Dreams: Catharsis of Mind and Spirit
an Interview with Professor Nori Muster
by Nandini G., for Virtual University
Professor Nori Muster has studied dreams since the 1960s and has developed intriguing theories on why we dream and what these elusive images mean. I interviewed Nori for my journalism class [at VU], and her insights on dreams make fascinating reading.
Nori earned her bachelor's degree at the University of California (Santa Barbara) and her master's at Western Oregon University. In addition to her dream research, she has written a book, Betrayal of the Spirit, published by the University of Illinois Press. Currently, she lives in Los Angeles with a parakeet, a zebra finch, and her pet fish.
Q: A philosophical question—what is the single most important thing that sets the dream world apart from the real world?
A: Basically, we wake up to the same world every morning, but at night we can imagine ourselves into any situation.
Q: Are we really just dreaming them, or is it possible that dreams somehow reflect some higher or ultimate reality?
A: We create our waking dream through karma (past actions) and kama (desires). Luckily, once we become aware that we are dreaming we can control the dream a little more. This has been practiced for many centuries by Tibetan monks. The Dalai Lama talks about forgiveness and tolerance, coming to peace with the dream.
Q: So are we living in another world beyond this physical world when we are dreaming?
A: I have often wondered about that. I believe some people stay locked in their own heads when they dream, while others join together in collective dreams that take place on another level of reality, but it is still the earthly realm. On rare occasions, a dreamer may visit god's world. A genuine experience of god in a dream could inevitably have life changing consequences.
Q: Universal themes, archetypes, and symbols are found in dreams. Is this our universal mind at work as expressed by Jung or are these just coincidences?
A: Carl Jung said that we are all part of one mind, known as the collective unconscious. His patients dreamed of symbols that they were unfamiliar with on the conscious level, but which provided profound realizations. This is no coincidence. It is as if we somehow know more than what we may have experienced in one short lifetime.
Q: Did your experience as a former Hare Krishna member cast new light on the nature of dreams?
A: Basically, no, it didn't shed any light on dreams for me. The Hare Krishnas tend to dismiss dreams as a reaction to something you ate for dinner. They tell members to forget their dreams, which is a mistake. I went along with their rules for a while, then in 1985 I began having a troubling reoccurring dream. A man I worked for at the time encouraged me to buy a dream book and look for the dream's meaning. I had to keep it quiet, since reading outside literature and keeping a dream journal were bending the organization's rules.
Q: REM sleep, in which dreams appear, refreshes us. Why is that?
A: The psyche gets a sense of satisfaction from enacting dramas in the sleeping state. It is a catharsis, like watching a good movie. Also, if it is a dream where you join the collective dream state, I believe that we meet others and share our experiences. While this action is playing out, our eyes move as if it were really happening. This communing with the collective is a relaxing and reassuring exercise that leaves us feeling refreshed.
Q: People deprived of REM sleep, because of medications or physical problems, complain of feeling tired even after a long sleep. Can REM sleep be induced by training a person to have dreams?
A: There are different unconscious states. If someone is on drugs or cannot have REM sleep for biological or emotional reasons, their body may rest, but their mind cannot relax and unwind. Doctors are looking for sure fire ways to induce REM sleep. The problem I see with the medical model is that they keep trying to conquer the body and mind through drugs and machines. I believe in natural, holistic health care. The body and mind will heal on their own, given the chance.
Q: Why do dreams disguise their message in hidden language, and how can that language be decoded?
A: The language of dream symbolism is incredibly complex. Often, the psyche uses a cryptic symbolic language to shield the dreamer from disturbing realities.
Q: Why is it important to keep a dream journal?
A: Capturing dreams on paper allows you to refer back to them for inspiration, or process them further. Sometimes the meaning of a dream will become obvious years after the fact.
Q: How can writers and artists use the power of dreams to enhance their work?
A: Dreams are like little motors. They contain emotional energy. An artist or writer can pull a symbol or image from a dream journal and make it come alive in a story or work of art. I will be discussing that in my class.
Here is an additional interview on dreams given by Nori Muster in 2004.
1) What are the different dream images that you come across?
Dream images are infinite. People dream about everything from penguins to race cars. Plus in dreams, the subconscious mind can make up things that don't even exist. If you look through a dream dictionary, you will see thousands of symbols, and that's just a start. Some of the most common symbols are people, houses, places, cars, animals, and scenarios like missing the bus, being late for school or not having the homework assignment, or traveling.
2) Are there specific images that come across, or are they very general and pertain only to the individual?
Most dream symbols are common, because of the collective unconscious described by Carl Jung. If the human race didn't ascribe common meanings to symbols, then dream dictionaries would be totally useless. Also, symbols appear in literature, art, music, etc. Most people interpret symbols in similar ways. For example, taking an elevator or escalator up represents ascending into the higher self, or higher states of consciousness. The things you're wearing in a dream represent opinions or attitudes that you wear. Dreaming of a house represents the dreamer's own soul or self.
However, each individual may interpret the symbols slightly differently. For example, if someone who has had a terrible experience with an escalator dreams of an escalator, it might represent fear instead of the usual meaning. If someone who lives in a black house (like, if it's under construction) dreams of a black house, it will mean something entirely different than if someone else dreams of a black house. Each person overlays his or her own meaning on common symbols.
Therefore, when interpreting a dream, you have to look at what the symbol means to the dreamer, and what feelings the symbol evokes for the dreamer. Feelings are more important than the specific symbol.
3) What are the most common types of images you come across?
In my own personal dreams, the most common images are traveling, fancy hotels, swimming pools, the ocean, being in school, and being in my old family home, or my father's old house. I also dream about the Hare Krishnas and people from the Hare Krishna group, since I was in that group and wrote an expose of that group. (see: surrealist.org/betrayalofthespirit)
4) How do you think dream analysis helps people?
Dreams give people a realistic picture of what's going on in the subconscious mind. Between the conscious and subconscious is usually a lot of denial. So interpreting dreams helps to cut through denial to what is really important. Carl Jung said that he made some of his most important self-discoveries and life changing decisions based on information he received in dreams. All dreams offer help and information, but it's especially important to interpret disturbing dreams and nightmares. Understand what they mean may prevent a lot of trouble in the dreamer's life.
5) What are the different categories used in dream analysis? I read about colors being important as a category, but are there other categories besides color?
You can interpret symbols, colors, feelings, and impressions you feel when you first wake up. The feelings associated with a dream are the most important and telling details. There are also stories and story fragments, like scenes, which also carry a lot of significance. A story or story line put a lot of energy and information into a small package. Stories are another kind of symbol. Like, if I say "Cinderella," that one word symbolizes a lot of images: evil step-mothers, jealous step-sisters, dashing princes, a pumpkin turned into a coach, mice, midnight, etc. There are also archetypes. These symbolize the basic patterns of life.
6) What do these categories symbolize?
When you put together all the categories of dreams you come up with the dream language. It's important to understand the dream language because that's the language of the subconscious mind. It's not based on words, but on pictures, scenes, symbols, stories, archetypes, and feelings. It's just like learning Spanish or French, because it's a language all its own. Each person uses a different dialect. The subconscious mind is talking about something and uses the dream language to say what it wants to say. If people ignore the dream language, they lose out on a lot of insight.
7) How do you know what dreams mean? Do you base it off of a person's experience or are there general guidelines to symbol's meanings?
There are many levels of understanding dreams. They may even mean different things to you at different times in your life. They are neat little gifts from the subconscious; communications from deep inside. To understand a dream, the first step is to look up the symbols in a dream dictionary. Next, work with the meaning of each symbol and try to see what the symbol means to you, in addition to what it says in the dream dictionary. You may even have to forget about what the dream dictionary says if it seems wrong. The next step is to put all the symbols together, like words in a sentence, and understand the ovreall message of what the subconscious is trying to say. When you have the right interpretation, it will "click" with the dreamer, which means it will feel right. It will make sense. If it doesn't click and make sense, it either means the dreamer is in heavy denial or the interpretation is wrong.
8) What is the guarantee that dream analysis is true? Have you ever been wrong in an analysis?
Dream analysis is true. The trick is to find the right interpretation. There are always more levels beyond what we can understand. The dream language is very deep and seems to be endlessly meaningful, just as poems and stories can have deeper and deeper meanings the closer you look.
Usually, the person who has the dream is the only one who can say for sure if an interpretation is right. Dream interpreters like me can only offer ideas, then it's up to the dreamer to say what the dream really means.
9) Do you think that dreams are a result of external and internal factors or does only one of them come into play?
External factors often influence dreams. For example, if you leave the radio on, it can influence your dreams. If you have a stomach ache or have to use the bathroom, you may dream about that. Everything goes into dreams, mental, spiritual, physical, external, internal. Also, your dreams will continue to try to communicate with you until you get the message. So if you forget your dream, don't worry, the same message will come again in another dream pretty soon.
10) What has your personal experience been like? Have you ever had any unique experiences?
In 1984, right before I was supposed to marry my husband, I started to have recurring dreams about an old boyfriend. It was very disturbing because I was still in love with the boyfriend, yet marrying my husband. Every counselor I went to told me that the old boyfriend represented something in myself and that it was not necessary to contact the actual person to resolve the dreams. I tried and tried to get rid of the dreams, but they continued for ten years. Finally, I divorced my husband and went to look for the old boyfriend. I have now been with him for ten years and we have lived together for four years. I would say that was the most impressive dream experience I've had, where my dreams actually made me change something major in my life. It has taken a lot of work and I'm not sure if I would do it again, but the dreams led me to where I am today.
I've had a lot of other interesting dream experiences, for example talking with my late father, where he has encouraged me to pursue my writing and art career. I also had an important dream about the guru of the Hare Krishnas, where he encouraged me to write my book and leave the organization, but still believe in Krishna. I also had great dreams about dancing with Krishna or talking to Jesus, those sorts of things.
One valuable tool is to go back to sleep and re-work the ending of a dream. About a year ago I had a dream that I was in my father's old house. There was a weak place on the roof that we didn't fix for a long time, then it rained really hard and the whole roof caved in. I woke up feeling horrible, as though it represented a very big disappointment in my life. I had time to go back to sleep, so I wanted to try to fix the roof. Since it was just a dream, I decided that I could fix it by putting clear plexiglass in the weak area, so that was how it started. Then I fell asleep and had a dream where my father got a good roofing company to fix it right. When I woke up I felt really great. Thinking about that dream still feels really good, although I don't understand all the meanings of the symbols or of the dream itself, I just know that I'm glad we fixed it.
You can also program your dreams by thinking about what you want to dream about before you fall asleep. Usually you dream about whatever is on your mind during the day, but you can also put a specific question to your subconscious and request a dream to resolve the issue. Just write down the question in your dream journal, then in the morning (or the next time you dream) write down the dream. Later on when you read through your journal you will see how the dream answers your question.
It's much more difficult to understand a dream soon after it happens. If you look through dreams you had a few years ago and remember the circumstances, the dream will make a lot more sense. That's one reason why it's good to keep a dream journal. You can still learn things from dreams you had ten years ago. You can also use dream journals to find ideas for stories and drawings.