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Dreams and Insight

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And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions…. Joel 2:28

Shepherd's Dream

The Shepherd's Dream, Henry Fuseli
Tate England, Photo (C) Barnaby Thieme

Yesterday morning I awoke from a dream in which Socrates and the Dalai Lama were having the following dialog:

Socrates: So you will agree, then, that the function of naming is to connect the right word to the essence of a thing.
HHDL: That’s right.
Socrates: But in your system, things have no essence.
HHDL: True.
Socrates: So in your system, naming is impossible.

My dream Socrates, in a surprisingly Socratic style, assails the Dalai Lama’s anti-realist Madhyamaka philosophy with a reductio ad absurdum argument. How would the real Dalai Lama reply to such a charge? (1)

This morning I had a dream about two bishops arguing, and I woke up with a new framework for interpreting religious and mythological language. I’ve spent the day developing it, and it will certainly appear in future posts.

Where do dreams come from, and how can they provide us with new insight and ideas?

The Tibetan master Je Tsong Khapa is said to have achieved enlightenment in a dream. From Geshe Sonam Rinchen’s brief biography of Tsong Khapa:

One night Tsongkhapa dreamed that he was present at a gathering of famous Indian masters discussing the subtleties of the Madhyamika view. One of them, who was dark-skinned and tall and whom Tsongkhapa recognized in the dream as Buddhapalita, rose and, holding a volume in his hands, approached Tsongkhapa and joyfully blessed him by touching his head with the book. Tsongkhapa woke as it was getting light and opened his own Tibetan translation of Buddhapalita’s commentary at the page which he had been reading the day before. When he reread the passage he at once experienced a seminal insight into the nature of reality, which brought him the understanding that he had been seeking. (2)

The Tibetans have developed an elaborate dream yoga, by which meditators may induce lucid dreaming and perform meditation in their sleep. Tsong Khapa wrote instructions on dream yoga, in which the yogi meditates on clear light during sleep, at which time the coarse conceptual mind has naturally subsided to some large degree. “When one utilizes this as a path,” he writes, “one can induce an amazing experience of the clear light of sleep.” (3)

Tsong Khapa further explains that the process of falling asleep resembles the process by which the mind dissolves at the time of death, and the dream-state is similar to the intermediary state between lives called the Bardo, famously described by Karma Lingpa’s so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Tibetan dream yoga has been developed by dream researcher Stephen LaBerge into a technique for lucid dreaming which, if followed rigorously, has a high success rate in teaching practitioners to gain awareness and control of their dreams. LaBerge describes his work on lucid dreaming at Stanford:

I knew that earlier studies had demonstrated that the direction of dreamers’ physical eye movements during REM was sometimes exactly the same as the direction that they reported looking in their dreams. In one remarkable example reported by pioneer sleep and dream researcher Dr. William Dement, a dreamer was awakened from REM sleep after making a series of about two dozen regular left-right-left-right eye movements. He reported that he was dreaming about a table tennis game; just before awakening he had been watching a long volley with his dream gaze.

I also knew from my own experience that I could look in any direction I wished while in a lucid dream, so it occurred to me that I ought to be able to signal while I was having a lucid dream by moving my eyes in a pre-arranged, recognizable pattern. To test this idea, I spent the night at the Stanford Sleep Laboratory. I wore electrodes that measured my brain waves, eye movements, and muscle tone, which my colleague Dr. Lynn Nagel monitored on a polygraph while I slept.

During the night I had a lucid dream in which I moved my eyes left-right-left-right. The next morning, when I looked through the polygraph record, we found movement signals in the middle of a REM period…. This method of communication from the dream world has proven to be of inestimable value in the continued study of lucid dreams and dream physiology…. We have found that oneironauts can carry out all kinds of experimental tasks, functioning both as subjects and experimenters in the dream state. (4)

Freud famously called dreams the “royal road to the unconscious.” Jung believed that dreams not only reflect the individual unconscious, but a collective unconscious, or a repository of imagery common to all of humanity, formed by the same symbols and motifs as the great religious and mythological traditions of the world. Buddha taught:

All things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightening.
That is how to meditate on them,
That is how to observe them. (5)

Notes and References

(1) I consulted Georges Dreyfus’s Recognizing Reality to review Dharmakirti’s theory of reference, a canonical source His Holiness would surely take to be authoritative. The short version of what I found is that Dharmakirti does believe words, in referring to objects, gesture toward some “time-neutral” quality, but he has an elaborate epistemological theory that allows him to posit objects of reference as “shared fictions,” and thereby avoid positing universals. For Plato’s Socrates, reference entails essentialism; Dharmakirti takes the long way around this problem. (See Dreyfus G. Recognizing Reality. State University of New York Press. 1997. pp. 261 ff.)
(2) Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Lama Tsongkhapa’s Biography. Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. Retrieved 01/07/2012.
(3) Mullin GH. Tsongkhapa’s Six Yogas of Naropa. Snow Lion Publications. 1996.
(4) LaBerge, S. and Howard Rheingold. Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. Ballantine Books. 1990. p. 24.
(5) Hahn TN. The Diamond that Cuts Trhough Illusion. Parallax Press. 1992. p. 25.


Written by Mesocosm

January 7, 2012 at 3:31 pm

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