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what about dreams?

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Last night’s nightmare was set in a strange house which appeared to be my home. People arrived for dinner singly, in pairs and small groups; one man announced that 21 more were on their way. I welcomed them as neighbours from the community where I’d lived for 21 years. While everyone gathered in the dining room I went to the kitchen, only to find fridge and cupboards empty, with neither food nor drink, nor cutlery, glasses, and plates in sight. Guests soon grew restless and some came to the kitchen to ask what was going on. I woke up in panic.

The first thing I did was to assure myself this was a dream. Then, as they day unfolded, my mind tried to make sense of the experience by looking for possible subconscious messages. The most likely explanation was that this was about separating from friends and neighbours. Many had known me as the Bread Man who sold artisan loaves at the farmers’ market and gave the proceeds to the food bank. This dream, I decided, was my psyche’s way of processing of change, separation, and loss (realizing that other interpretations might be similarly plausible). 

Viewing dreams from a Buddhist perspective, I turned to the Verse of the Diamond Sutra in our monastery’s chant book. It reminded me that everything changes, nothing lasts; that such distinctions as Me, Psyche, Dreams, and Reality are illusory.

A star at dawn,
a bubble in a stream,
a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
a flickering lamp,
a phantom and a dream,
so is the fleeting world.

My monastic teacher once described nightmares as wake-up calls. The way I understand her view (today) is that dreams, just like the 1000 other events that occur throughout the day inside and outside of our awareness, are just that: momentary impressions. What makes nightmares stand out is that they point to something important. It matters little what they point to than to heed their call to awaken from my existential slumber.

image: “Banquet of the gods” by Frans Floris (1550).


8 responses »

  1. Dreams leave us always in wonder – are they drawn out from assorted memories or something more? reading what you wrote brought these thoughts:

    your guests in your house were those from your community. the community you called home for the last 21 years.

    a home filled over those years no doubt with heartbreak, love, tears, and lots of laughter – and always you were surrounded by wonderful people, a community of people who care about you.

    as to bare cupboards and being known as the “bread man”. We all earn our bread, so to speak, many different ways thoughout the course of our lives. What we were (known as) to someone, that remains a part of us. But what we are known as and what we will be known as to someone – that speaks to the present and to the future – to change and to possibilities.

    • thanks, nicole, a rich tapestry of possibilities. the dream repeated itself in anotyher form 2 nights later. this time i asked the attendant to sell me a ticket so that i could catch a ferry. he was pleasant enough but simply refused my request. i begged and pleaded, even had a fit and demolished his desk. still he wouldn’t budge. when i finally ran to the ramp without a ticket, the attendant there was again polite and then pointed to the ferry as it pulled out without me.

  2. Just as the 1000 other events that occur in our lives are momentary impressions, so are dreams. And, just as we can learn and gain deeper understanding from the events in our life, so can we from our dreams. I have been working with dreams for 20 years, for me it is a form of spiritual practice and a way of learning about myself, integrating the disparate parts of myself and thus becoming more whole…becoming more of who I am in essence…

    I am constantly in awe at what the dream can reveal. Always, the symbols that appear in dreams are exactly the right ones to convey what our unconscious is wanting us to become aware of. They reveal the thing in us that is wanting to be seen, engaged with, or be expressed – even if our conscious self does not want to see, engage with or express it!

    I have learnt over time that any dream is a gift, even if at first it seems like a ’nightmare’ – it is only that the dream is taking an extreme form in an attempt to really grab my attention – as you say, Peter, a wake up call. And, more often than not, that which is fearful – the grotesque monster, terrifying pursuer, stranger in the dark – if engaged with, will turn out to be a great ally and will hold great energy and wisdom.

    • yes, fiona, each dream remembered for a purpose (with so many others sinking back into the muddy soup of forgetting). the ones that stick serve an extra purpose. see my follow-up dream above (reply to Nicole). both “events’ continue to wash through me, like a koan. no straight answers, no simple solutions.

      • peter, your dreams conjure up a Ryokan style poem in me…with the last line left for you to complete… (notice your first response, most often the relevant one!)

        The old ferry has left without me
        In my new home the cupboard is bare
        Now is the time to…..

  3. Like Fiona, I too see dreams as a spiritual practice. I hesitate to interpret dreams for others – symbols it seems to me are unique to each person. However, when someone else’ dream comes my way, and I ‘resonate’ with it, I see it as a gift and interpret it for myself.

    Thus, in Peter’s dream, 21 is a significant number for me. In Europe, 21 was traditionally the age at which an apprentice, indentured to his Master at age 14, completed his Masterpiece, and on having it accepted, became a ‘freeman’ or Journeyman, free to pursue his craft on his own account. More prosaically, 21 was when males – previously subject to a home curfew – were given the ‘key of the door’ of their parents house and were free to come and go at will. So, they were no longer quite so subject to their parents’ control.
    Thus 21, for me, would represent freedom and with it responsibility and maturity – coming of age.

    And the empty cupboard would represent the price of freedom – in this case, no longer being able to rely on my parents ‘cupboard’ to feed and sustain me, but having start from scratch, and having to go out and fend for myself. Not surprisingly, this could induce momentary panic – a nightmare!

    I will sit with this dream and allow the symbol of the 21 guests to manifest itself. What immediately comes to mind is the biblical story of the man who put on a party, but his guests all excused themselves, so he sent his servant out to round up anyone they could find to take the place of the invited guests. So again, like the empty cupboard, the symbol would be for me not to rely on others, but to build self-reliance and non-attachment.

    Peter’s picture of the party looks kind of fun – hardly a nightmare. The only unhappy ‘person’ is the ‘animal’ cushion that the man is sitting on – at least it looks like some kind of shaggy dog to me. 😉

    • what IS he sitting on? kindly note the gender imbalance in the painting. malcolm and i have since met (by chance): thank you for your wisdom!!

  4. Oh, Peter, I can’t for once agree with you. To me, an Aries, the gender balance in the picture is just right!

    And it was lovely to meet you so fortuitously today, and in your presence to feel so reassured and comforted. Thank you.

    Peter, I love the follow-up to your dream. So simple. So elegant. In my interpretation – if it was my dream, of course – I remind myself that I am all the players and all the action too. So, I am both the polite but firm attendant and the ‘You’ throwing a temper tantrum because I can’t get my own way (so familiar), and trying to get aboard the ferry any way I can.

    For me it would be my ‘Higher Self’ saying: No it’s not your time to go. You cannot leave and cross over the river/sea (Lethe?). There’s more for you to do here still. Your time will come. But not now. And you know, that for me is both reassuring and frustrating at the same time. 😉


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