Mindful Dreaming

I’ve been engaging in (I can’t really call it a practice) a form of self inquiry for the past year that I guess I’ll call “mindful dreaming.” I’ve always been interested in the science of dreaming and feel compelled to believe that they have deeper meaning, even though that can’t be proven scientifically. I don’t buy the Freudian concepts where dream objects have a universal meaning, but I certainly have experienced the metaphors my brain comes up with to solve problems in my awake life. Today, I feel deeply grateful for the growth steps I’ve been able to achieve using the techniques I will now explain.

So, I heard a Radio Lab piece about Lucid Dreaming, but I have no desire to drive my dreams – I multi-task enough during the day. Yet the concepts there, coupled with newer understandings of what we are doing when we dream brought me to an experiment that has turned out to be quite successful. You know the phrase “Sleep On It”? Well, it turns out that this is precisely what we are doing when we sleep. I’ll leave it to you to watch the Nova special that explains the science, and instead use my 1000 words today to share my experiences with putting that info to work in my life.

In the evening, after I’m done facebooking, playing my Words with Friends, and clearing my email out, I shut everything in the room down and meditate quietly. I don’t do that “empty mind” meditation… I let everything be as it is, and see what that has to tell me about what is going on for me and my corner of the universe. Usually, there is a thing that is bugging me… could be a work problem, but is usually emotional, because that’s how I roll. I don’t sit there buzzing about it, trying to solve it, or obsessing about it. But I let it into my consciousness. And then I go to sleep.

I’ve been a middle-of-the-night waker since my first son was born. There is something magical about the quiet hours, when the house is still and no one needs you for anything. Yet for years, I was inclined to “pathologize” this waking… to see it as a sleeping “problem” until I saw something that explained that this concept of sleep is cultural and very specific to the U.S., and that in most places in the world, middle of the night waking is just fine, thank you. Also, we tend to be most aware of our dreams when we wake in the middle of the night. So when I started sleeping alone, I let go of thinking of my middle of the night consciousness as a problem, and instead reframed it into one of my most favorite hours of the day.

Then, I learned this: In the first few hours of the night, we tend to replay our day in our dreams. You know that experience – it feels like the boat is still rocking, or you are filling spreadsheets, or for the love of god, cleaning the frickin kitchen again. That practice is part of learning. Particularly if you have spent the day doing something novel, this part of sleep digs the neural pathways in a little deeper, so that when you try again tomorrow, you are often actually BETTER than you were the night before. How cool is that?

After that early in the night “practice” period, we tend to go into integration mode, where the thing that has occupied our waking day is filed away into the other things that it is like. So someone who practiced playing the video game “Alpine Skiing” might dream later in the night about running through a wintry forest, doing yoga on a mountain, or water skiing. That adjacent thing is usually something the dreamer is already familiar with, and it is usually not a big leap to see how the juxtaposition teaches us something about the psyche and memories of the dreamer.

So that is the practice for me. I am mindful of a problem. I sleep. I awaken, usually around 3 or 4 all on my own, and the first thing I have my conscious mind do is recall the dream I just left. Then I remind myself of what I was thinking of before sleep and ask the simple question “What is the connection between these two?”

The rest is far from rocket science. The message/meaning/relevance is usually crystal clear, and now I have a lesson to think about for an hour until I drift back to sleep to complete my night. Sometimes, I’m drawn to write or make some art. Some nights, I roll over and hit the record button on my phone, and speak some poetry, invent a new story, or have my very own productive one-sided therapy session. A few times, the conclusions I’ve drawn in the middle of the night have been deeply profound shifts that change my thinking forever.

You probably want an example, right?

I went to a self-help workshop in which part of the work was dealing with old sadnesses from childhood. I’d spent some time talking about my mother, mourning how I have always longed for more of a connection to her. She was a very young mother, with very little support and even fewer role models, and she did an outstanding job of figuring it out on her own. But I’m afraid it left her exhausted and with very little room for pillow fights and the kind of fairy tale mother-daughter thing I’d invented in my mind as an ideal. So that was on my mind when I fell asleep – sadness and longing and forgiveness.

And then I dreamed that I was standing at a window, and they were passing babies one at a time through the window to me. It was my job to sort them. I would hold a baby in my hands, look into its eyes, breathe a few breaths, maybe gently rock it up and down a little, and then declare something like “Oh, this one is going to need a quiet family, it is so so sensitive.” or “This one has a very old soul and should go to someone who has no guidance of her own.” or “Look how hearty she is, it won’t matter where she goes, she’ll be just fine.”

When I woke up, I asked “what is that like?” And it was instantly clear! It connected directly to a memory of my mother. On the week that I came home from the hospital with my first born, Mom stayed with us for a few nights to help out around the house. That first night, the baby woke up fussy, and I carried him into the living room; which woke up my mom. She asked permission for a turn, speaking gently all the while to each of us, “Oh, let’s see what this baby wants.. is he a rocker? Does he want to bounce? Maybe he needs it a little quieter.” She experimented with different holds and was incredibly receptive to him. She wasn’t exhausted, or put out, or shut down. She was present.

So, this was exactly what I was doing at the sorting window, but what was the connection to my workshop? It was this: I don’t have memory of watching my mother parent us as young children, but I recognized in this most honest part of the night that what she did that night for me and my son was extremely familiar to HER. She’d done it for probably a thousand nights in her life… quietly observing, asking, responding. Not forcing her idea of parenting onto us as children, but inviting us (even non-verbal us) to tell her what we needed. And I KNOW she had no one teach her this.

So mindful dreaming brought me this peace: in the quiet of that workshop night, I came to realize that in the quiet of her very lonely parenting nights, she saw us. And in her quiet way now, she still sees us, though she is incredibly non-interuptive about it, I can feel it now. And in that instance, the longing evaporated, and the gratitude flowed in effortlessly to take its place. I’d call that a very good use of an hour in the middle of the night.


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