Often times, the first thoughts I have upon waking hitch themselves quite naturally to the last car of the train of thought which had occupied my mind the day before, and the whole thing goes chugging along, merrily resuming it’s course of anxiety, concern, and responsibility. It is a train composed of all the sober-minded obligations of adulthood. The cobwebs of sleep are brushed aside and I am up out of bed, remembering what I need to do, and well on my way to doing what needs to be done. The train is there, waiting at the station of waking life and it has a tight schedule to keep. Unfortunately, this habit of continuity persists even when there isn’t anything urgent to attend to. I say “unfortunately” because in hitching this new car to the train of the previous day there’s little to no room left for the night’s dream which occurred between them.
It amazes me how quickly and easily the dream can sometimes be tossed away. One moment I’m at the side of the tracks, playing with my toy soldiers, deploying them in elaborate campaigns, creeping them around small rocks which stand in for mountains and wild tufts of grass which stand in for jungles. I am there immersed in all of the pleasant paraphernalia and engrossed in the consuming narrative of the dream. Then the train blows its whistle and I drop the soldiers where they lie and scramble up the embankment and rush for the train as it is already starting away. The dream, which composed my whole world only moments before, is abandoned at a moment’s notice. With each passing minute, with each passing mile farther down the track, it becomes harder and harder to remember. The details begin to fade. Who were the soldiers? Why were they fighting? It all made sense in the dream.
Philosophers, psychologists, and poets alike have all speculated about the dream’s elusive quality. It slips so easily from the grasp of the waking mind, like a message written in a special ink that’s designed to fade the moment it is exposed to direct light. Perhaps the gossamer threads of the dream experience dissolve easily against the bombardment of solid reality. Picture a movie projected against a sheet hanging on a clothesline in the dark. Beneath the stars, you become engrossed and invested in the reality of the film. The stars fade from your mind; you don’t even notice the wrinkles in the sheet. But then the sun comes up, and the whole dusty dessert landscape is illuminated. The images on the sheet fade. Everyone is standing around groggy, waiting for the pot of coffee to warm up over the fire. Someone takes the sheet down to use it as a tablecloth, and the whole thing is lost completely. Perhaps. I have nothing particularly enlightening or earth-shattering in the way of psychological theory to add to this line of inquiry, but I have made a few telling observations in my own personal experience over the years.
I’ve run across quite a number of adults in my life who claim not to dream at all or to never be able to remember their dreams. Nearly every one of these people were practical and fairly unimaginative individuals; people who rarely engaged in speculation or fantasy in their waking lives and who seemed concerned with little beyond the small, concrete details of their existence. Close on the heels of their declaration of never having dreams was an implicit sense that they considered dreams to be a waste of time, that they couldn’t be bothered or that they couldn’t care less about remembering them. I’m no psycho-analyst, but one can hardly escape the simple conclusion here that the retention of dreams is directly connected to the value which a person places on them. I’m sure that there may be obscure medical conditions which render a person incapable of remembering dreams, but I’m talking in a more general sense about those who don’t care to remember them.
And then there is my own experience in retrieving dreams. I have, on a number of occasions and often with considerable effort, caught myself in the act of discarding the dream, and I have gone back and tried to remember. There is that lucid moment when I wake, remember the concerns of the previous day, and with heavy lids and a dull yawn, I begin hitching up my car without giving the matter much reflection. But then there is a far more lucid moment which follows that one, where I start to wonder about those toys I dropped on the wayside, where I try to think back to that fragile fantasy which I had just callously popped like a soap bubble only moments before. On these occasions I always feel as though I had just been distracted from a delicate task which required my full concentration, as though sustaining the memory and the reality of the dream were woven together in the same act, as though I had access to the direct coding of my memory and I was writing the dream in even as I was experiencing it; in fact, experiencing it by remembering it. In other words, one big exposed apple cart that’s very vulnerable and easy to upset. Gathering the apples afterwards can be a little tricky.
Which brings me to the point of this chapter, which is to explore this technique of dream retrieval. I have used it for many years, and with a promising degree of success. There are days when I can’t lock on to more than the scattered refuse of the dream or sometimes nothing at all, but more often than not I have been able to retrieve at least some significant treasure from the dream. As I said above, all too often the dream gets popped like a soap bubble upon waking and reconstructing it can be tedious and downright forensic.
The hardest part can be figuring out where to begin. The dream can seem completely lost, jarred and shaken away. It was right there only a moment ago. You snap your fingers, but nothing comes to you. At this point, I’m sure most people can and do give up, and move on with their day, which is why people on average typically have such a small fraction of dreams to report. They remember only the tenacious dreams, those which latch on to the mind, which linger through-out the day and preoccupy the person’s thoughts. As a person who regularly retrieves and records their dreams, and as a person who adheres to the proposition that we dream each and every night, I can tell you that such lingering dreams are only the merest drop in the ocean of our actual dreaming. It’s just that your average person has little interest and no real reason to put any effort into recalling those dreams which don’t seem to automatically recall themselves. As a writer who has turned to dreams for material through-out the years, I never let it go that easily. I always at least try to remember.
In the absence of any solid detail which can give me a foothold on the dream, I begin with the most basic mood of the dream. This “mood” is something intangible, impossible to put into words and difficult to give shape to. I have found that dreams have as many varieties and nuances of mood as people have faces or snowflakes have shape. In other words, although one dream’s mood may resemble another, no two are truly alike. So, in trying to sum up the mood of a dream with words like “melancholy” or “peaceful”, you are trying to catalog or categorize it, pigeon-holing it as a type and disregarding its uniqueness. When you hang a word like “melancholy” on a dream, you dull its flavor and anchor it in place. You have to let the mood of the dream stay loose and swim free.
So I have this slippery and elusive mood, and I let it lead me, rather than trying to hook it and reel it in. I close my eyes and dwell on this mood, patiently and passively. If I cannot get a handle on this mood or sustain the feeling of it, if I try to recall the dream and in fact feel nothing, not even a vague impression, then I am forced to reluctantly concede my efforts right from the beginning. There has to at least be a mood. I have to luxuriate in this mood, explore its almost sensual texture. Whether the mood might be characterized as pleasant or unpleasant, I must surrender to it, allow myself to become enveloped in it, follow it with curiosity as it leads me back to the place where I so recently indulged in it.
Given a calm and receptive enough state of mind, this mood ideally begins to take shape in some kind of detail, a room, a scattered light shining through a window, an inky twilight beneath a tree. At this point it is best for me not to inquire whether I’m being led to actual dream content or whether my mind is simply struggling to find expression for the mood. I hold my tongue and let the process play out. There is no clear dividing line here, but there are pin-pricks of recognition that tell me that I am indeed uncovering actual dream stuff. It is though I am dreaming the dream all over again, hot on the trail of those feelings and impulses which instigated it in the first place.
This mood, of course, is sometimes content to simply swim me around in circles, reveling in its own flips and acrobatics, and savoring the feel of the cool clear water. After all, this mood is an end unto itself, existing simply to be experienced and enjoyed, not just some utilitarian tool designed to lead me to dream content. I must respect it as such. Grasp at it too hard, or try to force it to lead me somewhere, and it will lead me no where. It will just squirm under my grip and take me where I force it to take me, which is likely to be anywhere but this dream that I can’t seem to remember. So I hang back, calm down, relax and be patient. I take that long, cliched’, deep breath.
Rather than try to force it, or assume control of the process, I can nudge this mood or offer it a kind of intriguing bait. I’m trying to move from shades and impressions to the solid details, the places and things and people and events of the dream. So, I open up my mind’s repository of these things, like a treasure chest of golden emanations. I explore these things with the mood, gently reminding myself that I’m trying to remember a dream, and seeing if anything fits or looks familiar. It’s easy to become side-tracked or nostalgic at this point, as though my mind were cleaning out a closet full of old memories, but again, I gently remind myself that I’m trying to remember a dream, and could I please, pretty please, hurry up because I do need to get to work one of these days. *Sigh* Time for another one of those calm, deep, breaths.
I usually begin with people I know or knew. I let them wander in like some kind of casting call in this hazy netherworld between sleep and waking. But rather than scouting for new talent, I’m looking to cast them in parts they’ve already played, or I print up a bill saying that I’m looking for actors who bear a strong resemblance to personages in my production of a dream, which is naturally “based on a true story” and has already closed its last show. I circle their heads; I scratch my chin and try to remember if they were there, lurking in the background or playing the starring role, a confidant on some adventure or an adversary who reached out in the dark and slapped me in the face. Sometimes landing on the right person can unearth a huge chunk of the dream.
And that’s how it tends to come to me: in “chunks.” These loose fragments hint at the larger structure of the dream, like the scattered pieces of the mast and bowsprit of a sunken galleon protruding from the sediment on the ocean floor. This is where the dream’s mood in its frolicking has led me. This is where my work in retrieving the dream begins in earnest. I even have an inexplicable sense of the chronology of these fragments, where they belong in the narrative of the dream. I think, “Well, I was in that room where my brother was throwing tuna fish cans out the window, and some point before that I had that knife throwing act at the carnival.” The older stuff almost always seems more remote, more deeply buried, darker and murkier. I brush away the sediment. I look for paths and details that connect them. I work with patience and care, as these fragments are brittle. Try to hoist the whole dream up by an exposed portion of a porthole window, and I’m liable to find a rough, splintered piece of the hull torn from the wreckage. Needless to say, ordinary waking logic doesn’t connect these dream pieces. I didn’t arrive at my childhood friend’s house by any means as prosaic as driving there. A tripping of thought and feeling and the loose associations of imagination and memory led me to that long hallway where she stood silhouetted in the sepia glow behind the lace curtains. I have to return to that moment, dream in it again, and let my memory feel its own way back to what transpired beforehand. To remember the dream, you have to think like the dream…or rather, to dream like the dream.
Although I have conducted countless such excavations, I have never, to my satisfaction, been able to remember a dream or a night of dreaming in its absolute entirety. There are always loose ends and rough edges, tantalizing leads which suggest that there was far more to the dream than what I have been able to bring to light. Maybe this is inevitable. A dream never feels like something that is neatly packaged, nicely contained in a gilded frame. A dream feels messy, organic, with moist roots digging deep and spreading out into all of the far reaches of the mind. Maybe every dream is infinite, a separate eternity contained in each night’s slumbers. Maybe there’s no hope of getting it all. I just know that there always feels like there’s more.
But though I am reluctant to give it up, there comes a point when I have to accept as much as I have. I eventually come up against spots of obscurity, dark impenetrable places in the dream that are impossible to remember. I have to salvage what I can or risk losing the whole thing. Gently, I bring the submerged wreckage of this dream to the surface to find out if it is still a sea-worthy craft, to see if it’s something that I can explore with fascination, something that can lead me to truth or insight or curiosity. I consider the tattered and torn masts and the broken planking, and I take stock of whether it was worth the trouble. I consider it in the first light of a new day and the rich blending of colors on the horizon. I consider whether, in it’s own peculiar charm and beauty, it expresses that mood which sent me scavenging for it to begin with.
I’ve used the term “technique” as though I’m sharing some secret method with you, but remembering dreams really just begins with a fascination with them, a sincere and open-hearted belief that they are something important to you. Beyond that, you need a pinch of patience and a fluidity of mind, as well as a willingness to indulge in your imagination. I believe we forget dreams so easily and remember them with so much effort, because it is such an alien frame of mind, because the concerns of the dream fall away like shadows before the concerns of waking life, because they come from a child-like part of us that we spend so much time resigning to the background of our thoughts. A few waking moments spent reflecting on the wild, absurd, adventure that this child was trying to share with us can make a world of difference. You’d be amazed at how having a weird little dream tucked away in the corner of your thoughts can take the edge off the day’s stress and anxiety.