The mythic experience of dreaming as a locus of collaboration between creator and Creator suggests an almost artistic character to dreams. If a dream were a poem or a story, we might observe that, while aspects of the text may indicate certain mental attitudes, contain key psychological symbols, suggest a biological state or function, and possess prophetic import, there is no accounting for the exact ‘text’ outside of its author’s creative movement, the unique product of his mind, will, and emotions. If dreams were literature, we would have to conclude that they are a creative literature. The classic example of dreams as creative is Coleridge’s ‘Vision in a Dream’, resulting in the poem alternately titled “Kublai Khan”. Perhaps the reason dreams may seem only infrequently creative is the somewhat myopic position of the dreamer. After all, a dream is literally a creative act in which its producer is immersed. We have used the word “product” to disguise the particular character of this relationship between dreaming and the soul, but where ‘production’ occurs, there is always a verb – in this case, one familiar in the art of film-making – ‘to produce’. In a certain light, the dreamer is a scriptwriter, director, and producer (mind, will, emotions), and a dream is the creative product of the total personality, of the soul, where in prophetic dreams, these roles are also collaborative. Dreams cannot be regarded as solely creative, since they are not creation ex nihilo, but rather creation from experience (i.e. in conjunction with one of the other contributors to the dreamscape).
If the tripartite Western model of the soul and its internal role, that of an intellect that governs the will and so informs the emotions, is reasonably accurate, then perhaps dreaming is the soul hung by its toes – a kind of “soul reversal”. Perhaps, in dreaming, in contrast with waking, it is the turn of the emotions and the will to subordinate the mind. The more common experience of dreaming, in which a dream takes its own direction, indicates the hegemony of the emotions. Perhaps the reason that some persons confess the ability, on occasion, to control their dreams from within or even program their dreams in advance, indicates the alternate leadership of the will. Similarly, the common experience of being cognitively aware that one is dreaming, may indicate the intellect reaching for control.
The search for meaning in dreams must be predicated on a meaningful analysis of what dreams are. Fragmented thinking about dreams represents a fragmented view of persons, a disintegration of the personality. Alternate ways of thinking about dream content needs to account for the integrity of biological, psychological, mythic, and creative functions. Reducing dreams to one or another category of experience or, alternately, repudiating these realms of experience in advance, belies the fact that dreams are ultimately personal and, therefore, wholly unique. It is only in recognizing this fact that we may proceed to find personal meaning in our dreams and in our dreaming.