Pacifica’s Stephen Aizenstat Sheds Light on Nighttime Visions
For this week’s Curioser and Curioser, Martha Sadler sat down for a chat with Stephen Aizenstat, the founder and president of Pacifica Graduate Institute, a co-founder of Earth Day, and an internationally respected expert on dreams. Aizenstat was recently named a Local Hero by The Independentfor decades of helping the community, but in this interview, we wanted to draw on his background in psychology and learn more about his field of professional expertise.
Hence, “D is for Dreams.”
Martha Sadler met Aizenstat earlier this week over warm drinks at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Coast Village Road in Montecito. The professor had just dropped off some chapters of his forthcoming book at the post office, and agreed to spend some of his valuable time answering Martha’s questions.
Aizenstat was thoughtful, sincere, and earnest in their hour-long talk, causing Martha to remark afterward: “He’s done dream-work with so many people that it’s amazing he’s still so enchanted with dreams.”
What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion. Thanks for reading, and see more of these columns here.
What are dreams?
Dreams are the spontaneous visions of the night. Some people say that when the eyes are closed, something else comes awake, and what comes awake at night are scenes from the day shaped by the imagination or shaped by the dreaming psyche.
Are they meaningful or just wacky entertainment?
Dreams may describe what is going on with us emotionally or existentially. They often present something going on in our world that we may have missed. Also, dreams are forever commenting on what’s going on physiologically. They have a lot to say about our physical well-being: Dreams and images will occur first and then the symptom will always come second or third. Not only will dreams talk about what’s going on, and where it goes on, they’ll offer a diagnosis and something of a treatment plan, and in addition they’ll give you a prognosis.
Does everybody dream?
Everybody dreams, and we dream about three or four times a night. Some people will remember their dreams frequently, but others have the hardest time remembering their dreams. They wake up and as soon as awake life comes in, dreams stop, and they can’t remember a thing.
Can people learn to remember their dreams?
Remembering dreams is easily trained. There are hundreds of ways, but here are the top four that I’ve used all through the years. Number one is to get interested. If we get interested in dreams, they in turn get interested in us.
The second way is to take a dream journal, and pen or pencil, to your bedside, which is in itself a suggestion that, “Tonight I’m going to remember my dreams.” Then you repeat that statement three times. “Tonight I’m going to remember my dreams,” three times. And then the key is, before you get up in the morning, and the light rushes in, and you forget — to hang in that, what we call, liminal space, without movement, and without letting other things in, and waiting for some recall to occur.
If you’re still not recollecting at that point, you take the dream journal with you to the kitchen or to the bathroom, and just give yourself that time, and within the hour or so, eight times out of 10, people remember their dream.
What if that doesn’t work?
The third way is to remember the last dream that occurs to you. It may have been a year ago or five years ago, but write it down in the dream journal. For whatever reason, that stimulates recall.
And the fourth way?
The fourth way is to write to the dreaming psyche. So you say, “Dear dreaming psyche, this is Steve. I’m very interested in what you have to say. I truly am. I know it’s been a long time but I am interested.” Then you take the other side — just like you do in journal writing — you take the side of the dreaming psyche, and you say, “Steve, how long has it been? It’s been, like, a year or two. In fact, you never ask, meshugena. You only ask when you want something.” And so if you can get through the guilt, and if you use that dialogue back and forth, then you will increase the instance of dream recall.
It seems like dreams are often smarter, or certainly more imaginative, than waking life.
That’s what’s so phenomenal: Dreams come with a kind of intelligence that is beyond what’s conscious. The psyche itself is rooted in an intelligence that is both instinctual by nature — the animal intelligence — and imaginative by nature, what Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or any great poet or person of literature and the arts would identify as the archetypal or mythical imagination. At the same time, they are very much of this world.
But why are they organized so oddly?
There are lots of ways of explaining that, but somebody once said it’s like the fool at the king or queen’s court. They’ll give the queen, or the king, the information. If you do it in a straight way, you might get your head cut off. But if you put it in riddle and rhyme, you get the information across without jeopardizing yourself.
So, the dreaming psyche will tell you what is so, but it will be guised often in language that is poetic, or symbolic or peculiar. In fact, the most peculiar dreams are often those that are most accurately representative of our uniqueness. A dream that is easily understood has usually already gone through a variety of what Freud called revision — it’s already been homogenized by the culture.
Is there any hope for people with mundane dreams?
It’s a question that is always asked, about the mundane dreams. Those are the ones that we ordinarily dismiss, right? Oh my god, I want a big dream, like a big, grand, archetypal, mythological, imaginative dream. Instead I get this mundane daily housekeeping kind of thing that I’ve seen a million times and I’m bored and obviously I’m not worth much if that’s all my dreams are — I hear all of this stuff.
So I decided to put that to the test one year. I worked on nothing but the daily housekeeping dreams — the ones I was certain were meaningless dreams, not as intriguing, inferior, inadequate. But they are a portal right into something.
In dreams, more than any other medium I know, the extraordinary shines through the ordinary. So I forever will say, take the ordinary and the extraordinary and work with both and see what happens. I also work with awake dreams, you can work with them in quite similar ways, because the psyche is activated.
How can you bring that sense of curiosity, wonder, and mystery that you talk about into daytime consciousness — without drugs?
That’s what got me interested in dreams from the beginning, actually. Here I am, I’m a kid of the Vietnam era, drugs are going on all around me. That was the time — in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s — when things that altered consciousness were very popular: LSD, hallucinogens, mushrooms, and I was absolutely fascinated with extending consciousness from one realm to the next.
At the same time, I was watching and noticing that a lot of my buddies were not doing well on all of those drugs. They were getting in a lot of trouble physically, emotionally, in all kinds of ways.
But dreams will also take us to an altered state. They do anyway, every night. So it’s, in a way, a organic, or natural way of exploring that quality of consciousness. To be in a dream at night and to work with a dream in the morning in a way is a practice that cultivates that curiosity and imagination.
Are dreams useful in a practical way?
Yes, because to reconnect with a dream opens you to an imaginative way of approaching the world, in all ways. I just got finished writing chapters on addiction, workplace, money, vocation, relationships. In all those areas dreams are very instructive and constructive. So whether I’m working at a company and listening in to that place as if it were a dream, or working with people in couples counseling and listening to dream, in all those areas, dreams have a lot to say about how we are in this world. Not because they give us the teaching necessarily, though they offer extraordinary information, but they offer new perspectives.
Remember, in the dream we’re just one of many characters. The mistake is to imagine that we have dreamt that dream. In actuality, when we look into the dream, we see ourselves nine times out of 10 pictured in the dream, so then the question becomes: If we’re in the dream, who’s dreaming the dream?
So who’s dreaming the dream?
That’s where it gets very interesting, right? Somebody’s dreaming the dream, and we’re in it, we’re one of the many characters or figures in the dream — not to mention all the landscapes and emotions and the moods and everything like that — so there’s another intelligence at work that moves through us, that we are part of. And it’s an incredible intelligence that has our best interest at heart. To the extent that we care, or listen, or attend the dreams, they in turn will care for us.
What is the most amazing thing you know about dreams?
The things that for me have the greatest value are the things that make people’s lives qualitatively better. Say I’m going to talk to the city council or if the county board of supes. I can go in there alone with my will power, with my sense of conviction, with everything I can muster in terms of leverage and influence, and one thing will happen. If I go in there and I bring with me a couple of companions from the dream time, I feel supported by the loving figures. Also, I’m not rocked bydifferent opinions because everybody in my dream time has a different opinion — so already I’m consulting with a diversity of opinions. Dreamwork provides a lot of resources and perspectives.
What else can you do with dreams, besides taking dream companions to city council with you?
A lot of people will get up in the morning and paint their dream. There are three ways to do that. One is to you can paint the whole dream as an entity, just as a whole scene; the second is to just do a storyboard where you paint different scenes on the page; and the third way is to take a particular image or a couple of images and allow them to come forward.
People in dream workshops over the years have become extraordinary artists that have showings all over the place as a result of bringing their dreams into the world through art. Ingmar Bergman, Einstein — that’s where the theory of relativity came from, it’s from a dream image — all those accounts in the Bible, Black Elk’s speech. Inspiration comes from that intelligence that is outside of the construct of our egoic minds.