Dreams and Spiritual Reality
Is there something really meaningful?
Seth J. Gillihan :
Have you ever had an especially meaningful dream? Maybe you dreamed you talked with a deceased loved one, or you received some premonition while you slept. Perhaps you've had a dream you died, which may have changed how you think about death.
Dreams have special significance in many psychological theories-they're the "royal road to the unconscious" according to Sigmund Freud, whereas Carl Jung saw in dreams the expression of mythic archetypes. In Biblical times, dreams were often believed to carry prophetic messages, as in the book of Genesis when Joseph's dreams foretold of a coming famine in Egypt, and when Joseph (husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus) was warned of a danger to their baby.
Whatever we make of them, it's hard to deny that dreams can be downright weird. Even the basic premise is a bit odd-that we have "experiences" that feel like reality while we're unconscious and physically paralyzed. There are different proposals for what causes dreams and what their function may be, with no scientific consensus.
I recently spoke with Dr. Raymond Moody, a pioneer in research on near-death experiences (NDEs). He coined the term in his seminal book Life After Life (1975), which brought the concept of NDEs to widespread public awareness. Our discussion for the Think Act Be podcast made me think of another potential explanation for dreams: Could they be a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds?
This idea was sparked by the many intriguing areas of overlap between NDEs and dreams. Let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that NDEs are a type of dream; even a casual reading of NDE accounts makes it obvious that the two phenomena are qualitatively different. But one area of similarity is that both dreams and NDEs have an indescribable aspect, and the dreamer or NDE survivor finds it impossible to fully capture their experience in ordinary language.
"When people tell you dreams, they often have to resort to nonsense," said Moody. "Many times we have very powerful dreams that can't be put into literally meaningful terms." Metaphors and poetry are often the closest approximations of these ineffable experiences.
While we're often dismissive of what we call "nonsense," Moody noted that it can have "profound spiritual implications," citing the examples of Zen koans and glossolalia (speaking in tongues, which was part of my religious experience when I was growing up).
Moody also gave examples of nonsense from popular music (e.g., doo-wop) and literature (e.g., the "Jabberwocky" poem) that show it can be a "wonderful domain of language. People love nonsense but don't like the word 'nonsense.'"
This difficulty in describing NDEs may be related to their hypothesized extradimensional quality-that they seem to be occurring in dimensions beyond our familiar length, width, height, and time. It's impossible for a mind limited to three spatial dimensions to comprehend additional dimensions, including the ten dimensions that are proposed as a complete account of reality in superstring theory.
Moody noted that M. C. Escher drawings capture our imaginations precisely because they depict logically impossible images, such as his drawing of a square staircase in "Ascending and Descending"; pick any corner of the square and follow the stairs counterclockwise, and they appear to descend forever.
"To describe what is seen in the picture, we have to resort to nonsense," said Moody. How can the "highest" level of the staircase be lower than the "lowest" level? "You could give a perfectly intelligible account of that as a two-dimensional surface, but if you try to describe the picture that's in the drawing you have to talk nonsense."
Another obvious similarity between an NDE and a dream is that they occur in an altered state of consciousness-either because of a medical crisis (NDE) or sleep. As Dr. Eben Alexander and others have posited, the decreased activity in certain brain areas might allow for a more profound awareness of consciousness and awareness to emerge.
REM sleep, in which our most vivid and memorable dreams occur, also involves a decrease in brain activity in some regions, especially the prefrontal cortex which is home to our highest levels of thinking. In contrast, more primitive brain areas including the limbic system (e.g., the amygdala) show greater activity during REM.
Like many people, I've personally experienced another important area of overlap between NDEs and dreams, when I had a dream I died. As with NDEers, I had no disruption in my consciousness, but instead transitioned seamlessly into a star-filled expanse where I joined everything I loved.
And rather than traveling to a place where I was reunited with those who had predeceased me, my death revealed an eternal connection to the dead and the living, in a reality that was made of love. It was a sublimely positive experience and changed my relationship with the thought of death-mine and others'-much like the changes that NDE survivors often describe.
And so I have to wonder if our dreams-including the ordinary ones we forget before we've even had breakfast-might have a deep spiritual dimension. Maybe there's something about the dream state itself that connects us to parts of reality that aren't available when we're awake (and not in a deep meditative state or taking psychedelics).
Are any of these observations proof that dreams are a bridge between the material and spiritual worlds? Certainly not. Everything I'm suggesting is conjecture and may be no more than wishful thinking on my part. All the same, if you're inclined to believe in a spiritual dimension beyond our mundane experience, you might consider that your nightly descent into sleep offers an opportunity to connect with magic.
Perhaps there are truths to be discovered through your dream states, which normally aren't available to your conscious mind. You might start recording your dreams as soon after awakening as possible, and spending some time being curious about where they might be leading you.
And as Moody suggests, be open to the possibility that the apparent "nonsense" of dreams reflects a deep truth that is beyond our ordinary senses. Be especially attentive when a dream leaves you with a powerful emotional residue that's hard to make sense of.
Perhaps you just experienced a random pattern of firing that your offline prefrontal cortex is struggling to interpret. Or maybe your dream points to something more fundamental and meaningful about reality and your relationship to it.
The full conversation with Dr. Raymond Moody is available here: Is the End of Life Just the Beginning?
(Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania).