I have always had a very active “dream-life”. It is hard to actually measure this for sure but it seems that at least half of my sleep is dreaming. These would be the dreams that I am aware of or can remember in the morning. The dream recollection process is not something I often bother to do and I do not keep dream journals and probably never will. I take the same stance toward my dreams that the Grateful Dead took with their music. The reason they allowed even encouraged people to tape their shows was the attitude “we are done with it and you can do whatever you want with it”. An attitude greatly facilitated by a huge repertoire of tunes often performed with unique improvisation with each rendition. I view my dreams the same way – well that was interesting but it is over and I need to get on with the day and besides I have to really pee.
Though I have always spent a good part of my night from back to early childhood dreaming a lot these nocturnal adventures seem to be in sharper focus than ever these days. Perhaps that is due to the recurrent interruption of my REM sleep with the need to get up and urinate mid-dream. Usually I am able to go back to sleep easily and it seems I swear that the dream picks up where it left off. I often think, usually in a dense fog or semi-dream-state, how exhausting is this to revisit the same idiotic situation, aren’t we done yet?
My personal bias is that most pharmaceutical sleep aides are bad for you certainly if used frequently and particularly those that actually create an amnesiac state are not good for a healthy and vibrant dream life and may, at least in a transient fashion, contribute to waking memory loss issues. I try to live by the old Buddhist axiom that if you wake up and can’t get back to sleep it is actually a call to the cushion. Nothing like trying to meditate late at night in the dark to make you start to nod off in a hurry and for me it can be as effective as Ambien. The only time I have taken Ambien was on a transatlantic flight to Paris, which essentially resulted in me waking up in Paris feeling dopey, anything but rested, wondering at first how the hell I got here and second why no one was speaking English.
In poking around the ether a bit before writing this I was looking for a current theory on dreaming and I happened on an article from Scientific American from a few years back. A few sentences from that piece seemed at least somewhat applicable to my own dream life:
Dreams seem to help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are. Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This way, the emotion itself is no longer active. This mechanism fulfills an important role because when we don’t process our emotions, especially negative ones, this increases personal worry and anxiety. In fact, severe REM sleep-deprivation is increasingly correlated to the development of mental disorders. In short, dreams help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experiences with our emotions and memories.
Scientific American: July 26, 2011. Sander van der Linden
It seems to me that there is some heavy-duty Zen implications implied in this explanation that I will not ruminate too much on but just say we can’t always control the shit that happens to us but we can usually choose how we react emotionally to it. Apparently dreaming may be a great and safe way to address all sorts of unfinished waking business.
Let me relate a few of the general dream themes I have personally and you are all free to psychoanalyze them or not. I most often tend to pay them little heed. The closest I come to a nightmare these days is a recurrent dream I have about getting to the airport on time, needless to say I am frustrated at every turn and never do make the flight.
A dream I had repeatedly, now several decades in the past, was that I was going to be called on to fill in and play rhythm guitar for the Rolling Stones because Keith Richards was not able to make the show or perhaps was passed out back stage with a needle in his arm. I would awake from this in quite an agitated state just as Mick looked at me to bring the opening cords of Sympathy for the Devil or Tumbling Dice. Why this always involved the Rolling Stones and not the Grateful Dead is a bit of a mystery to me. Oh and by the way I can’t play a single cord on any type of guitar.
The only nasty type of childhood dream I really remember having involved being chased down a long hallway by some demon or the other and getting to a door that was always very big and inaccessible to me. The door of course required a key I did not have. This would seem to go on forever and never ended well.
The most vivid and intense dreams of my life followed the death of my partner David in 1995. These dreams reoccurred periodically for more than a year after his death and always had to do with my giving away his stuff and that dear old queen left me with a lot of stuff. I actually was slowly giving his things away to friends or charity so I suppose I had those dreams coming. He was never happy with the choices I was making in dispersing his estate.
I would say that overall my dreams these days are extremely mundane and boring and rarely ever a source of consternation while occurring or upon awaking. Often they involve things about work, like did I give the right drug to the right patient or did I wind up killing someone. Something that has apparently never happened since I still have a job. I suppose I should examine for a minute a why my dreams about filling in for Keith Richards were more disconcerting to me when they were occurring than making a medication error at work and killing someone.
The closest dreams ever come these days to being exciting are the rare sexual ones. Ironically these always end in a very frustrating manner with the much anticipated happy ending always just outside of my reach. And the age-old phenomenon of a nocturnal emission never happens. But I guess a guy can dream can’t he?