I had an interesting conversation with dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley recently about the benefits of keeping a dream journal. Having a record of our dreams is incredible, as we usually forget even our previously recalled dreams otherwise. When we reread the journal later, many of those dreams come flooding back, the feelings and the peculiar spatial wisdom of what it is like to be in that dream. It is transportive in the same way that reading a good book is, except this time, we are exploring our own inner world.
Yet, an often overlooked aspect of dream journaling is that the process of journaling itself transforms our consciousness. We slip down into dream thinking as we recall the dream, the sights, sounds and feelings and translate them into verbal narratives. We become calm, still, and immersed as our focus moves from a sharpened state to a diffuse kind of knowing that has a distinctly different feel.
In short, when we engage in dream journaling, we are entering a subtle but profound altered state of consciousness.
Over time, this shift of consciousness becomes quicker and easier — much like an experienced meditator can quickly shift into meditative awareness. When I face a blank page of my dream journal, the process begins with waiting. Seeing what emerges. Often it’s one image, or an emotion tied to a single scene. I have to hook into that, and surrender to that perspective. If I try to analyze the dream at this point or connect it to my waking life, it all slips away. Patiently I sit with the feeling or the image. Sometimes that’s all I get, and I write it down.
Other times though, something miraculous happens. The image opens up and the larger dream narrative comes flooding back. It really is like a flood, all at once, overwhelming, a cascade of feelings and images and experiences. The neurophenomenology of this experience is completely unmapped, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the material correlates of this flooding event was captured in an EEG as a shift in brain activity into states of mind similar to meditative states.
Some times of the day it is easier to move into dream recall. Early morning, soon after awakening is undoubtedly the best time to take some time for immersion. Studies have shown that the effects of REM sleep linger quite a while after awakening. For example, one recent study found that there are more creative connections after waking up from REM sleep, compared to other stages of sleep or incubation (such as just passively chewing on a creative problem).
Yet all is not lost if you don’t have time for this process in the morning. Honestly, these days I’m up earlier than I want to be, packing school backpacks and making sure the kids have on fresh underwear, not luxuriating over last night’s dream adventures with a cup of aromatic herbal tea in hand.
So I’ve found that writing down a few words, even a single image or feeling word, can be enough to come back to later. But when? It seems dream recall is influenced by the circadian rhythm, which fluxes and flows in 90 minute cycles or so… (for some folks it’s a bit shorter; others a bit longer). A good clue is when you find yourself spacing out and daydreaming, or moving into a period of passive information consumption. For myself, I’ll lose focus on my work, and become distracted by social media. I’ll start doom scrolling. This is it; this is the time to put the phone down and bring out the dream journal. You’re already halfway there.
I also have a major circadian low point in my day around 4 – 5:30PM. I’m sleepy and grumpy and generally try not to schedule phone calls during this time. I’ll either do mindless work that must get done, take a walk, or take a nap. If I try to meditate, I’ll certainly fall asleep. Yet, as I’ve found, this is also the best time (outside of the morning after awakening) for dream recall from the night before. It’s like the dreams are right next to me, waiting for me to take the time to join them again.
Let me reiterate: the meditative properties of dream recall is not just sleepiness. It’s influenced by our biorhythms, not defined by them. As Kelly Bulkeley and I discussed, dream recall – as developed through the practice of dream journaling—can really be seen as a form of mindfulness. It is a contemplative state of awareness. Bulkeley wrote up a wonderful piece on Psychology Today fleshing this out. Here Bulkeley outlines some preliminary points:
Consider the following features that characterize the long-term practice of dream journaling:
- It cultivates a capacity for sustained, focused self-reflection.
- It cultivates an ability to suspend your ego and listen to your inner voice of intuition, your true self.
- It brings forth a more honest awareness of your greatest challenges, conflicts, and vulnerabilities.
- It increases your sensitivity to the symbolic potentials of waking experience.
- It may surprise you with sudden discoveries and realizations.
- It is enjoyable and mentally transformative no matter what actual insights may come.
This is the main gist of Kelly’s and my understanding here: that the process of dream journaling facilitates and developed a subtle altered state of consciousness that is beneficial in its own right. Even if you never re-read your dream journal again, or ever have a “Aha” moment about what you think your dream may mean, you are still developing a capacity for a special form of mindfulness.
So if someone asks you if you meditate – and you don’t have a habit of sitting down and watching your breath—you can say “yes, I have a dream journaling practice; it’s totally a contemplative practice.” Keep a straight face and watch carefully as their eyes shift back and forth to determine if you are joking. Be patient with them. You are about to free another dreamer into this world.