Lately, my mind has been plagued by nightmares. In fact, the other morning – like many mornings before – I woke up from a particularly unusual dream and tried to describe it to my fiancé from bed as she readied herself for work. I told her I had been dreaming about an octopus, and when I closed my eyes again, I could still feel it breathing in the room.
“An octopus?” she asked.
“Yeah, an octopus,” I replied, semiconscious.
I could see it there, sitting on the bookshelf. I tried not to move, and it, too, remained still, wrapped tightly in a ball. Breathing. In. Out.
I opened my eyes again, deciding to consult my dream dictionary on the matter, and began to read aloud: “If the dream made you happy, it implies that you may be involved in different activities and adventures.”
“So, did it make you happy?” she asked.
“No,” I responded, still in a hypnopompic state. “It was in the room… breathing.” I could see it there all purple and red, oozing mucus on the shelf, a heart pumping blood with each breath, its tentacles the aorta, the vena cava, the arteries, the veins. One of the tentacles dripped over the ledge and dangled there for a bit, its weight slowly pulling it off the shelf and onto the floor.
I opened my eyes again and read aloud the words from the dream dictionary: “If there is a negative emotional reaction to the dream, it suggests unhealthy attachments and entanglements are present in daily life.”
“Was there an emotional reaction?” she asked, looking in the mirror and smoothing on a layer of natural beige foundation.
“Yeah,” I said, still laboring to find words through layers of sleep.
I closed my eyes and there it was, sitting in a puddle of goo on the carpet. I heard the voice of my grandmother echoing through my mind. If you want to live and thrive, let a spider run alive. My mind’s-eye camera began panning back, and I could see myself inching closer, plastic bowl in hand. I would do what I always did whenever a spider found its way into my house: place a bowl face down on top of it, slide a piece of cardboard underneath, and take it outside. Simple. But this was not a spider; it was an octopus with a beak like a bird. I envisioned its black, toothed tongue sliding out from between its tentacles and crushing down on the shell of a crab, the thought of which made my bones ache. It was then I realized that the bowl I had just placed on top of it was too small, and before I could react, the octopus jumped up and disappeared beneath the couch. As I searched for it, I could see myself through its eyes as it watched me from the darkness. I felt its heart beating, but then realized it was my own.
My eyes shot open. A pool of sweat encircled my body like the chalk outline of a crime scene. I tried to keep my eyes from closing, from returning to that room, from being left alone with it. I kept telling myself the octopus was just a dream but knew it was the other way around; the dream itself was the octopus, its tentacles extending into the vast reaches of my psyche, able to camouflage itself at will. And as I lay there in bed, I just kept hearing it breathing. In. Out.
My fiancé doesn’t often dream, and when she does, she dreams in black and white. Studies claim that monochrome dreamers are more likely to have grown up watching black-and-white TV, but when I mentioned that to her, she laughed and said that era was long before she was born. To someone like her who rarely dreams, I must look foolish describing nonsensical visions through sleep-encrusted eyes, but when I asked her about it, she said she doesn’t have such unrealistic dreams, so it’s kind of like a story but mostly just background noise.
On average, we spend six years of our lives dreaming, consisting of four to six dreams per night of which we forget ninety percent within the first ten minutes of waking. But some remember more than others. I tend to remember my dreams four to five nights a week, the more vivid ones being as clear in my mind today as any other memory. As a child, I met my first love while dreaming, only to wake in tears after realizing I had fallen for someone that didn’t exist. I was chased by an army to the edge of a cliff, but could escape by flapping my arms to fly away – something I now regularly do in dreams. But sadly, after a night of epic movie-like hallucinations, I am sometimes left unable to remember even the minutest detail. And I’ve learned that misplaced dreams have a tendency of being washed away down the drainpipe of one’s morning shower, never to be seen again.
While studying abroad in university, I dated an artistic hippy from Brazil who introduced me to the works of Carlos Castaneda, and I became fascinated by the possibility of lucid dreaming. She became my own personal shaman – my Don Juan – teaching me that if I wanted to control my dreams, I must first become aware of my hands while dreaming. For months, before bed each night, I said to myself:
Find your hands.
Find your hands.
Find your hands.
Then one day, it happened. I dreamt I had emerged from the sea in a littoral cave and tried to climb up its jagged rock walls. When I looked down, I discovered them there beneath me – my hands. Although fully unconscious, I knew they were important, and with practice I learned to rediscover them each night. I began picking things up to use later on. In one dream, I wrapped my arms around the leg of a table and refused to keep moving, but the inhabitants of my dream began arriving in droves, shifting shape into people I knew – friends, family, lovers – all trying to convince me to let go and follow them somewhere else. I realized then that dreams are like rivers, always pushing you forward. They don’t like to be controlled.
Often in dreams, you may be talking to someone and that person becomes someone else without your noticing; one minute it’s your best friend, the next it’s your brother. So I set out to find a shape-shifter and catch it changing form. Then one night, I stumbled upon a group of people sitting along a seaside staircase. As I looked into the eyes of one, I could see the faces of the others shifting rapidly out of the corner of my eye.
“You’re shape-shifters,” I called out, remembering this was somehow important.
“Yes,” one answered simply.
“How do you do that?” I asked after some hesitation.
“It’s easy,” another replied. “Just make eye contact with another dreamer and become whoever they want you to be. If you let yourself go, they will fill in the rest.”
Then, all at once, I woke up.
I was completely disturbed, not just by the idea that other dreamers inhabited my dreams but also that some now claimed to be subconscious hackers. If I were to believe what they told me, then I would be accepting that the world of dreams was as real as the world I awoke to each morning, that we all co-exist within the conscious and unconscious world, that surrealism and realism were both one and the same. So, I put away my dream journals and quit the art of lucid dreaming.
For most of us, dreaming is the acid reflux of the nervous system, our body’s failed attempt at digesting reality. Good or bad, dreams make us feel, think, and reflect; they’re little bits of insanity we all accept. They push us through rivers of consciousness, with those who push back calling themselves lucid dreamers. But controlling our dreams can be just as difficult as controlling our lives. In both dreams and life, we all wear masks, and everyone shifts shape over time, be it physically or mentally. Sometimes we love, change, and then lose said love. We are chased by what feels like an army of problems and try to fly away in hopes of escaping. After regaining strength, we strive to reclaim control. But more often than not, we are swept away by life’s current and carried downstream. We trudge through weeks and months on autopilot, becoming functionally unconscious. But in life, more so than in dreams, we must find our hands in order to take control. We must grab hold of every table and keep others from moving us where we don’t want to go.
So as I lay there in bed with the octopus that morning, I remembered why I had given up dream control. Because I believed in life. I knew that without the dreamer, there was no dream. And as I got in the shower to start another waking day, I reminded myself:
Find your hands.
Find your hands.
Find your hands.