Pacifica’s Stephen Aizenstat Sheds Light on Nighttime
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.