Waking Up Slowly

No, I don’t mean waking up slowly in the sense of a gradual enlightenment. What kind of hippy-drippy pseudo-mystic wannabe do you take me for? The whole sleep/waking metaphor when referring to matters of the soul is so trite.

Rather, I am talking about actual sleep and the actual process of awaking once it’s over.

Just the other day I had the occasion to sleep in much later than I normally do. I had been quite tired for a couple of days, and I ended up sleeping a long time, turning over and going back to wonderful, wonderful slumber several times. Each time I awoke, I heard an echoing voice from my dream that said “I am a servant of the Secret Fire.” I half-consciously repeated the words to myself as I drifted back to sleep. This happened three or four times.

[The words are those of Gandalf when he turns back the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. The “Secret Fire” is a reference to the flame of creation set at the heart of the world by Iluvatar. I had just read that passage the night before.

The dream had many other aspects to it, including playing arcade video games with my ex-girlfriend, but nothing is more tedious than hearing others recount their dreams, so I will spare you.]

Now naturally I considered this an important message.

There seem to be four general schools of thought about the meaning of dreams (leaving room for countless variations thereupon, and cross-over between schools):

1. Dreams are (at least sometimes; at least potentially) supernaturally significant. They can be messages from various spirits like angels or even demons. They can be a manifestation of the power to predict the future. Etc.

2. Dreams are the key to the subconscious. One can learn about the inner workings of the mind by studying dreams. They can also be functionally predictive or magical-seeming if the subconscious is sufficiently attuned to something that seemed previously unknowable to the conscious mind.

3. Dreams don’t contain any real meaning of their own, but they are important in the formation of memories. Dreams are the brain “cleaning house” at the end of the day. One shouldn’t try to glean meaning per se from them, but neither should it be surprising if dreams seem to point to recognizable patterns and structures from waking life.

4. Dreams are random brain-noise. Any apparent meaning in them is a back-formation by the pattern-seeking human brain.

Most “educated” people these days seem to believe in some combination of 2 and 3. I think they wish they could believe in 4, but can’t quite force that on themselves yet. 2 and 3 are sufficiently science-y sounding and yet still acknowledge that dreams sure do feel important, so that’s the way to go for a modern educated person to acknowledge lived experience while studiously avoiding any mention of the supernatural.

Most people who haven’t been brainwashed by modern, academically-endorsed ideology spontaneous believe 1.

I believe that 1 is true, and that 2 is also true in another sense. Probably 3 is true to a degree too. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive.


In any case, whether you believe dreams can be supernaturally inspired, or whether you believe they are keys to the unconscious, or both, dreams are probably very important.

And yet we hardly pay any attention to them. The best way to remember your dreams is to write them down as soon as you awake. But this can take a surprising amount of time, and most people don’t wake up with much time to spare these days.

Even better than writing things down is waking up slowly (or waking up slowly and then also writing things down). There is a mysterious border land between sleep and waking where secrets are often revealed.

Of course, you can’t often do what I did the other day and sleep in like a big lazy bear.

Still, we can arrange things so that we wake up slowly, even if we must wake up very early. The easiest thing, of course, is simply to go to bed early. But even in situations where you are being deprived of sleep, it is possible (for some people, at least) to train the body to wake up 5 minutes before “must-wake” time. Reveille might be early, but you can be earlier! One technique I have tried and found useful is to look at the clock before switching out the light, and then with eyes closed mentally picturing the time I want to wake up as it will appear on the clock. With a bit of practice, you will be startled how well this works.

So then, even 5 extra minutes before “go-time” can be very valuable in providing a buffer between dream land and waking life.

Even parents of newborns can try to create buffer space. You can’t predict when the baby will start crying again, so the clock-visualization procedure won’t work. But you can still make a few mental notes about your dream (maybe a few key words whispered aloud) as you stumble drearily to the bassinet. Then, when you crash back to bed, try repeating the 3 most important images to yourself as you go back to sleep.

Really, there is almost never a reason not to be paying more attention to our dreams.

Unless we really think they are completely insignificant?


4 comments on “Waking Up Slowly

  1. zhai2nan2 says:

    “dreams can be magical-seeming”

    The kind of people who think that dreams seem magical are the kind of people who make their dreams magical, regardless of the circumstances.

  2. bgc says:

    I certainly agree that dreams are sometimes significant in a point 1 way, and sometimes in other ways – this was Chaucer’s view (as in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale – half of which is a mock debate whether a dream is caused by indigestion or is prophetic) – and pretty much everybody in the past including Lewis and Tolkien.

    (But nobody ever believed that *all* dreams were externally significant until some Freudian psychoanalysts began talking that way. Jung seemed to have been selective about which dreams he took seriously – only focusing on Big Mythic dreams which communicated a sense of the numinous).

    But I wonder whether we need to *remember* our dreams?

    The fact that they are so hard to remember and so easy to forget suggests to me that dreams do their work without need for our explicit knowledge of their content.

    • outofsleep says:

      That’s a very interesting point. So obvious I forgot to even notice it.

      Yes, presumably dreams act on us whether we are aware of it or not. And perhaps the ones we remember vividly — especially ones that spontaneously *feel* important — are the only ones that the conscious mind need think about (at least generally speaking).

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