Using Dreams to Become Emotionally Empowered and Aware

Most people assume that their emotional reactions are caused by external stimuli. For example, when someone cuts you off on the highway, we think, I feel angry because that guy cut me off. The external action causes a somatic sensation of anger, which the mind identifies and then reports back to you, in the form of your thoughts. But what if that isn’t how it works? In my work diving deeply into the feelings present in dreams, I have come to understand that this is not actually the most accurate model of how our emotions work. You can imagine my excitement then when a fellow dreamer sent me a link to a recent episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia which reported on research that backs up an alternative theory quite similar to my own. They interviewed the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, which posited that instead of emotions arising as reactions to external stimuli, we have a constant somatic sense of like/dislike and arousal/non-arousal that is affected both by external stimuli and internal constructs.

How does the mind reach conclusions about how we feel given the multitude of external and internal inputs at any moment? It uses its memory bank. We reference past situations where similar sensations were felt with particular external inputs, and use them to make guesses about what we are feeling in the given moment and why. So, the mind perceives both that someone has cut you off and a strong bodily arousal, and then the mind remembers that the last time this bodily arousal happened in the car, someone cut you off, so then you conclude—I am angry because someone cut me off.

To reach clarity about our feelings, and ultimately who we truly are, we have to get to know that internal world, understand its beauty, its truth, its pitfalls and its blind spots.

It’s a fine enough system, but it is never 100% accurate. In fact, I’ve found through working with dreamers that the more certain you are that a feeling is being directly caused by something external, the more likely it is that you are missing an important aspect of your internal experience. Certainly, the external world has a role to play in triggering our emotions but it is always in a conversation with our internal world—our individual set of memories, traumas, relationships, values, and identities. To reach clarity about our feelings, and ultimately who we truly are, we have to get to know that internal world, understand its beauty, its truth, its pitfalls and its blind spots. Then, we can learn to make better guesses about what we are feeling in a given moment and why. We can even learn to transform the nature of our guesses altogether, and create a new story about our experience that is liberating and transformative.

To me, this is where dreams come in. Inside of our dreams, the barrage of external information we are subjected to every time we open our eyes is gone, and we are left only inside of our own internal landscape. Sometimes, people judge the content of their dreams to be both boring and uncomfortable. Boring; because their dreams depict them situations that they experience in real-life all the time, and uncomfortable because they experience the same stress and anxiety they feel in those real-life situations, only magnified.

But I would argue that it is precisely in this quieting of external inputs and magnification of interior sensation that dreams offer us their most unique and delicious medicine. Since there are no external inputs in dreams, we can understand all of our feelings and experiences in a dream as originating within us on some level. Because of this, dreams highlight situations in our life when we are overly focused on the external causes of our emotions, or where we are lost in projections.

For instance, in the case of the individual who became angry when they were cut off in traffic, they might have a dream of a very similar experience, which would be easy to write off—oh, I dreamt of being cut off because I was cut off in real life. But what if that person actually has a form of road rage? It would be easy enough for them to deny this, because in their waking life perception, every time they react angrily in the car, it is because of something wrong someone else did. But if they are dreaming about this anger, especially consistently, it suggests that there is an internal origin of this felt experience that the dreamer needs to pay attention to. If you have dreams like this, I would invite you to concentrate on the feeling of the dream as you experience it in your body, not the external details.

Becoming dutiful and consistent observers of our ingrained internal reactions and stories about our somatic emotional experience is vital to living in a more authentic and integral way.

The more you concentrate on the internal experience of the feeling, the more likely you are to recognize it in your waking life. You may even find that you are feeling some level of anger as soon as you get into the car—way before anyone does anything that might trigger a strong reaction in you. When you accept that some level of your anger originates inside of you, you can learn how to process and contain that experience in healthy, empowering ways.

There are other ways dreams can illuminate ways we may be projecting or externalizing the source of our feelings. One rule of thumb I like to use is whenever you “just know” something in a dream without there being much external evidence, there is a good chance you are experiencing a projection. For example, if an unarmed man is simply walking towards you in a dream and you “just know” that he is going to rape or murder you. Reflecting on the dream, you might simply conclude, I felt afraid because this man was going to harm me. You might even think this dream suggests a man will harm you soon. But actually the dream is trying to teach you about the projection you may be carrying in waking life. Remember, there are no external inputs in the dream, there are only aspects of your own internal landscape—in dream land, it all originates from you. So without any external evidence that he was going to harm you, how did you “just know” harm was approaching?  If you are having dreams like this, the dream is suggesting to you fearing men is an internal filter your mind is using to explain your emotional experience. When we meditate on the felt experience of the dream internally, we can then become more present and aware of when the feeling is originating inside of us and when it is coming from outside of us.

This is not to say that feeling this fear is illegitimate, invalidate, or not a useful emotional response in certain situations. Given the statistics of violence and sexual violence at the hands of men, this projection is understandable. It is simply to suggest that becoming dutiful and consistent observers of our ingrained internal reactions and stories about our somatic emotional experience is vital to living in a more authentic and integral way. After all, if we simply assume external factors are the cause of what we feel and then make assumptions and take actions based on those assumptions we discount the vast, intricate, and ultimately beautiful array of internal factors that exist inside of each of us. Do we need any more evidence than the ongoing and despicable tragedy of police violence against black people of how harmful it can be when humans engage in this behavior?

Understanding the degree to which our emotions originate inside of us and getting to know our subtle, emotional body is one of the most practical and transformative things you can do with your dreams. And I couldn’t be more excited that psychological research is catching up with this understanding. If you are ready to dive deep into your internal world and learn what it means to really love yourself, consider joining my new program, Dreams of Love. In this immersive experience, your dreams will reveal your interior emotional landscape with a depth, beauty, and grace that is as intricate as it is universal. I honor all of the dreamers out there that have the courage to walk alongside their dreams with devotion.

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