Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Letting go

I had met this guy the week after Hurricane Katrina. We were on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, surveying the wreckage of historic homes. I didn’t know him well, but now he’d come to visit my home in rural Mississippi, for a party, and we’d driven to the grocery store for some last minute items.

We’d taken his car, and on the way back he drove very, very slowly, which was frustrating because I was in a hurry. My house was already full of people and many more would be arriving later in the day, and he was driving exactly as he’d driven through the debris of Beach Boulevard – about 10 mph, though we were now on a wide-open country road.

Finally, I said, “Do you mind if I drive?” He said OK, so I took the wheel. I don’t remember pulling over to make the switch. Why would I? What mattered was that I was in control. At the next turn – the next-to-last before the drive to my house, I suddenly began to feel disoriented. The world looked unfamiliar. It felt like I’d made a wrong turn, though I’d made the trip thousands of times. I wondered if I was having a seizure or suffering some kind of flashback, or – what? I didn’t know.

The road seemed to unfurl forever, and as I became increasingly unsure of myself, I saw something even more perplexing: We were coming into a town, at a place that should have been open countryside. At that point I became more suspicious than concerned. It occurred to me that I might be dreaming.

As I drove through the unfamiliar town -- which was fairly busy, with lots of people in the streets, coming in and out of gas stations, hardware stores, a small factory of some kind, the Wal-Mart -- I looked for any sign of its name. There were signs everywhere but none that sounded like the name of the town. I mentioned to the Katrina guy that I’d never seen the town before, and didn’t understand how we’d gotten there. It looked like someplace in, maybe, east Texas. He didn’t seem at all concerned. I told him to keep an eye out for a sign that might tell us where we were. Then I glanced at the backseat and saw my friend Paul, who lives in New York City, and who I hadn’t realized was with us. Though it made sense that he’d be coming to the party, the fact that I hadn’t known he was in the car made me more inclined to think I was dreaming, which of course I was.

It’s an odd feeling, to recognize that what seems real isn’t. Naturally, you resist, at first. The first time I remember realizing I was dreaming I was 15 years old, driving with my friends in my mother’s Impala. It was a beautiful summer evening and one of my friends suggested I put the top down, so I did. As we drove, with the wind tousling our hair, it dawned on me that my mother’s car was not a convertible. The only explanation was that I was dreaming. I mentioned this to my friends in the car, who were skeptical and, ultimately, annoyed. “Are you saying I’m not really here?” one of them asked. That was exactly what I was saying, I said. “That’s bullshit,” he said.

Now, as I drove the unfamiliar streets of the seeming east Texas town, I mentioned the convertible dream to Paul and the Katrina guy. I said I know it sounds weird but I think I may be dreaming now. The Katrina guy just shrugged, and continued eyeing the signs, but Paul gave me this distressed look, then vanished. He didn’t want to be a character in someone else’s dream, I guess. Oh, well, I thought. See you back in the waking world!

About that time I noticed an outdoor market up ahead, so I pulled in. I told the Katrina guy I was going to see if I could find a newspaper or something – read the headlines, find a date, just to verify whether this was real. He waited in the car. I approached a stand selling “antique” items – mostly junk, really, which included old newspapers. Here was a stroke of dream-mind brilliance, I thought. There was no way to prove or disprove that this was a dream, based on the newspapers. My mind was trying to trick itself, in plain view. I thought of asking the guy who ran the stand for the date, but it seemed kind of weird to, and anyway he was waiting on customers. So I went back to the car and we drove on. The Katrina guy didn’t even ask if I’d discovered anything. He was, I suppose, the perfect dream-mate.

Down a narrow side street we came upon a river – a very wide river, like the Mississippi. There were many oddly narrow pedestrian promenades angling off from the river, which was flooded. Every river in my dreams is flooded, for some reason, so this was familiar territory. OK, I said, now I know I’m dreaming. I’m sure of it. The street we were on descended into the floodwaters up ahead, remained submerged for a short distance, then returned to dry land. I decided to test my theory and drive into the water. The Katrina guy was alarmed, and put his hand out in front of me, as if to stop me, but I said, Don’t worry, if I’m dreaming we’ll be just fine, and if not, I’ll stop before the water gets too deep. I drove into deep water and kept going. I passed another car, also driving on the river. The Katrina guy got excited when I told him we could do whatever we wanted now -- we didn’t have to worry, because it was a dream. We could fly over buildings if we wanted to – something I’d done numerous times before. I was curious, though, what the dream was going to be about, and was repeatedly thwarted in my efforts to find out. I’ve always assumed that dreams are mechanisms for the brain to explore hypotheticals without repercussion, to help us sort through potential scenarios in our waking lives. For my purposes, however, this resulted in all sorts of dream obstacles. The Katrina guy seemed to be having a good time, even if it was a dream, but he soon vanished, too. I didn’t really notice until I found myself alone, on foot, in an abandoned factory, trying to find my way out.

At this point the dream seemed intent on capturing me, though I knew I was dreaming. Each door I passed through deposited me into an anteroom with another door. It sounds like a potential nightmare, but because I knew I was dreaming I felt a measure of control. Every door opened when I turned the knob. After several passages I realized I was in the middle of a sequence, and I began to count. I was up to seven doors when the last one opened into the sunshine. Once outside, I saw an interesting scene across the street: Some guys working on a water main, talking with a pretty, flirtatious woman. I decided to snap a picture with my cell phone, in part because I still had some minor doubts about whether I was dreaming, and I’d noticed in the past that using my cell phone – including its camera -- was a maddeningly frustrating dream endeavor. Sure enough, though the picture-taking seemed to go OK at first, the screen on my cell phone was unfamiliar and the camera kept snapping pictures before I was ready. Sloppy dream-direction, I thought.

Thus chastened, my dream-mind attempted to exert more control. I walked purposefully back to the truck and got in, drove a short distance, and arrived at my house, which, predictably, was full of guests. Even though I knew I was dreaming, I expected this to be awkward. Not many people like being told they aren’t real, and anything can happen in a dream. A series of frustrating misfires followed. An old girlfriend, waiting for me in bed, asked for a cup of coffee, and when I went into the kitchen I found I couldn’t make any because another woman was using the coffee maker to make some kind of herbal tea, etc. Predictable dream complications. As I waited for the woman to finish, someone asked me to help move some chairs, and a few new guests arrived, and before I knew it, a long time had passed.

Considering that I was at least marginally in control of the setting, and of the unfolding plot, it struck me as odd that I was running into so many problems. If I was dreaming and knew it, why couldn’t I just dispense with the complications? Probably because the complications were the point. I believe dreams can be both psychic and psychiatric exercise, so I am always aware that my control is tenuous. For that matter, even controlling my waking thoughts is sometimes tenuous. Introduce a night-bird that my sleeping ears interprets as the voice of Satan in a dream, which continues to call out after I awake, and all bets are off. In a very profound way, we are all subject to our own dreams.

As I tried to deal with a swelling crowd of imaginary guests, I fiddled with my cell phone, determined that if I could freely move between the waking and the dream world I should be able to find a way to create a record of it – to bridge the gap. This, alas, is how my sleeping mind often occupies itself. It tries to take notes, and even photographs, of an imagined world. It’s hopeless, but I often spend what seems like hours, even days, during a dream, trying to create a waking record of what happened – a note scrawled in a pad on the nightstand, or spray-painted on the wall of a building that I know to be real, to which I might actually return when I’m awake. It never works, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

In this case, I eventually gave up taking photographs and decided to mentally record what was happening, so that I’d remember the dream once I awakened. I spent the rest of the dream studiously trying to log everything that happened, escaping now and then to a rare quiet place to go over it in my head, to reconstruct everything that had happened from the moment when the Katrina guy was driving to the moment at hand, so I’d be able to review the dream when I was awake, for clues. This is what passes for rest, in my world. This post is the inevitable result. Even in my dreams, I cannot let go.

Dreams are so rich and have such an authentic feeling that scientists have long assumed they must have a crucial psychological purpose, as an article I later read in the New York Times observed. “To Freud, dreaming provided a playground for the unconscious mind; to Jung, it was a stage where the psyche’s archetypes acted out primal themes. Newer theories hold that dreams help the brain to consolidate emotional memories or to work though current problems, like divorce and work frustrations.” OK, the judges will accept that.

The article cited a paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience by a psychiatrist and sleep researcher named Dr. J. Allan Hobson, who argued that the main function of rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM (when most dreaming occurs) is to warm the brain’s circuits for the sights and sounds and emotions of waking. “It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Hobson said. “It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: Dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”

Psychics often claim that dreams are a delivery mechanism for messages from other worlds, and who’s to say they aren’t? I’ve gotten messages from dead loved ones in my dreams, some of which turned out to be true, and which I hadn’t known about before. Psychiatrists have also speculated that dreams are how the brain sorts out its own issues, on its own time. Hobson’s position is that dreaming is a parallel state of consciousness that is continually running but suppressed during waking. If that’s the case, I suppose it’s possible that dreaming is all of those things.

Another neurologist-physiologist cited in the article, Dr. Rodolfo LlinĂ¡s, countered that dreaming is not a parallel state but is consciousness itself, in the absence of input from the senses. Once people are awake, he argued, their brain essentially revises its dream images to match what it sees, hears and feels -- the dreams are “corrected” by the senses.

In evolutionary terms, according to the Times, REM appears to be a recent development; it is detectable in humans and other warm-blooded mammals and birds. “Studies” suggest that REM makes its appearance very early in life -- in the third trimester for humans, well before a developing child has experience or imagery to fill out a dream. “None of this is to say that dreams are devoid of meaning,” the Times noted. “Anyone who can remember a vivid dream knows that at times the strange nighttime scenes reflect real hopes and anxieties: The young teacher who finds himself naked at the lectern; the new mother in front of an empty crib, frantic in her imagined loss.”

According to the article, “research suggests that only about 20 percent of dreams contain people or places that the dreamer has encountered. Most images appear to be unique to a single dream.” That is most assuredly not the case with me – my dreams have frequent, recurring sets and guest stars, sometimes over the course of years, whom I have never met in my waking life. The scientists claim to know that most dream characters are one-time walk-ons “because some people have the ability to watch their own dreams as observers, without waking up,” the Times reported, at which point I began to feel a now-wakeful sense of disorientation. As an intra-dream observer, I should not be hosting those recurring characters. All of which tells me that if you want answers about dreaming, you’re just as likely to find them in a popular dream-interpretation book. Still, the subject is interesting, particularly when reading about it on the heels of a vivid dream.

The Times continued: “This state of consciousness, called lucid dreaming, is itself something a mystery — and a staple of New Age and ancient mystics. But it is a real phenomenon, one in which Dr. Hobson finds strong support for his argument for dreams as a physiological warm-up before waking.” In dozens of studies, according to the article, researchers have brought people into sleep laboratories and trained them to dream lucidly. “They do this with a variety of techniques, including auto-suggestion as head meets pillow (‘I will be aware when I dream; I will observe’) and teaching telltale signs of dreaming (the light switches don’t work; levitation is possible; it is often impossible to scream).”

Those same sleep researchers contend that lucid dreaming occurs during a mixed state of consciousness, -- “a heavy dose of REM with a sprinkling of waking awareness,” according to the article. Sleepwalking and night terrors, Hobson said, represent mixtures of muscle activation and non-REM sleep. Attacks of narcolepsy reflect an infringement of REM on normal daytime alertness. And what to make of someone, like me, who sleepwalks, has occasional night terrors, and is often aware that he is dreaming? The article didn’t say. Hobson’s point is that those two consciousnesses are separate systems that can operate simultaneously, which begs the question: If a person can be awake enough to recognize he’s dreaming, is the converse true? Could he be awake yet not recognize he’s drifting off into a dream world? Sort of?

Sure enough, the article noted that people who struggle with schizophrenia suffer delusions of unknown origin, but Hobson suggested such flights of imagination may be related to an abnormal activation of a dreaming consciousness. “‘Let the dreamer awake, and you will see psychosis,’ as Jung said,” the Times noted.

“For everyone else, the idea of dreams as a kind of sound check for the brain may bring some comfort, as well,” the article reported. “That ominous dream of people gathered on the lawn for some strange party? Probably meaningless. No reason to scream, even if it were possible.” To which I say: Try telling that to someone who has lost control of their dream, for whom the succession of doors in the anterooms ceases to open.

In my own dream, I eventually left the party that I had virtually thrown but had never quite controlled (even in the dream sense), and decided to go for a run, which is always fun in my dreams because each step spans 10 feet or more and I have boundless energy. As I ran through a darkened city (another familiar landscape in my dreams), I eventually came upon another man, a walker who began to run, too, as I passed. I was singing aloud – this was my dream, so why shouldn’t I? – an original REM song that I was inventing as I went along. I know: REM. Rapid Eye Movement, logically filed beside the band REM in the recesses of my brain. I was enjoying the song because it was at once REM’s and mine. I’d never heard it before. Then, as I ran with the new, unidentified runner beside me, he began to sing along. Eventually I ran out of words – I couldn’t “remember” what I in fact was inventing – but he continued on, singing multiple stanzas. I have no idea who he was – I would have preferred Michael Stipe, but it was his song now, transferred from a hodgepodge of REM sound bites stored in my brain, through my own consciousness, through my dream, to him, an imaginary character who knew more about what was in my brain than I did.

Whatever; finally, I was happy to let go. I let him sing the song, though in a sense it was actually me who was doing the singing, through an imagined character. By then, I guess, the dream had accomplished what it set out to do. My brain had the sensation that it was letting go. When I awoke, I felt at rest, and only wished I’d found a way to write the lyrics down.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. It made my day! I've been having weird dreams lately and remembering pieces of them. It makes me feel relieved but also jealous to know my dreams aren't as weird as yours :-)