Cultivating Your Dream Life

by Thomas J. McFarlane

Dreams, according to the 20th-century psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung, are "a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego-consciousness."1 Because they arise from these profound depths of our soul, they can be of great value in our lives. Indeed, the Tibetan Bon lama Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche tells us that our dreams are "a potential source of both the most profound spiritual knowledge and of guidance in everyday life."2

Many of us, however, find ourselves out of touch with our dreams and cut off from these vast inner resources of our dream life. Whatever dreams we do have often slip away the moment we wake up and are quickly forgotten as the concerns of our waking lives come to the forefront of our minds. This forgetfulness can be so complete that we might even come to believe that we usually do not dream at all.

How, then, can we cultivate our dream life, and regain access to these rich depths of the soul? Just as the four principles of attention, commitment, detachment, and surrender govern the spiritual path, these same principles can also help us reconnect with our dreams.

1. Attention

Dreams, like most things, can not communicate anything to us if we do not listen to them. Fortunately, there are some very simple and concrete steps we can take to help us pay attention to our dreams.

Start by setting aside some time for your dream life just before falling asleep and just after waking up. At night, use this time first to allow the thoughts of your waking life to settle down (e.g., by meditating for a few minutes). Then, make the firm intention to remember your dreams when you wake up. In the morning, take some time just after becoming conscious (even before opening your eyes) to remember whatever dreams you might have had that night. Without making too much effort, simply allow your mind to remain receptive to whatever memories might arise. If thoughts of your waking life start up, simply set them aside and return to the naked intention to remember your dreams. Once the dream memories are somewhat clear, open your eyes and write them down in a dream journal. When recording your dreams, be as accurate and complete as possible, noting as many details of the dream as you can remember, no matter how insignificant they might at first appear. Also be sure to record any emotions, moods, or other feelings. At this stage, do not concern yourself with interpreting the dreams. Your task is simply to pay attention to them and record them as faithfully as possible. If you have time during the day, you can also reflect on your dreams, bringing the images and feelings to mind again. Often other parts of the dream will be remembered later in the day.

When paying attention to your dreams, it may also be helpful to cultivate an attitude of getting to know a mysterious and intriguing new person who has something important to teach you. As Jung says, "To concern ourselves with dreams is a way of reflecting on ourselves — a way of self-reflection. It is not our ego-consciousness reflecting on itself; rather it turns its attention to the objective actuality of the dream as a communication or message from the unconscious, unitary soul of humanity."3 Most likely, as you pay more attention to your dream life, it will communicate to you more frequently and more clearly.

2. Commitment

Any relationship requires commitment in order to deepen, and our relationship with the source of our dreams is no exception. While a few days of enthusiastic dream journaling can give us a taste of what dreams have to offer, only a sustained practice of paying attention to dreams over the course of months and years will yield the most valuable fruit.

So, if you are serious about cultivating your dream life, make a commitment to spend time every morning remembering and recording your dreams. Set aside time every day or so to reflect on your dreams and explore their significance. Look at each dream with fresh eyes, asking it what it has to teach you. As Jung suggests, "One would do well to treat every dream as though it were a totally unknown object. Look at it from all sides, take it in your hand, carry it about with you, let your imagination play round it, and talk about it with other people."4

In addition to reflecting on your dreams alone, consider joining a dream group, or meeting regularly with a friend to share your dreams. Not only will this support your commitment to pay attention to your dream life, but your friends can also help you interpret the messages of your dreams by offering different perspectives and alternatives. Because dreams speak in a language of symbols that is foreign to many of us, an experienced interpreter who is familiar with the language of dreams can be especially helpful. We can also learn more about the language of dreams by familiarizing ourselves with the great myths and archetypal symbols of humanity. As our experience and knowledge deepen over time, we will become more fluent, and our understanding of their message will begin to grow. With attention we begin to listen to dreams. But only with commitment do we grow to understand them.

3. Detachment

Once we begin to understand the language of our dreams, their wisdom begins to enter our lives. And they can be especially beneficial to our spiritual lives. "The greatest value of dreams," Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche tells us, "is in the context of the spiritual journey. ...They can be a means of determining whether or not practice is being done correctly, how much progress is being made, and what needs attention."5

What often needs most attention, of course, are things about ourselves that we'd rather not acknowledge or admit. In psychological terms, the unconscious dream compensates for an overly rigid or limiting conscious attitude. As Jung explains, "The relation between conscious and unconscious is compensatory. This is one of the best-proven rules of dream interpretation. When we set out to interpret a dream, it is always helpful to ask: What conscious attitude does it compensate?"6 Thus, the interpretation of dreams is part of the cultivation of detachment because dreams often point us directly at our conscious attachments. For example, if we are overly attached to something, we may have a frightening dream about losing it. Or we might dream of being humiliated in public if we are very attached to how people think of us.

To benefit from our dreams, then, we should cultivate a willingness to look openly and honestly at what they may be trying to tell us about ourselves, especially if it is something we'd rather not acknowledge. So, when recording or reporting dreams, refrain from any temptation to censor or embellish their content (and if you do catch yourself in the act, you can be sure that right there is an attachment to recognize). Consider your dreams as your most intimate teacher who knows you better than you know yourself and who is there to show you your attachments. Even though these dreams may be unpleasant to face at times, "it is a benefit," Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche reminds us, "when different aspects of the mind manifest in dream and point out where we must work in order to progress."7 We should also be careful not to rush to interpret our dreams immediately and not to have preconceptions of what our dreams should be about. The more we can free ourselves from our expectations and attachments, the more clearly our dreams will reveal their meaning, helping us to recognize even subtler attachments and to progress on the path.

4. Surrender

Commitment to paying attention to our dreams and opening ourselves to their meaning can be of great benefit on the path. But there is a limit to viewing dreams as messages to be interpreted. At a certain point in the path, the distinction between dream and dreamer, unconscious and conscious, itself becomes a barrier. Thus, as Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche tells us, "Ultimately the meaning in the dream is not important. It is best not to regard the dream as correspondence from another entity to you, not even from another part of you that you do not know. ...Instead, penetrate to what is below the meaning, the pure base of experience. This is the higher dream practice — not psychological, but more spiritual."8

Here the highest teaching of dreams reveals itself. This teaching is not an interpretation of any particular dream, but the very nature of dreams themselves. Dream phenomena, like all other phenomena, have the nature of being mere forms in consciousness without anything real behind them. And the ultimate teaching of every dream is to point directly to this dreamlike nature of every form in consciousness. "There is nothing more real than dream," Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche tells us. "Normal waking life is as unreal as a dream, and in exactly the same way."9 Finally, even the distinction between dreamer and dream, form and consciousness, is also dreamlike in nature. May we all surrender that distinction and wake up from that primordial Dream of separation.

- Thomas J. McFarlane, Center Voice: Summer-Fall 2003.

Thomas J. McFarlane is the author of the book Einstein and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. He has a B. S. in physics from Stanford University, an M. S. in mathematics from the University of Washington, and an M. A. in philosophy and religion from the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. He has been affiliated with the Center since 1987.


  1. C. G. Jung, Psychological Reflections: A New Anthology of His Writings, 1905-1961, eds. Jolande Jacobi and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970), 53.
  2. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, ed. Mark Dahlby (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1988), 66.
  3. Jung, 77.
  4. Jung, 64.
  5. Wangyal, 65.
  6. Jung, 67.
  7. Wangyal, 65.
  8. Wangyal, 132.
  9. Wangyal, 23.
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