Hey sleep enthusiast, have you ever found yourself waking up feeling bemused after an emotional dream? Maybe Googling the what a dream where you lose your teeth can tell you? Or how about waking up feeling anxious or disturbed after a nightmare? It can be frustrating to come out of an emotional rollercoaster of a bizarre dream to then need to go into a busy day at work. On the one hand, you may want to work out what your dreams are about, but on the other, you are rushing around in the morning and by the time the evening comes you just want to chill.
It’s a topic that has come up from time to time with clients in my work as a sleep coach. As a sleep geek, the relationship between dreams and how they can bring meanings, along with different states of consciousness is an area that I find fascinating. I encourage looking at dreams to explore more about their potential impact on mental well-being; plus they can offer valuable insights into our subconscious mind to help us navigate life's challenges.
We’ll look at what the science says about dreams and emotional processing, how Tibetan Buddhist traditions view dreams, as well as insights you may have from your dreams.
What does the science say about dreams and emotional processing?
Dream experiences can be a window into our emotions and inner thoughts. REM sleep is the stage of sleep where the brain processes emotions and memories. We may find that our dreams are packed with intense feelings and vivid images as the brain processes emotions and consolidates memories from recent times.
As well as managing everyday emotions and memories, dreams can also serve as a way for our minds to cope with traumatic memories - revisiting some of the more challenging emotions in a dream to help integrate experiences and reduce their impact on our overall mental well-being.
Research shows that ‘dreams can defuse emotional traumatic memories when the emotional regulation and the fear extinction mechanism are compromised by traumatic and frightening events, such as in the case of PTSD’.
Whilst this can be some intense work for our brains to get through, some lightness is added through the inclusion of bizarre elements in dreams. It serves to lessen the emotional intensity of traumatic experiences to ultimately help us manage and reduce their emotional impact.
Thank you to our brains for all this emotional labour they are getting through whilst we sleep! The same research summary also notes how lucid dreaming, being conscious of having a dream, could help as an ‘intervention for nightmare disorders’. That’s because there is a chance for the person having the dream to impact what’s happening and make it less distressing. This links with curious perspectives from Tibetan Buddhist traditions, which date back to around the 7th century!
How do Tibetan Buddhist traditions see dreams and consciousness?
According to these ancient traditions, sleep and dreams were considered an opportunity to practice coming into more expanded states of consciousness. That’s because the brain is still active, similar to how it is when we are in waking life, however without the distractions of events external to us.
Andrew Holecek, an ‘Author on meditation, lucid dreaming, non-dualism, and preparing to die from a Buddhist perspective’ summarised the Tibetan Buddhist approach as:
‘The inner yogas of dream and sleep are almost like a shortcut to enlightenment, a quick inner path. They work with aspects of the mind that are the shortest distance between you and awakening. But quick doesn’t mean easy. Because it’s more direct, it’s also more difficult. Still, knowing about the potential for rapid and enduring transformation can inspire you to undertake these practices and stick with them.’
So how did Tibetan Buddhists make the most of their sleep and its potential for ‘rapid and enduring transformation’? They saw different types of sleep states in terms of their potential for consciousness. Andrew Holecek describes them as:
This can be an ‘entertainment centre’ for fun - flying, running up walls and playfully bending what may seem possible in reality. Lucid dreaming also offers the potential to transcend challenges that bring burdens in our wakeful states if we have the courage to face them.
This serves as a kind of 'laboratory' where we learn to confront challenges, such as nightmares. This practice begins by teaching us how to attain lucidity within our dreams, then extends the wisdom gained from the experience to assist us in awakening from the sometimes nightmarish aspects of our daily lives. It can be seen as a profound extension of lucid dreaming, one that questions the very nature of reality and, in doing so, sheds light on the challenges we encounter in our waking state
Essentially choosing to meditate whilst asleep: ‘If you want to go deeper, dream yoga can develop into sleep yoga, which is when awareness spreads not only into dreams but also into deep dreamless sleep. With sleep yoga, your body goes into sleep mode but your mind stays awake. You drop consciously into the very core of your being, the most subtle formless awareness. It’s an advanced meditation and an age-old practice in Tibetan Buddhism.’
‘When you use the darkness of the night to prepare for the darkness of death… If you believe in reincarnation and want to know what to do after you die, bardo yoga is for you’.
Deep stuff! Now I’m not suggesting that we aim to tick these all off in a dedicated Tibetan Buddhist sleep yoga ritual habit (the starting point of lucid dreaming takes a fair bit of practice on its own!). Yet this approach can be helpful to acknowledge the potential for sleep and dreams. Andrew Holecek likens these practices to tending to the hidden roots of the tree that represents your life. They show how working on the deep roots of your subconscious, you can bring profound changes to the conditions of the trunk, branches and leaves: your thoughts, behaviours and outcomes experienced in waking life.
What can your dreams tell you?
The number one piece of advice I share with clients who may be having emotionally intense, recurring or otherwise bizarre dreams is to start a dream journal. That way, you can track your emotions, themes, experiences and other insights to look back and spot themes. Check out the Elsewhere app that makes it easy, fun and even beautiful to log (they create AI images based on the details you share!).
Dream journalling is something that sleep coaching clients have found as a way to quickly uncover deeply held beliefs so they can then create significant chances that enhance their quality of life, well-being and Restful Sleep.
If you’re curious to get more insights about your dreams and want to create more consistent and Restful Sleep, you can read more of this series about dreams in the blog articles below. You are also welcome to book a free discovery call. This is your chance to ask any questions about your situation and find out how Restful Sleep coaching may be able to help.