Stockbridge — “I love dreams. I hate dreams.” With these words, her therapy began. She knew I was interested in dreams and that I had written a book on the subject.
After a short pause, I asked her to say more. And so she did for the next severalyears. But at that first moment, I thought I had some sense of what she meant, because I, too, have loved and hated dreams. They terrified me as a small child. They pleasured me in middle school. They puzzled me as a grownup. They have fully occupied me as a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. They delight me as an old man. They have expressed my dearest hopes and my most grotesque and worrisome fears.
It seems to me that the wide range and freedom of dreams emerge from a mind free from being watched, even free from being watched by oneself. And they disappear from memory so quickly. They come and go in the dark and barely leave a trace or in an opposite way, they can change one’s life forever. Dreams tend to go free in untold, unfettered directions — into realms of extreme horror, or into realms of play, pleasure, pain, prophecy, problem solving. They take us wherever they will into all imaginable manner of experience — to heaven, to hell, to the market, to a child’s classroom, to the body of one’s beloved or one’s deepest enemy. They carry us into unforgettable nightmares, into realms of ecstasy, into the new and the old, into the ordinary and the extraordinary, into the wilderness of untamed imagination.
Thus, the odyssey of nighttime dream voyage is a continuous side of human experience, from birth to death, most often, however, entirely under the radar. It is little wonder to love dreams. It is little wonder to hate dreams. But the greatest wonder of all, for me, is the way, in the modern world, that we tend to ignore them. This is not always how things have been. Dreams, in different eras and in different cultures, have been given some prominence. However, in our modern world, perhaps ignoring them makes a kind of sense. What we don’t need in our overly busy, information saturated contemporary lives, for goodness sakes, is to have more to think about. Perhaps it’s best to have our dreams, in their own way and for their own purposes, light up our sleeping minds and then go their own way, quietly disappearing from view, when we wake.
But whether or not it may be useful to remember them or to forget them, I can’t help but continue to wonder about them and I ask you to join me in thinking about them. My new book is a second effort to share with you some of what has been on my mind about dreams, this extraordinary and lately most often ignored side of human life.
We can enter the world of dreams through many portals. The two I am most interested in is (1) the portal to the experience of dreams themselves, i.e., the dream in the mind. And (2) the broader picture of the way the dream has been considered in different cultures and at different times — i.e., the dream in the world. My first writing — “Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams” mostly concerned itself with this first doorway — the dream in the mind and in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. This second writing — “The Canary in the Mind: On the Fate of Dreams in Modern Life,” concerns itself with the way dreams have been regarded in different cultures and in different eras and with the way they are being regarded and transformed in our contemporary lives. The guiding question is: Can the study of dreams bring some enlightenment as we go down the rabbit hole of electronic, digital, robotic technology? Can they light up understanding of and feeling for our rapidly changing lives as we live through massive dislocation, as we leave behind our old forms and move into a world so different from the familiar?
In ancient times, dreams provided some orientation within the mysteries of prescientific life. Can they once again provide orientation as we disconnect from old moorings? This central question of this writing is: Can dreams bring us back to ourselves at the same time as we turn more and more into machines?