Dreamworks—Spirit in the Dark
An Essay from Excursions from the Far Side of the Mind by Howard Rheingold
Hindsight is 20-20. In 1986, I was designing dreamwork software for Activision before a couple of unscrupulous developers killed the project by spending money they were given to code my designs on other projects. I didn’t trademark the name I had chosen for the software, DreamWorks, and it was later adopted by Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen.
I diligently recorded my dreams with both a pen and a tape recorder for a couple of years. Playing back the recordings in the morning was like hearing a voice from another world. I soon recognized themes that occurred over long periods – weeks, months, years. I also recognized dream versions of cities I had spend time in, particularly Portland, Oregon, and New York City. I sometimes return to those dream cities years later and they still have the same layout, which differs from that of the actual city. My obsession with tracking down inventions and discoveries that had happened in dreams expanded into a book co-authored with Willis Harman, Higher Creativity: Liberating the Unconscious With Breakthrough Insights. It’s still in print.—HR
I’ll never forget the night I met my extradimensional redhead. Her mind was unnaturally attuned to my innermost thoughts. Her sensual intensity was almost unreal. Pleasures I had never dared to imagine seemed to flower from her every touch, and new realms of sensory possibility opened with each caress. But when the tiny, purple, glowing orchids blossomed from her fingertips and luminous petals carpeted my epidermis, my reality alarm cried out, “Whoa, there.”
It began to dawn on me that this was not an everyday encounter. After all, people in real life don’t generally grow orchids from their fingertips.
Could it be a dream?
Did I even want to know?
She smiled at my primitive attempts to think logically amidst all that raw sensation.
How could she know my thoughts? Who’s dreaming this scene, anyway?
She laughed. Then, while looking directly at me, she lifted her hands to her temples and peeled off her entire face like a used page from a note pad. Underneath her face was…my editor!
“Finish that damn dream article!” she roared, and hurled a ballpoint pen at me. It spun slowly, wheeling majestically along a predestined course, like a comet or an ICBM. When it hit my forehead, I woke up laughing.
It took me a second to recall precisely what I was laughing about; by then, I had already grabbed the pad and pen from my nightstand. You see, I’ve programmed myself to awaken briefly after each of my dream cycles in order to write down messages from my inner selves to my waking self. Reading my own dreams in the morning has become my favorite meditation before facing the new day. I get out of bed knowing that I’ve already accomplished something, that all my internal memoranda, inspirations, revelations, jokes, warnings, adventures, night flights, hot tips and wild hunches will be recorded in my bedside notebook.
The messages are not always as direct and as instantly recognizable as the episode of the erotic editor. But toward the end of every day, when I take the time to transcribe my previous night’s notes and heed the delicate counterpoint of symbol and metaphor, I’ll take a shot at resolving a social conflict, learning a valuable lesson about myself, or, more pragmatically, developing a money-making idea. I’ve found that I can bolster my confidence and creativity and cultivate personal wisdom without having to resort to mindshrinkers or mood-altering drugs. It’s all there in my dreams. I’m learning how to mine the precious veins of my own subconscious treasures without leaving the comfort of my own bed.
All I knew about dreamwork when I started dabbling in it was that Freud got pretty worked up about cylindrical symbols and dark tunnels. Then Sharon, my neighborhood trend oracle, assured me that dreamwork is “probably going to become the most popular mindwarp of the 1990s.” Ever since I ignored her advice to buy invest in a new company called Apple Computer, I’ve paid close attention to her trend predictions.
“The reason dreamwork is going to break out of the New-Age ghetto is that it’s the only practical form of magic that’s easily available to everybody,” she insisted. Coming from someone who was into the I Ching back when my major source of social information was Dobie Gillis, it was an effective pitch. “Only a few people are able to find salvation, or even a little relief, through meditation or jogging or analysis. But everybody dreams. And we dream every night. The trick is to will yourself to remember your inner dramas, then to gain conscious control of the scripts. When you control your dreams, you begin to control your life.”
It was a passionate little speech. I didn’t notice until the next morning how skillfully she had nudged me onto the path of my own dream expedition. The morning after our conversation, I awoke with the awareness of my last dream fresh in my memory a relatively rare occurence. In my dream, I was looking through a door, into a classroom. I could see one unoccupied chair inside, facing the front. The teacher was standing at his desk, facing the blackboard. When he turned around, I recognized him: He was me. But I couldn’t get into the room. He told me I had to talk to Sharon first. Then he tapped the blackboard and smirked.
The next day, when I told Sharon about my dream, she reached into her purse, as if she had been expecting to hear exactly what I had told her. She gave me the only tools I needed to become a dream-scientist a pad of paper and a ballpoint pen. That night, I put them next to my bed. The following morning, I discovered how potent such a simple device can be.
On my nightstand when I awoke were four pages of scrawled but readable dream scenes. I could vaguely remember forcing my way out of sleep a couple of times to scribble down some notes, but I didn’t have the slightest idea what was written on those pages until I looked at them in the morning light. The first entry consisted of five words that had an inordinately powerful influence on my life: “Catch ideas in dream nets.” Why did that message just feel so right—and who was sending it to me? I was hooked.
Like most people, I used to believe that I forgot my dreams as soon as I dreamed them. The evidence of that first morning made it obvious that every detail of my dreams must be stored somewhere between my ears. but I had never learned how to remember them at will. Isn’t there something strange about that? We twentieth-century Americans all learn how to turn on televisions, ride elevators and open pop-top cans, but nobody teaches us how to dream. We spend a third of our lives in another dimension. You would think more people would want to know what they do in that nightly otherworld.
The fragmentary but intriguing messages I brought back from my first dream expedition forced me to acknowledge the possibility that Sharon was right, that in our very private nightly shows, each of us is given the answers to our most vexing problems. We are shown potential pathways to our most important goals, taught how to forge the keys to our greatest powers… yet almost all of us forget, the moment we open our eyes, the lessons we receive from these inner institutes of enlightenment.
When I mentioned this curiously universal amnesia to Sharon, she gave me a bit of advice that should, in turn, prove useful to you on your own dream quests: Dreaming is a skill, she told me, like tying your shoelaces or driving a car. Both those activities seemed difficult when we first learned them, and then grew so familiar that they became automatic. Like any skill, dreaming can be improved through practice. Sharon assured me that eventually dream-awareness becomes automatic, and the two personae who time-share my body will then begin to help each other out, instead of living unrelated or conflicting lives.
Your other self responds surprisingly well to your intentions. You simply need to know how to attract your own inner attention. The first step toward improving your dream skills is simply to get started. Keep trying, first thing every morning, morning after morning, to recall and record the dreams of the previous night. It might not be easy at first, but the sheer novelty of peeking at your once-mysterious unconscious mind will keep you motivated long enough for the first rewards to come your way. Many people will receive a positive response on their first try, as I did. For others, it might take longer. But sooner or later, you’ll get the message.
When you begin to gain your first powers to observe and control your dreams, you’ll realize that even the most ordinary dream has intriguing advantages over waking consciousness. Given the proper frame of mind, who wouldn’t want the key to a world where the impossible becomes possible, the imaginary is real, and the dreamer is the only one who can control the production? The range and nature of sensory experiences are limited only by the imagination and will of the dreamer. Your own private version of life as you would like to live it (even the poor can have rich dreams, the lonely can find companionship, and even the ill can dream of health), or life on other planets, or even life after death can be observed as clearly as a television program—more clearly, because in a dream you can taste, feel, fully experience your programs.
But dreams are far more potent than internal television scenarios. They are literally the keys to changing one’s way of life in the waking state. As I began to receive nightly messages about the way I was living my life, it became increasingly hard to avoid facing certain facts during the day—emotional issues, like how much I truly disliked a specific task or situation or how much I really liked a certain person. They were direct clues to the resentments and attractions that bubbled below the surface of my daytime thought.
At first, it wasn’t easy to make the connection between what I had written in my dream journal and what I was experiencing in my waking life. After the exhilaration of learning that messages can come through from the other self, I was faced with the hard work of figuring out for myself just what these dream-allegories mean. Those connections between my dreams and my life that I did perceive were very thin, almost subliminal—a vague sense that some images and events were mere sketches of something that was hidden a little deeper. There must be some system for making sense out of all the scrambled imagery in my dream journal, I thought.
At this point, Sharon entered the scene again. This time, she carried a stack of books. Four books were particularly helpful: Creative Dreaming by Patricia Garfield, Living Your Dreams by Gayle Delaney, Dream Power by Ann Faraday, and Lucid Dreaming by Steven Laberge. I learned the most powerful lesson a dreamworker can teach: We are all the ultimate interpreters of our own dreams; in the realms of the night, we are all our own analysts and oracles, encryptors and decoders, messengers and messages. Nobody but you can tell you what your inner self is trying to say—but skilled dreamworkers can pass along helpful tips, techniques, and tools.
The results of dreamwork often seem magical when they begin to make an impact on your life. But it is dream-work, not dream-magic, that summons your interior genies and commands them to perform their marvels. Communication, especially with yourself, always requires effort. Some of those who have delved into the treasure-houses of their dreams before us have left maps and clues. The books Sharon gave me, and the books that those books led me to read, helped me put the pieces together.
Tracing the arcane course of oneirology (dream study) is like trying to solve a constantly shifting crossword puzzle. Oneirology is an older art than you might think. Joseph and Daniel, two of the more prominent Old Testament dreamworkers, learned their craft from practitioners of traditions that were already ancient when Biblical events occurred. The most significant clues to effective dreamwork techniques are scattered among unlikely sources, hidden away on dusty shelves, in books on mythology, theology, history, anthropology and the occult.
Dream researchers have ascertained that all human beings dream an average of one and one half hours every night. Over the course of an average lifetime, each of us spends about four years in that other dimension. Because few people in the industrial Western culture understand its language, our entire civilization has fallen into the trap of assuming that nothing useful happens in that other world. To those diligent or talented dreamfarers who have unlocked its secrets, however, the dreamworld is a gateway to knowledge and power. The reason we forget, the moment we open our eyes, the lessons we receive from these inner institutes of enlightenment is deceptively simple: We forget our dreams because nobody taught us how to remember, and because our waking consciousness depends upon a kind of selective inattention to interior senses. There are many time-tested ways for retraining the inner attention processes; the knowledge has existed for thousands of years, but it is only now beginning to emerge from obscurity.
I found that a rich tradition of dream lore had long existed in many places and in many eras—from the dreamworking tribes of Malaya and the dream lamaseries of the Himalayas, to the sleep temples of classical Greece and the dream shamans of the Iroquois. Taoist philosophers foreshadowed the findings of Gestalt psychologists, centuries in advance. Thousands of years before Freud and Jung debated their theories of dream interpretation, sophisticated dreamwork systems thrived in every quarter of the world.
A few of the ancient cultures and their dream techniques seemed particularly suitable for present-day dreamwork. I studied them, put them to the test, and received the results I am about to report here. I recommend to those who are interested in dabbling in experimental dreamwork that you adopt a similar attitude: You are the final authority about your own mind, so don’t hesitate to adopt those tricks that work for you, and to discard methods that don’t. This is an experimental craft, not a prescriptive science. And be aware that your own dreamwork is bound to yield different results from mine.
Dream incubation is the technique of using your dreams to ask for specific messages or advice that will help you in your waking life. You can even ask for help in interpreting your dreams. In former times, the entity to whom one addressed such appeals would be a god or goddess or muse. Nowadays, many people find it easier to think of these as communications to your “hidden self” or “higher self” or “subconscious.” The practice derives from, and may one day return to, the realm of medicine. Indeed, the dormant connection between modern medicine and oldtime dream-religions dates back to the first true devotees of dream incubation. The oldest known documents relating to dreamwork explicitly address the use of imagery in dream induction and interpretation. An inscription on an Egyptian papyrus in the British Museum, estimated to be 3500–4000 years old, says: “To obtain a vision from the god Besa, make a drawing of Besa on your left hand and, enveloping your hand in a strip of black cloth that has been consecrated to Isis, lie down to sleep without speaking a word, even in answer to a question.”
The secret dream-healing knowledge of the Egyptian priesthood ( was transported to Greece, where it became a public and extraordinarily popular body of medical knowledge. The ancient Greeks maintained over 300 special temples at which people slept in special dormitories in order to receive healing dreams. This mixture of medicine and metaphysics has traditionally been attributed to a historical, figure—Aesculapius, the healing wanderer whose serpent-twined staff is still the symbol of the medical profession.
The temples of Aesculapius, which must have had some kind of beneficial effects to keep them in continuous use for over a thousand years, consisted of an open outer compound and a restricted inner compound. Pilgrims who sought healing dreams had to sleep in the outer compound until Aesculapius appeared to them in a dream and invited them inside the special dormitory. While awaiting their nocturnal invitation, the pilgrims studied the testimonials (carved into the walls of the compound) of former patients. When a man in a fur coat, bearing a stick with serpents on it, arrived in a dream, the pilgrim would move to the inner dream-sanctum. Inside, non-poisonous serpents were loosed to slither among the sleepers, to inspire healing dreams (and perhaps to discourage fraternization among the dreamers).
The serpents aren’t used any more, but the technique of incubation has been adopted by many contemporary dreamworkers. I decided to experiment with the technique after I had been noting and analyzing my dreams for a few weeks, and had some confidence in the evolving power of the process. I asked myself for a dream to help me find a way to start this article. The episode of the redheaded editor with the peel-away face was the result.
Every artist, thinker, craftsperson, or inventor knows that mysterious things can happen when you “sleep” on a subject. After trying the dream-incubation technique a few times, I knew that a force indeed existed within me, a force that could be harnessed with a little attention on my part. I began to investigate more ambitious methods for coaxing my sleep-helpers to yield their secrets. Dreamwork, I continue to discover, is a way of knowledge. Nothing has to be accepted on faith and no artificial means of psychological manipulation are required, because you are the laboratory, the explorer, and the final arbiter of your own reality. You even have a powerful and secret ally in this quest, who is now preparing to help you begin: Just by reading these words, you are initiating contact with someone you know as well as yourself (and who knows you better than you know yourself, in many ways), someone who can introduce you to talents and powers you’ve only dreamed about—your inner adviser. The Iroquois dreamers called it Ondinnonk.
Before the Puritans and their ilk arrived and started breaking up the party, some heavyweight dreamwork was happening right here in the old New World. The Iroquois Confederacy, for example, was a democratic civilization that existed on this continent long before the Constitution was framed. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin is said to have studied the Iroquois Confederacy as a guide when he helped compose the United States Constitution.
The fragments of knowledge we still possess point to the central role of dream-guidance in the Iroquois culture. Marc Barasch, writing in New Age Journal, had this to say of the place of dreamwork in Iroquois society:
“Many cultures have in fact used dreams as a central rite of communion, a way of harmonizing the individual with society and the palpable, if invisible, higher forces. The six tribes of the Iroquois Federation, for example, all had formalized dream rituals. A Jesuit missionary named Rageuneau, writing in 1649, noted that they believed that “a soul makes known [its] natural desires by means of dreams, which are its language.” In a striking parallel to modern psychological theory, the Iroquois also believed that if this desire, which they called “Ondinnonk,” were completely thwarted, the soul would revolt against the body and make it sick.” 
Centuries later, in Vienna, Freud rediscovered what the Iroquois knew as Ondinnonk when he said that the repression of the desires of the id, through the intervention of the superego, leads to neurosis. And Freud also pointed out that the sometimes hideous creations of dreams are indirect evidence of the id‘s activities. But Freudian theory viewed the id as a monstrous thing that gravitates toward all sorts of antisocial pleasures and must be kept in line in the interests of civilization. To the Iroquois, the source of the soul’s deepest desires was not a dank den of animalistic impulses, but the font of wisdom and source of guidance. Unlike the id, its impulses are not pure aggrandizement of desires, but are more benevolent, life-centered, health-giving. This inner-life force can even provide helpers if we learn how to summon them.
The vision-quest was one way to find a dream-helper: Go out to the wilderness, dig yourself a hole in the ground, and fast and pray until your helper takes pity on you and appears in a dream or vision. Iroquois warriors and healers endured great personal hardships in order to win dream friends and to summon dream guides. By putting the power of belief, conviction, and personal sacrifice into these dream helpers, the Iroquois shaman created a reservoir of power he could later draw upon for help in times of crisis. Something about the idea appealed to me in the most mercenary way. I considered how useful it would be to have a dream helper or two, maybe even an entire dream workshop of internal experts, who could work on my writing every night as I slept—like the shoemaker’s elves in the old story.
Not long after I heard about the Iroquois and fantasized about a dream workshop, my research turned up a little-known essay entitled “A Chapter on Dreams,” written by Robert Louis Stevenson, who confessed that this is exactly how some of his most famous works were written! His technique was to induce the pre-sleep state of hyper-suggestible consciousness now known as the “hypnagogic state” by lying in bed with his eyes closed and his arm propped up, perpendicular to the bed. He could balance his arm and drift to the borders of sleep, but if he fell into a profound slumber, his hand would fall to the bed and awaken him. In this “twilight state,” his helpers did their work. Stevenson called his helpers “Brownies” or “Little People”:
The more I think of it, the more I am moved to press upon the world my question: Who are the Little People? They are near connections of the dreamer’s beyond doubt; they share in his financial worries and have an eye to the bank-book… they have plainly learned like him to build the scheme of a considerable story and to arrange emotion in progressive order; only I think they have more talent; and one thing is beyond doubt, they can tell him a story piece by piece, like a serial, and keep him all the while in ignorance of where they aim. Who are they then? And who is the dreamer? Well, as regards the dreamer, I can answer that, for he is no less a person than myself… and for the Little People, what shall I say they are but just my Brownies, God bless them! who do one- half my work while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, do the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself. That part which is done while I am sleeping is the Brownies’ part beyond contention; but that which is done when I am up and about is by no means necessarily mine, since all goes to show the Brownies have a hand in it even then….
I can but give an instance or so of what part is done sleeping and what part awake, and leave the reader to share what laurels there are, at his own nod, between myself and my collaborators; and to do this I will first take a book that number of persons have been polite enough to read, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature…For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers. All the rest was made awake, and consciously, although I think I can trace in much of it the manner of my Brownies…
It is interesting to note that one symbolic message of this dream is clear to any experienced dreamworker: Jekyll and Hyde are recognizable symbols of the dual nature of every human being, including the mass of repressed, fear-inducing knowledge that Jung called the shadow!
When I found out about the Iroquois, I realized that I had encountered a version of my Ondinnonk. The fact that many of these pre-industrial cultures seemed to have a handle on the questions I was confronting in my own dreamwork led me to further research, which led, in turn, to more revelations. The most amazing dream culture of them all, one with practical applications to everynight dreamwork, was that of a remote Malayan tribe known as the Senoi. In the early Thirties, Kilton Stewart, an anthropologist trained in psychoanalysis—sort of a Jungian Indiana Jones—introduced to the Western world the Senoi system of collective dream engineering.
The Senoi, Stewart noted in his monograph, Dream Theory in Malaya, are “perhaps the most democratic group reported in anthropological literature.” After studying their society, which is conspicuously devoid of war, violent crime, and mental illness, Stewart concluded that “they have arrived at this high state of social and physical cooperation…through the system of psychology which they discovered, invented, and developed…” That system of psychology, as reported by Stewart, is based upon dreamwork.
Each morning, the entire Senoi extended family unit of around 30 people would gather in the communal longhouse for a leisurely, chatty breakfast. The talk would turn to the marvelous news dispatches from the dreamworlds. Starting with the children, everyone would describe his or her dream adventures from the previous evening. The elders and other members of the group would then offer suggestions about how to interpret the dream vision, and most importantly, how to act in future dreams of the same kind.
If, for instance, a Senoi child reported a fearful dream about falling, the community would praise the child for having the courage to remember and report the experience, and an elder would explain that a falling dream is a wonderful omen, an offer of power. The child is instructed to relax and keep falling the next time it happens, and thus learn how to fly! When flight is achieved, the youngster is told to fly somewhere and bring back a gift to share with the tribe—a song, a poem, a design for a basket, a dance, a story, an idea. Senoi children grow up knowing that there is a proper way to act in dreams, just as Western children learn that there is a proper way to act at the dinner table; they also find out that there is much to be gained by giving themselves to the dream adventures instead of fleeing them.
One of the most progressive aspects of Senoi dream theory is their enlightened attitude toward sexual pleasure in dreams. While we in the West learn to be ashamed of erotic dreams, the Senoi learn to attain the highest possible pleasures in such dreams, and remember to ask their dream lovers for gifts. After all, the figures who frighten you and attract you are nothing other than frightening and attractive aspects of yourself. You are frightened and attracted to these aspects for specific reasons. When you discover the true reasons for your fears and attractions, you grow. That’s the gift your personal dream-lover or dream-ogre—and nobody else—can give you.
The most useful aspect of Senoi dream-philosophy is the belief that you can and must act within your dreams, rather than experiencing them as a passive, helpless observer. If something frightening is chasing you, then you should turn around and confront it! Demand of your dream-demons that they explain themselves to you, say the Senoi, and these messages in disguise will take off their masks and hand you their secrets. Don’t run—turn around and face it! That’s the only way to get the reward your bogeymen are trying to give you. According to Senoi principles, you can change the course of your dreams while you are dreaming.
I found the idea that you can act within your dreams in order to change their outcome to be a very powerful notion, for it leads to the more radical idea that changes in your dreams can affect your waking life. One of the longer-term effects of dreamwork is the way you tend to get acquainted with your own many personae, as they pop up unpredictably, in new and different guises, in dream after dream—a little bit like the way soap-opera addicts get to know the characters whose fictional lives they follow for years. For those who are inclined to Jungian ideas, the persona, the shadow, the anima and the archetypes are all in there, waiting to be recognized.
Between the dreamworkers of the ancient world and the new breed of eclectic, scientifically-oriented dreamworkers of the late 1980s, were the great pioneers of Western psychology—Freud and Jung. It is hard to imagine, in the jaded late twentieth century, what a heated and venomously negative reaction greeted Sigmund Freud when he proposed that dreams represent symbolic renderings of thoughts and impulses that the dreamer had repressed because they were so primitively antisocial. Although the notion that all these potent dream symbol s could be traced back to some kind of childhood sexual frustration was rejected by Freud’s colleague Carl Jung and others, nobody who attempts to study dreams would dispute the fact that Freud single-handedly rescued the science of oneirology from obscurity.
Today, words like subconscious and unconscious are part of the popular vocabulary. Around the turn of the century, when Freud suggested that we all have dark closets in our minds where we keep naughty thoughts, people reacted quite violently. Today, strict Freudian theory is confined to a relatively small orthodoxy, while scores of newer theories have included collective unconsciousness, cosmic consciousness, supraconsciousness, and other parts of the vast silent regions of the mind. But Freud deserves the homage of all modern dreamworkers for his feat of recovering dream-study in the West from its long slumber.
Freudian dream theory is based on the dogma that irrational and forbidden wishes and feelings are constantly generated by the id but are “censored” before they reach ego-consciousness. This censorship continues even into sleep, where the dream censor preserves sleep by turning disturbing expressions of repressed material into symbolic disguises that will discharge the impulse without waking the dreamer. Furthermore, Freud asserted that important clues to the origin of neurotic symptoms could be traced back to psychosexual episodes by means of clues revealed by dreams. If the analyst and analysand can crack the dream-censor’s code, together they can find the source of neuroses.
Jung, who begin to think of dreams as snapshots of the human psyche, developed a hypothesis that the common dream symbols he observed cropping up in his patients’ dreamwork—dark figures, wise old men, mythical beasts, beckoning young women, snakes swallowing their tails, etc.—were evidence that the human unconscious is deeper, in a sense, than the personal unconscious that Freud had mapped. Just as our species has a common biological substratum, Jung suspected that there was a common psychological substratum as well, a collective unconscious that includes all the tendencies and psychic potentialities inherent in human beings. In order to test his hypothesis, Jung knew he would have to travel beyond the confines upper middle-class European society. He began to look at fairy tales, myths, the wisdom literature of India, China, and Tibet. He also began to travel to preliterate societies to observe their cultural processes first-hand.
Jung’s travels in East Africa during the 1920s led him to the discovery that many of the tribes he visited and observed not only used sophisticated methods for interpreting dreams, but often made the same distinction he made as a psychoanalyst, between ordinary dreams that relate to the day to day life of the dreamer, and “big dreams” that signal pivotal points in the dreamer’s psychological development, and prompt the dreamer to experience more profound aspects of the dreamer’s humanness and gain new understanding regarding the dreamer’s place in the universe. This clue led him to a study of recurrent themes in mythology, which led him to formulate his theory of archetypes, universal symbols that emerge in art, myth, and dreams, and that can act as guides to self-transformation.
After Jung, a small but distinguished portion of the psychoanalytic community continued to develop tools for using dreamwork as a means of growth—Roberto Assigioli and Frederick Perls foremost among them. Ann Faraday and others of the Gestalt–influenced school of dreamwork helped me recognize that many of my dreams featured the same two basic characters in varied disguises: One is always meek, impulsive, sensitive and often sneaky; the other is bold, authoritarian, censorious, and delights in catching the other fellow in the act of minor wrongdoing. The late Fritz Perls, developer of Gestalt therapy, had a handle on those two characters. He called them the “Topdog” and the “Underdog.”
One of the main principles of Gestalt therapy is that every character, setting and situation in a dream represents distinct facets of the dreamer’s personality. This is not a new idea, by the way: Buddhist psychology posits that the entire world is such a dreamer, that the dreamer is God, and that God is each one of us; the only difference between us is whether we have awakened to Godhood yet. Perls was an earthier guy than the Buddhist psychologists, however, and his dream-characters are earthier, as well.
The Topdog, that slightly sadistic, overly authoritarian, rigid enforcer of rules who pops up in one form or another in even the freest, least-neurotic person’s dreams, was viewed by Perls as an internal reflection of all the dos and don’ts laid on us by society and personal experience. Topdog is a slightly slapstick personification of the Freudian superego—an internalized nagger, prude, wet-blanket, and censor. The Underdog is generally that irrepressible, mischievous, vital part of ourselves that is usually kept under control by the Topdog, lest it cause us to lose our dignity, a situation Topdog finds acutely painful. In dreams, stern schoolteachers and prison guards are Topdogs. The passionate lover beneath the icy exterior is an Underdog, as is the thin person that is said to live inside every fat one.
In Gestalt dreamwork, the dreamworker sits in one of two chairs and verbally interviews the different parts of herself. Then she moves to the other chair, assumes the role of Topdog or Underdog, and answers her own questions. It’s amazing what you will tell yourself if you simply take the time to ask. Through the dialogue of dream symbols, speaking to one another through her, she encourages her Underdog to stand up to her Topdog (shades of the Senoi!) instead of evading or sneaking around her. She persuades her Topdog to loosen the reins, assures the internal guardian that the whole system won’t run amok if Underdog has a little fun. When the overcontrolling and the impulsive parts are reconciled through dream messages, the dreamworker opens her own life to richer experiences.
Once you are able to seize control of your dreams and shape them to your satisfaction, you will free yourself from the restraints of time and space. Feeling lonely on your internal itinerary? Cuddle up with Cleopatra or chat with a centaur. Feeling artsy? See the great paintings of history…in colors you never saw before. This isn’t dull, drab, ordinary waking life, where words like reality and impossible still make sense. This is the dream state, where anything can happen. And those who have mastered the art of lucid dreaming (i.e., becoming aware that you are dreaming and consciously directing the course of the dream), know this very well.
Lucid dreaming is the key to the final door to dream freedom, but even the most enthusiastic dreamwork guides warn that it can’t be mastered instantly, except for a talented minority of the population. Although lucid dreams are rare over the course of a lifetime, most people have moments when they come very close to the realization that they are dreaming. Flying dreams, for example, can easily launch lucid dreams, because if your dreamself is doing something as improbable as flying, chances are good that your dream ego is going to suspect that you’re asleep.
Next time you find yourself flying in a dream, try testing the dream reality. If you discover that you can pass your hand through a dirigible cruising at 30,000 feet, you might “awaken to your dream,” which is the first step in seizing control. As soon as your dream ego figures out that you are dreaming, you must be very careful not to wake up all the way. The next step is to maintain lucidity and rearrange reality. See if you can make the sun rise and set on command. When that works, get bolder. Fly to Paris and eat at Maxim’s.
The lucid state is a gateway to many realms. In the most pragmatic level of life-enhancement, it enables you to go through “dress rehearsals” of important events. Coupled with an understanding of the messages transmitted by your non-lucid dreams, the ability to recreate important dreams while you are lucid raises the whole art to a new level. Instead of carrying messages back and forth between your dreamself and your waking ego, you can directly communicate with your hidden parts. If you have a problem to work out, you can try working it out consciously, in the dream.
Psychoanalysis is a process of digging for the meaning of certain psychological traumas and blockages that prevent the full healthy expression of the personality; psychoanalysts and analysands believe that be recreating these feelings on the couch, they will be able to resolve them in other parts of life. In much the same way, problems that are discovered, analyzed, and confronted in dreams might have a powerful generalizing effect on waking life. Dr. Stephen LaBerge of Stanford, the author of Lucid Dreaming (Tarcher, 1985), has conducted experiments with many dream voyagers (he calls them oneironauts), and is convinced that lucid dreams can be incubated. He is also convinced that the experience of lucidity bears a relationship to not only the self-transformation that is the goal of psychoanalysis, but also is related to the “awakening” or “liberation from illusion” that is the goal of many Eastern philosophical disciplines, such as Vedanta or Buddhism. After all, if “awakening from the dream that is life” happens to be your goal, awakening in your dreamlife might well be a good way to practice that skill. After you’ve attended all the orgies and feasts you want, simply instruct your dream control-center to show you your highest self.
The use of dreams in spiritual practice is firmly rooted in both Eastern and Western traditions. Every major religion in the world affords a major place to the significance of a special kind of dream; indeed, many of the scriptures of the world’s great religions were received in dreams by the mortals who wrote them down. No matter which religious tradition you use to approach your spiritual path, there is a deep and significant reverence for dreamwork as a way of getting acquainted with your soul.
In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the God of Israel directly inspired his people in laws and knowledge that was transmitted through the visions and dreams of the prophets: “If anyone among you is a prophet, I will make myself known to him in a vision, I will speak to him in a dream” (Num 12:16). Joel, one of the later prophets, conveyed Jehovah’s message that divinely-inspired dreams would not always be reserved for the prophets: “I will pour out my spirit on all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the slaves, men and women, will I pour out my spirit in those days.” (Jl 2:28-29) The passage from Joel has particular significance to Christians as well as Jews, for the New Testament records that on the day of Pentecost that very passage from Joel was quoted in Peter’s first words to the assembled crowds.
Another story in the Old Testament, that of Jacob’s dream, has particular significance to the Jewish tradition, for it is both a symbolic and a direct statement of the covenant between the Children of Israel and their God:
Jacob left Beer-sheeba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, since the sun had set. Taking one of the stones from that place, he put it under his head and lay down on that spot.
He had a dream: a ladder (or stairway) was set on the ground, with its top reaching to the sky; and the angels of God were going up and down on it.
And there was Yahweh standing beside him and saying:
“I Yahweh am the God of your forefather Abraham and the God of Isaac; the ground on which you are resting I will give to you and your offspring…”
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Truly, Yahweh abides in this site, but I was not aware!” Shaken, he exclaimed, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and the gateway to heaven!” (Gen 28:10-22)
Some dreamworkers have interpreted this passage to symbolize the dream’s role as a mediator been the worlds of flesh and the spirit, and the ascending and descending angels are metaphors for the dreamer’s transition between different levels of reality. And, by this interpretation, this passage is an explicit statement that the dream state is a gateway to the Highest spiritual state. Islam, which reveres the prophets of the Old and New Testaments, includes the mystic tradition of Sufism; the Sufi mystic al’Ghazali wrote about angels as symbols of invisible forces that ascend from the source of life and the material world to the higher realms, and represent “the higher faculties in human nature.”
In the New Testament, Christ’s conception was announced to Joseph in a dream (Matt. 1:20) And there was the case of the dream of Pilate’s wife, before he was to pass Judgement: “his wife sent word to him; ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered many thing because of him today in a dream.'” (Matt 27:19)
Dream-transmitted knowledge has particularly deep significance to Moslems because their holy scripture, the Q’uran, was received by the Prophet Mohammed in a dream. This transmission, known as the Night Journey, occurred when Mohammed, a poor camel-driver, “was sleeping between the hills of Safa and Marwa, when the Angel Gabriel approached,” leading El-boraq, the silver mare of miraculous powers who bore the Prophet to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the Prophet prayed with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, then ascended on El-boraq through the seven celestial spheres, across oceans of white light, finally to approach Allah, the One God. All in a dream.
A Sanskrit scripture from India attests to the importance of imagery-creation as well as concentration on remembered images in the quest for dream-truths. The Vedic myth of Uṣas involves a maiden who dreamed that she made love with a man she had never met, even though she was a virgin. She told her friend Citralekha about her dream, and her friend drew pictures for her, of “all the gods, demons, human beings, and other creatures in the universe.” Finally, Uṣas recognized the one young man in her dream, and eventually met him in waking life. The punch line of this myth is that the word Citralekha is translated as “Sketcher of Pictures.”
The inner symbolic meaning of this reference is made clear in several related myths: The “sketcher of pictures” symbolizes the capacity of every human mind to carry meanings back and forth betweeen different levels of consciousness in the form of imagery. It is, therefore, to every dreamworker’s advantage to use tools that awaken and empower the interior “sketcher of pictures.” The use of “skillful means” (upāya) like dreamwork was part of a step-by-step discipline for attaining self mastery and self realization—yoga.
Although only the dedicated few actually attain the direct experience of godhead that is the goal of yoga, the masses of ancient India were able to participate in the transformation of human consciousness, the awakening of the inner sense of sight that had been discovered by the authors of the Upaniṣads, the Yoga Sūtras, and other texts. Through myth and legend, even the uneducated were able to hear the story of the god who lost its god-consciousness in the world of illusion. Hundreds of folktales involving dreams and dreamers of “once upon a time” still convey important symbolic knowledge to the tens and hundreds of millions of people in the small villages of India. In the words of Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, author of Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities:
The Indian myths of dreaming dissolve the line between waking and dreaming reality by dissolving the distinction between a shared waking world and a lonely dreaming world, or they make it possible to drag back across the still acknowledged border between the worlds those dreams that enrich and deepen the reality of the waking world. The philosophical goal of many of these myths is to dissolve the line, but the secret agenda of many of them is to understand the reality of life through the insights that come from dreams.
The Buddhist philosophers, heirs to the Sanskrit legacies, were also interested in dreams. Indeed, the name of the Buddha literally means “the awakened one.” The Indian Buddhist work on dream yoga is extensive, and it also migrated to Tibet, where Tibetan Buddhists combined Indian concepts with their own ancient shamanistic traditions to create a complex and sophisticated dreamwork technology. Judging from what their scriptures and adepts claim, the Tibetan Buddhists evolved one of the most sophisticated dream-manipulation technology of the ancient world, East or West, complete with maps of the dream realms and specific prescriptions for exercises in dream-mastery . The nature of dreams and methods of dreamwork are closely linked in the Tibetan Buddhist worldview with the nature of reality and methods of achieving enlightenment. More properly, the Tibetans would speak of “liberation” rather than just “enlightenment,” because a person’s enlightening realization of the nature of reality (the “Great Awakening”) leads to that person’s liberation from the wheel of karma.
To discover who is dreaming the dream of your life, as a step toward waking up from all dreams, is the goal of Tibetan meditation techniques. The Western-educated Tibetan Lama, Anagarika Govinda, put it like this in his classic Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism:
…the centre of human consciousness is empty and beyond all limiting definitions. The centre is surrounded by five sheaths which, in ever-increasing density, crystallize around the inner point of our being. The densest of these sheaths is the physical body, built up through nutrition; next is the subtle or etheric body, nourished by breath; next is the thought body or personality, formed by active thought; the fourth is the body of potential spiritual consciousness; the fifth is the body of blissful, universal consciousness, experienced only in a state of enlightenment. The development of full lucidity in waking life and dream life is an essential step towards understanding the interpenetration and relationship of these aspects of the Self.
The claims of the Tibetan dream-masters and the symbolism of Sanskrit dream-mythology undoubtedly serve important purposes to those on the spiritual path. Unfortunately, the spiritual value of a discipline is not necessarily a measure of its market value in this pragmatic, materialistic age. It is natural in a culture where dreamwork is neither taught nor respected for people to be skeptical of the notion that valuable information can be obtained from dreams. What the majority of the skeptical population doesn’t realize is how much of what they see around them originated in a dream! The colors in your clothing, the medicine in your medicine cabinet, the synthetic materials in practically everything in your house are the results of the science of organic chemistry; the famed story of Kekulé and his dream vision of the benzene ring attests to the subconscious origins of one of the fundamental discoveries that led to the modern science of organic chemistry. And since science and technology constitute the most powerful mythologies of Industrial civilization, his story links the older and newer vessels of dream knowledge.
Kekulé was one of many who tried to solve the difficult problem of describing the physical structure of the benzene molecule. Chemists knew that a group of carbon atoms formed the chemical skeleton of the molecule, but had no idea how they were arranged. Kekulé was the first to realize that they were arranged into a closed chain, a loop-like structure now known as the “benzene ring” and which forms the elementary building-block of those hexagonal structures that chemists draw to this day when they describe the structural properties of an organic substance. The discovery signalled a fundamental breakthrough that led to new worlds of theoretical and applied knowledge.
At the end of his career, at a banquet of the world’s most distinguished chemists, given in his honor, Kekulé revealed the secret of his great discovery:
One fine summer evening, I was returning by the last omnibus, ‘outside’ as usual, through the deserted streets of the metropolis… I fell into a reverie, and lo! the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. Whenever, hitherto, these diminutive beings had appeared to me, they had always been in motion; but up to that time, I had never been able to discern the nature of their motion. Now, however, I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced two smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of thee or even four of the smaller; whilst the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain… I spent part of the night putting on paper at least sketches of these dream forms. 
This image, or quasi-hallucination, of dancing atoms in the form of “diminutive beings,” continued to haunt the chemist, but did not immediately lead to his famous insight. The moment of illumination, in which the image engendered a new understanding of the role of carbon atoms in many molecular structures, came years later, in the form of a dream that he recounted to his fellow chemists:
I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by the flash of lightning I awoke… Let us learn to dream, gentlemen. 
Kekulés advice is worth repeating to the artists, scientists, technologists, educators, philosophers and everybody else who struggles at the frontiers of knowledge: Let us learn to dream. Somewhere in the back of my mind, that advice took root, and germinated a new idea. The idea grew into a project.
“What the world needs now is an insight amplifier.” I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the moment that provocative thought struck me: I was leafing through half a dozen volumes of my dream journal, looking for the last time I had that dream of a busy carwash in the middle of the desert. I knew that I had experienced the same dream many months ago, and had a strong feeling that it had some connection with turmoil in my home life, but I barely had time to maintain my journal, and no time to index and cross-reference it. The thought of designing a system for augmenting dream recall occurred to me then, after about a year of diligent dreamwork. I had accumulated a stack of sketchbooks, in which I had written my notes, made my sketches, and recorded my analyses. Somewhere on one of those several hundred pages was a clue to an important personal, spiritual, or creative problem, if only I could find it. How many other important advice went unheeded, simply because I couldn’t find my way to where I had recorded it?
Over the course of the year I had systematized my dream journal by devoting an entire double-page spread to each significant dream, and continuing it over to another double-page spread if I had a lot to say or draw. I sketched in a rectangular box at the top of both pages and left them blank, reserving them for the date, title, and summary of the dream. On the left-hand page, I recorded and amplified the dream images and events at the top, directly under the title-box, drew a line across the bottom of the dream-scenario and wrote a few words under the line about what was happening in my waking life, drew another line under the waking life section, and left the bottom quadrant of the left-hand page blank, so I could come back and attempt an interpretation after I finished working on the right hand page of the journal.
On the right, I tried to draw a sketch or a diagram, even if it was just a stick figure, or a scribble or two that “felt right” to capture the visual feeling of the dream. The object was not to attempt to visually depict the dream scene—I’m not exactly a professional artist, and who has the time to draw out all their dreams?—but to jog my “right brain” thinking processes through the mechanism of image-creation, which seems to call into play those intuitive faculties. After I had recorded a few notes from my bedside notebook, sketched a couple of images, and tried one or another dreamwork technique, I would write a descriptive title and the date in the box at the top of the left page, then jot down a dozen-word summary of the dream in the box on the right page—as an aid to future browsing.
After these steps, I was usually ready to venture an interpretation. If not, I left the interpretation quadrant blank, for I knew from experience that the meaning of dreams a few nights or weeks ago only becomes clear when the dream-messengers change their disguise and the message finally becomes clear to my waking, journal-keeping mind. I found that the process of browsing for blank interpretation boxes sometimes jogged my pattern-recognition capabilities, and suddenly I would see the outlines of a dream message that had repeated itself in different forms. And when I had the feeling that I could find a clue to a present interpretation in a previous dream, the summary and title boxes helped me thumb my way through the journal to the page I wanted.
But even these shorthand memory aids were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of messages. When my notebook grew into a stack of notebooks, it occurred to me that a computerized database, one that could store imagery as well as words, could help me sort through my collection of dreams and find significant patterns. Humans are great at recognizing patterns when they are presented to us in intelligible form. But we are not as good as computers when it comes to sorting through masses of information to find related items that might be part of a pattern. The trick was to join human pattern-recognition ability with computer storing, sorting, and searching capabilities. I mentioned my idea during a conversation with a friend of mine whose job is to support innovative ideas for home computer software products. The conversation led to a contract, and I spent the next nine months designing a computer program that would enable me and other dreamworkers to accomplish those tasks that seemed beyond my grasp as I sat amid my dream journals. It is my belief, and my publisher’s hope, that this product could signal the advent of the first true mind-amplifiers.
Just as many people find that word processors stimulate their creative abilities simply by relieving them of mechanical tasks like formatting and revising, and spreadsheet users are able to ask “what if” questions and make high-level business forecasts because their tools take care of complex but mechanical calculations, DreamWorks was designed to enable users to gain direct, immediate access to the most rewarding and highly motivating aspects of dreamwork, because the software takes care of the lower-level details
. Only a small fraction of the population has been able to benefit from traditional training methods. A book, after all, is a passive repository of knowledge, capable of presenting information in a static, linear form. Dreams, however, are dynamic processes in which knowledge is transmitted through graphic, symbolic, nonlinear forms. If the method of presentation could be matched with the method of thinking, computers could enable dreamwork tools to become flexible and “intelligent.” So I kept in mind two fundamental psychological principles when I designed DreamWorks:
- Every person has a unique repertoire of dream symbols; often, the meaning of these personal symbols is only revealed by examining a pattern of many dreams, unfolding over a night, a week, a month, or longer. Therefore, any system for keeping track of dreams must include an indexing and retrieval method for making these patterns visible.
- Images are the language of the unconscious (or the coding mechanism for right-hemisphere cognition, if you prefer a more contemporary model). Your deep self sends messages to your waking selves in the form of pictures, visual puns, visions, and images. And you can communicate with your own deeper selves by couching our communications in the language of imagery. Computer-based graphics tools and image libraries now make. it possible for everybody to create personalized images to serve as inner messengers.
Many exciting recent discoveries in the fields of perceptual psychology, cognitive science, education, and consciousness exploration have uncovered the important role of image encoding and decoding in our mental life. When I first became comfortable with the use of my dreamwork tools, I found that I was able to use DreamWorks to create my own incubation images, in a computerized variant of the “Egyptian method” for awakening the mind’s eye. As in many other symbolic rituals, the power of the Egyptian method is not in the name of the Egyptian gods or the precise words of the incantation, but in the intentional focus of attention on the part of the dreamworker required by the protocols of the ritual. Computer graphics can concentrate one’s focus of attention and thus amplify the power of the age-old ritual.
Although in the current era most people don’t consider themselves to be artistically gifted, in many other times and places the act of sketching, sculpting, or painting the visions seen in dreams has been considered to be a natural part of most people’s social repertoire. So I built into DreamWorks a means of empowering and awakening anyone’s internal image-artist, whether or not they consider themselves “artistic” or a “visual thinker,” through the capabilities of the Image Bank. By choosing from a selection of built-in images-modifying, mixing, matching, and creating new ones using graphic editing tools-I found that I was able to grow fluent in a graphic vocabulary in a short period of time. Now, when I open my electronic dream journal, it takes a matter of minutes to record my dream, designate key words and images for my dream database, and create a page of visual analogies and images to go along with the text. When I want to find out which other dreams contain flaming giraffes, or occurred on Friday nights, I simply query my dream database and the key dreams pop up on my “dreamscape.”
The keys to unimaginable power are within the reach of the entire terrestrial population. I am certain that the next leap for our species will not be launched from the factories of physical technology, but from the night flights of creative dreamers. Think about the possibilities: A visit to an island paradise where intelligent natives sing solutions to your everyday problems, a family conference that includes your departed grandparents and your unborn children. In one night, you could philosophize with Aristotle, joke with W. C. Fields, talk investments with J. P. Morgan, and work out with the Olympic gymnastic champion. Can you still call it “only a dream” or “a figment of the imagination” when the solutions invented by your dream consciousness work in your daytime life?
Even if it is only remotely possible, the potential rewards of controlling our dreams seems well worth pursuing. Sensual pleasure, practical knowledge, creative inspiration, inner wisdom, emotional tranquility, extrasensory perception, or even a hot tip for the seventh race at Belmont—whatever the quest, the answer may be awaiting for you just beyond the borders of sleep.
Read the rest of Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind: A Book of Memes
Copyright © 1988, 2012, Howard Rheingold