Am I dreaming?

Updated On — 10th Jan, 2021

Just as our mindfulness meditation builds the capacity to unemotionally witness the unfolding imagery in our waking state, it also allows our dream-awareness to neutrally observe its own late night show.


I had this dream the other night: lines from an obscure American poet kept haunting me, and I couldn’t remember the poet’s name. In the dream, I tried searching the Internet for the name, putting the lines I remembered in quotation marks:

I called the ocean by its first name.”

The invisible telephones of the wind are ringing…”

Odd results came up. A florist in Akron, Ohio. A tub boat manifest. The life cycle of a deer fly.

Then two thoughts struck me: 1) search results aren’t reliable in dreams, which was immediately followed by 2) hey, wait a second, am I still dreaming?

Lucid dreaming and meditation

At that precise moment, awareness questioned what it was perceiving. This is a skill that comes in handy as we progress in our meditation practice. And, in fact, our meditation practice enables our “dreaming” mind to tolerate the often bizarre or troubling images the dream state produces.

Just as our mindfulness meditation builds the capacity to unemotionally witness the unfolding imagery in our waking state, such as the seemingly unreal images flashing on our television screens of pro-Trump demonstrators storming the Capitol building yesterday–it also allows our dream-awareness to neutrally observe its own late night show.

Dream Yoga

Mystically inclined cultures throughout the world have harvested this neutral dream witness, giving us a rich spiritual heritage. Dream Yoga in Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism are two well-known examples.

In these weekly newsletters I suggest one aspect of our practice to explore.

Sleeping, dreaming, and waking consciousness

This week let’s explore the distinctions we normally hold between our sleeping, dreaming, and waking consciousness. There are a wealth of angles for you to explore this week!

Don’t we assume the dreaming mind only has a glimmer of self-reflective awareness–nothing like the meta-cognition we develop through our mindfulness practice?

Can we actually be more with-it in our dream state than many folks are in the waking state?

Do some folks seem like they are sleep-walking through their life? Even in our so-called waking state, don’t we sometimes wander around in a state of semi-consciousness, barely aware of the present moment?

Awareness of thinking while meditating

Let’s leave philosophical speculations and dive into the brass tacks of our daily meditation practice. Consider this analogy: our dream awareness questioning itself, as in lucid dreaming, even if it only lasts a fraction of a second, is like being aware of thinking while meditating.

Just as in a moment of lucid dreaming we can exclaim Cool, I’m dreaming — we can similarly declare while meditating — Cool, I’m thinking.

The trick is to sustain these moments of self-reflective awareness such that awareness just keeps on being aware of what is unfolding in the present moment.

Just like we do with our breath, or body sensations, or sounds. One breath simply and elegantly follows the next.

Thinking is bad?

Thinking is tricky one to practice with because of unexamined assumptions that thinking and meditation are at odds with each other. That a “good meditation” is one in which we have few, if any, thoughts.

That our job as a meditator is to sweep the mind of thoughts, as if that were even possible. Sound familiar?

If we bring any of these ideas into our meditation practice, we will find ourselves resisting or fighting our thinking. This just creates more anxiety and restlessness, as if we didn’t already have enough of these.

Thinking is just nature

Rather, let’s listen to the advice the Burmese meditation master U Tejaniya Sayadaw frequently gives:

Thinking is just nature. Can we stop nature or avoid nature? It’s impossible. Instead we merely need to see that thinking is nature. This is Right View. With this view we can skillfully be with thinking instead of resisting the nature that is thinking.

The lucid moment we are aware we are thinking while meditating we step out of the grip of thought, out of the story thought is telling.

Our job is to remain interested in the mind that is aware that it is thinking without squashing that awareness.

You know what I mean here–the beginning meditator’s lament: Ugh, thinking again!

With good practice it can become the mature meditator’s gleeful:  Cool, thinking again!

The intention to think

With practice, Sayadaw U Tejaniya says we can even notice the intention to think–before a thought even manifests in the mind!

He writes:

The mind wants to think. We want to become able to see this desire clearly. Sometimes when we ask ourselves, “Why is my mind thinking so much?” we can detect the desire to think. Once we see this desire objectively in this way, we don’t get lost in thought.

But that’s graduate school level stuff. Let’s just keep our practice nice and simple.

This week, can you appreciate the thinking mind vs depreciating it?

I welcome any thoughts you might have on the matter below.


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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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