Sleep, Dreaming, and Well-being

Copyright © 2006, by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

Study after study has confirmed the importance of adequate, sound sleep as an essential ingredient for physical, psychological, and social well-being, a basic key to good health along with proper nutrition and exercise. Some experts now consider seven to eight hours of sleep even more crucial than the food and exercise components of our lifestyle.

Yet far too many people in the fast-paced modern world are known to be not getting nearly enough sleep, often less than seven hours in every 24-hour cycle, and this “sleep deficit” builds up over time to possibly create major health problems.

In a huge number of cases, the lack of sufficient sleep is due to the fact that people are simply too busy, either compelled by their duties and responsibilities to stay awake working (sometimes two or even three jobs) and doing chores or looking after family members (children or elders). Or else people are voluntarily giving up sleep to indulge certain pleasures, hobbies or addictions—TV, videogames, surfing the Internet, gambling, talking on the phone, etc.

In a certain significant percentage of cases, people aren’t getting enough sleep because of sleep disturbances, and one of the chief culprits here is disturbing dreams—nightmares and obsessive dreams that leave people with a lingering sense of “incompleteness” and agitation when they get up in the morning, often after a restless night of tossing and turning, even night sweats and night terrors.

So let us look here at how we can sleep more easily and soundly, and dream more freely without disturbing conflict..

First, I would strongly recommend that anyone plagued with nightmares and night terrors investigate the possibility that they might be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, which can often sit at the root of sleep disorders and disturbing dreams, and cause a range of other symptoms (anxiety, depression, etc.) as identified in recent editions of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR is the latest edition).

One of the best modalities for working with PTSD, in fact, a treatment of choice, is a therapeutic intervention known as EMDR, Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, invented by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s. Adopted by over 50,000 psychotherapists as part of their training, EMDR (see has been extensively tested among war veterans, rape survivors, earthquake and flood survivors, and others who have endured traumatic episodes and who have thereafter suffered severe sleep disorders as an unfortunate result. No one knows exactly how EMDR works so effectively, but among other things it appears to help restore the communication between the two brain hemispheres (left and right), so that these parts of the brain can better process and integrate the psychological issues that stress and unsettle us over the days, weeks, months, and years and which can leave us psychologically "stuck" or "hung up"—psychologically caught or fixated on certain events that our psyche simply doesn't know how to process. EMDR utilizes either back-and-forth eye-movements or a series of non-invasive back-and-forth "touch" sequences (e.g., the therapist alternately touches the client's right knee, left knee, right knee, left knee, etc.) The eye movements or touch sequences stimulate both the left and right sides of the brain and help it come back into better communication and "synchronization" with itself. It often occurs that just a few or several EMDR sessions can powerfully release the underlying trauma and conflicts, and the person rapidly comes back to enjoying good psycho-physical health. See Shapiro’s basic book for laypersons: Francine Shapiro & Margot Silk Forrest, EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress & Trauma, BasicBooks, 1997. Among her other works, Shapiro has written a textbook on the topic for professionals, Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols & Procedures, Guilford Press, 2nd edition, 2001.

Assorted forms of meditation, deep relaxation and exercise are well-known by experts to be conducive to better, sounder sleep.

Another aid to sound sleep, especially when going across time zones or working night-jobs and sleeping in the day, is a judicious use of melatonin tablets. Melatonin is, of course, the body's own organic chemical designed to induce a relaxed drowsiness and maintain restful sleep for hours.

It has been found that one can stimulate the body's own natural production of melatonin by dimming the lights in the last one or two hours before one intends to go to sleep. One would not want to keep an array of bright lights on in one's room (while, say, reading, meditating, exercising or watching TV) right up to the point where you turn out all the lights and go to sleep. The idea is to have softer, dimmer light in one's environment in the last 1-2 hours before sleep to allow the body to start producing more of its own melatonin. On this very important health strategy, see T.S. Wiley’s book (with Bent Formby), Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival, Atria ed., 2001.

An overarching point here is that one must respect the various rhythms of our bodymind known as circadian rhythms (pronounced: “sur-kay-dee-un”), which function according to an internal biological clock that is set by daily-nightly cycles of light and dark. A major health secret, therefore, is to wake up naturally with sunlight’s dawn (sunlight triggers serotonin, the feel-good chemical making us alert and active) and then go to bed not too many hours after dusk, thus aligning with an ancient rhythm of light-dark cycles established for millions of years among not just most of the higher primates but countless millions of other species of plants and animals on Earth. Not to live in accordance with these circadian rhythms in sync with the light-dark cycles is to be seriously out of tune, out of rhythm—a recipe for bad health.

Honoring these circadian rhythms and getting the right amount of melatonin will insure that one’s brain/mind can undergo the usual five healthy stages of sleep that come after the initial, rather hallucinatory hypnagogia phase—namely, stages 1, 2, 3 and 4 sleep. Stage-4 sleep is the deepest, soundest, and most refreshing sleep state, wherein the brain displays the least amount of “busyness” and the slowest, smoothest, most synchronized waves of electric activity as measured by an EEG and known as “delta waves.” After the brain moves back into successively shallower and busier sleep stages 3, 2, and 1 (tending to be associated with theta waves, alpha waves, and the more agitated beta waves), one experiences the fifth and final sleep-stage, REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep). This is the sleep stage most usually associated with vivid dreaming. Note that some identifiable mental work also goes on in those lighter stages of sleep, stages 1 and 2. Stage 4's deep, dreamless sleep, which, incidentally, was first distinguished from dreaming sleep not by western science but by the ancient sages and yogis as documented in ancient India's Upanishads, is a deep state of utter peace wherein Awareness rests unto Awareness, without any egoic sense of body, mind, or world. (Those who are afraid of death or of "losing the ego" in spiritual realization can be at least partially reassured by this amazing fact that every night in deep, dreamless sleep we utterly let go the body, mind, ego, world, memories, plans, and concerns. We effectively "die" to self and world and float free in the vastness, stillness and deeply peaceful contentedness of ego-free Awareness or Divine Spirit.)

These five stages—1, 2, 3, 4, and REM—comprise one full sleep cycle, lasting, for most people, around 90 minutes (plus or minus up to 15 minutes). Hence, during an average night’s sleep, an individual will experience some four to five of these sleep cycles. And note that more of the “stage 4” deep-sleep-time occurs in the first two cycles of the night, whereas more REM sleep-time occurs in the later cycles of one’s overall sleep period. So, if one is not getting enough sleep, one tends to be running a deficit of REM-time and dreaming. Studies show that depriving a person of sufficient time in dreaming can deleteriously affect them on a psychological level, whereas depriving people of so much sleep that they’re not getting enough of either stage-4 sleep or REM sleep affects them both physiologically and psychologically.

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As for working with one’s dreams, the first thing to note is that many people have a difficult or almost impossible time recalling their dreams. A simple strategy to better consciously remember dream content is to get in the habit of not moving when you first awaken; or, if you do move, then immediately move back to the bodily position you were in when you first awoke. For some reason, moving too soon “snaps” the conscious mind’s connection with the dreams that have been emanating from the subconscious aspect of the mind. It is like letting go the string on a helium balloon while standing outside. Forget about getting it back.

The essential trick in dream recall, if a dream-sequence is not easily forthcoming, is to passively and receptively allow a dream image to come to one’s conscious mind upon awakening. Once some dream content has come to mind—involving a dream environment (a place or setting) and a dreamed person, animal or thing—then one can allow the dream content just prior to that scenario to also come to mind, and then the dream content just before that…. Pretty soon, you’ll find you have an entire long dream sequence which can then be “played forward” after retrospectively gleaning these pieces of your dream-life upon awakening.

Okay. Now you have some dream content with which to play. I consider the very best and most "respectful" of dream-processing techniques to be that found in the Gestalt psychology approach invented in the early 1950s by Frederick “Fritz” Perls (1893-1970). Gestalt is a German word meaning “coherent whole.” One can read more on this movement within humanistic psychology with two good books by Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Bantam, 1971; In and Out of the Garbage Pail, Bantam, 1972; and other works by Perls and his followers.

I believe the Gestalt therapy method to be a far better way to get to the root of problematic dreams than external "dream interpretation" by others. Frankly, I don’t think much of the usual Freudian or Jungian (or other) depth-psychology approach to dreams wherein someone else interprets your dreams for you. Some gifted therapists, like the late Carl Jung, can fairly consistently help one to understand certain symbolism showing up in one’s dreams. But therapists are often really off the mark in suggesting what is being symbolized by another person’s dream content.

By contrast, in the dream-Gestalting technique one’s own subconscious mind comes up with its own interpretation(s) and then these can be worked with to bring insight into and release from the underlying conflicting dynamics that produce the disturbing dream-imagery in the first place.

The dream-Gestalting technique is actually quite simple: in reviewing a dream once you have awakened, pick one especially notable, salient person, thing, happening, or locale that seems to have the most emotional "charge" to it, then allow this person, thing, happening or locale to have a "voice" and speak. You don't actually have to do this out-loud, but you can if you wish. (In a coaching session, I would have the client do this out loud so we could both hear what comes forth.) It is important to allow oneself to be very open and free about this, in a kind of "stream-of-consciousness" reporting from the view-point of this dreamed person-thing-happening-locale. You can say anything, no matter how strange or wild it may sound. In other words, don't censor this voice of the personified dream-element.

What happens is that, sooner or later, material from the subconscious will get revealed that has not been allowed to be "owned" by the conscious mind.

An example will make this method much more clear: a woman might have had several dreams of big monsters, gigantic army tanks, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. In this gestalt technique, she picks the most recent dream, say, of an earthquake. She allows the "earthquake" to be personified and to "speak." As part of the stream-of-consciousness verbiage, she (now as the "earthquake" personified) might say, "I am so very powerful!! I have the power to make people do what I want. No one is going to act the way they normally do when I begin to move and shake things up!!"

This would be typical of what might unfold, for, as we well know, in this still-male-dominated society, with an imbalance of power between the genders, women are routinely dis-empowered, not allowed to have decision-making power, treated as "soft, feminine little sweethearts," etc.

Because of these social psychological factors, a woman's own power may not, in fact, be "owned." And so her sense of her own power may have to go "underground," into the subconscious mind, not capable of being consciously expressed in daily living. This dis-owned sense of personal power would then only be able to express itself in the form of very powerful, disturbing dream images.

Here's another example: a young boy with a tremendously artistic, aesthetic aptitude is growing up in a family in Montana without a mother, and with a hyper-macho, "red-neck" father and four older macho brothers, who are all only interested in guns, hunting, sports, crude humor, etc. Just how much chance will the young boy have to consciously own and express his interest, say, in music, poetry, and painting animals? Not much! So his aesthetic sensitivity may have to go "underground" into the subconscious, and he may then adopt a role of pretending to be a very masculine, macho boy. And his aesthetic interests, now suppressed/repressed, may only be able to reappear in his dreams--say, in the form of meadows, flowers, soft furry rabbits, etc.

Gestalting his dreams, he could "become the meadow" or “become the soft, furry rabbit," and speak from their perspective, and thereby "own" his own softer, more creative, aesthetic, "feminine side" of the psyche so as to come into better balance as a fully developed, individuated human being.

And the same goes for the woman in the above example: in gestalting the powerful images of her dreams, she will quickly come into the experience of "owning" her own power, so that it doesn't have to "split off" and only be capable of being expressed as objects and happenings in her dream.

So this is, basically, how the "gestalt a dream" technique works, a wonderfully organic exercise in self-revelation and self-discovery.

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There's another strategy for working/playing with dreams—a very powerful strategy: learning how to "lucid dream," that is to say, becoming aware that you are dreaming while you are dreaming.

Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University (where western psychology’s first major sleep lab operated from the 1950s onward) is the great pioneer in this field and has written the basic books on the topic. See his classic, Lucid Dreaming, first published in 1985, available in newer editions since then; other authors have also written about lucid dreaming. You can get from Stephen and his colleagues' "Lucidity Institute" in northern California (; phone: 209-254-8597) the NovaDreamer, a basic kit with a black-out "eyeshade/goggle" device containing a small computer chip that will signal you with a flashing light or gentle alarm sound while you are dreaming to help you become "awake in your dreams" and lucidly dream them. By becoming lucid in your dreams, you can confront and "gestalt" any disturbing, terrifying dream images so that you don't have to wait to process them when you wake up in the morning. In other words, you can process and "gestalt" your dreams right there and then within the dream itself!

The basic realization in lucid dreaming is that whatever happens is a form of one's own subconscious or Consciousness trying to express itself. You can welcome it, befriend it, ask it what it’s doing in your dream and what it wants to tell you about yourself or your life as an expression of the One Divine Awareness.

Among other fun challenges in lucid dreaming, one can inquire, “What kind of body am I limited to displaying, and do I need any body at all when dreaming?” For instance, one can shape-shift and become luminously angelic, or become beams of light (of whatever colors you wish), or a gigantic swirling magical substance of creatively expressive love, or purely spiritual “Clear Light”—pure, pristine, bodiless Awareness, freely enjoying as Host whatever “guest”-phenomena spontaneously arise in the dream.

Here’s another question one can ask of oneself in a lucid dream: “What is the source of light in my dream?” Surely, one doesn’t need artificial light or sunlight or moonlight to see the various dream beings, objects and environments. Something else entirely lights up the world of dreams. What could it possibly be? This takes one even deeper into the mystic realization of the very nature of Consciousness or Awareness Itself, Self-Luminous and Dazzling as the subjective Host or Witness of what-ever happens in the play of phenomena.

And for this mystical Self-Realization or God-Realization, you may wish to consult the many essays at the Nondual Spirituality section of our website.

Enjoy thySelf, the Self of us all, the Divine Dreamer of the various physical and subtle worlds of manifestation!