Down through history, the most common classification of dreams is twofold.
There's true dreams and false dreams, big dreams and little dreams,
profound dreams and mundane dreams, dreams from the gate of ivory and
dreams from the gate of horn. Among those on the extraordinary side of the
twosome are dreams that seem real enough to be a world unto themselves.
Such a dream world might be a place that looks the same as physical
reality, in which the dreamer is immersed and through which he can travel.
Especially if the world looks and feels vividly real, the dreamer might
assume he does voyage in physical reality. He usually travels embodied, but
can discover that his dream body is not visible to anyone who is awake.
This type of world-encounter can be classified as an "out-of-body"
experience. Most out-of-body experiences are assumed to occur in real time,
concurrent with the time period of sleep or altered state.
On the other hand, the world might be a place where events that happen
there are later played out in the waking state. This characteristic also
requires that world to appear like physical reality, although, because of
the time-slip, it's usually considered to be a dream. A prophetic or
Some worlds do not appear as physical reality but are assumed to be as real
as the material world. That's because they look and feel so real. In fact,
they may look and feel even more real than the waking state. The scenery
might glow or transmute into abstract patterns or light. The characters can
seem to be independent entities. The intensity of sensations and emotions,
ranging from terror to bliss, increase beyond normal levels of physical
existence. Again, it's an experience usually considered to occur in linear
time, same time as slumber. This is the spiritual journey.
Out-of-body experience, prophecies, or spiritual journey, these are some
versions of dream vivid enough to be considered real or true. Thus they are
taken literally: you exist in a physical or spiritual reality; the people
are real and who they seem to be. And the events have real consequences,
albeit you are not roaming the physical world in your physical body when
you experience them.
Then there are the dreams in which the dreamer seems not to leave the bed
at all. Because he does not relocate to another time or space, the dreamer
might not even be aware he dreams. Reality comes to him, in the form of
people alive or dead, or in non-human forms like angels or fairy folk. This
is the world of the succubus attack and the alien abduction; sleep
paralysis and the false awakening.
Whether the dreamer is aware of being in an altered state of consciousness
or not, it's the vivid reality of these sorts of experiences that is
paramount. In terms of realness, they are phenomena at least on a par with
the waking state. Sometimes much more so.
The Assumptions of Waking Reality
We spend a long time in the waking state, physical world, consensus
reality, and over time we've developed a bucketful of assumptions about how
"reality" is supposed to be and how it's supposed to act. Some of these we
experience first-hand; even more we inherit from our culture. Most of the
ideas are oblivious to us, because we have nothing with which we can
contrast them. Until we go to sleep. Most folks have plenty of "little"
dreams and they know that territory very well. It's pretty easy to
distinguish between physical reality and the normative dream. When you wake
up, that is! Thus, the "real" and "unreal" labels are simple to attach.
Up until recently, the explanations of the "big" dream category has been
the providence of people "special" enough to experience these things
several times in a lifetime. That's a much smaller group, and as in any
small group, there's a tendency towards introversion. And especially
because these dreams have often been associated with the occult, there's a
long established habit of having to keep quiet about them. Many different
local traditions have developed as a result, but there's not been a lot of
sharing and comparing among them. Rather, such experiences and ideas have
been kept out of the popular limelight.
Then, at the beginning of the '80's, the dream field turned a corner and a
certain segment now know as the "dream community" became much more open and
tolerant. The hidden traditions had a chance to come out of the shadows,
and, indeed, they did. As a result, there was an explosion of information,
much of it classified as "New Age," although this is a misnomer: a
traditional idea may be new to us, but it can have a very long history.
This growing conglomeration of ideas became available to the average
person. Nowadays there's an awful lot of information out there, often
contradictory. But there seem to be few ways of knowing what's accurate or
applies to you. It's a case of "let the buyer beware."
Why should you care if dreams are real or not? Or if any information about
dreams is true? What's at stake? Well, how about your creative abilities,
your physical and psychic health, your immortal soul or your sanity? How
about your ability to live through a night without awakening soaked in
terror? Or a day without wallowing in angst or sunk in depression? What
about your ability to coexist in a world with people of different religious
beliefs, beliefs whose genesis is a vision or dream?
Beyond The Little Mermaid
I once read an article wherein the author was matching astrological signs
with popular folk tales. By extension, those very folk tales could be
linked with astrological ages, so I paid special attention to the
water-sign of Pisces (whose age we are leaving) and the air-sign of
Aquarius (whose age we are entering). The folk tale selected for Pisces was
The Little Mermaid. It's a story in which the little mermaid wishes she
could become human, marry her Prince Charming and live happily ever after.
All her energy is spent towards achieving this end. Now, I happen to think
the mermaid is a metaphor for the dreamer. She already is human; she just
forgot when she entered the sea of unconscious and had to reclaim that
awareness to live on dry land. It's like entering into the dream state and
forgetting there is another world in which we also dwell.
In the folk tale for the Age of Aquarius, Prince Charming is all grown up.
Or so he thinks. But as Emperor he's just as oblivious to reality, capable
of being deceived. Along comes the Trickster who takes advantage of his
inability to discriminate, and weaves a wild fantasy. And the Emperor is
full of such charisma (he'd have to be, to lure the Little Mermaid out of
her seabed), that whatever he believes, is what the populace believes. And
what does he believe? That he's wearing clothes. He believes in the
covering of reality. And he can't see beneath that layer.
For a long time we all believed in the surface of physical reality. Then
microscopes and telescopes were invented and our communal perspective was
changed forever. We discovered there was another world beneath the surface:
a world of bacteria, pollen and ultraviolet light. It's now comparatively
easy to convince the Emperor that he contains a naked skeleton, a mass of
muscles...and a conglomeration of atomic particles.
But the world of dream lags, big time. We still going around blithely
assuming that we have 20/20 inner vision and what we "see" in altered
states is all there is to see. In fact, some dreamwork techniques depend on
it. To interpret a symbol, we must first label it, turn it into a word. But
nobody's asking: are we perceiving clearly enough to make the correct
identification? Is it the right word to take to the dream dictionary or put
through the mill of free association? Nope, it's hey, we're in the world of
the unconscious, the real deal, and what you see is what you get.
Manipulating our surface perceptions of this world is supposed to take us
to the "depths" of ourselves.
The Emperor may be wearing new clothes, but he's clothed in the same old
assumptions. What if Freud and Jung were wrong? What if their presumptions
about dreams stop us from further exploration? What if there's something
underneath their underworld? I think there is. But I hope you don't agree
with me just because I say so. I hope you don't agree with Freud and Jung
just because they said so. I'd rather you go skinny dipping with the
It may not be possible to know directly if we travel to the seventh astral
plane or the after-death state. But we can do reality checks on experiences
that seem to be in physical reality and with dream characters that seem
to be people still alive, because we can wake and compare them with their
physical equivalents. We can also put our reporting capabilities to the
test. How accurate is our memory of detail, judgment or psychic sensing
abilities? By attempting to figure that out, we can develop a yardstick to
use on the next person who comes along with a theory or method of dreams.
Yep, reality checks. But not just on whether we dream. Not just on whether
a dream is real or not. On whether any of the information about dreams is
worth our while.