August 13, 2008

Of Fish, Dreams and Blank Books

If you consult any number of books or websites in the hopes of learning about dreamwork, almost everyone last one of them will tell you there is one essential practice on which all dreamwork depends. If you want to engage in the art and science of dreamwork, you must keep a dream journal. If you don't keep the journal, you won't develop your dream memory. If you don't remember your dreams, there's no material to work with. Pretty obvious.

It can be a very difficult habit to cultivate. It has to be a daily thing. And you have to be consistent. Sitting down to write down your dreams (unless you actually have the time, leisure and privacy to write them down while you're still in bed in the morning) has to be one of the first things you do every morning. If you wake up to an alarm, hit the snooze button and then don't move. Stay lying exactly where you are and ask yourself what you were dreaming. Only if you are lucky do you recall an entire dream right then and there.

Dream recall is like fishing. It all starts with a nibble on the line. There's the lingering feeling of a mood from a dream. Or the faintest memory of just one image or object. Or you only remember that "I was with Stephanie", or that there was something having to do with Sacramento. Be gentle. Be skillful. If you pull too hard, the fish won't get hooked. Just stay with whatever little bit you have. Now let your attention wander from it for a second or two (kind of like letting out a little line) and then focus your mind on the object again. You might find that something else "breaks the surface" along with what you already had: the background to the vague image; what it was that Stephanie said to you; what specific part of Sacramento you saw. Let your concentration go for another second or two, and then "pull in some line", i.e. focus on the things you remember. You will likely find that something else comes along with them. If all goes well, you feel the fish bite! A whole dream sequence comes back to you in one piece. But be careful! You still haven't reeled that beauty in. Nothing worse than "the one that got away." When the next alarm goes off, don't hit snooze again. Turn the alarm off and get out of bed, whether you remember a dream or not.

There is a short window of opportunity after one wakes up -- I'd guess no more than fifteen or twenty minutes -- during which the portal to the sleeping consciousness hasn't quite shut tight, kind of like that little gap on a baby's skull that hasn't quite grown together (which is why, a friend tells me, babies can still talk with angels). One needs to cultivate the habit of not hurtling headlong into the day. Stay quiet, both physically and mentally, while making that first visit to the toilet for a pee. Don't turn on lots of bright lights. Don't turn on the radio or other loud electronic devices. Sit down in a quiet place with a notebook and pen and write down whatever it was you remembered. Don't be surprised if you now can't recall what you remembered while waiting for the second alarm. Close your eyes and ask yourself, "what did I dream last night?" Just relax and allow it to come to you. Most times something will. But there are those times that it won't. One of the emotionally challenging aspects of dreamwork is the moment when you realize that, despite all of your efforts, you are empty handed. You don't remember anything. Nada. Zero. Goose egg!

It can be discouraging. It can be very discouraging when you are just starting out in dreamwork, and only remembering one or two dreams a week, if you're lucky. But the truth is that the dreaded "dream drought" is something that even veterans have to endure. Even people who have been faithfully recording dreams for several decades, and who have stretches in which they remember several dreams a morning for three or more mornings in a row, still hit patches as dry as the Mohave desert; no dream recall for days, or even weeks.

What do you do then? Many writers on the subject suggest writing anything at all into the dream journal: what one was thinking after one woke up, or even making dreams up. The theory is that the subconscious mind responds to this signal from conscious behavior that says the conscious mind takes dreams seriously, and provides one with dreams on subsequent mornings. This has never worked for me. I've always felt too silly writing things that are not dreams into my dream journal.

Recently I've come up with a new tactic. I've designated a new little blank book to be for dreamwork exercises. Never mind that this means I am now carrying no less than four hard-back blank books in my briefcase everyday. My wife can tell you that I have a hard time passing a blank book display in a shop without buying one. I have a reserve that should last me for several years. But I digress.

I take both my journal and my new dreamwork book to the table where I write down my dreams. If, after all efforts and tricks, I can't recall any dreams, I open up my dream journal and read one of the dreams that's already in there. Then I open my dreamwork book, date it, indicate which dream I'm going to work with, and then do a little dreamwork. For an idea of what that work might entail, I recommend this very convenient collection of exercises generously published for free by Professor John Suler (warning: it's a PDF file, so the link will open Acrobat or whatever PDF reader you use).

This has a dual purpose. Firstly, I am using the first half-hour of the day to work with dreams (either recording them or doing exercises), and secondly, I'm actually designating a time in which to do dreamwork. I think one of the pitfalls of dreamwork is that we sometimes keep collecting more and more dreams, but we keep putting off working with them, because our lives are so busy. I'm guilty of this. This way, I don't get so frustrated if I don't remember any dreams on a given morning, and I automatically get a certain amount of dreamwork done every week, without having to set aside more time in my otherwise over scheduled day.


anthromama said...

Thanks for the link, I'll check it out. I kept a dream journal for a while a few years ago, but never did any work with it. I could remember tons of detail most of the time that I could remember anything at all.

In our new home situation I think I'll have to be getting up even earlier, so I wonder how that will affect my dream recall. Probably depends on how early I go to sleep the night before! But perhaps I'll try to start getting up before the kids, to have some quiet time to myself for this. I hear that can be a great way to start the day.

Ron Adams said...

Its great to get this information out to other people. Thank you for sharing this. Good stuff.

Ron Adams

Theo Huffman said...

Anthromama: Though during my children's summer vacation I'm "sleeping in" until 5am, during the school year I get up at 4:15am, just so I can squeeze in dream recording, chi kung and meditation before the kids get up. I try to get to bed before 10. It's tough, but otherwise I just don't have time for those vital parts of my life. Not that I'm recommending this for you. You have a bit more flexibility since you don't have a 9-5 office job. But getting up early really is the key to taking control of your life. Ben Franklin was right.

I highly encourage you to take up the practice again. Perhaps you and I could do some dreamwork together online somehow.

Hey Ron! Thanks for dropping by.

Anonymous said...

Hi Theo,

Just enjoying cruising your blog.

Thanks for posting the Suler PDF. An issue I get is cause I wake up several times each night there are usually three or four dreams out there. Can only work with one at best it seems.