Dreams, Redux

buddistBY John Price-Kabhir, the Buddhist Adviser

(This column follows from last month’s piece about dreams and dreaming.)

But dreams have a lightness about them. As a brick or stone carries weight, dreams carry no weight. Although the images in dreams are ethereal, the “things” of dreams do not have weighty substance. We float through our dreams. Even nightmares keep us one step from the gritty reality of waking life. Though they can torment us, they do not physically injure. It is only in imagination that dreams carry substance.

Pema Chodron, the great Zen nun philosopher, wrote of a recurring dream she’d had after a divorce. She was tormented by the divorce. Nuns weren’t supposed to divorce. She felt it as a weakness. In this dream, night after night, she was chased by a dragon. It never quite caught up to her, but she felt that if it did, she would be mangled or killed. Then, one night, when the dream was dreadfully vivid, just as the dragon cornered her and was about to grab her, she turned on it and screamed, “No! No, you cannot have me. Go away!” And sure enough, the monster was dispelled, gone, never to return. This is most vivid dreaming. But the key is the dragon never got her. Like a dream of falling, where the person falling would die if the dreamer hit bottom, because if she did, the sequence would end in death and the dreamer‘s end. We’re never killed in our dreams. If we had been, we’d never wake up!

The violence in dreams does not reach climax. I can think of no instance where I was physically injured by something in a dream, only terrified by what might happen. I might feel anxious or intense fear concerning some awful event in a dream, terrified. Never am I pummeled. I am injured, but I am never really physically hurt, but never am; in fact, I recall no dream actually bringing real pain. The pan in dreams is impending damage or deep disappointment. In a twisted way, dreams have a kind of solace in “what might have been“.

Oh yes, I desire this or that in a dream. A recurring dream I’ve had the past several years involved getting out of work at my former job and not knowing how to get home. Or, in another recurring dream, I desire to lead a group of people to a place and find myself lost. But I do not feel pain in this context. So in those ways, my wanting, my desire, brings want but no pain. While in these senses, dreams can be unkind, but they do not physically hurt me. So when we think of the Buddhist notion of desire as one of the major torments of life, dreams surely can bring that. And in the sense of being hurt by a “what if,” he lessons of dreams are kind in their own ways.

Like the dream about being frustrated about leading people home or to a desired place, I can most definitely see the lesson. In my unfulfilled desire to reach fulfillmet in a life goal never reached, the dream tells me about how I’d never led “my people’ to our appointed goal, the lesson is that I should have ever given up, no matter what the goal. I failed to lead the people to the promised land, to overcome the obstacles.

I have dreamed over and over of trying to find my way home. This very well might relate to not having an unhappy childhood This is truly archetypal, like the journeys of Ulysses. Many times I am a Don Quixote, ceaselessly, night after night, trying to find my way home from a long and arduous journey. No ironically, the journey is simply finding my way home from work. And when I am home, isn’t the same home. It’s a home I’ve left. I’ve given up, and upon returning home,  I went back to is an altered home. My son is gown up without me. My animals are dead. Dreams are not fulfilled as I thought they should have been. There’s a clear image in that, and it’s an image of why I turned to Zen. It’s sad.

Another dream, also about finding my way from “here” to “there” involves travel of an epochal nature. At times, I am with a special group of people who’ve been chosen to represent a strong force of humankind. We’re of all ages and represent a cross-section of young and old, science and humanities. We board a giant vessel designed to travel through all of earth’s climates and terrains. Our destiny is the North Pole, then back, quite slowly through all climates and environments. This great journey is completed and does brig us home, unlike the other more simple treks, Noah’s Ark?

Then, of course, there are the dreams of sex. Applying Freudian psychology to dreams, I conclude I do have issues with my parents, and I find I am not homosexual, if only desiring coupling with females is my goal. I’ll admit to having desires in dreams that would be inappropriate in waking life, for there have been instances where my sexual desire involves women with whom sex would be inappropriate by normal mores.

I sat with my mother in hospice for two solid months while she died. She seemed to be dreaming, and talking in her delirium. One night, when it seemed she was just on the verge of dying, she talked of sitting at a dinner table. In a curious sense, out nurse that night was rather grossly offended because she was a born again Christian, and my mom definitely was not. One of the guests did not show. “I know who‘s missing,” she lamented. “It’s Larry, we’re waiting for Larry. When he comes, then we can eat.” It made her very sad that Larry wasn’t there. Yet it was still weeks before she died. Larry, a real person long dead, was missing and we couldn’t begin to eat before he arrived.

This vignette reminds my of my dream of cousin Tim. He’s just outside, on the other side of the window, out in the yard. I am aimlessly wandering inside the house. I can hear his voice, in a quiet whisper, complete with the unusual inflexion of his voice. The glass is dusty. I can see his image, smudged by the dust. And he’s speaking in a whisper, barely audible, but I can hear him and I know he wants me to come out. I want to join him, but there is no door. I can find no door before I awaken. Tim had died suddenly and unexpectedly just a few weeks before I started having this dream. Tim was the closest thing I had to a big brother. He shepherded me through all the manly rites of passage: driving a car, swimming, fishing, drinking beer, girls. In times where very important things a boy must do to become a man, Tim was there for me. Like my mom missing Larry (her brother in law) at her own Last Supper, I had a dream of missing my dear cousin Tim in an image associated with death – in a dream.

I use the Larry and Tim dream anecdotes to illustrate how significant dreams can be, even in their mysteries. I do not understand dreams, but I know they’re important, and they bring meaning through their unique veils, meaning telling us vagaries illustrating some obvious import and some confusing and too vague to make clear sense.

But dreams are exquisite. Think of life without dreams. It would be a life with much less mystery. Ah, the mystery of dreams. So very sweet in their own faces through the dusty window.

John Price – Kabhir, is an ordained Zen householder. I welcome your input at 920-558-3076;

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