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Dick Cavett on the Mystery of Dreams

Posted: 06/01/10 01:57 PM ET

I love it when public figures talk about their dreams. They are the great leveler, because for all of our differences, everyone dreams. Everyone also has bad dreams on occasion, and I am fascinated by how we make sense of them for ourselves.

What a treat, then, to find not one but two thoughtful posts on the subject recently by Dick Cavett, on his New York Times blog. In his first article, Cavett writes:

The question I can never find an answer to is the one that makes dreams so mysterious. When you watch a movie or read a story you don't know what's coming next. You're surprised by what happens as it unfolds. You know that someone wrote the book or made the movie.

But who in hell is the author of the dream? How can it be anyone but you? But how can it be you if it's all new to you, if you don't know what's coming? Do you write the dream, then hide it from yourself, forget it, and then "sit out front" and watch it? Everything in it is a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant. And, unlike a book or film, you can't fast-forward to see how it comes out. So where does it come from? And who "wrote" it?

Cavett was talking specifically about anxiety dreams -- where we find ourselves back in school after 50 years and wake up in a cold sweat because we hadn't studied for the important test we were suddenly taking. (Would the question, "who wrote this?" even occur to us if we only had pleasant dreams?) But I think a more practical question to ask is, "Why, night after night, do I keep assuming I actually have to pass this blasted test?"

It's almost as if anxiety dreams come to taunt us, not with how frail we are, but with how strong we could be if only we could remember it. Dreams are like a surreal Martha Stewart workshop: At any moment it could dawn on us, "Hey wait, this is a dream and anything can happen! Therefore, with this pencil eraser and a glue gun I just found in my back pocket, I'll construct a space-time machine and jet to the Bahamas!"

It is helpful to look back at a dream and notice when it started to "go bad" -- when a dream scene becomes a nightmare. In my experience, it is usually at the point when I assume that only waking life rules apply. If there's a vampire I must smite it, but it will always come back to life because I am merely a puny human. If I am at the beach, I know at any moment a tidal wave will appear -- and then, as if on cue, it does.

I think our anxiety response mechanism is triggered in these moments, and that response itself actually affects the content of the dream. In other words, it is not that dreams are written by some inner tormentor, but that normal dreams can progress in either positive or negative directions depending on whether we can overcome our anxiety state while we are dreaming.

This is a tall order, not easily accomplished, and not for the faint of heart. Then again, as Dick Cavett surely knows, neither is life.

 
 
 

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