I’m aware that I’m sticking my neck out here. I just had one of those flashes of inspiration that could as easily be baloney as brie, but I want to stay with it if I can until it becomes clearer.
I awoke from a dream—if you can call it that—a frustrating jumble of images and situations that never became coherent, like watching out the window of a subway as the train sped past a station without stopping. There was not even a quick glance at anything recognizable. The feeling was teeth-gritting exasperation, and it lingered as I became conscious of my bedroom and the faint glow of dawn at the windows. And of my arm, which had been hurting most of the night just enough to interfere with my sleep—and, it seems, with my dreams.
A lot of people have speculated on the purpose of dreams in our lives, usually focusing on the content. Didn’t an ancient Hebrew king have somebody tell him what his dream meant? Sigmund Freud and Edgar Cayce wrote whole books about what our dreams signify. More careful researchers have speculated that the purpose of dreams is to allow our minds to organize the impressions and sensations we experience during the day into a gigantic database called memory, useful (sometimes, anyway) for discerning patterns by which we come to understand this bizarre thing we call conscious life.
Even the sometimes weird and troubling dreams we all have are efforts to make sense out of disconnected bits and pieces of experiences—the conversation we had with someone yesterday, the television commercial from last night, the quick glimpse of a car going past the house, a bit of half-heard conversation from the next room. We may think we’re in charge of our minds, but most of its activities are as autonomous as those of our endocrine system. If we are in control of anything, it’s only the tip of a giant, unconscious iceberg.
In my meditation practice, I’ve become aware of some of this independent operation of my mind. As I’ve allowed my thinking to slow down—and that is more difficult to do than one would think—I’ve sometimes noticed fragments bobbing to the surface like bubbles in a still pond. The fragments may be quick images, such as someone’s face disconnected from any context, or a few spoken words in a voice I may or may not recognize, or a phrase of music. These fragments appear to be totally random, and usually I cannot relate them to anything else. Because my purpose in meditating is not to make sense of anything but simply to witness, I don’t grab onto any of these fragments, but simply watch them come and go. This particular state of awareness itself comes and goes, as actual sounds in the room intrude, or an itch appears on my nose, or some other distraction pulls at my mind.
Remembering the experiences of my mental “pond,” I have constructed a kind of theory about it. These fragments are generated more or less continuously throughout our lives, except perhaps during our deepest, dreamless sleep states. While we are awake, they trigger thoughts and full-scale memories—the stuff of consciousness. Some other part of our mind collects them into strings, or perhaps takes one and runs with it, looking through the database for related information. “Day dreams” are just that—stories we spin in our heads while we go about other activities, continually sifting and sorting from the deluge of fragments generated from our memory banks along with all the sensory inputs from our ears and eyes and skin and muscle. While we sleep, the same process continues, but with less sensory input and less conscious direction from our “thinking” brain.
As it seems to me, this is a story-telling function, built into our brains at some point in our evolution after we developed language, a way of organizing our experiences into useful conceptual structures. Making sense of life, whether it’s in the broad brush strokes of abstraction or learning to tie our shoes, involves gathering the bits together and telling a story that works for us. It works when no large distractions appear, such as the knot that we find in the shoelace, or the word that we can’t remember as we write, leaving us, for the moment at least, helpless.
So what was wrong with my dream this morning? Why was I left feeling frustrated and somehow helpless? Pain, I think. My shoulder, slowly healing from surgery, generates pain almost continually, awake or asleep. During the day, as long as I don’t ask it to do more than it can, its pain gets pushed aside in my consciousness as I go about my other activities. I’m only barely aware of it most of the time. At night, it still hurts, and my night-time story teller is less able to ignore it. In the past, before all this with my shoulder, I’ve had dreams of being crippled, or of some part of my body being missing, and I wake up and find I was lying in an awkward position, so that my foot or some other part had gone to sleep. My dreaming mind had incorporated the sensations (or lack of them) from my body into the story it was telling itself. This morning, the distraction was too much. The story got interrupted over and over, and the story couldn’t come together at all. That’s happened a lot of times in my waking life, especially when I’m trying to write.
Most people agree that mankind is a story-telling animal. It’s a built-in capability—no, not just capability, but compulsion. Among other things, it serves to organize our minds so that we can not only understand our experiences but extrapolate from them to something beyond. When we cannot do that, even in our dreams, we suffer.
My experience this morning was frustrating. But look what happened—I made a story about it!
Donald Skiff, August 22, 2002