Dreams, nightmares, and bogeys
By probing into the depths of our mind, we can understand and free ourselves of our dreams or nightmares, says Vanitha Vaidyalingam
I dream the same dream over and over again!” said my friend, making a woebegone face. I looked at him curiously and asked, “What is the dream about?” A little embarrassed, he replied “I would rather not say. It is very weird, and all of you will laugh at me.” After a lot of persuasion and promises that we would not laugh, he revealed, “It is really a very strange dream experience. I dream that I am flying through the air, sitting in Sukhasana (with legs crossed and folded with the heels resting on each thigh). I am looking down at people. They all appear like ants crawling busily on an anthill. I feel a sense of exuberance and detachment from all that is happening below. Slowly, I glide down into the town and see many of my relatives and friends. I am so happy to see them and go forward to greet them and embrace them. They ignore me and act as if they cannot see me. I try to desperately get their attention. But they continue to move around as if they really cannot see me. Suddenly, I realise that I am disembodied and they actually cannot see me. This terrifies me, and I get up sweating and moaning.” His story was greeted with fearful silence. Slowly, each member around the table started speaking about their own pet nightmares and bogeys.
The conversation that ensued that day is the genesis of this article. What are dreams, nightmares, and bogeys? Why do we dream? What is the meaning of dreams? Are we receiving messages from our subconscious as Jung and Freud would have us believe? Or are these dreams just collages spewed out by an overactive brain? Being subject to lucid dreaming myself, I wanted to know!
When I set out to explore the world of dreams, I knew I was stepping into the world that is occupied by doyens of psychology—some really big names. So, right from the start, I would like to make it very clear that I am not making an attempt to find something to fit in any theory propounded by these doyens nor am I attempting to discredit their findings. My sole purpose is to examine dreams and dream objects experientially.
Everyone has dreams. Everyone distinguishes between dreams and nightmares. Bogeys are things that haunt our waking world and are not really a part of the dreaming universe. So, I will deal with bogeys separately.
Analysing the world of dreams and nightmares
Before launching into any kind of analysis about dreams and nightmares, I think it is important to get some definitions out of the way. We will all agree that there is a waking world, a dream world, and a deep sleep world.
The waking world is the world we experience when we are awake. We experience this world through our senses and relate to the sights and sounds around us using our memory of similar sights and sounds (I will elaborate on this later). We use our intellect to analyse these experiences and understand them using intellectual tools we have acquired in this lifetime. We are also restricted by physical limitations in this world.
We populate the dreaming world from the same repository of memories. However, we remove physical limitations and are able to teleport at will from point A to point B or fly (like my friend did in his dream) or dive deep into an ocean or do whatever we want to do. When we feel we are in control of the events in the dream, we have pleasant dreams. When our mind is out of our control and dredges up frightening memories we want to keep suppressed, we experience unpleasant dreams or nightmares. Physical discomfort can sometimes trigger a nightmare as the memory of the consequences of that discomfort can alarm the subconscious and generate a nightmare. For instance, an asthma patient may dream that they are suffocating because they are lying in a position that is compromising the free flow of air into their respiratory system.
Deep sleep is a state in which we have no awareness of the waking world or the dream world. Our memory seems to shut down and our intellect is asleep.
Let me elaborate on each of these states.
The waking state
We defined the waking state as the state in which we experience the world a) through our senses, b) drawing upon memory, and c) analysing the event with our intellect.
So what do each of these terms in italics mean?
‘Senses’ refers to the five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. What we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, are stored in our brain as memories. When the eyes see something, the brain immediately tries to relate that vision to similar visions experienced by us in the past. For example, if we see a spider, our brain tries to relate it to all the spiders we have seen in our life and our intellect will tell us that spiders are harmless provided they are not tarantulas. But if we suddenly see a three-eyed, four-armed, twenty-headed being descending upon us, our memory will fail (as we have never seen such a creature before) and our intellect will tell us it is a new experience which it cannot analyse for lack of information. As a consequence, your brain will be unable to process this information and will quickly instruct the body to go into survival (fight-or-flight) mode and adrenalin will course through your veins. In other words, you will experience a waking nightmare.
To reiterate, memory and intellect translate our daily sensory experiences into meaningful constructs, so that we can act or react appropriately.
The dream state
In the dream state, the physical limitations of the body and the activity of the senses disappear. Memory and intellect remain active. The memory generates images and the intellect analyses them. However, since there are no specific sensory stimuli that trigger the memory, the memories surface at random or are reverse-engineered by the intellect, which is still analysing some memory when the being went to sleep. For instance, if you are worried about your sick child and your intellect has been busy analysing inputs received by your body from seeing, touching, or holding the child or from something you heard from the doctor about the illness, the intellect will encourage the memory to dredge up those sensory impressions and provide the necessary grist to the mill. So you begin dreaming that the child has recovered (pleasant dream) or that the child’s health is gradually deteriorating, and you are forced to helplessly watch as the child dies before your eyes, and so on (nightmares). If you are a religious person, you may dream that you are visiting a distant temple to pray for the well-being of the child. Or you may dream that a new compound has been discovered which will cure the child completely, and so on.
In short, your memory and intellect remain active and engaged while you sleep, generating dreams and nightmares in accordance with the memories that are being dredged up.
The deep sleep state
This is the state in which both your memory and your intellect have shut down. You sleep dreamlessly and sensory perception-free.
Bogeys are a product of your fear fuelled by half-understood memories. For example, a parent may threaten a child who is naughty with dire consequences if he does not toe the line. Take the case of a child who stays out late and may be subtly threatened by a parent with “ghosts that live in the neem tree” or the “creatures that live in dark places.” Since the message is given by the parent, it is considered trustworthy by the brain. But since they are talking about something that is not yet in the experience of the child, it becomes an incomprehensible concept stored away in memory. The bogey will then manifest when the child has to go out in the dark at a later stage in life or has to sleep alone in a dark room. As adults, we may add other incomprehensible pieces of information to the original concept in an effort to build a context around it. Failing to do so, we will end up stringing one or more such incomprehensible, undefined memories together. We will thereby, populate the neem tree with ghosts and dark places with threatening beings.
In short, your memory provides an undefined piece of information to the intellect and the intellect experiences a data processing glitch resulting in the manifestation of a bogey.
Seeing your dreams, nightmares, and bogeys for what they are!
It is clear that the waking world, dreaming world, and the bogey world are populated through associative conceptualisations stored as memory and dynamic analysis by the intellect. Getting rid of a bogey or a nightmare may just require a re-definition of the memory, thought, or a physical adjustment to a sleep posture.
When psychiatrists and regression therapists work with you, they probe into the memory store in your brain and identify the undefined bits of information you hold. If these memories surface, they instruct the intellect to analyse them for what they are and reset your understanding of the memory. As you gain access to the un-defined bits of memory and the analytical light of the intellect shines upon them, you begin to realise that you had indeed been led into delusion by improper inputs received by your brain over a period of time. The memory is reset and becomes defined. Your dreams, nightmares, and bogeys may disappear.
However, you do not have to go to a psychologist for the analysis of every nightmare, dream, and bogey you may have created for yourself. If you have occasional dreams or nightmares, you can allow your intellect to probe into the memory that triggered them and reset your memory. You may try readjusting your physical sleep postures to ensure that your physical discomfort is not creating the dream or nightmare for you. If none of this works, or if you have persistent, debilitating dreams like my friend had (narrated at the beginning of this article), you may need to visit a psychiatrist or regression therapist for help.
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