The utility of sleep is undeniable and of late, there have been excellent books emphasizing it. Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has published in his 2017 book, Why We Sleep, declaring beyond ambiguity the impact of sleep on the human brain. The book, while teaching the basics behind how sleep works neurologically and biologically, cautions against cognitive impairment along with brain damage due to sleep deprivation.
Sleep is inseparable from dreams. The whole night, we go through the cinema of dreams, mostly fulfilling our wishes and living out our fantasies, but also suffering scary nightmares and feeling a high degree of anxiety and terror in the process. There are hundreds of books about the interpretation of dreams, starting with Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams published in 1899, to The Complete Book of Dreams by wellness consultant and modern mystic Stephanie Gailing, published in 2020. Gyan hi gyan hai!
I have been an avid reader of books on dreams and could get rid of my chronic migraine headaches in the mid-1980s by practicing insights from Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, written by psychiatrist and psychotherapist Frederick “Fritz” Perls with two co-authors. The book taught me to enhance the awareness of my mind and bodily feelings in the present moment. Later, I read about mindfulness and tried to practice it, without much progress. Bad dreams continued to trouble my sleep and I, by and large, failed to decipher their meanings.
But recently, triggered by Chade-Meng Tan’s book, Search Inside Yourself, I read almost a dozen books, including two celebrated books by the psychologist Daniel Goleman – Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, and two books by Jon Kabat-Zinn – Full Catastrophe Living, and Coming to Our Senses. Kabat-Zinn is a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and has been running a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program to great success, since 1979. But the climax came after I read Dream Yoga by Andrew Holecek.
First and foremost, the book aptly defines yoga as “that which yokes or unites.” To make what is fragmented a whole again is yoga – synchronizing body and mind at the least, and eventually, the conscious and unconscious mind with the cosmic mind. Then it introduces the scientific term for the study of dreams as oneirology and exhorts readers to explore their inner space like astronauts explore outer space, by becoming “oneironauts.” Rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana branch, the book brilliantly succeeds in taking the reader from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the exotic to the esoteric, and from the easy to the more difficult.
There was a hugely successful film, Inception, released in 2010, about dreams. The hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a professional thief who can steal information by infiltrating the minds of people. He takes up an “assignment” to get into the dreams of the heir to a Japanese business empire, by his competitor. The plot thickens when the hero enters the dream world and is confronted by his deceased wife who had committed suicide, and the hero feels guilty about being the real cause of her death. The unconscious mind protects itself by weird imagery in dreams, and skills are needed to uncover its secrets. The point the film made is that the dream world and the waking world are entwined.
Andrew Holecek’s book turned the tables by declaring that it is not that our sleep in the night depends upon what happened during the day, but rather, what happens during our sleep decides how we flair up the next day. Holecek writes, “When you fall asleep every night, you are actually falling awake. You just don’t know it yet.” Taken at its face value, how do I benefit from this knowledge? It is here that the book delivers.
Simple tips are provided to induce “lucid” dreams, which means dreams in which you are conscious of dreaming. I like the advice to lie down in Buddha’s famous Loin Posture – the right hand is folded and placed under the head, with a finger gently closing the right nostril, the left-hand rests on the left thigh, and the legs are very slightly bent. Then bring your awareness to the breath going inside and coming out, while the mind dissolves in a “hypnagogic” state – you are still aware of the world and yet images are floating – and finally dipping into a deep sleep.
Dreams are only a part of the total sleep, which happens in 90-minute cycles – about 5 cycles every night. Initially, the sleep is mostly deep, without dreams (called Non-rapid Eye Movement or NREM sleep), and later, towards morning, it is mostly full of dreams (Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep). The book calls our ability to be conscious in a dream, Dream Yoga, with the purpose of confronting what is scary and fearful, and changing the dream. For example, if someone is chasing you, just stop running mindlessly, turn back, and confront the chaser. Or, if you are locked, or trapped in a maze, find an opening, and emerge out. If there is a fire, enter it. If there is water, walk into it; if there is a height, a cliff, jump without fear – because after all, it is only a dream.
Holecek invokes the majesty and fearlessness of a lion and asks us to be like one in the dream. He writes, “The lion is the king of the jungle, fearless and uncontested. His gaze is set in contrast to the gaze of a dog… if you throw a stick out and away from a dog, the dog will chase after the stick. But if you throw a stick out and away from a lion, the lion will chase you. The lion’s gaze is set upon the thrower, not on what is being thrown. We all have the gaze of a dog, forever chasing the sticks thrown out by our minds. We’re constantly running after the thoughts and emotions that are endlessly tossed up from within… And that’s the basis of our suffering… it takes a fearless gaze to look deeply within the jungle of our own mind.”
My take on Dream Yoga, of what all it may mean, is to take a “cinematic view” of day-to-day life. Be like a spectator watching a film and living the events around – seeing people around you as actors performing their roles – teachers, helpers, masters, drivers, traders, doctors… even “friends” and “enemies.” Centuries earlier than William James, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad declared:
अत्र पितापिता भवति, मातामाता, लोका अलोकाः, देवा अदेवाः, वेदा अवेदाः। अत्र स्तेनोऽस्तेनो भवति, भ्रूणहाभ्रूणहा, चाण्डालोऽचण्डालः, पौल्कसोऽपौल्कसः, श्रमणोऽश्रमणः, तापसोऽतापसः।
In this state, a father is not a father; a mother is not a mother; the worlds are not worlds; the gods are not gods; the Vedas are not the Vedas. In this state, a thief is not a thief; the killer is not a killer; there are no high castes, intercastes, or outcasts; a monk is not a monk; a hermit is not a hermit. (4.3.22)
So, imagine while retiring to your bed every night that you are resting in the embrace and wisdom of the Cosmic or Universal Self, which is free from desire and without fear. With practice, you will wake up in a state that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore called Chitto Jetha Bhoyshunno – Where the mind is without fear.
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