Life after death – the way of the dreamer

James Hillman, in ‘Dreams and the Underworld,’ describes dreaming in terms of sinking down, of dropping below the surface of things, into the realm of death.

In our dreams, we completely identify with the dream ‘I’, and the waking ‘I’ is no more; the assumption that we are ourselves within the dream is an illusion.

The dream ‘I’ is not the self as we know it. In different dreams, it may be a different gender from the dreamer, or a different age; it may have a different job and skill-set; it may even have supernatural powers. The dream ‘I’ is one of myriad characters which inhabit the ‘inner self.’

Writing fiction is similar to dreaming. We enter the ‘writer’s trance’ and ‘become’ our characters. We live in their lives, and grapple with their circumstances. But it is less intense because we are still aware of our own physical body, sitting at our desk, dipping in and out of the writing dream to answer the phone, pick up email or make coffee.

Choosing to engage with dreams is like a kind of suicide. We let go of the waking ‘I’ and willingly become the dream ‘I’, walking the underworld. In this way, the dream ‘I’ is like the soul – it lives on after ego awareness is gone.

Some of my guests here have described dreams in which they have been or become animals, and some of my workshop participants have reported dreaming in the ‘I’ of characters from different places and times, ages and genders. Have you had a dream in which it’s obvious the dream ‘I’ is not your waking self?

15 thoughts on “Life after death – the way of the dreamer”

  1. The idea of not being ourselves in our dream world is really interesting Jenny. I always feel very much like ‘me’ in my dreams – but I am often an observer, aware that I am observing. I wonder if this is different. Interestingly, I have had two dreams recently where I was narrating my dream, as if I was telling the story and the other people in the dreams were characters. This almost felt like my awake writing self reaching into my dreams.

  2. I’m glad you mentioned this Abi – I should have put in my post that the exception is lucid and semi-lucid dreams, in which the waking ‘I’ is present, either as an observer, a commentator, or the active agent in the dream. I think the dreams you describe are almost like the writer’s trance, where we have one foot firmly rooted in the waking reality/ego consciousness. Experienced dreamers tend to have more lucid dreams, as the waking ‘I’ extends into more of its dream ‘I’ context, but that means, as Casteneda says, that when something unusual happens they are more likely to notice and understand its significance. Many people assume that the ‘I’ in the dream is the same as the waking ‘I’, in the same way that some readers assume ‘I’ in the poem is the same as the poet, for example. That’s what I wanted to challenge!

  3. That’s really interesting! I am an avid dreamer, as you know, so perhaps that’s why I have more lucid dreams then. I see what you’re saying about people’s understanding of the ‘I’ in dreams and you’re analogy to the ‘I’ in a poem – yes, that makes a lot of sense.

  4. My dreams are usually always vivid and many times lucid. I have often dreamed I was someone else from a different time period and have had several dreams of being a man. I’ve also died in three dreams. I just assumed these were remembrances of past lifetimes.

  5. Hi Rebel – what a great dream life you have! And you raise an interesting point about past lifetimes. I think one of the things dream-awareness can do is dissolve our normal assumptions about time. Predictive dreams can feel like memories of the future, and then are born out by events in waking life, and in the same way these detailed dream experiences of a time and life we haven’t experienced in this lifetime can feel like authentic memories, although they can’t be verified in the same way. I’ve had a number of dreams in which I died, and upon waking actually wondered if I was alive or dead – weird, terrifying but also ultimately, for me anyway, incredibly exhilarating and freeing.

  6. I have some dreams where I’m ‘me’, and some where I’m definitely someone else. Sometimes I have even been a character in one of my stories. When I wake up, it often feels odd to have been these ‘others’, but in the dream, it always makes sense. It’s very strange… and fascinating!

  7. Hi Emma – I love the way you put it, ‘being these others’ – that’s the essence of it really. And the fact that it makes sense, it feels right, because we actually are these others, as well as the waking consciousness idea of our self. I’ve never dreamt I was a character in one of my stories – that feels like a fabulous resource for ‘getting into character.’ I’m quite jealous!

  8. It seems to me that our dream lives are so much complex than our waking lives and I don’t think it is because we are still trying to make sense of dreaming. We can be so many different people in our dreams or experience our dreams from diverse perspectives – is this simply the letting go of the ego that allows this? I had a dream a few days ago where I was a large man reciting a poem – I felt I was also observing in this dream yet aware that I was also the man and couldn’t believe how the lines of the poem flowed quickly and easily with no real thought on my part. It was all over in a flash and I didn’t remember any of the poem.

  9. Hi Pat – that sounds like a fabulous dream! Like Abi, your waking ‘I’ was present as an observer, so you were not completely identified with the masculine dream ‘I.’ In non-lucid dreams we are completely identified with the dream ‘I’ and that means we have let go of our ego identity, which is fixed and stable. But I think I understand what you are saying – that this need not be only a question of identity? Could you expand upon it here?

    1. When I experienced this dream I thought I was awake – I guess because of the observer factor, but I also felt I was saying the words of the poem out loud although there was no thought about what to say next as I reached the end of each line. I suppose the point I was trying to make was that this scenario would never have happened in waking life, but in the dream state experiences are so much more diverse and there is less, or no, conscious evaluations going on to inhibit expression.

      1. Thank you for expanding upon that, Pat – it’s really interesting – the observation that the dream ‘I’ is not inhibited by the normal limitations of the waking personality. It reminded me of your bicycling dream, and any dream in which we do things we would be too afraid/self-conscious to try in waking life.

  10. I follow your line that dreaming is – in part – like journaling. It gets things out there, deals with them and then your waking self can carry on with what’s expected of ‘it’. I find dreams are a place where I can grieve – when I am expected to be ‘the one who holds the centre elsewhere’. It’s not pleasant, as my father would have said, but at least I’m grieving somewhere.

  11. Hi Elizabeth – I’ve just found and followed your blog! I think the difference is that journalling, as I understand it, is more grounded in the psychological viewpoint, whereas for me creative dreaming starts right now in the present moment, providing opportunities for experiencing the self in new and dynamic ways. It feels, to me, more like an adventure than a catharsis/Jungian compensation (although that’s to simplify – in my own dream practice I do also interpret at times, adopting a broadly Jungian approach, as a more minor strand alongside my predominately creative intention) But whichever angle we come at it from, I do agree that dreams will always give us permission and opportunities to be more than the ‘self’ we can be in waking life.

  12. I’m delighted you like my approach! I already follow your other blog – I didn’t realise they were both yours, as your name doesn’t feature in the titles. Well, it takes time to get to know who’s who in the blogosphere…

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