I am a devotee of dream interpretation, a gaga-brained, cymbal-clanging, dancing-and-clapping Hare Krishna singing its praises in the streets, oblivious as to whether anyone thinks I’m a fool. If you know how to read dreams, if you track them diligently, if you learn how to interact with them, they offer a perspective into your current state of being like nothing else. And, provided you don’t have a personality disorder or other mental issue that requires professional guidance, if you do it right you can conduct your own psychotherapy right from the comfort of your bed.
I began tracking my dreams at the turn of the century, when I was developing Hatter, my still-controversial and un-produced riff on the Mad Tea Party scene from Alice in Wonderland. You cannot interpret Lewis Carroll’s seminal masterpiece without delving into the subconscious. In my version, Matt Hatter, the unapologetic anti-hero who is the world’s greatest fashion designer and image maker, lives in a converted theater that has no fixed art, just massive video projections on screens that move throughout the film/performance, hypnotically drawing the viewer into Hatter’s world. In the center of the space is a pool of water.
The motifs that play on the screens, as well as the pool, come from the interactions I was having with my dreams during Hatter’s year-long gestation process. It was the longest gestation of anything I’d created up until then. I was terrified of Hatter. I feared for my sanity when confronting it, and had to induce psychosis with drugs to write it, as Carroll must have.
Anaïs Nin summed up my painful gestation and birth process with almost everything I do beautifully in this quotation from a letter to a seventeen-year-old protégé:
Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
I don’t agree that “it always balances them.” I think there are plenty of artists and philosophers who have stepped over the edge, never to return, as I almost did; although Nin might argue that even the act of vanishing beyond the horizon is balancing.
Internet access to good dream interpretation was extremely limited back then. I had to rely on printed books I found at Barnes and Noble, most of them dodgy crypto-spiritual nonsense that, at best, gave both a pseudo-Freudian interpretation as well as a divination definition from the ancient Romans, or another culture riddled with oracular superstitions.
From one of the more sensible books written by a psychologist I learned that the pool represented my subconscious, which made a lot of sense, until I realized that all dreams represent some aspect of the subconscious. Dreambible.com, my new go-to source for reasonably reliable dream symbol interpretation, tells me that a swimming pool “symbolizes comfort and acceptance of negativity or uncertainty in your life. You have come to terms with certain issues and they don’t bother you if you have to think about them.”
This makes more sense to my state of mind and to what was occurring around me at the time I was dreaming of pools. While Hatter was moving forward with more excitement and encouragement from industry professionals than anything I’d created before, my producing partner and primary financier at the time was also an extremely negative and difficult person, what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls a “crazymaker.” This destructive, draining character is someone many artists keep in their lives to avoid actually accomplishing their potential; you are focused on him and his mountainous-molehill dramas rather than the creation of art. As the project advanced, he threw everything he could in my way to stop its progress, while seeming to foster it as well through patronage.
I didn’t know then that I had the king of crazymakers in my life, but my subconscious was processing still it. The recurring dreams about swimming pools were a reflection of my acceptance of him and the working conditions that a partnership with him had created: I was accepting of the negativity as a necessary part of moving my career forward. Everyone in entertainment knows to yes the money people as much as possible, to weather the capriciousness and petty tyrannies until you can bear them no more.
That book might have pegged the swimming pool wrongly, or not as precisely as Dreambible.com, but it did contain a single interpretation of a symbol that kicked me over the edge into becoming a grinning, prancing goon for the divinity of dreams. A friend who had been battling leukemia for most of his adult life, who was, at the time I was discovering dreamwork, battling yet another soul-crushing round of chemo, believing he was going to die any day, told me he had recurring dreams about turtles. When I looked it up for him in my one somewhat-reliable book, it told me that this was a common dream for people with chronic illnesses. Dreambible.com agrees:
Turtles have a tendency to show up in the dreams of very sick people or those facing death. This is because their health problem is so dangerous that they feel the need to isolate themselves from anything that could compromise their sensitive state. The turtle’s tendency to hide in their shell then reflects concern for their problems at the expense of all else.”
Yes, cancer turtles sold me on the validity of dream interpretation.
Last night I dreamed I was in a bedroom with a bunch of fellow Ameropeans, nobody I recognized, which some dream gurus means they represent aspects of myself; people you do recognize most often represent themselves. In this case I would agree: I am Ameropean, and what that group of random characters represented was a former aspect of myself that I have “evolved,” to borrow Obama’s eloquent word: they were bitching about how horrible and wrong America is, babbling general hatreds that had no merit or logical basis. I was scolding them furiously, silencing them with righteous rage. While I was lecturing them, I was making a bed.
I look at two aspects of a dream: how I felt when it was happening, and what the symbols are. Dreambible.com interprets it the central symbol of that dream as this:
A made bed may reflect a final decision or a conclusion to an issue you’ve done something about. Feeling content that nothing else needs to be done with an issue.”
The dream was triggered by the fact I’d watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier just before I went to sleep. The Ameropean in me, raised within American culture when I was at home in Rome, but concurrently raised in a completely different one when I wasn’t home, saw the movie as a potentially galling pageant of jingoism. It was almost laughable, had it not been generally so entertaining and reasonably self-aware.
Until relatively recently, meaning the dawn of my middle age, I would have been exceedingly embarrassed to be part of a culture that produced a character and a movie like that. That embarrassment would have come from the anti-Americanism that I was raised with, that I espoused in a Stockholm-syndrome way from the outside-the-house British and Italian cultures that were nurturing me. The fact that my relationship with the primary American in my life, my father, was a classically terrible, traumatizing one certainly didn’t help my attitude toward my homeland; however, he travelled so often and such great distances that he had little influence, which means the European attitude prevailed in my formative years.
Making the bed in my dream means I have arrived at an internal resolution about my extrinsic anti-Americanism; I was scolding the Ameropean fragments of myself for being so ignorant, so cliché. “Things have changed!” I yelled at them, and they really irritated me, like old friends who haven’t kept up with being cool and are now fuddy-duddy. But that annoyance with myself vanished when I awoke and consulted Dreambible.com to confirm the meaning of the bed symbol: I was pleased that I had evolved to the point where I was at peace with my demons and no longer so negative about something that so essentially part of who I am. I might speak five languages, I might sometimes sound like a male version of Eva Gabor in Green Acres, but I am still a type of American, as much as any other.
That dream isn’t the only indication of my personal evolution. Since I parted ways with my crazymaker business partner in 2010 and rebuilt my life and career, I have never had such positive dreams. Sometimes the symbolism is overwhelmingly powerful, epiphanic, so glorious you should be able to hear the triumphant John Williams soundtrack emanating from my head while I sleep. This is because experience and intuition are showing me my likely life trajectory over the next few years. Barring some force majeure, events should turn out to be awesome, literally, and my subconscious is rejoicing.
A great deal of my new-found serenity also has to do with acceptance. Whatever positive trajectory I might be on, there will always be adversity, too. Because I am blessedly damned with hypersensitivity, bad romances and antagonistic circumstances have always hit me harder than they do others who don’t have the same character trait. But it seems that I have evolved with that, too. I am finally learning to cope, to get on with life no matter what, to stand my ground and face the foe without cowering under the covers like a frightened child. My internal state is starting to match my external presence.
My niece has my same hypersensitivity ‘gene’. One night, while I was babysitting her when her parents were in India, she was crying so hard that I thought she might have an aneurism. She missed her mother and was irrationally fearful that she wouldn’t return from India and didn’t love her enough. “But, Uncle James,” she wailed, gasping through her sobs. “The thing is I know all of this is stupid. I know she loves me and that she’s coming back. But I can’t stop my mind from feeling this way! And that really bothers me! WHY AM I LIKE THIS?” And she cried even harder because now she hated herself for her irrational feelings. And on it spiraled down. Oh, how well I understood what she was experiencing, that uncontrollable tsunami of emotion and its tug of war with reason.
I rarely talk about enlightenment with people because it means we’re bringing spirituality into the conversation, and by extension religion or some other form of magical thinking. Here in Los Angeles, there are as many different ‘spiritual’ beliefs as there are people; everyone has his own. My roommate occasionally “rolls epiphanies,” as I call it. It’s a popping of sudden clarities that I envision impressionistically as flowers blooming. It can be one blooming or many at once.
This blooming is my interpretation of why Buddhists use the lotus flower as a symbol for enlightenment. The common interpretation is the lotus represents a purity that grows from the mud; you might have a shitty, hard life, but beauty and good comes to all in the end. But don’t all flowers grow from dirt or mud? I believe the reason the lotus was chosen is because there is always another blossom beneath it ready to take its place, just like the process of spiritual awakening.
Most esoteric traditions imply — but rarely state outright because it’s ‘mystical’ and stuff — that enlightenment is a goal, a single Big Bang event that bestows the seeker with a sudden clarity, an absolute knowledge. It is the end of the Path. There you sit, under your Bodhi tree, dispensing wisdom, pilgrims and offerings at your feet, with nowhere further to go. But I believe that enlightenment is never-ending, a continual blossoming. You might evolve to a point of knowledge and peacefulness and acceptance that seems unattainable to most other people, but in fact enlightenment only ends when you die and your ego and consciousness cease altogether.
Dream interpretation has long been a part of Eastern esoteric spiritual practices. Dreams are considered markers of the seeker’s progress. You are often enjoined to tell your teacher your dreams, but you are never to tell anyone else; doing so might reveal your spiritual state to another disciple, assuming she knows what she’s listening to.
When I joined a Sufi order almost twenty years ago, I faithfully recounted my dreams to the head of whatever center I happened to be in at the time, and never to another seeker. At most, I was met with a nod, as if the dream had been filed in my particular case history, noted, my progress on the Path forever mystical and knowable only to those with supernatural powers.
The last time I reported a dream, to the man who is now the head of that Sufi order, I finally asked him what it meant. “I dunno,” he shrugged. “What does it mean to you?” The Wizards of Oz only have the magic we attribute; otherwise, the answers lie within us.
If I strip away all the juju, the magical thinking, the spells, the charms, the prayers and incantations, the karma and reincarnations, the astrological alignments of heavenly bodies too far away ever to have an impact on my personality, much less my fate, if I banish God and the gods of my adoptive cultures to focus only on what is meaningful to me, I find my true spiritual path: My work, my vocation. It is the true essence of my being, and I am fortunate to have it; most people don’t.
If they had told me what an arduous slog through the mud, a slog often mired in life-threatening despair, this path to blossoming lotuses would be, I believe I still would have had the hubris to embark on it, for the slog itself is the mud from which the blossoms grow. What have made it worthwhile are the rolling epiphanies, the evolutions churned by the vagaries of life.
My relationship with my work has now evolved from one of contempt and frustration, which arose from my mistakes and failures, to one of enjoyment and reverence when I get something right. Like Walt Whitman, I have learned to celebrate myself, rather than wailing like my niece about how much more I hate myself for wailing about my fears and setbacks in the first place. I am no longer my “own worst enemy,” probably the most oft-used cliché I have heard from other people in reference to how I have seen and treated myself most of my life.
On the contrary, by reveling in what my dreams reveal about my inner state, and by being my own guru in their interpretation, I now carry the pleasantness of them into waking life. Up until quite recently this wasn’t possible; more often than not, I would be strafed by a nightmare as terrifying as my current dreams are edifying, and I’d carry that darkness with me for at least a week after the dream, sometimes longer. There are dreams that are so vivid that they are life-changing in themselves. By writing them down, you commit to paper mnemonics that will bring them back for years later.
That is the downside of interacting with dreams on such a deep level: it allows the negative ones to have have a more forceful and lasting impact. But it also keeps the positive ones in a treasure chest, to be taken out and cherished at will. A couple of months ago I had a stupendous, life-affirming, shamelessly epiphanic dream about the end of the world. The sun descended to engulf the earth and there was nothing mankind would do about it. So we chose to celebrate and stop worrying and party, while the warmth and the glorious fiery orb consumed us. The end-of-the-world symbol combined with the sun represents massive change in my life, the destruction of an old world and way of thinking, the nurturing warmth of the new. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I am reminded of the ecstatic feeling of that descending, cleansing sun every time I am out in the sunshine, which in L.A. means a couple of times a day. A dream has turned me into a heliotrope.
Many mental health professionals keep dream journals so they can discuss their dreams with their own therapists. I have two dream notebooks on either side of my bed, or sometimes they find themselves stacked on each other. Sometimes I’ll grab one for meetings, stuff it in my bag to have something to doodle on. It’s amusing to sit there while I’m getting peppered with notes on a script, seeing my half-asleep notations of my Wonderland dream state. To those weird stories and symbols I add other notes relevant to my waking-life work.
Dreams change as we move through various stages of life, too. A much younger friend told me today that last night he dreamed of being tangled in a sea of jellyfish, which represents potential rejection, “feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty and a lack of self-esteem.” By telling me his dream, my friend has revealed his current mindset, his spiritual state, if you agree with my strictly pragmatic, psychological definition of spirituality. I can certainly see why certain Eastern gurus tell you not to reveal your dreams to anyone other than your master; such information does make you vulnerable — once I confirmed the meaning of his dream with Dreambible.com, I did judge him.
If, like I did last week, you dream you are the god Pan unleashing a swarm of killer bees to rid the world of evils like ISIS, then go ahead and dance like Whitman, tell everyone, sing of those dreams electric.
The drastic change in the nature of my dreams is the greatest evidence of my personal perpetually blossoming clarities. What a boon; I really never thought I would get here, that I’d be slogging through the mud until my dying breath. Just mud, no flowers. All I could say to my niece, the genetic heir to my hypersensitivity, as I held her in my arms and tried in vain to soothe her fear-drenched hysterics, was, “Don’t worry, my love. It will get better. I promise.” And I say that to everyone else, too, for I have dreamed it.