Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Reality of Dreams

One cannot discuss reality or realities without discussing dreams. In Islam, dreams are divided into three different categories. There are 'Ru'yaa', good or 'true' visions that bring glad tidings from Allah, 'Hulum', bad dreams bringing discouragement or sorrow, believed to be from Shaitan and finally dreams that are from the 'ramblings of the self' and include those dreams that are a curious mixture of recent occurrences, aspirations and fears. The third category is the most common, and is the work of our unconscious/subconscious, churning out films on a daily basis in the factory of our psyche and offering them to our conscious mind during slumber.

Of dreams from the first category, it is said that: 'Those of you with the truest dreams will be those who are most truthful in speech.' This was related in a hadith by Salih Muslim.

It is not surprising that it is considered to be a grave sin if one fabricates a dream and relates it to others in order to attempt to influence them. After all, if 'ru'yaa' are from Allah, then a false claim as to a dream of this kind would amount to an attempt to put false words into the mouth of God.

Most religions and traditions recognise these different categories even if they are not clearly delineated. After all, there are 'seers' or psychics in every culture who are able to dream/see the future, uncover secrets and see that which is hidden. One need not sleep in order to dream.

As for the dreams from 'Shaitan', these would be the dreams that falsely predict death or misfortune. Whether or not one wishes to believe that an actual entity is responsible for these, almost every one probably has experienced at least one dream of this sort in his/her lifetime.

In many cultures, dreaming was a religious exercise and often performed in a temple or other location dedicated to a deity or otherwise considered sacred. Dream 'incubation' was an effort to open the soul to divine messages or inspiration while sleeping in a sacred precinct. No doubt, rituals of preparation, including cleansing and purification, facilitated the process. By removing oneself from the distractions of ordinary life, one would be prepared to enter another realm or at least touch that other reality in a dream state.

In ancient Egypt, there was a 'Master of Secrets' who interpreted dreams that occurred during incubation. The ancient Greeks had similar rites, and pilgrimages were undertaken to temples where incubation was likely to achieve success. The Aesculapius at Epidaurus was a popular destination.

In many cultures throughout the world, a priest/priestess or shaman performed this duty as well as translating or otherwise communicating messages from other realms.

Oracles in ancient times were trained to 'dream' and to have waking visions in order to discover the answers to questions or otherwise communicate with the gods. The oracle at Delphi is one of the most famous of these ancient ambassadors from one realm to another. Shamans in Siberia actually climbed a 'ladder to heaven' in the form of a special birch tree and built a platform at its top in order to 'dream' and travel to other realms from a place situated between heaven and earth. It is dreams experienced during sleep rather than waking visions, however, that are the subject of this post.

In the 2nd century, Artemidorus wrote five books in which he collected dream interpretations from various sources and creates a system of classification. Rather than recognising three divisions, he divided dreams into two categories: Enhypria and Oneiroi. Enhypria is the category for dreams that are based on anxiety or represent a 'petition' or supplication with respect to a situation in real life. Oneiroi are the dreams that predict the future and Artemidorus recognised two different types of prophetic dream. 'Theorematic dreams' are prophecies that are straightforward depictions of the future. Allegorical dreams are those that 'hint in the manner of a riddle'.

Incubation is a practice embraced by devotees of many different religions, including Christianity. Even in the early 20th century, this tradition still was practiced in the Mediterranean. It has a valid foundation, actually, for any one who believes that the creation of a sacred space facilitates any spiritual connection or experience. Whether or not an actual visitation by another entity will occur is irrelevant. If a dream results in a cure or inspired response to any question, then the incubation has been successful. Perhaps some of these cures are nothing more than the power of 'mind over matter' but the power of dreams and prophecy goes far beyond that in some cases.

A philosopher named Heraclitus in the 5th century declared that dreams were the creation of a person's own mind or psyche and Aristotle supported this theory in his work, 'Parva Naturalia'. Although Aristotle, in his zeal to propound natural principles argued that prophetic dreams were seldom more than mere coincidence and that successful dream interpretation was nothing more than a skill based on psychology and the ability to make inferences drawn from facts, he admitted that all dreams could not be explained in this fashion. His observation that many dreams appeared to be based on recollection of the day's events and that dreams often reflected an individual's state of health were astute, however, setting the stage for modern psychology.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss dreams as nothing more than creations of the mind. I believe that one should be open to the belief that dreams can be a conduit through which communication from other realms can occur and even a means by which participation in existence in other realms can take place.

This brings one to the question: Does one simply remember the past in dreams or can one actually revisit the past? Can one live an alternate reality in a dream or is it simply a form of entertainment?

In my own experience of dreams, I have been able to visit the same places again and again and establish long-term relationships with individuals never met in this reality. Often cities that I know in reality will be mirrored in my dreams, but there are differences that are found, not in a single dream, but in dream after dream, year after year. From early childhood, my dream 'London' and my dream 'Paris' have differed from the Paris and London of reality and yet the same streets, buildings, houses and inhabitants have endured through decades of dreaming. Nepal in my dreams is not the same Nepal in which I lived as a young girl, but it is a detailed land that I revisit again and again. People in these places experience dramas through the years that are recalled and have effects in dreams that occur afterwards. In other words, these dream places appear to have their own histories and timelines.

I would not argue that they are 'real' in any objective sense, but I would not dismiss that possibility either.
Moreover, this sort of dream defies 'interpretation' in any symbolic sense, as it is another life that has too many details and too huge a landscape to be reduced to any symbol or even emotional connection. I experience victories as well as defeats, pleasure as well as pain, loss as well as new friendships in these dreams.

That is not to say that I do not experience the classical 'symbolic' dreams for which books like the 'Oneirocriticon' and 'Royal Book of Dreams' were written. Every one experiences dreams of this sort, but I do tend to agree with those who would argue for personal symbolism in lieu of universal meanings. If there is any common symbolic meaning to objects appearing in dreams, it would be derived from a common cultural heritage or religion.

Alfred Maury's assertion that all dreams have their catalyst in external stimuli would support the theory that symbolism found in dreams would have to be interpreted according to a subjective individual lexicon. This would not negate the interpretations made by skilled 'dream interpreters'. For example, when individuals made a pilgrimage to a specific location in order to undergo incubation, the symbols in their dreams would be interpreted according to the religion or tradition of that temple or sacred precinct. I would disagree with Maury in his inability to accept the idea that some dreams may be the work of 'divine' or otherwise 'beyond this reality' forces but most dreams we experience do support his thesis.

Freud's fixation on the sexual component as a basis for everything has been discredited, but Jung's work on dreams and mythology embraces a number of different disciplines, allowing us the possibility of using dreams as a means by which we can understand ourselves better as well as influencing our own potential and actions.

Whether or not dreams represent 'facts', they are a 'fact of life' and one that has enriched my life immensely. There is a danger in dreaming as well, especially if our dreams are far more seductive and entertaining than our 'real' life. I know that there was a time in my own life, during adolescence, when I could not wait to fall asleep at night, because every dream was a fantastic adventure. At that period, writing was another means by which I could create a reality that was far less painful and far more fulfilling than the one in which I was forced to 'live'. I would not like to fall into that error again, but I would like to be inspired again to create a vision and reality through words that outlasts the night!

N.B. As I am an academic at heart who trusts only primary sources, I have added a new section on Dreams to this journal that gives links to many ancient works that deal with dreams and dream interpretations.


Fleming said...

Absolutely fascinating! Your discussion of dreams contains material for weeks of thought and discussion, and you'll probably find them mentioned in my blog.

Thanks for providing links. One of my first thoughts as I read your post was, "I wonder if anyone has compared the accounts of dreams from different cultures and periods of history?" Have people always dreamed more or less in the same ways and of the same things, or are there great differences?

My other immediate thought was, "My dreams don't seem to fit into these categories, but maybe it's just because I haven't studied the categories." Your own ongoing dreams, with their cities and peoples and histories, may be unique. I've never heard of anything like them, and I don't see how they fit into any of the categories you mentioned.

Yves said...

Each of us has only our own dreams to attempt to interpret, so I cannot argue with anything of what you have said.

However I have observed that in the moments of recollecting my dream, I construct it into a coherent narrative, which then has a derivable meaning. Or used to.

These days, when I remember dream fragments and see how incoherent and inconsistent they are. It is never possible to retrace one's steps in a dream. If I have lost something I will never find it - except by that process of construction as one emerges into wakefulness - for the streets have changed; everything has morphed into something else. The only way to go on is forward and this makes a difference from the waking world and presumably other realms which can claim to have any reality.