The following is a (long, lightly edited) talk I gave at the International Association for the Study of Dreams Conference in June, 2006.
Dream Incubation as an Extreme State
A few days ago I realized we would be presenting this panel on the Summer Solstice. Today is Midsummer, the middle point of Summer, the longest day and shortest night of the year. It is one of the two days each year that the earth leans way over on her axis, engaged in a tango with some unseen celestial partner. It is a day of extremes.
I consider this to be good timing for our subject matter, because dream incubation is a very extreme state. It is set apart from the normal routine of waking and sleeping, dreaming and living. It stems from extreme circumstances: we are desperate to know, desperate for change, all our rational options having failed us somehow. We have reached a fork in the road, or have come across an obstacle so great that we are helpless to go on the way we have been.
So we decide to enter the unknown, give over the car keys to a ghost, and ask the dreamworld for help. This is a radical act. It is an impulse which runs counter to what this culture teaches us from our first waking day. Admit we aren’t in control? There are rehab programs for that. We can consult any number of experts whose good advice we may or may not take. But asking a dream for help? That’s going a bit too far.
When I first proposed this paper, my idea was to talk about how dream incubation is a way in to our creative process, and helps us engage with a wisdom greater than our own. But when it came down to actually writing it, I found myself more interested in the ways that incubating dreams bedevils us, throws up roadblocks to understanding, and stymies even the most diligent among us who seek to use it. So if you are looking for something to inspire you to try dream incubation, this might not be it. On the other hand, I hope it will still be entertaining.
Dream incubation, the act of asking for a dream, raises a lot of big questions. Foremost of these, and my own personal favorite, is: When we ask for a dream, to whom or what are we speaking?
First Big Question: How Big is God?
To talk about dreams at this level, we have to talk about cosmology. Dreams have changed a lot since we thought of the universe as an egg sitting on a cosmic nest. In those days, the moon, sun and stars wheeled around the shell of that dome-shaped heaven. Dreams came to us from underground, from the lair of Apollo, the Sun, once he had ridden his blazing chariot across the sky and descended in the evening to the Underworld. The realm of the Gods was almost close enough to touch, and dreams were quite literal and tangible as well. When we asked for a dream, we asked a specific deity and that figure often actually appeared and gave us very specific information on what was to come.
Dream interpretation has changed a lot since those days, too. Nobody that I have read from antiquity ever talked about the different levels of meaning in dreams. Yet today that is practically the gold standard for dream interpretation. Just as there are myriad ways of working with dreams, most Western dreamworkers will tell you that every dream symbol can have multiple interpretations depending on which level of the dream you are looking at. This is a concept borne of a relatively new worldview. It is part of our cosmology, in that it goes hand in hand with the idea that ours is just one solar system among many in this enormous galaxy, one of millions of galaxies in an expanding universe. How could our dreams not hold different levels of meaning, when our minds are in the process of learning to adapt to the enormous consequences of our own knowledge?
Opening ourselves to advice from that kind of life force is a bit daunting. It helps to invoke a power in dreams that is easier to visualize: God. The moon. The Great Spirit. Isis. A dead grandmother. Asking one being for something specific is very reassuring, because while we’re giving up control, we’re giving it up to something whose essence or intentions we generally trust. Yet there is a part of our minds that says, “well, I am asking God, but isn’t God just a form of my Higher Self? Shouldn’t I ask my own psyche, or my intuition, it’s pretty much the same thing. And if I pray to Spirit, am I praying to the creator of heaven and earth, or the creator who made the Milky Way too? How big is God?”
I have a friend, a radical priest, who begins every prayer with the exhortation, “Listen, Multiverse!”
Multiverse! That’s just scary to me. I can’t even comprehend the distances in our own solar system, let alone our galaxy. I can agree to the existence of other galaxies in theory, but there’s no way I can wrap my head around how many galaxies there are in the universe. Then to talk about other universes…well, that’s what chocolate and whiskey are for, when you start thinking in those terms. So for my friend to call in the Multiverse—multiple universes!—as the ultimate intelligent guiding force just puts me into shock. I get numb and uninspired thinking of anything that huge and theoretical. For me, God or Spirit has to get a little more graspable in order for me to ask anything of it in waking or in sleeping.
That is why I think the old Gods will never die, at least for our purposes. All those residents of Olympus and beyond are alive and well because they are so very useful as vessels through which we can comprehend greater universal forces. Most of the time, in dreamwork as in regular life, we walk around trying to put the cap back on that cosmic egg. We want a simple answer in our dreams, something that is readily understood and doesn’t make us work too hard. But it’s too late. Our dreams generally move us toward complexity rather than away from it, which doesn’t mean they don’t also answer our questions. Yet I think they’re very interested in us coming to grips with the enormous universe we’ve found ourselves in, and their often obtuse, non-literal nature reflects that.
Second Big Question: How Do We Know What to Ask?
Of course, many people don’t have the problem of wondering who or what they’re asking, and more power to them. But they may get hung up on the next big question that dream incubation raises: How do we ask for what we want, and how do we know it’s the right thing to ask for? Remember, this is an expanding universe we’re talking to. There is no right way to do things, but there are definitely ways that are more right than others.
For instance, I may want some guidance on my career. Specifically, I may be desperate for a better paying job doing something I love to do. So do I ask the dreamworld for a job? Do I ask it to show me where to find this job? Do I ask if my profession is still right for me? How much do I want to know? How much guidance am I really prepared to accept?
Sometimes we do get very literal, simple, clear instructions in our dreams. In response to my question about finding a great job, I may have a dream that I’m walking down a street I don’t normally walk down, and I meet a friend who shows me into this incredible building which is filled with light. Maybe I take the hint and, following the scent of the dream, I walk down that street today. I might actually meet that friend, and we might go have a cup of coffee. In the course of our conversation it may come up that he knows of a great job opening that I’d be perfect for and he’ll put in a good word for me. So by virtue of acting on that dream suggestion, I find my way into the building filled with light.
This is a nearly literal dream response to a pretty specific question. I would venture to say that it represents the minority of dream responses from incubation, however. More common is the experience of asking for a job and getting a dream about my family, or a troubled relationship. This happened to a friend of mine who incubated a dream on what her next step professionally should be. The dream that came to her referred very strongly to her mother’s recent death, and it was clear from working on the dream that my friend needed to stop worrying about her job and take some time to grieve her mother’s passing. This was a message she was open to hearing, and it was helpful to her that the dream put her professional concerns in the context of everything else that was happening in her life. So if the dream we receive isn’t very clearly referring to our question, one possibility is that there are other things that need our attention before the dream question can be resolved.
Then there are instances where we ask for a dream and the response we get feels a bit like the vending machine just rejected our quarter. We may remember only garbled bits that confound our attempts to describe them. Or the dreams we get may take us on what seem like wild goose chases through strange landscapes, none of which appear related to our initial question. In these instances, it is always useful to work on the dream material even though it is not a simple answer to our question. If we have the patience and commitment, we can gain a lot by reflecting on why we asked the question we did, and which unconscious assumptions or habits the dream might be pointing to as the root of our problem.
Two things are most likely going on here. One is that the dream is placing our concerns in a broader context. The other is that the dream is commenting on the question itself.
As far as I can tell, it is these long, convoluted journeys which have the potential, if we stick with them, for the greatest increase in self-knowledge and personal transformation. Being a very stubborn person, I have of necessity become a fan of these long inner journeys, because sometimes they are the only way to whittle down my resistance to new and/or challenging ideas about who I am and where I’m going. If I keep at it, examining the dreams I get and rethinking my question, posing new questions and recording the results over a period of days or weeks, eventually I will have undergone the internal transformation necessary to solve my problem.
Time in this case is our ally, and our sense of urgency is our greatest stumbling block. Taking more time when time is running out flies in the face of the culture of stress and overwork that we are trying to survive in. But unless the dreams are coming to us as nightmares, which implies some urgency on their part to communicate with us, dreams are basically not in any hurry. They come from a time source that is not concerned with the fact that we have to pay our rent or mortgage by the first of next month. It is more important to the dreams that we figure out what questions are worth asking. They are always looking at the big picture, because they are the big picture.
So if we assume that incubated dreams are responding both to our question and to the nature of our question, we will get a whole lot more out of incubating dreams. Yet it remains a complex process and difficult to accomplish alone, because we’re trying to uncover our own assumptions while being unaware consciously that they exist. It is much easier to work on incubated material with another person or in a group, which brings us to a third problem with incubating dreams: the role of the dreamworker in assisting with dream incubation.
Third Big Question: How Do We Interpret What We Get?
It should be pretty obvious by this point that I am not coming to this subject from a quantitative perspective. Thank heavens I can be anecdotal rather than follow a rigorous methodology. It is not where my strengths or interests lie, but I have immense respect for those who can use the scientific method to learn more about dreams. And frankly, scientific inquiry itself is under fierce attack in this country by forces of fundamentalism, corruption and greed. Talk about wanting to cap that cosmic egg! Therefore, even the most militantly intuitive among us should support our colleagues in the academic and dream research communities.
That being said, being a dreamworker changes how we look at dreams. Our training expands our capacity to view dreams from many angles, so that we can reflect back to the dreamer as many facets of the dream as we can access. Along with training programs, and constantly working on our own and others’ dreams, we also enter a lifelong study led by the dreamworld itself, which sends us the dreams (and dreamers) that we most need to learn from. This continuous cycle of knowledge and reflection is what being a dreamworker is all about.
As dreamworkers, we face a question of alliance that is not always acknowledged, but shows up particularly when dealing with the obtuse, difficult-to-decipher dreams I mentioned earlier. The quandary is: are we on the side of the dream, or the dreamer? Is our goal to get the dreamer to realize certain difficult things presented by the dream, or do we want to focus on levels of meaning that the dreamer can understand?
The problem of alliance arises because of a feature of the human condition: we ask for things without knowing what it is that we are really asking for. There is a difference between what we think we want to know and what we are prepared to learn. In dream incubation, what we ask for is what we think we want to know. But when push comes to shove there are usually some key parts we don’t really want to know or aren’t ready to hear, and our dreams point these out as well.
Of course, central to the excellent IASD Code of Ethics is that each dreamer gets to decide what his or her dream means. Yet there are times when I feel my role is that of a mediator, trying to balance what the dreamer can hear with what I see in the dream. Because dreams come from a greater source than our waking consciousness, eventually they will have their way. But in human terms the changes that dreams demand can be wrenching. In the end, I always err on the side of the dreamer.
To this point, there is one piece of advice I always give to people asking me about dream incubation—and to everyone who uses fervent prayer at all. I suggest they include some sort of caveat in their prayer or question, along the lines of this prayer attributed to Socrates:
All-Knowing Zeus, give me what is best for me. Avert evil from me, though it be the thing I prayed for; and give me the good which from ignorance I do not ask.
What is the Way In? Where Does It Lead?
When I started writing this paper, I assumed that the idea of entering an inner realm through dreams was a generally understood concept. Then I had the good fortune to lead a workshop with a new group of people. We created a collage on the cover of a new dream journal as an aid for remembering dreams, and I led a simple visualization drawing a parallel between this external place where our dreams would be written and the internal space where our dreams come from. One of the women piped up, “what do you mean, ‘internal space’”?
My immediate answer (and thank goodness I had one) was “your heart.” The image of hope and other qualities dwelling in the human heart was immediately understood, and we went on. But for me this was a very important point, and it made me wonder just what I meant by the title for this presentation. What is the way in? Where is “In”, and why would we want to go there?
One of the attractions and paradoxes of dream incubation is that we are taking action in order to be still, and listen. It requires both intention and patience, like the best of all spiritual practices, and its rewards come when we are able to stay in that quiet place, listening, until something—let’s call it a dream—arises from somewhere else. That somewhere else is the “In” I am talking about. At the risk of alienating people who don’t like to view these things in religious terms, that still point is where we experience communion with the Divine. We can also call it the mythic realm, Dreamtime, the collective unconscious.
For me, dream incubation is a process that helps me know myself, and helps me understand and accept what is going on in my waking life. It is a process of putting dreams at the center of our spiritual life, through a ritual with the act of dreaming at its core. So for those of us who have eclectic tastes in ritual and spirituality, it provides a wonderful anchor for our observances.
And yet we don’t have to incubate a single dream to feel the connection and sanctity that a spiritual or creative practice affords. Every night, without any extra effort on our part, our minds dream as a way to funnel material from that inner still point out to our conscious awareness. Whether we pay attention or not, that built-in process of reflecting on and integrating our experience goes on as long as we are alive. We can lead perfectly satisfying, successful lives without worrying for one moment about where our dreams come from or whether that might be a nice place to visit.
So why would anyone bother adding complexity to their life by incubating dreams? The simplest answer is that sometimes our dreams tell us to. There is a very subversive element to dreams, they are always searching for ways to complicate our understanding of who we are and where we’re going. Maybe someday they will even convince me that speaking to the Multiverse might be a useful practice, but I certainly hope not.
In spite of all the difficulties inherent in incubating dreams, I have found it to be an immensely insightful, rewarding practice. I will probably continue incubating dreams and finding new ways of interpreting them for a long time to come. I highly recommend trying it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.