The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
by Jalal Al-Din Rumi
-from The Essential Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks
Sleep gets a bum wrap. Through the lens of our productivity-oriented culture, sleep is time wasted, time you could be ‘doing something’. While the Pandemic has tempered this outlook for some, for many it’s still a way of life.
We used to think our brains went quiet during sleep, but now know this is not true. Our brains are very active while sleeping, and sleep deprivation has major (documented) consequences for our health.
Sleep as synonym for unaware or unconscious is another matter – as when we sleepwalk through life, live on automatic pilot, oblivious to beauty, wonder, deep love – or profound loss.
Our hearts and minds have great capacity for aliveness, but we sometimes (or often) betray ourselves with addictions, rationalizations, dissociations and willful looking away. In this sense of the word sleep, the poetic injunction, Don’t go back to sleep is most powerful.
Ironically, one of the greatest vehicles for waking up is our dreams.
Some dreams literally knock us awake: we hear a loud knock at the door, get a knock on the head, get electrocuted (this really happened to me in a dream; it was quite painful). Other dreams are more figurative and poetic, but no less heart-stopping. What we are urged to wake up to varies: often it’s about feelings we’d rather not feel, a life predicament we’ve tried to ignore, a nasty habit, or an unlived potential.
As a psychotherapy intern, I dreamt: I am sleeping in a clinic office. I wake to find both my supervisors asleep and cannot rouse them… I am alone, those who are meant to help me asleep, unconscious. On waking, I revisit my childhood, where I learned to be self-reliant, the adults around me ‘asleep’ to my needs… A part of me slowly wakes up to a repetition that is beginning to play out, yet again …… I ask myself how it feels to be awake when they are sleeping? I feel frightened and lonely, but this time I heed the dream. I feel my aloneness, and reach out for help.
In another, dream, I wake within the dream to look in a mirror. In the mirror, I see that my hair is cut in a different style, frosted silver like many of the female role models I most admire. A friend is with me in the dream. She tells me, “Clearly you have undergone a transformation: whether it is good or not I am not sure”… Our friends and family may not be so happy about our awakenings. When we wake up, it changes the status quo.
Sometimes dreams present us with other beings or creatures who are sleeping. A little boy and a black dog are curled up together asleep. Is this a healthy sleep? Is it time for them to wake? I imagine being the little boy- and the little dog. I step into the dream and feel the lusciousness of their snuggly sleep, a sleep of communion, not the drugged sleep of Snow White and the Poisoned Apple.
In other dreams I’ve wondered about a Poisoned Apple: I am in Cuba in a hospital, so very tired, I want to sleep, but wonder within the dream if my desire for sleep reflects my need for restoration, or is a result of poisoned milk. This dream helped me distinguish true tiredness from the haziness of dissociation and despair- something much more pernicious.
Here is a full blown poisoned apple dream: an envied acquaintance (who has given herself permission to live louder and wilder than I have allowed myself) is lying in my bed moaning with pain. I believe she has cancer. I instruct a nurse to give her an injection of morphine- a very high dose. In the dream I tell myself I am doing this to ease her pain.
As I awake, in the breeze of dawn, I recognize my impulse as homicidal not compassionate. Dreaming of myself administering the poisoned apple helped me wake to the depth of my own pain and self-sabotage.
If we didn’t sleep, we couldn’t dream. You’d think Psyche might take a supportive view of sleeping within our dreams. But most of the time, our dreams don’t want us to sleep (within a dream), and dreams go to great lengths to wake us up when ‘dream egos’ decide they’d like a nap. I recently reviewed hundreds of dreams in my files, both my own and those of my clients and was stunned to recognize how frequently dreams take action to interrupt a dreamer’s attempt to sleep within a dream. ‘Obnoxious’ dream figures enter the scene talking loudly, dogs appear to lick the dreamer’s face, radios blare, and telephones ring. When the sleepy dreamer picks up the phone she hears a voice on the other end telling her emphatically “ Make sure you have your own life!”.
Often, the dreamer resists these attempts, indignant about those who interfere with her plans. That’s when the dreams great really funny, really creative: The dreamer tries to remove the radio’s batteries and the radio bursts into flames. A man enters a room where a dreamer is trying to sleep through her therapy appointment and and asks her if he can put stacks of paper on her back. He uses humorous hyperbole to emphasize how inert she has become to her feelings. This finally wakes her up, at least a little bit.
Take a moment and reflect on your own dreams. How often do you, as the dreamer try to go back to sleep within your own dreams? How often do you wake within a dream? What do you wake to? As we awaken in our dreams, we may suddenly find ourselves in that place where the two worlds touch…
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Keren Vishny originally trained as a physician, and practiced Internal Medicine for 10 years before retraining as a psychotherapist and NaturalDreamwork practitioner and teacher. Her exploration of her own dream has led to the re-emergence of her poet, in hibernation since age 14. She is affiliated with the CG Jung Center in Evanston, as well as the Marion Woodman Foundation.