Every dewdrop manifested in every realm is a dream. The dream is the glowing clarity of the one hundred grasses. ~ Dogen Zenji
If we’re really interested in waking up, we should befriend our dreams. Through our dreams we study the self in its unadorned form. We forget the self when we realize the nature of dreaming. Night after night we dip in and out of this stream of images, thoughts, and feelings, plot lines that beguile, embarrass and inspire us. We run, chase, fight, fly, love and awaken to great “Aha’s!” in our dreams. And yet, few practitioners I know pay much attention to these nightly excursions even though we practice exquisite awareness of our day-waking thoughts and mind states in zazen.
The beauty of our dreams for this “study of the self” is that they are not constructed by our willful ego, but instead often bring forth the very thing we turn away from, the obstacle that blocks our opening, release or integration of our spiritual studies. In our dreams, we play out what is foreign to our conscious ideas of ourselves — showing up naked to the meeting, screaming at a close friend, or having sex with the wrongest person — ways we would not allow or admit to in our ordered universe. And yet, in these night missives, we come into contact with an intrinsic sense of deep knowing, encounter inexpressible beauty, and meet with great sages who love and know us completely. What keeps us from looking deeply into this phenomenon of mind?
In Japanese, the word for dream is yume, meaning “the eyes in sleep.” We could also say this is what we aspire to in Zen, to see in the dark, to have insight. For several years now I have been working with students and groups to help us develop a dharma eye for our nightly dreams — to enter into their secret language, a language that is at once very personal to each of us and at the same time, universal. Jung said a dream was “speech that is not yet ripe.” How familiar to us in practice, this wordless “felt sense” of change along the path.
Practicing with the images and actions in our dreams, the stranger at the door, the odd placement of the flower vase, requires us to let go of our initial interpretations and desire to know what a dream “means” and instead, reenter the dream on the dream’s terms, in the world of images and felt sense. To do this is to befriend the dream and allow it to speak its own message through practicing with the dream. While interpretive philosophies may have their place, to reduce a dream to its meaning is to kill the dream. It is like reducing Starry Night or Water Lilies or Beethoven’s Fifth to their meaning or conclusion. All dream images have the potential to carry multiple meanings and unfold in different ways over time, so to keep the dream in its live form, we write it out in the present tense and practice “don’t know” mind.
When I first took up practice, my dreams became vivid and intense, and completely riveted my attention. I dreamt of collapsing buildings, fires, and floods as a great dismantling was taking place. I faced my fears by confronting strange attackers with knives and embracing the deep grief of forgotten past losses. Ancient corpses floated to the surface of the water to be reconciled, old lovers came to give complaint or say goodbye. More and more, as the path became established, I was getting out of the car that was driving me and started riding a horse, and walking. New visions began to emerge over time — unspeakably beautiful sunsets, wise old masters with the truth so simple and obvious. A marriage of opposites took place. Throughout this period, my teacher, Kyogen, would very naturally discuss these dreams with me in our meetings. He also shared his own remarkable formative dreams that he had had when in the monastery. I took for granted that this was an integral part of practice and when I later had the chance to do a group dream workshop, knew instantly that I would take this into my teaching. I am always humbled to hear a dream. No matter how simple, it is intimate expression.
Many people tell me they don’t remember their dreams as if this skill is somehow intrinsically lacking in them, but for most people, remembering dreams is simply a matter of interest and willingness. Research has shown that a few simple changes to our routine increase our ability to remember our dreams. Setting the intention to do so when you go to sleep and having a journal close by to immediately write down even the faintest wisp of the dream both help. At first it might look like this: “There was an old house” or “a dog” or “angry.” It isn’t important to have a plot line (many of which are manufactured in the remembering of the dream anyway) — what is important is to begin to reestablish a relationship with the state we call dreaming. All of us can just begin with some scratch paper and a pen without too much effort.
When we look into our dreams as a group, what I find remarkable and reliable is the way that our dreams characterize our obstacles and our worst fears, and contain within them the dharma gate to work with these obstacles. For instance, we may be searching through stark corridors for the right doorway, or looking for our teacher who keeps receding or changing into someone else, and right in the moment of despair or surrender, there it is, right in the dream, a flower, a golden child, the missing key. Dreams help us find the blocked door to open the heart and offer a gate often hidden from our conscious mind that wants to plan out how our practice will go and what we’re prepared to do. When we work in groups, it is the eyes of other dreamers that point this out to us, not in an interpretative way but because of our common suffering and our common enlightenment.
And then there is this forgetting the self. To forget the self is to study the act of creating the self, that is, dreaming. Our identities, the stories we weave together from fragments cobbled together over time, are truly great dreams. To awaken, we awaken to the nature of the dream within the dream. In Muchu Setsumu, Zen Master Dogen says enlightenment is “expressing a dream within a dream.” By befriending our nightly dreams, we learn to turn toward all mind phenomena with curiosity and openness, to notice the dreaming mind. This life we call “real” and the dream we call an “illusion” from a Buddhist point of view are not so different from each other. Our narratives, selections of images and impulse, relationships and plot lines, while so very convincing are really dreams. I return to Dogen Zenji’s offering that to awaken is to awaken within the dream and that clarifying this dream does not make the dream go away. We awaken and continue to dream, but the whole world is changed forever.
A star at dawn
A bubble in a stream
A flash of lightening in a summer’s cloud
A flickering lamp
A phantom and a dream
So is this fleeting world
The Verse of the Diamond Sutra
Palm to palm,