Dreams and Visions: Part I
- By Chuan Zhi
- Oct 16
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Dreams and visions have a special significance in Zen Buddhism, for it's through them that we often see the fruits of our spiritual labor. While consciousness speaks in recognizable words and images, the unconscious communicates with mysterious "symbols" of creatures and objects quite unknown to us: oceans, snakes, thunder, wind, intricately designed mandalas, dazzling lights and majestic gods. As we progress in Zen and investigate the nature of these encounters, we come to appreciate the universality of these forms and the messages they are intended to convey.
Meeting the Unconscious
Once upon a time, I, Chuang-tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly...suddenly I awoke. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man."
Dreams and visions have a special significance in Zen Buddhism, for it's through them that we often see the fruits of our spiritual labor.
While consciousness speaks in recognizable words and images, the unconscious communicates with mysterious "symbols" of creatures and objects quite unknown to us: oceans, snakes, thunder, wind, intricately designed mandalas, dazzling lights and majestic gods. As we progress in Zen and investigate the nature of these encounters, we come to appreciate the universality of these forms and the messages they are intended to convey.
Visions and dreams occur as unconscious contents bubble to the surface and burst into consciousness. Mystics sharply distinguish vision from dream. Ordinary dreams tap into the personal-unconscious, rehashing the day's events or responding to our biological or psychological needs. They are populated with the persons, places and objects of our everyday experience. Visions, however, are always unrelated to our personal lives and have an "other worldly" aspect.
Whether we experience a vision during sleep or meditation, we are easily able to recall its detail, often with astonishing clarity. But the key to unlocking its meaning is its characteristic emotional tone. Feelings of joy or satisfaction will usually indicate progress on our spiritual path, and we may leisurely inquire about this subtle gauge of our development. But when we are left with disturbing thoughts, with fear or with shame, it is urgent that we investigate the message and probe its contents until we understand the inner meaning. Usually the message conveys a requirement that we re-evaluate our conscious attitudes and affect necessary adjustments or corrections. If we ignore or conveniently misinterpret the message we risk worsening our daily behavior and, of course, will be subjected to fearful repetitions of the visionary encounter.
From a psychological perspective, then, Zen could be described as the practice of expanding awareness by integrating unconscious contents. Much traditional Zen training involves activities that encourage the devotee to delve into these unexplored regions of the mind -- regions where imagery from the collective unconscious can be accessed. The images that emerge from the unconscious are seen depicted in Buddhist temples in the form of statues, frescos, paintings, mandalas and a large variety of ornamentation.
Religious art, as reflections of those inner visions, also serves as a teaching guide that helps steer us toward those inner realms; for example, by bowing to the image of a Buddha we acknowledge the Buddha within us and thereby acknowledge the existence of that which is beyond our conscious awareness. With practice and devotion, our psyche eventually comes to a direct encounter with that Self that is so illusive to ordinary words and thoughts. Paradoxically, through acknowledging what's unknown, we bring it closer to us; and then, as the "unknown" advances into consciousness, we may experience it as a vision.
Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth."
There is no apparent cognitive correlation between brainwave state and visionary experience; a vision can occur at any time, but visionary experiences seem to be associated with a learned ability to enter consciously into various brainwave states - states associated with a highly focused and concentrated mind. As it is known from scientific studies, many Yogis command the power to alter their autonomic systems, including brainwave activities.
A spark, leaping from a hand to a doorknob on a cold dry day releases a burst of electromagnetic energy much as neurons do when they transmit impulses across synapses in the brain. When the total radiated energy emitted at a given moment is recorded on an instrument like an oscilloscope or electroencephalograph (EEG), we can see that the brain's neurons sometimes work together collectively, in a kind of synchronous harmony.
When we're fully awake during the day, our brain produces beta waves. Since we're using many brain processes at the same time, an EEG will show a random, jittery waveform with no obvious repeated pattern.
Then, as we relax, the brain begins to produce bursts of alpha waves - lower frequencies between 8 and 12 cps (cycles per second). During this time we may have sudden bursts of images that organize themselves into daydreams. Learning to meditate, using practices like the Healing Breath, we first learn to master conscious control of alpha rhythms. After only a short time of dedicated practice we acquire a serene peacefulness which we can enter at will. With this control, we also acquire the wonderful ability to reduce or eliminate stress and anxiety whenever the need arises.
Imagery encountered during alpha arises usually from the personal unconscious. If we begin thinking about a problem we're having in our life, our imagination may develop the problem into a story, expressed, of course, as visual imagery. When we passively watch these images instead of getting involved or lost in them, we soon learn to enter deeper states of meditation.
Dreams begin as the brain's neurons start to work together collectively. An EEG will show brainwave activity between 3 and 7 cps: a state referred to as "theta." Most of us enter, dwell, and return from theta without being aware of it in the course of a night's sleep; however, people with certain types of sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, can be found slipping suddenly from a wakeful beta state to a slower state - alpha, theta, or even down into delta - almost instantaneously.
Other sleep problems may cause sudden and unsettling or even terrifying dreams or visions. While sleep disorders are always "uncontrolled," yogis, through discipline, long practice, and guided instruction, learn to command their mind to the extent that they can willfully enter and exit any brain state. After much practice they may attest to acquiring unusual abilities described as "siddhis" in Vedic literature: bilocation, intuitive knowledge of future events (and some rather neat adventures in hyperspace :-)
We're sometimes conscious of the transitions between alpha and theta when we're lying in bed beginning to doze off or when we're sitting on our cushion or chair working with a meditation technique. With practice, we can learn to become fully conscious when we're in theta, but until then, the neurons will continue on autopilot, processing irreconciled events stored in recent memory (the personal unconscious) or responding to physical/chemical impulses -- they might, for example, direct us to dream about eating if we're hungry, or, perhaps, if our hormones are adequately elevated, to dream that we're engaged in sexual activity.
With theta rhythms we also gain access to repressed feelings about events that may have lodged in our psyche earlier in our lives, remaining "undigested" by our psyche. Combat veterans may have frightful dreams of war, others with childhood histories of abuse or neglect, may have equally frightful or disquieting dreams. Buried emotional shards can and usually will unearth themselves in our dreams. Simply becoming aware of, and contemplating, these types of dreams - bringing them to consciousness - begins the process of integrating them into our lives and, with proper care, results in the joyful relief of rendering them harmless. This process of reconciling the personal unconscious is a necessary step before we can enter into true and peaceful meditation.
Delta is the most synchronous brain state and is characterized by EEG waveforms of 1/2 to 2 or 3 cps. We also dream, though less frequently, during this deepest of sleep states. Yogis have been recorded remaining in delta for many hours.
The mind is a useful tool for practicing Zen. A beginner, learning to meditate, first learns to quiet the waking mind, lessening its chaotic activity until a peaceful disposition is attained. A more experienced practitioner may learn to enter the deeper theta states where he can watch the interplay of the archetypes or stimulate pleasure centers in the brain, experiencing the rapturous ecstasy of Samadhi.
As we learn to become aware of the workings of the mind (through any of the myriad disciplines for "quieting" it) consciousness unfolds into new dimensions, expressing itself in our dreams and visions and in our overall attitude toward life. Just as dreams can help us integrate the contents of the personal unconscious, archetypal visions tell us that we're integrating contents of the collective unconscious - the body of knowledge stored in our DNA: the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors encoded as instincts, intuition, and creativity. On our spiritual journey we are obliged to learn their language, to observe them as they come and go, and to acknowledge their existence as a real aspect of our life. If we choose to ignore them, we forfeit one of the most engaging ways to deepen our practice.
Progress in Zen isn't characterized by what new things we concoct in the mind, but by our ability to expand awareness and to gain new insights through disciplines of concentration, meditation, and contemplation. When we allow ourselves the possibility of new discoveries from within, doors are opened that would otherwise remain closed to us forever.