One of the most satisfying dreams I ever had was incredibly violent. I was a teenager in my dream, leading my friends through a maze-like neighborhood, while a group of bullies followed and harassed us. I tried passive resistance, but the bullies wouldn’t go away. Finally, I turned and confronted the leader of the bullies, a girl, like me, but larger, a mean girl Goliath to my scrawny David. I grabbed the bully’s head by the ears and scraped her face off on a nearby chain link fence. I scraped her face like I was grating cheese, and I woke up just as I was finished.
I felt so happy upon waking. Like I’d been a hero in real life, saving my people from bullies and ruffians. I hadn’t intended to scrape anyone’s face off in my dreams, but hey, maybe dream villains should think twice before they mess with the likes of me.
My dream was probably an example of wish fulfillment, according to the psychoanalytic theory of dream interpretation made famous by Freud. There was a problem or obstacle in my life whose face I wanted to shred. Freud’s theory proposes that people’s aggression and sexual instincts are what drive us, and that since these are blocked from our conscious minds, they appear as images in our dreams.
Nothing is insignificant in Freud’s theory. Even the most random, fragmented dreams are trying to tell us something. A different, earlier approach to dream interpretation was supernatural theory, which sees dreams as prophecy or visitation. It offers that our dreams are sent to us by God (or from the realm of the dead) to warn us, enlighten us, influence us, or empower us, like Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream that gave Joseph power in the Biblical tale. Dreams appear in sacred texts, and they also appear in literature. One dream that comes to mind belongs to Dr. Lockwood, the narrator of Wuthering Heights, who dreams of the ghost of young Cathy, knocking on a window and trying to return to Thrushcross Grange after she is dead and has been locked out. The literary dream foreshadows a horror has taken place, and the reader can anticipate with dread.
The majority of my dreams, and I think those of most people, are surreal, random, and protean; figures changing identity, settings changing without consequence, and the narrative lacking logical syntax. Sometimes I wake from dreaming and think, “What the heck was that about?” And then I forget the dream’s details and go about my day. Physiological dream theories contend our dreams have no real psychological or predictive significance. Instead, dreams are the product of rudimentary activities in the cortex that cycle and recycle impressions of our days and life incoherently. Maybe our brains do neural calisthenics while we sleep, and we call our awareness dreaming. This might help explain recurring dreams, even nightmares, often evoked by real-life traumas that individuals have experienced. A spooky friend once gave me a bad dream by suggestion, and she gloated when I told her about it. I embedded a description of the dream in my novel, Love Lets Us Down (2015), and can only say it involves a malevolent flying oil slick.
One of my most terrifying dreams took place in 1981 when I dreamed the rapture had occurred. In the dream, I was young and married and hanging out with another young couple in our living room when a trumpet thundered loudly. My husband and the other guy flew up through the ceiling, while their clothes fell back down to piles in the floor. I went to the window of our second-floor apartment and looked out. The courtyard of the apartment complex filled up with people, everyone asking, “What happened? What happened?” A greasy fat man in a wife beater suddenly started laughing, an evil laugh, and I knew I’d been left behind. I awoke in a terror and was only calmed by the fact that my husband, never a saint, still snored beside me.
Recurring nightmares cause real problems for some individuals. When dreams turn destructive and damage a person’s sleep and well-being, there is help on many fronts, from meditation and medications to talk and cognitive behavioral therapy. Another kind of dream, lucid dreaming, is part of the therapy known as imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT). During a lucid dream, the sleeper is aware and able to control what happens in the dream. A therapist can introduce IRT to help a nightmare sufferer imagine a more pleasant ending to a recurring terror.
Some of us learning about consciousness have attempted to practice lucid dreaming for pleasure, enlightenment, or a college assignment. I once had a Psychology 101 professor in undergrad who challenged students to try to have a lucid dream in which we raised our right hand, looked at it, and reported back to class what we saw. I tried to have a lucid dream in which I looked at my hand, but the best I could do was see my right hand as a black hole. The prof told me that wasn’t the right answer. In the intervening years, I’ve discovered that looking at your hand is a lucid dream induction technique found in The Power of Dreaming by Carlos Castaneda, written when he was apprenticing as a Yaqui Indian Shaman. Once you can look at your hand in a dream, you’re free to move on to more important business.
It goes without saying the sleeping environment can influence how safe and comfortable we feel in our dreams. I prefer clean, soft sheets, a firmish mattress, and a ceiling fan stirring the air. It’s also reassuring, to me at least, to know we share common dreams, like: dreams of falling, being naked in public, being chased, losing teeth, taking a test, infidelity, and flying, among others. I had a dream of flying once when I was around eleven or twelve. It combined with a dream of being chased by two boys from my grade school who wanted to touch me with dead frogs. In my dream, I ran away so fast, I took flight and woke up before they caught me.
I wouldn’t call flying a happy dream, even though I got away. In the end, the majority of my dreams are somewhat baffling and definitely forgettable. A few linger, but what I’ve realized is that happy dreams are the rarest for me. I can probably count my happy dreams on one hand. With a happy dream, it’s not the content that’s important; it’s how I feel waking up after, a sense of being vibrantly alive, my brain flooded with the magic of dopamine chased by a shot of serotonin. I don’t know what triggers a happy dream. It’s similar to the satisfaction of scraping a bully’s face off on a chain link fence. Similar, but not exactly the same.