My Dream Self and Me

I am hurrying down the street under a gray winter sky. I notice several eerily familiar toys arranged in a storefront, and I stop to look. A flood of realizations arises. First, I know that am dreaming, asleep in a bed in a tiny one-room apartment in the servants’ quarters of a ritzy Paris condominium. Second, I recognize the setting: a dream version of Delaware Avenue, a main drag in Buffalo, New York, that passes by my parents’ house. I know that this dream street crosses the river into Canada, and that my dream version of Toronto is right on the other side of the border. I once drove a dream bus down this Delaware Avenue, discovering the hard way that I didn’t know how to drive a bus. I’ve climbed down the crumbling stone bridge that spans the river, leaping lightly from the carved railing to a thin ledge far below and from there down to a moss-covered outcropping, unafraid of falling into the dangerously fast rushing water. In this alternative layout, a building where I actually used to live in Toronto stands elsewhere — at the southernmost edge of the city, on the lake. At one point a loading dock in the back yard leads into the water; I have met many whales there.

Memories recalled within dreams often prove false upon waking, part of the construction of the sleeping mind. When I woke from this dream, however, curled in the bed of my Parisian home, I truly remembered having had those other dreams. In my dream world, I had created alternate versions of places I know well and then juxtaposed them to create consistent settings, places I revisited so often that my dreaming self knew the layout as well as this waking me knows my neighborhood.

It was a revelation. I had this Parisian dream in 1987; since then I have catalogued five or six other dreamscapes that I regularly revisit.

The real stunner, though, came many years later. As I became increasingly aware of the consistency of my dream world, I also realized that my dream self had constancy. The me I am when I sleep not only frequents the same places, she also has her own preferences and tendencies, her own memories, and these are not necessarily available to the waking me.

I’m walking down a path through the woods. A heavy wooden gate stands in my path. I could go around it but instead I climb over. The path ends at a large aqua-colored house with empty, echoing rooms. I step onto an oddly shaped porch, like half a square cut on the diagonal, the point extending out over the lake behind the house. I edge to the tip and look over the railing, noting the presence of an identical porch on the lower floor. The corners of the two porches line up perfectly, a beautiful symmetry, and the bright aqua of the paint complements the deep indigo blue of the water. This dream is one of my earliest childhood memories. The house is the only dream setting I’ve never visited in waking life.

My dream self knows things this awake me does not know, has tastes and habits of her own. She panics more easily than I do. She feels quite comfortable in water, swims much better than I and can sometimes breathe for long periods under the surface. She learned to fly, finally, after trying for a couple of decades, spending years only able to kick off from the ground and float. She likes to drive but does it poorly, sometimes attempting it from the back seat, which never ends well. She loves heights, as this me does, but she often climbs down from them like a dare devil, shimmying down pipes and edging across decorative moulding. I’m certain she has memories that I do not share; the experience I had in the Paris dream was, in fact, a flood of recollections of past dreams, a wash of my dream self’s own memories. I do not mean to imply that the self I am in my dreams differs absolutely from my waking self. Yet there are definite variations. I recall what it’s like to be that person in the same way that I can dimly remember the subjective experience of being a young child, a vague sense of identity, despite the fact that I can’t exactly get inside the head of the seven year old me.

My mother has redone the interior of the house, painting the walls in bright, vibrant red and replacing the comfy couches and shelves of books with angular, modernist art and furniture. I become fascinated by a clock built of numerous moving pieces that continually changes shape even as I examine it. My parents have decided to sell the house, which I find quite inconvenient as I seem to live there again.

Unlike the ton of bricks epiphany of my Parisian dream, my discovery of a consistent dream self was a gradual process. As I mapped the objective reality of my dream world, it dawned on me that a constant subjectivity moved through that space. I would awake with a hazy memory of thinking something, knowing that the thought had been well formed in the mind of my sleeping self. Coming to consciousness slowly as I surfaced from a dream filled sleep, I sometimes caught a sense of myself in this other subjectivity. Little jolts of recognition shot through me during dreams as well, a self awareness that lingered into my waking experience. Over the last few years, much of my dream work has involved allowing this alternate self to grow and develop. The mere acknowledgement of the dream me seems to have been enough to encourage its maturation. I think of this practice as dream awareness, and I differentiate it from lucid dreaming.

I’m in my grandparents’ house, a huge, rambling, old building with lots and lots of musty, well-lived-in rooms full of boxes of oddities, fading photographs, and mouldering, strongly scented magazines. I find a secret passageway behind the stairs that leads to a room filled with old wooden beds and trees growing in the corners in beautiful, silvery moonlight.

Like most avid dreamers, I have experienced and cultivated lucid dreaming — flickers of awareness of my waking consciousness arising in the mind of my dreaming self. For many years, however, I thought of lucid dreaming as being somewhat at cross purposes with my dream awareness practice; becoming lucid in the dream world meant I spent less time inhabiting my alternate self. In the Spring of 2005, however, I began having short bursts of lucidity in my dreams that strengthened my awareness my dream subjectivity. When the more carefully trained, familiar mind of this me blinked in and then out of the dream reality of that me, the two selves stood out more clearly against each other. The juxtaposition of the subjectivities clarified them both.

I used to know my way around Paris, but these days I spend most of my time there looking for places I can no longer find. I consult maps and get lost in labyrinthine, winding streets, get off the Metro at the wrong station or just can’t figure out how the trains connect. I never quite reach the Paris dreamscape I used to know so well, the one in which Les Halles lies directly next to the Centre Pompidou and also borders the Louvre.

After a few months of these frequent flashes of lucidity, a strange thing began to happen. I started to experience a sort of reverse lucid dreaming, as my dream consciousness flickered into the forefront of my waking mind during the course of the day. Lucid dreams involve a moment of self realization, the perception of, “Oh, I’m me, here in this strange environment.” The brief surfacings of my dream self brought on this same feeling. It was as odd to inhabit my night-time subjectivity in this world as it was to find myself — this me — suddenly present in a dreamscape. In early November, the back and forth play of these selves brought on another remarkable dream.

Before I went to sleep that night, my spouse and I had an argument. I stomped off to bed angry. The dream began in my parents’ house; I had a fight with my mother and walked out mad. Sue, a girl who lived down the block from me, called to me from her driveway. Sue was an actual childhood friend but not an important figure in my life. My dream subjectivity seems to find her a significant person, however. With the exception of my immediate family and a couple of my closest friends, I have dreamed more often about Sue than about anyone else I know. In the dream, there was a long sequence in Sue’s garage involving a crowd of people and three girls wearing necklaces made from strung-together paintings. I talked with them and then decided to go home and make amends. I returned and stood in the living room, where I’d had the argument. From my dream journal:

I cast a circle on the floor as if performing a pagan or Native American ceremony and began to slowly spin around, as if at the center of a cyclone. Then I became lucid, realized I was dreaming, and floated up into the air. As I hovered there, I became aware simultaneously of both my waking and my dreaming consciousness, inhabiting them at the same time. These two disparate experiences of me became merged. I whirled in the air in a spiral, more like the upper edge of a cyclone now, as I continued to cast the circle. My efforts became increasingly difficult as I spun more quickly. I remained single-minded in my effort, however, turning and turning faster and faster as I slipped back and forth across subjectivities, both this me and that me, intent on casting this circle as I whizzed through the air. Then the materiality of everything dissolved, and I began passing through the walls, the centrifugal force stronger than matter.

I became aware of something profound happening, and I began shouting (or else thinking hard) over and over again, “What is the true nature of this thing?! What is the true nature of this thing?!” It was as if I could see into the basis of reality somehow, could perceive the formation of matter and why I could transcend it, could understand more about the spell and what the nature of my subjectivity was. Something arose, the edge of the funnel of energy on which I spun suddenly visible like a spatial graph, the wire frame of a digital animation, or some 3D mathematical representation. But that wasn’t it. As I wheeled in the whirlpool I rose up toward consciousness until I was almost awake. Still deep in the dream, I knew I could stay there for a while longer. I also realized, however, that nothing more would happen. I opened my eyes, already awake as I did so. It was the tiniest of movements from whatever that place was to the moment of being fully awake, devoid of that start of surprise that usually accompanies surfacing from intense dreams.

Pivotal dreams like this one, or the revelatory dream I had in Paris, often mark the end of particularly fecund periods of dreaming for me. Since my spell-casting dream, the bursts of lucidity, both ways, have ceased. Now I face a number of questions about the very nature of my being. What does it mean to be me if sometimes I experience myself as a different me? How coherent is this other self, and this other world? Does this alternate me exist in a consistent world often, or only in the flashes that I remember? I also wonder if this is as far as I will go in exploring and understanding this other me, or if this is only the beginning.

Discover more of Jennifer's work with dreams at Urban Dreamscape