Musings of an Aspiring Oneironaut: Emotions in Dreams

Tonight, I will remember my dreams.
Tonight, I will have many dreams.
Tonight, I will have good dreams.
Tonight, I will wake up within my dreams.
— Modified from Holecek, Dream Yoga

A couple days ago, my dream ended in a way that left me feeling unsettled and oddly self-aware. A doctor opened a boil on my arm, in the dream. The needle she used to lance it almost broke–bending and straining to break through the skin. When it popped through, there was magically no blood, but she reacted with concern as she pulled out several gobs of hardened … something which was inside. I woke from this experience with a start, and I immediately began thinking about whether I actually had any blemishes on my skin which were potentially infected.

When our fears play out in dreams, it’s easy to find deeper meaning in them upon waking. Personally, when I have a rough dream like that–one that doesn’t reach the fully fantastical realm of the nightmarish but strays from the generally more erratic and nonsensical content and emotional tone of normal dreams–I tend to continue feeling that emotional dread of the dream for some time after: hours or maybe even most of the day. However, is there really any deeper meaning to these events? Let’s look at how they work out in dreams.

It’s interesting to see how much of our dream landscape is colored by the tone of emotions. Without all the details of normal waking life (for instance, in dreams, you can’t read, and smells and sound seem absent, assumed, or perhaps, rare at best), emotion has an even greater weight than it does in daily life, and the charge of emotion seems to spiral out of control in the narrative–growing stronger as the narrative loops itself around the feeling. For instance, in my dream above, speaking to the doctor created an initial emotional reaction of concern, and the narrative suddenly revealed a boil on my arm. The doctor started inspecting it, and my concern became fear as she used a needle to lance it and even more so when the needle started bending through the prodding. The fear was realized when a bizarre medical scenario came to be upon lancing the boil, and then, I woke with a start, a paranoid fear having come to full fruition in a few moments of dream, a fear that had grown to a point which then colored my waking reality and was hard to shake.


Fear in dreams can quickly ramp up into horror story scenarios.

Another clear example is the standard dream scenario of realizing that you’re naked in public. Sudden concern and self-awareness becomes realized into full embarrassment and anxiety when a check reveals that you forgot your clothes at home. Another example are those dreams where you forgot about a test, paper, project at work, deadline, etc. In all of these, the initial concern is immediately fulfilled in the worst possible way, and the emotional tone ramps up, the whole story and sense of reality around it twisting in pace with the emotion.

Emotions play an interesting role in the landscape of dreams, and thinking on how they color our dreaming life offers an opportunity to see how our perspective, our perceived reality, can get pulled into an ever-growing and twisting spiral of reaction in our waking lives as well. Those walking the path would do well to ponder this.

May this bring you to a deeper engagement with your emotions in both your dreaming and your waking life.


Fear & Meditation

Disclaimer: I actually wrote this about 3 months ago, but it was in the middle of a dry-spell for posting, so I didn’t reflexively jump on to add it. Before that, I had thought of this topic and wanted to write about it several times for months but never got together the initiative to set it to paper. Here it is now.

One of the greatest changes that has come from my Buddhist practice in the last year or so is a new relationship with fear. I will have difficulty explaining the depths and nuances of this change, but writing is a dance with the indescribable that comes forth as artistry or a muddled attempt thereof in this case. Please, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, lend me graceful expression and smile with patience when I fumble through.

The best example that comes to mind is how I now experience spiders. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of spiders. How do you describe a phobia? It’s really difficult — in part, because not everyone has one. I know this because people have tried to logically rationalize me out of my phobia throughout my life. They speak to you as though this experience is based only on false premises, misapprehensions, that merely have to be rectified. Such a therapeutic strategy, while well-intentioned,  clearly does not understand the visceral and fundamental nature of this fear. You can’t just explain that the boogeyman isn’t real with a phobia because this isn’t based on some sort of belief. It hits fast and hard —  disarming thought before it can ever take place. Hence, there’s no chance to ever come to the conclusion that the little spider is tiny and harmless. Nope, its very existence is fear incarnate. There’s not even a gap to reach a judgment; there is merely and fully reaction. Pure reaction.

I remember moments from years ago when I noticed a spider near me in the room, and I either fled as quickly as possible, asking for help from friends and family or stood petrified, unable to escape this object of terror. That’s the part that’s really hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced a phobia. The object of horror is not something that is evaluated. It’s not a rational process in the sense of working through a line of reasoning. It’s more primal, more immediate. With spiders, it’s something about their shape, something about their movement. Their existence itself has been the embodiment of fear for me.

Let’s compare this with a recent experience with spiders after months of meditation and dharma study. About a week ago, I was in my garage. I plugged something into a socket in the wall. As I did so, the cord rustled some cobwebs along the wall below, and I saw a small black shape scurry through them. I looked down, and my immediate reaction was – “SPIDER!” I moved back just a bit, but then, I watched, transfixed. It had such a classic shape, and I leaned to the side to get a better look as it rushed to a small hole in the wood. I thought: “Wait! Is that a black widow?” Then, I paused, uncertain as I looked for the telltale splotch on its thorax. “Maybe, it’s a brown recluse,” I surmised, knowing that they live in this region in such conditions. I decided that I’d better be careful grabbing things off the shelves in the garage, but at the same time, I felt grateful to have seen this rare and beautiful creature as it lived in its dark, cozy corner. I wondered at what fear I must have caused it — invading its space as a giant with bright lights, even if only briefly.


Notice, there was still a certain amount of reaction but only enough to readjust awareness to the situation at hand, and I still have the caution of knowing that I shouldn’t go grabbing and petting spiders. However, I am not terrified of them any longer. In them, I see the wonder of millions of years of evolution, of the entirety of the universe’s history. They are intricate and beautiful, a natural masterpiece and as wondrous as all of the mysterious unfoldings of existence.

How have I reached such a different perspective? Meditation. I’ve spent hours focusing on my breath, consistently unplugging from my stream of thoughts and reactions. I’ve never directly faced these particular fears in meditation although I’m an admirer of Chöd and would love to cultivate that practice. Instead, I’ve meditated on my mind and on impermanence. This has brought about a gradual dissolution of my reactivity in general. However, it is much harder to let go of anger and perceived slights of ego. That’s something I hope will find its own path of liberation with continued practice.

May this inspire others who have dealt with their own overwhelming fears, even if its merely a sporadically encountered phobia.


Spiritual Libertarianism

Here’s yet another set of pages from my Morning Pages. I started the practice just under 3 months ago, and I have almost filled the journal I bought. Amazingly, I’ve flipped through it recently and have found some very profound stuff. I don’t want to share much of it, but I’ll continue to share here when I think there’s something that fits well in this space.

I just floated away in thought. I was thinking about a video a friend sent me yesterday. It was a graduation speech by a famous comedian. My friend seemed inspired by it and wanted to know what I thought. It was… Well, I summed up his stance with what I have been thinking of as “spiritual libertarianism”. It’s kind of the norm in the New Age types with whom I used to spend time. Basically, it’s one that holds that the universe is here to provide whatever ask of it, and if I just ask hard enough, dream strongly enough, and believe, my wishes will be granted. The emphasis here is on myself above all else. The second but equally pronounced emphasis is on my desire.

Spiritual materialism in this instance has a brutally physical aspect. If I’m virtuous in the manner of asking right and showing up right, the universe will give me what I want. I suppose that there is a psychological materialism involved as well. “I’m successful because I dreamed big and have faith in the universe.”

Ironically, the comedian warns of the ego, when this entire line of reasoning is completely ego-driven. It’s all about how “I” can realize “my” dreams.

From such a stance, lip service is paid to others, but it seems to be passed over in a breath. I can do well by them by thriving, or I can thrive by giving them what they want. Either way, the emphasis is on I, and neither version is even close to the utter openness and connection of true giving. Separation is the modus operandi of spiritual libertarianism. Even in a community of such types, the emphasis is on how each person is an autonomous individual, and the group is a hodgepodge of these self-interested egos. A sangha, this is not.

Finally, he also spoke on love and fear as opposites. Hope and fear are opposites. You could broaden it and say desire and aversion are opposites, but those are both tied with the suffering of samsara. Choosing one over the other does not change that dynamic. Also, what is love here? Is it just a call to choose what I want rather than run away because I’m afraid of something? If that’s all, it’s not as profound as it first sounds. If it’s meant as choosing to do things for those I love or for the things I love, then it remains exclusive or self-interested. If that’s the case, it retains a dynamic of separation and seclusion and is not dramatically different than the dynamic at hand.

I actually just added the last couple sentences. Here’s what I would like to add further:

A spiritual belief system in which everyone is out for themselves, ultimately, is a pretty consumerist, materialistic, and empty cosmology. If the universe and my existence in it are all about me, then why are there billions of other people and countless other lifeforms, planets, and atoms out there that I have to live with? Is my good really the greatest good, and is a stance that promotes a certain “every man for himself” really a deep view of how everything is intertwined? There’s no intertwining evident here at all.


Indra’s Net: All is intertwined interdependence

Ultimately there are many questions that aren’t even asked at all here. For instance, let’s start with: what is the self? Perhaps, that presumes too much. Asking the question in that way already presumes a certain form to the answer. Let’s go even more basic: is there a self? We have to ascertain some sort of answers to these two questions at the very least before we can say that the self’s gratification in desire, no matter how great the goals or dreams, is the path through life. Otherwise, such a stance is empty assertion, nothing more. As those questions were not even addressed, I find such a stance precisely that: empty, unanalysed assertion.

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 4: Depression’s World

Heartbreak changes your entire experience. The world is literally different.

One of my favorite philosophers, Wittgenstein, said in his Tractatus (the following quote is my translation; I add the German original as a footnote to the post along with the original’s section number):

If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not that which can be expressed through language.
In short, the world must then through good or bad willing become an entirely different one. It must, so to speak, increase or decrease as a whole.
The world of the happy person is a different one than that of the unhappy person. [1]

Wittgenstein tells us here that the “world”–for him, the set of everything that is the case: the collection of all facts [2]–isn’t changed by a negative or positive perspective. Happiness doesn’t change the fact that 2+2=4, that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or that the shirt I’m wearing is blue. However, our experience of these facts as a whole, the world, changes in totality when we’re happy or sad–the limits of the world change. That same blue shirt is seen through two different sets of eyes, as it were.

This explication might beg the obvious question: “How could it be otherwise?” It may seem self-evident after the above discussion, but we regularly act as though those emotional states come from out there in the world rather than our own evaluation and reaction to it. We act as though emotions are just another fact amongst that totality of facts, not something that alters them as a particular perspective of the facts. Notice that I just pointed to the word “evaluation”. Wittgenstein would tell us that evaluation has nothing to do with the set of facts that is the world. Facts are facts. They can come in any order we want as the propositions that are the case. They don’t have any inherent value in themselves. There isn’t any inherent meaning or value to the fact that my shirt is blue. Evaluation stands outside the facts. [3]

This may seem an overly philosophical assertion for a post, so let’s put it differently with a quote from a Tibetan Buddhist:

The truth in this statement becomes clear when you pay attention to the inner processes that produce emotional states: you literally dream them up through a complex interaction of thoughts, images, bodily states, and sensations. Emotional reactivity does not originate “out there” in objects. It arises, is experienced, and ceases in you. [4]

This quote brings us back to a more grounded understanding of what has been said so far: the world out there is as it is, yet my reactions to it arise in myself–they are not part of the facts of all, no matter how much they feel to be, but they do change my experience of those facts. That blue shirt is neither hideous nor handsome in itself–those are evaluations, emotional reactions within me.

Now, to return to the emotion at hand: depression. Moods are the most pervasive of emotional filters which shape our experience of the world. They color not only one interaction or glance in the mirror of that blue shirt–they color everything. There’s wisdom to the saying: “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses”. This is what is really at stake with Wittgenstein’s final lines in the quote: The world of the happy person is different from that of an unhappy person. [5] Anyone who has undergone an experience of depression–and it is most definitely a going-under and something that is undergone without choice– will know that the world no longer is the same. Everything feels bereft of meaning, cold, foreign, lonely, empty, meaningless and/or pointless. In depression, all hopes have been dashed, and it appears both as though it was saccharine and naive to have ever hoped at all and that there is no reason to ever hope for anything again.


Perhaps some would disagree with my description anchoring depression on the loss of hope, but I would describe the terrain of depression as a kingdom full of castles made of crushed hopes and dreams built upon the ground of hopelessness with a substrate of meaninglessness. Such a description fits well with both Beck’s cognitive triad–the depressed person’s view of self, world, and future become completely negative and hopeless of change–as well as the lived experience of time in depression–one of events coming forward and washing over you rather than actively moving towards your own goals and meanings. These are theories learned from my days as a psychology student, but the description and theories go along with my own personal experiences of depression as well.

The hopelessness of depression has a particular flavor in heartbreak. Not only does the world seem bleak, but in addition, there are constant points of comparison with another person, a life once had, a particular set of hopes and ideas lost. These comparisons can haunt entire days and wake you from deep sleep. Normal routines suddenly take on a dark glaze of loss that defies any attempt to ignore it or get around it. You might try to deny it through intensive storytelling or a rebound relationship or to distract yourself with booze or other means, or maybe, you won’t be able to try such coping behaviors at all and will instead spend night after night bawling your eyes out while watching movies on the couch. However, extreme measures are required to deny or ignore the loss of a person, the loss of a life–the world of one who is heartbroken is different than the world of one who is happy.

The heartbroken world is a dark and hopeless one, indeed, but the loss of hope offers the opportunity to approach life differently altogether. Hope and fear (they’re opposites and come together–two sides of the same coin. In hoping for something, I also carry fears of what the world will be like without that hope coming true) keep life in a game of ups and downs of samsara–a game of suffering through the attachment of desire and aversion. A broken heart allows the opportunity to develop a tender connection of compassion for the world outside of your own story of your hope and your fear. Put hope and fear aside and open yourself to the world just as it is rather than your evaluation of it. It’s truly a golden opportunity to realize authentic happiness rather than continuing to live in a world based on grasping for hopes and running from fears. This is the first steps of working with depression in practice and in stepping beyond its emotional terrain.

The word in Tibetan for hope is rewa; the word for fear is dopa. More commonly, the word re-dok is used, which combines the two. Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. This re-dok is the root of our pain. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.

In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something: they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.

Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?

We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge. We can’t just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.

This is where renunciation enters the picture–renunciation of the hope that our experience could be different, renunciation of the hope that we could be better. [6]

May this help others find their own empowerment and open possibilities in the barren lands of depression.

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 3: Wounds
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 5: Depression – Experience & Practice

1 §6.43 Wenn das gute oder böse Wollen die Welt ändert, so kann es nur die Grenzen der Welt ändern, nicht die Tatsachen; nicht das, was durch die Sprache ausgedrückt werden kann.
Kurz, die Welt muß dann dadurch überhaupt eine andere werden. Sie muß sozusagen als Ganzes abnehmen oder zunehmen.
Die Welt des Glücklichen ist eine andere als die des Unglücklichen.
2 Tractatus–§1 Die Welt ist alles was der Fall ist. §1.1 Die Welt ist die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen, nicht der Dinge. §1.11 Die Welt ist durch die Tatsachen bestimmt und dadurch, daß es alle Tatsachen sind. §1.12 Denn, die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen bestimmt, was der Fall ist und auch, was alles nicht der Fall ist. (My translation: §1The world is everything that is the case. §1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not the totality of things. §1.11 The world is made certain through the facts and due to them being all the facts. §1.12 Because: the entirety of facts makes certain what is the case and what is not the case.)
3 See §6.4 and §6.41 of the Tractatus. I feel they are a bit too heady to include here.
4 Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche & Mark Dahlby, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, Kindle edition, loc. 1552.
5 For my fellow philosophers, compare all this with Heidegger’s discussions of Befindlichkeits–mood’s–impact on our understanding of the world in Being and Time.
6 Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, pp. 40-41.

The Waking Dream

We grasp
This cannot go…”

Yet every moment
Comes & Goes
Seasons change
The world turns
Days are born & die
Everything passes

Like a dream,
The substantiality
–an illusion
With focus
This ephemeral emptiness

Figments of experience
Life = Dreaming dreaming dreaming
(That is: dream dreaming itself)
There is nothing to grasp onto
Not even yourself
What security do you seek?
Certainty in the face of death?

Even those
Embracers of “change”
Declaring its greatness
Its wholesomeness
Move on only
To their next set of certainties
Another structure
To cling onto
A shelter in the storm?
There is no storm.
That fear
–just another part of the dream

One line above reminded me of this song: