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Remembering REM: The Lost Art and Science of Dreaming

We live in a world where the dream is devalued. "Forget it," we might suggest to a loved one who had a nightmare, "it's just a dream."
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I believe that dreaming is among the most critical misunderstood and overlooked factors in our health, well-being and spiritual development. In contrast to waking, which is typically about an intentional, concrete and active relationship with the world around us, dreaming is more about a receptive, expansive and ethereal relationship with the world within us.

Dreaming plays a critical role in learning and the formation of certain kinds of memory. Dreaming also helps us heal from emotional losses. People who don't dream well can suffer memory loss. And people who dream well heal from emotional loss more quickly.

Daily life can feel constraining. Our deeper self is not necessarily comfortable remaining cooped up in a physical body 24/7. I believe that dreaming is a kind of psycho-spiritual stretching -- like yoga for the soul. Dreams gently expand, release, soften and open us up again. Dreaming provides a poetic cushion for our sharply literal lives. In our dreams, we are free from the constraints of the physical body.

Not surprisingly, this process of stretching is actually linked directly to our muscles. When we dream, our voluntary muscles become inhibited. Although all necessary biological functions are on automatic pilot, we essentially become paralyzed while dreaming. This protects us from the dangers of literally acting out our dreams.

Dream paralysis allows us to release emotional energy stored as tension in our muscles. Because the neural networks that control our muscles are interwoven with those that process emotion, emotional energy is continuously channeled through our musculature. Over the years, this emotional energy strongly influences our posture and our facial expressions. Abraham Lincoln noted, "Everybody over 40 is responsible for their face."

If we dream well, we can help shake out this muscular and facial tension. I think of dreaming as nature's nightly Botox treatment. We all look better not just after a good night's sleep, but after a good night's dreaming.

Unfortunately, we are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived. A healthy night requires both sleep and dreams, but most seem to believe that the experience of the dream itself is meaningless. We live in a world where the dream is devalued. "Forget it," we might suggest to a loved one who had a nightmare, "it's just a dream."

Modern lifestyles interfere with healthy dreaming. Over-exposure to light at night, excessive evening alcohol consumption, antidepressant medications and many other commonly used substances and medications suppress dreaming. Ironically, many sleeping pills also suppress dreaming.

Like most sleep doctors, I routinely hear my patients say they dream very little. Some have not had any dream recall for years. I have met a handful of people who deny ever having had a dream. Certainly, this might mean they just have limited dream recall. Given modern lifestyles, however, I believe that as a culture, we are dreaming less and less. Those who do dream but remain unaware of them are not able to enjoy and be fully nourished by them.

What can we do to promote healthy dreaming? As a first step, I suggest we become more cognizant of common dream thieves in our lives. Anything that disrupts sleep can disrupt dreaming. Make healthy sleep a priority. In particular, make sure not to lose the last third of your sleep period, the time when most of our dreams occur.

Check with your physician or pharmacist to determine if medications you use may be disrupting your dreams. If so, consider alternatives. Remember that alcohol can significantly interfere with dreaming. When dream-suppressing medications cannot be avoided, talk with your health care provider about the feasibility of using natural substances that promote dreaming. Supplements such as melatonin, DMAE and valerian have been shown to promote dreaming.

Set an intention to become receptive to your dreams as you go to sleep. Whenever possible, practice awakening gradually without an alarm. What we consider grogginess is actually a hybrid form of consciousness -- half waking and half dream. Resume the last sleep position you were in and linger in your grogginess with eyes closed for a few minutes. When dream images begin to arise, don't actively pursue them, just allow them to come to you. If no dream images arise, notice any emotions present.

We remember dreams in much the same way we remember waking experiences -- by paying attention to them. Think, talk, write and read about dreams. Consider keeping a journal of your dreams and related waking life experiences. Although it is useful to consider the connections between our dream lives and our waking lives, this doesn't really require formal analysis.

Ask others about their dreams and listen with the same interest you would offer their waking experiences. The two impact us in much the same way. Regularly sharing dreams with a partner is an effective way of deepening intimacy. Again, there is no need for "analysis." Simply listen and share your thoughts and feelings about the dream as you would for waking experiences. Many cultures around the world ritually share dreams in the morning. In the same way we might ask children how their day went at school, we can establish a routine of asking them about how their night went in the dream world.

Dreaming can be seen as a kind of spiritual gestation period preceding our rebirth into a new waking day. I believe that opening one's heart and mind to the dream world is a courageous and irrevocable act. When we push past our fear and judgment and dare to go to the edge, we witness a vast and infinite expanse beyond our wildest imagination. We can never be complacent with living only within the constraints of mundanity again. Opening to the dream world changes the way we look at life, ourselves and each other forever, and we will not want to go back.