Consciousness is an extremely diverse and sometimes controversial topic. Some scientists see consciousness as an epiphenomenon of the brain. In other words, we were formerly unconscious and something happened, perhaps some guy hit his head, and suddenly we were self-conscious or self-aware.
Within the topic of consciousness there are different states of consciousness. When we are awake and aware, that is called being conscious. If someone knocks us out, we become unconscious. In addition to those two common states of consciousness are many others.
When drunk or on certain drugs, we are in a different state of consciousness. If we are in love we are in a different state of consciousness. Just about every kind of emotion can be described as a different state of consciousness. Being sick is a different state of consciousness from being well.
Some of these differing states of consciousness can be seen as different identities. We all know people who are either “mean” drunks or “very happy” drunks. But are these really different identities? Well, there is this thing called state specific memory.
That means that if you do something while drunk, you may not remember it when sober. That can be a blessing. But if you get drunk again, you will remember it because you are back in the state you were in when the experience occurred.
There are many different states of consciousness that we might experience during any day but I want to get into a very special state of consciousness that, in itself, can carry with it numerous states of consciousness and perhaps even multiple identities.
Sleep is a very specific state of consciousness, one that we indulge in for a third of our lives. Within the state of sleep there are different levels of consciousness that are characterized by different brainwave patterns. I won’t go into the details of this but we can have thoughts and even images at different levels of sleep throughout the night.
But the level of sleep that is most interesting for our purpose is that called dreaming or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. While we can have imagery at different levels of sleep, this is where we typically have the dreams that we recall in the morning.
While there are still those who claim that these images are due to random firing of brain cells, anyone who actually recalls their dreams, writes them down, and works with them knows that this is nonsense. A precognitive dream or a psychic dream is not due to random brain cells firing.
I am going to look at two specific aspects of dreaming as they relate to consciousness and identity. While we may philosophically and spiritually deal with the question of “Who am I?” in our waking life, in our dreaming life, the question takes on a whole different dimension of possibilities.
Who am I when I am dreaming? Most people would say that they are themselves when dreaming but a self who might find itself in many different and even bizarre situations. I would like to challenge the assertion that the ego or “I” in your dreams, your dream identity, is the same as your waking identity.
Studies tend to show that people become lucid because of anomalies in their dreams. We will speak later of lucidity as a special state of consciousness in our dreams. I personally do not become lucid due to anomalies but because I find myself walking somewhere and don’t know why I’m there or where I’m going.
But if anomalies in the dream are enough to trigger lucidity, we should be lucid every time we dream. I honestly don’t know if I have ever had a dream in my entire life that did not contain anomalies.
Think about your own dreams. While you may look like yourself in the dream, is it really the same you as your waking you? For one thing, when I can see my body in the dream, I notice that I am almost always much younger than my waking self and much more physically capable.
But there’s more. The self in the dream often lives in a different city and house, drives a different car, has a different job, and possibly even a different spouse. There are friends in your dreams that you do not know in your waking life.
What I am suggesting is that the dream ego is not the same ego as your waking ego. Your dream identity is different from your waking identity no matter how much she or he looks like you in the dream. And the dream ego in one dream will, more often than not, be different from other dream egos throughout your lifetime of dreaming.
Even when you dream about living in your current house or apartment, things may be different. When I dream about my childhood home, there are almost always some changes, something that’s not the same. Now it is possible to say that these are just dream scenarios and they can create any experience they want.
But my dream egos do not forget about my waking life. They are living a different life altogether. They are not paper cutouts but very real identities who are self-aware and who know the details of their life just as I know the details of my life. Their house is not just a movie set. It is where they live.
I have already mentioned lucid dreaming as a very special state of consciousness. It is special because you are in a normal dream with whatever dream consciousness you are experiencing. Suddenly you become lucid. Now your waking consciousness has actually entered your dream and you are no longer your dream ego.
For example, I am in a dream and become lucid. I am married to a woman I know in my waking life but we are not married in waking life. In this dream something interesting happens. I walk by a mirror and look at myself and I am a young slender blond man. I have never been a young slender blond man.
I live in an apartment that I have never lived in before. Two men come to the door to greet me. I know that in the dream we are good friends but my waking self does not know these men. I tell them that. Whenever you are lucid and you tell someone in the dream that you are dreaming, they never believe you.
But what other evidence is there that these dream egos have their own consciousness? Have you ever had a dream and in that dream you fell asleep, and in that sleep you had a dream?
I had this experience twice. I am sleeping at my cousin’s house. We often have interesting dreams when we are not sleeping our own bed. My cousin’s wife baked a cake that evening and she gave me the green frosting bowl so I could lick it. This is my waking experience.
That night, in my dream, I am sitting in a travel agent’s office with my two cousins. We are planning a trip together. One of my cousins is sitting across the desk from the man and the other is sitting nearby. I am sitting some distance from the desk and am sitting on a tall stool, like a bar stool, and leaning against the wall.
I am not very much involved in the discussions.
I fall asleep. I have a dream. In the dream I am walking down a street at night. I pass closed businesses. I am licking the frosting from a green bowl. This is how I typically become lucid. I don’t know where I am or where I am going. I become lucid.
Now, it is not my waking self who becomes lucid. It is the “me” sitting in the travel agent’s office who becomes lucid. It bothers me that I have fallen asleep during this meeting and I struggle to wake up. I wake up on the bar stool in the travel agent’s office. Then I wake up in the bed in my cousin’s house.
In another dream I am in the front yard of my childhood home with my baby brother. In the dream he is nine years old. I become lucid and I tell him that he isn’t really nine years old. He is actually 15 years old. When I waken from the dream I realize that it wasn’t my waking self who became lucid because my brother wasn’t 15 years old. He was an adult at that time.
The recognition that we have multiple egos, personalities, and identities is not a bad thing at all. I believe that many of our problems, physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual can be seen as problems of identity. If I am dealing with any issue in my life, whether small or huge, that issue is accepted as a part of my current identity.
In other words, I am the individual who has this problem. I have already mentioned that the person who is sick has a different identity than the person who is well. With certain “chronic” problems we identify the individual with the disease. You can say a person has schizophrenia but we tend to say the person is schizophrenic. You can say that a person has diabetes but we tend to call such individuals diabetics.
When you identify with your issues, you give them a greater reality than they might otherwise have. Roberto Assagioli, founder of the school of psychotherapy called Psychosynthesis, used a technique he called disidentification. He would say, “I have a body but I am not my body.” “I have a mind but I am not my mind,” etc. Robert Monroe incorporated this idea in his binaural audios.
Rather than identifying the self with our issues, we need to disidentify from that self. Furthermore, the process of healing comes from creating a new identity. One of the things I say to my clients is, “Instead of trying to stop people from pushing your buttons, get rid of your buttons.”
If I’m in a caustic or abusive relationship or are having financial problems or physical problems, I have come to identify myself with those issues. The issues become my identity. The work is simply to change our identity. Is that impossible? Is it even difficult? It certainly can be.
What I’m suggesting is that if someone is giving you a hard time, the only way they can do that is if you are the person to whom someone can give a hard time. Clumsy sentence but pertinent. We keep thinking of ways we can change someone else’s behavior but we can’t.
It can be as simple as affirming that “I am not the person that anyone can treat that way.” You draw a psychological line in the sand. Robert Bly was poet to the men’s movement. He would say to the men, “Sometimes you have to draw your sword.” The purpose of that was not to cut someone’s head off. The purpose was to send a message. Don’t mess with me!
And that’s where our dreams come in. If we feel any lack in our psychological makeup, any sense of not being strong enough, smart enough, loving enough, or attractive enough we have an incredible array of characters in our dreams who have those things we are lacking in spades.
Our dream characters are not just showing us our dark shadows. They are also showing us our great potential, qualities, characteristics, and ways of being that we may not believe are possible for us. I believe that every character or symbol in our dreams represent our potential for better or worse.
The problem I have with some dreamwork is that there is a tendency to see our dreams only as vehicles for problem-solving through dealing with our dark shadows. That can be and is very effective but it is only one-half of what is available to us in our dreams and our waking life.
All of us have what I call Light or Golden shadows in our dreams. There are characters and symbols that are amazing in their beauty and power. When we have such dreams we think it was a really cool dream. Do we ever dare to identify with those powerful characters, as we are willing to identify with our dark shadows?
I have said in talks before that we are more afraid of our power, beauty, and divinity than we are of our problems. A dream friend in one audience raised her hand and said, “That’s counterintuitive.” She is a psychologist. For those of you who are not psychologists it means it doesn’t make sense.
I agree that it doesn’t make sense. If it made sense we would already be looking at it. We need to look at the things that don’t make sense if we are to make the kinds of changes we are seeking. Not only are we afraid of higher visions and versions of the self, but our problems often serve to protect us from those visions.
“I don’t have time to work on my spiritual growth. I have all of these problems to deal with.” Why? Let me quote a famous spiritual leader of our time. “If your dream doesn’t scare you, it isn’t big enough.” (Muhammad Ali) Our own great potential scares us. Our biggest dreams scare us. We feel that they come with too great a cost. We feel that we will be called on to take on more responsibility than we are ready for.
All of this leads to techniques for trying to open up to our golden shadows. And remember that we have golden shadows in our waking life as well. Anyone you love, anyone you admire, anyone who has the qualities of being that you would like to have, is one of your golden shadows, a reflection of who you really are. I like to say, “If you can see it, you have it.” Any qualities you can see in another, you already have within you and all you need is the courage to let it emerge.
So if you have a mind that is limited, an identity that is too small or too afraid, start practicing putting on a different mind, a different identity. One of our most powerful tools is our imagination. Pretend that you are some powerful being (or symbol) who has all or many of the qualities you would like to display in your life. Simply put on that character like you would put on a new coat.
Think of that person and try to hold your body in an attitude that reflects that person. Walk around with the idea of projecting the energy of that person to people you come in contact with. See if you can’t get a different reaction to folks from how they might ordinarily behave with you. They may say that something is different about you. Is that a new haircut? Have you lost weight?
These characters and symbols can come from dreams and waking life but just because they come in our waking life doesn’t mean that they have to be “real” people. Models for your new identity can come from living individuals, dead individuals, or historical figures. They can also come from fiction and mythology. Two characters that are very meaningful for me are Superman and a wizard.
Do not limit yourself as you attempt to stretch yourself into a greater version of you. It is the goal of Buddhists to become the Buddha. In the New Testament it is said, “We have taken on the mind of Christ.” Do not be afraid to take on the greatest mind you can think of that can help you stretch yourself beyond the limits your mind has set for you currently.
You identity is a collection of thoughts and ideas you have about yourself. You can say that your identity is the result of your childhood experiences or even your past lives. Your childhood experiences were not meant to limit you or cripple you. If anything, they were meant to make you stronger, to help you see beyond the limitations of your upbringing. Your past lives are just experiences. Use what is useful and throw the rest away.
Our self-image, our identity, is not something that has been created for us as a result of our past. It is what we have allowed ourselves to believe in. And the more we believe in it the more the world is going to reflect that limited identity. To break out of it, we have to believe that something different is possible, that the mind that places limitations upon us is also the mind that can set us free.
We are the director of that mind. What will we allow ourselves to create? Who will we allow ourselves to be?