“To die, to sleep –To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.”
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
The above quote, which will be familiar to most of you, is from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. Hamlet is pondering on his famous question, “To be, or not to be.”
Hamlet has said elsewhere, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space-were it not that I have bad dreams.”
Poor Hamlet was beset with bad dreams. Many people have such nightmares. Many of us can relate to this. Perhaps you are being chased by a wild animal. Perhaps you are falling. There are any number of tortures you apply to yourself through the mechanism of your dreams.
If I sit and contemplate I can conjure up in my mind all manner of things. What it was like at the beach yesterday. I can rehearse that address I am going to give tomorrow. I can imagine/remember my daughter as a small charming child, despite the fact she is about to turn forty. But I am aware I am constructing these pictures in my mind. I can even imagine the sound of a clarinet. It is playing the slow movement from Mozart’s clarinet concerto. I have constructed the sound well enough that I know it is not an oboe or a trumpet. And if I try I can hear the melody progressing just as though I was listening to a recording. (I don’t know about you but I find it hard to attach too much of the orchestral accompaniment.) But it is still an impressive feat of mental construction.
Even in meditation when I can shut down all thoughts I am grounded by my bodily sensations. I can feel an ache in my back. My belt is too tight. I can hear the birds in the garden. I can smell the dish my wife is cooking in the kitchen. Without the distraction of thoughts I have heightened my physical awareness. I have quietened the mind so matter is currently dominating in the mind over matter stakes.
But what say I now start to fall asleep? Initially I pass into the hypnogogic state. This is the pleasurable condition between being awake and asleep. We are still somewhat aware of our surroundings but just starting to come under the control of our subconscious mind. This is where lucid dreaming seems to occur. At this stage you seem to be able to have some input into your dreams. Even if it seems to be a bad dream you are often aware enough to be able console yourself that “this is only a dream”! I suspect it is the pleasant experience of the hypnogogic state that makes people want to sleep. Certainly we are aware that our tiredness can be “cured” by sleeping, and we are motivated to sleep by the removal of that discomfiture. But the hypnogogic bliss exerts a positive pull on us as well.
Finally we fall asleep. Now we are disconnected from the anchoring that our sensations of our external world provide and true dreaming can start. We are now entirely susceptible to the fantasies of our subconscious mind. And I suspect, but can never truly know, that yours are as weird as mine! Consider this – however strange, discomforting, alarming or just plain loony the vista you see, it was entirely constructed by you. These people, some familiar and some unfamiliar are constructed from your memories and your imaginations. These landscapes and situations that seem so bizarre you have constructed for your own amusement, education or distraction.
When you ask someone a question in your dream, you already know the answer because it is your mind that provides the response.
Sometimes in your dreams you go to familiar places but they are no longer familiar. Sometimes you will go to a place that you know you are familiar with but in the morning recognise that it is only familiar because you’ve dreamed it before.
In dreaming we unlock our subconscious minds to fantastic feats of creativity. Not only do your dreams provide vast sources of entertainment, they provide a huge resource for creativity. Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from a dream (albeit somewhat enhanced by the input of opium) and wrote his famous poem Kubla Khan. The poem was never completed because in the act of recording the words that had come to him in his dream, someone came to the door. And once he dealt with his visitor he found the words conjured up in his dream had gone from his mind.
Or consider the story of Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, commonly known as Kekulé. He was struggling to understand the molecular structure of benzene. He dreamt of a snake swallowing its own tail. On waking he came to understand the structure of benzene comprised of six molecules of carbon bonded in a ring with (for the chemists among you) alternating single and double bonds with hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms with single bonds.
So, if like Hamlet we have nightmares, why are we doing this to ourselves? Research in the field of neuroscience tells us we know more than we think we know. Our rational minds are circumscribed such that they are only capable of dealing with limited information. (See for example Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book The Decisive Mind.) Yet our minds take in vast amounts of knowledge and store it subconsciously. We don’t access this store of information rationally, but every now and then when we need to make a decision we are guided by an emotional response informed by this storehouse of knowledge. We sometimes call this process “intuition”. Our nightmares access this information as well and are often signals and warnings to us beyond our rational comprehension.
But going back to my main thesis, how wonderful it is that in our dreams we can create other beings and other contexts so different from the so-called “real world’. We can conjure up people we have never met. We can go to places we’ve never seen. We can experience things to which we have never had any previous connection. And in our dreams these experiences are just as real as our everyday experiences.
But what if the One that is All, the collective consciousness of the universe had such a dream? Might not the outcome actually be the universe? Might not each sentient being reflect a little of that consciousness? I must confess this is something a little beyond me, but it is a project my colleague Dr Phil Harker has been exploring. Perhaps he might indulge us with some of his thoughts now and then to stimulate our thinking about such a possibility!
Let us look now at another quote from Shakespeare. At the end of The Tempest he had Prospero utter these lines
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Perhaps we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and who should know whether we are the creators or the created in such an enterprise?
Or consider the famous story of the Taoist sage Zhuang Zi of the third century BC.
“Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and seemingly unmistakably Chuang Chou. But on reflection he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the transformation of things”.
He conjectured further that life and death were like being awake and sleeping. “While a man is dreaming, he does not know that he dreams; nor can he interpret a dream till the dream is done. It is only when he wakes, that he knows it was a dream. Not till the Great Wakening can he know that all this was One Great Dream.”