In my dream I was outside, in a public place. There were no buildings. I saw a few trees in planters. A man stood talking to a group of people. I was one of them. We sat on rock benches and I felt I was in a class. The man talking was a teacher, a Socrates like character. I see the last page of a book. The teacher asks us about the last scene of a book. I’m only vaguely aware of the title of the book, but throughout the dream I struggle to grasp the title. Eventually my confused mind labels it The Great Gatsby. I turn to the back of the book and read the last scene.
“Hey, I don’t remember this scene, and I’ve read this book three times!” I exclaim without hearing my voice. There are only a handful of students around the teacher and we’re all quiet. The teacher pushes us for an answer again. I make a suggestion that I know is wrong and stupid as soon as I say it and the teacher gives some wise reply that shoots me down. In the dream it almost feels like I’m saying real words, or even reading real words, but really it’s only vague concepts and squiggles that look like words. Communicating in dreams is like telepathy.
I can tell there are two characters in the scene. I reread the scene again. For some reason an image of a giant lobster interrupts the dream and I flash on this idea. “One of the characters in the scene is God.” The teacher agrees and the other students start talking excitedly. I study and study the scene but can’t figure out what’s happening. Has a character died and gone to heaven and is talking to God? Or has God come down into the world to tell him something?
Then I have an image of a beautiful bassett hound running, with its huge floppy ears flying around its head. I don’t connect any meaning and all I feel is the desire to buy a bassett hound – could this be a form of subliminal advertising? Then I return to the outdoor classroom and struggle to make something out of the last scene again. We all make suggestions but the teacher isn’t happy but I feel somewhat pleased that I discovered that the mysterious character was God. The dream fades away and I awake.
It’s fascinating to play amateur scientist and try to discover how dreams work. I think there is a mind that experiences dreams that is different from the mind of the waking me. I call it the narrator. This narrator may be a mechanism that the waking me also uses, but I see “the me” of dreams separate from “the me” who is writing this. When you are in a semi-wakeful state you can observe this narrator in action. Random images will appear and bits of meaning will pop into your mind. Dreams appear to be built on a series of still images or crude moving images that the narrator comments on. The narrator makes up meaning for the images. The dream me acts on those suggested meanings.
Take for instance the dream above. I saw a man standing and with a handful of people sitting around him. The narrator informs me without words, “a teacher and his students.” That image could have been anything. The narrator sees the last page of a book and supplies, “the teacher wants to know the meaning of the last scene in the book.” The sleeping me, that is the mechanism of self-awareness, is very dormant but I relate to one of the students. The “me” in the dream isn’t aware of the narrator – it experiences the series of images and thoughts the narrator provides as a whole story.
On rare ocassions I’ve had vivid dreams where the waking “me” is the dream “me.” However, it’s an illusion. If the waking “me” tries to guide the dream it will destroy the dream. The sleeping “me” is passive and must watch the dream like a movie. If the “waking me” tries to think and override the narrator, the dream will fall apart and I’ll awake.
I think the narrator mechanism works in waking life too. If you are at a restaurant and see a young couple sit down nearby, the narrator might tell you, “See that couple, they are on their first date. See how they act nervous…” The narrator can be very convincing, even to the point where you believe it and think what you are seeing is real. This is why cops say they saw a gun when they didn’t. The narrator can see something and tell the cop it’s a gun. The narrator can be very powerful. The narrator thinks much faster than normal self-aware thinking.
Usually dreams relate to the previous days events, but the above dream doesn’t remind me of anything that happened yesterday. I was an English major in college, so the dream does make sense to me. I’m used to trying to figure out what books mean. I’m used to the anxiety of having a professor put pressure on a class to supply an answer. The Great Gatsby is a book that is taught a lot, and last week I read an article suggesting it was the great American novel. I have no idea why the lobster and bassett hound popped into the dream, but the narrator quickly used the one image and made it fit into the story. Maybe if the bassett hound would have stayed long enough the narrator would have made up a new story for the dreamer, a new dream.
Fiction and story telling seem to be at the heart of our minds. We look out at the world and see trees and mountains. It doesn’t take long before we’re making up stories about fairies living the in the trees and gods living on the mountains. Zen masters try to break their students of this habit – to see the world as it is without the stories, but that’s a very hard habit to break. Think of the war in Iraq. Imagine all the stories created by all sides of the conflict. Just think, the Sunnis and the Shiites are killing each other over stories made up thirteen centuries ago. It’s no wonder that some people believe that even our waking real world is a dream, a nightmare.
And finally, at a meta-level, notice how I can take tiny events in my life and turn them into a narrative structure. Observe the narrator.