Dreaming – An Activity of the Mind
Dreaming is an activity of the mind or subtle body, just like thoughts and day-dreams or reveries. One way we can understand we are not the mind is to watch the mind dreaming. Most of us will have had experiences where we are half-awake and half-asleep and we are aware that we are dreaming. Who is watching the mind dreaming? It is me, the self – the atma or soul within the body and mind.
I am not the mind. The mind is a subtle material covering of the soul, just as the body is a gross material covering of the soul. The Vedic maxim “aham brahmasmi” means “I am brahman,” or “I am spirit.” This is the basis of all spiritual understanding.
Different Functions of Dreams
The mind is a collection of sensual experiences collected not only from this lifetime, but from all of our lifetimes in the material world. If we compare the mind to a computer, then the mind is made of all the images we download and upload. We have a vast collection of experiences, emotions, hidden memories and desires in the unconscious part of the mind. Sometimes these impressions come out while awake or in dreams as déjà vu experiences where we remember something we have experienced before in a previous existence. This is not that common, but it does happen occasionally where in a dream we remember a place, people or events. And sometimes these cases get verified in a remarkable fashion.
If we experience something in a dream, like flying for instance, this means we must have experienced this thing either in this body or in a previous body, perhaps as a bird or a mystic yogi. If we can experience something in our mind, then we must first experience it in our physical existence, through our knowledge acquiring senses, just as nothing can get into our computer that has not been either uploaded or downloaded. Of course we can mix things up to come up with endless weird and wonderful dreams. The example is given in Srimad Bhagavatam, another important Vedic literature, that if we have experienced gold and a mountain, then it is possible to combine the two in a dream and perhaps dream we find a golden mountain.
Often dreams are a confused conglomeration of the previous day’s or week’s events. When we dream, many of our sensual experiences that we were unable to consciously process get sorted out and filed away in the mind or subtle body [not the brain]. If someone doesn’t sleep for many days, perhaps due to bipolar or other mental illness, or due to taking amphetamines or ecstasy/LSD type drugs, or due to anxiety etc, they can end up having a psychotic breakdown because they are unable to process and file away their sensual and emotional impressions and experiences. Their mind gets overloaded with confusing impressions. Sleep and dreaming are important not only for our body, but also for our mental health – if we don’t get enough we can go crazy.
Sometimes we may have painful or repressed memories, fears or anxieties that may bubble up to the surface of the mind in a dream or nightmare. This can be clear or obvious to us, but dreams can be also in a symbolic form. Freud and other psychoanalysts talk of dream symbols. When I was about six years old I had a scary teacher who put us under a lot of pressure to learn our multiplication tables. She would ask us questions at the end of the school day [“What’s seven nines?”] and if we couldn’t answer them we got kept in after school. I was in a lot of anxiety about this and started having nightmares where I would be in my room and I would hear counting “one, two, three etc.” and as I heard the number it would start floating around in my room until the room was so filled with thousands of numbers that I felt like I was suffocating and I’d wake up in a fearful sweat.
I didn’t realise it at this time, but my anxiety about multiplication tables was bubbling up from my unconscious mind in a symbolic form in my dreams. Later in life, if I was under pressure or not coping with something, that same dream would come back, even as a young adult. Fortunately, I haven’t had that dream for many years now. One of my sons had a similar type of teacher, and used to dream that he was being chased by a dragon, which in fact he was! A friend had a father who would punish him severely if he didn’t eat all of his meals. He had a recurring nightmare in which he was lying in his bed and an army of cutlery would stand up and start marching towards him menacingly, and he’d wake up in fright. These are symbolic dreams coming from our fears and anxieties.
In dreams we can experience our karmic reactions in the subtle body – we can experience good or bad karma in our dreams and nightmares. A friend who once practiced mystic yoga – kundalini yoga – told how his teacher would train his students not to wake up if they were having a scary or death dream like falling over a cliff or something. Normally we wake up when our dreams get too scary, but mystic yogis learn to detach themselves from the mind even in dreams, and they can watch themselves fall to the ground and die etc. and still be aware that this is happening in a dream. This was to save themselves from having to experience this in a physical body, a way of working off their karma. Those who practice mantra meditation don’t need to do this, as the sacred mantras purify us of our karmic reactions.
A female friend from NZ was once staying in LA around 1990, and she would go for a walk of a night time, much as she would back in Auckland at that time. Her friends told her not to, that it was too dangerous in LA. When she said, “Well, if it’s my karma to get raped or killed, I can’t prevent it anyway, so it doesn’t really matter what I do.” A wise teacher told her, “Yes, but would you prefer to get raped in a dream or on the streets of LA?” So this gave us some insight into how free will, personal responsibility and intelligent decision making all play a part in how our karma may be experienced.
As well as working off karma, fulfilling material desires is another function of dreams. Sometimes we may have a desire that, if we pursue it in our waking life, may cause us all sorts of problems. God is within our hearts, and He sees all of our desires. Sometimes He arranges for a person to fulfil this kind of desire in a way that is less detrimental to our spiritual and practical lives. In a dream, I might get to be a rock star with dozens of attractive groupies, but when I wake up I haven’t wrecked my marriage and torn my family apart. We can “live the dream” in a safer, less permanent way.
When we dream, the soul, covered by the subtle body or mind, leaves the gross physical body and travels in the subtle material or astral dimension. This is sometimes called “astral travelling” – we go to all sorts of different places and experience all sorts of different things, some good and some bad. We fulfil desires and sometimes we suffer or experience fear or loneliness etc. Sometimes we may be dreaming, and something disturbs us, a noise or something, and we feel like we are slipping in the bed or a slight jolting sensation – this is the soul and mind returning to the physical body.
The most wonderful dreams are the ones where we are visited by God Himself, or by great saintly personalities, and these dreams can be so real and so profound that they can be among the most significant and life changing experiences we ever have. Such dreams can be more real than the events of our waking lives, and they can give us instruction and inspiration which helps us throughout our whole lives. Such dreams are never forgotten, and they are actually spiritual visions. They’re the best dreams, because they are not simply events of the mind – they are transcendental soul experiences.
Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Dream
Krishnadas Kaviraj had organized a 24-hour kirtan at his house, and amongst those invited was Lord Nityananda’s dear associate, Minaketana Rama Das. Minaketana was a great Vaishnava who was in a constant state of devotional trance as he chanted the name of Nityananda Prabhu. At the end of the kirtan festival, however, Krishnadas Kaviraj’s brother got into an argument with Minaketana Rama Das. Krishnadas’s brother had strong faith in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, but lacked similar faith in Nityananda. Upon hearing this, Rama Das was deeply wounded and he became so angry that he broke his flute and left. Krishnadas Kaviraj, however, took the side of Nityananda Prabhu’s associate and rebuked his brother saying:
These two brothers [Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Nityananda Prabhu] are like one body; they are equal in their spiritual manifestation. If you do not accept the divinity of Lord Nityananda, you will fall down. To have faith in one but to disrespect the other is as logical as accepting half a hen. Better you should be an atheist by denying the divinity of both than a hypocrite who believes in one and not the other.
That night Lord Nityananda appeared to me in a dream because of my good quality in chastising my brother. In the village of Jhamatapura, which is near Naihati, Lord Nityananda appeared to me in a dream. I fell at His feet, offering my obeisances, and He then placed His own lotus feet upon my head. “Arise! Get up!” He told me again and again.
Upon rising, I was greatly astonished to see His beauty. He had a glossy blackish complexion, and His tall, strong, heroic stature made Him seem like Cupid himself. He had beautifully formed hands, arms and legs, and eyes like lotus flowers. He wore a silk cloth, with a silk turban on His head. He wore golden earrings on His ears, and golden armlets and bangles. He wore tinkling anklets on His feet and a garland of flowers around His neck. His body was anointed with sandalwood pulp, and He was nicely decorated with tilaka.
His movements surpassed those of a maddened elephant. His face was more beautiful than millions upon millions of moons, and His teeth were like pomegranate seeds because of His chewing betel. His body moved to and fro, right and left, for He was absorbed in ecstasy. He chanted “Krishna, Krishna” in a deep voice. His red stick moving in His hand, He seemed like a maddened lion. All around the four sides of His feet were bumblebees.
His devotees, dressed like cowherd boys, surrounded His feet like so many bees and also chanted “Krishna, Krishna,” absorbed in ecstatic love. Some of them played horns and flutes, and others danced and sang. Some of them offered betel nuts, and others waved camara fans about Him. Thus I saw such opulence in Lord Nityananda Svarupa. His wonderful form, qualities and pastimes are all transcendental.
I was overwhelmed with transcendental ecstasy, not knowing anything else. Then Lord Nityananda smiled and spoke to me as follows. “O my dear Krishnadasa, do not be afraid. Go to Vṛndavana, for there you will attain all things.” After saying this, He directed me toward Vṛndavana by waving His hand. Then He disappeared with His associates. I fainted and fell to the ground, my dream broke, and when I regained consciousness I saw that morning had come. I thought about what I had seen and heard and concluded that the Lord had ordered me to proceed to Vṛndavana at once. That very second I started for Vṛndavana, and by His mercy I reached there in great happiness.
All glory, all glory to Lord Nityananda Balarama, by whose mercy I have attained shelter in the transcendental abode of Vṛndavana! All glory, all glory to the merciful Lord Nityananda, by whose mercy I have attained shelter at the lotus feet of Sri Rupa and Sri Sanatana! By His mercy I have attained the shelter of the great personality Sri Raghunatha dasa Gosvami, and by His mercy I have found the refuge of Sri Svarupa Damodara. By the mercy of Sanatana Gosvami I have learned the final conclusions of devotional service, and by the grace of Sri Rupa Gosvami I have tasted the highest nectar of devotional service.