What is the difference between your most successful pieces of work, and the ones that no one even bothers to read until the end?
When I feel inspired, the content I produce is genuine and unique: I can feel every word as I write it, as if I was living that story right there and then. I laugh and cry and nothing can distract me from sharing those thoughts that come straight from my heart. My most successful articles — such as this one — are a perfect example of that state of inspiration.
However, there are times when this doesn’t happen. Very often I feel that I have to force each sentence out of my keyboard, and after hours of intense work I end up with some empty article that seems to have been written by an unconscious robot.
Luckily, I have recently discovered a solution that has has transformed my arbitrary bursts of creativity into a reliable source of precious insight.
The Part of Your Mind You Have Been Neglecting
Surrealist artist Salvador Dali used to purposely fall asleep with a heavy and loud object in his hand.
In the moment when his body transitioned from waking to sleeping state and his mind started creating the first dream imagery, his suddenly relaxed hand would drop the loud object on the floor, and bring the painter to an immediate state of wakeful awareness.
Why would he do this? By waking himself up right before his dreams started to form, he was able to keep a vivid memory of the dreamscape, and use it as inspiration for his art.
Our dreams give us precious insight into a part of our mind which we can rarely access while we are awake: our subconscious.
“Carl Gustav Jung felt that Freud had merely scratched the surface, and came to believe that the sexual symbolism in dreams was often merely another façade, obscuring deeper, non-sexual, spiritual meanings and psychic functions.” — Charlie Morley, Dreams of Awakening
In our dreams, the rational part of our brain stops dominating, creating a place where our creative mind can finally express itself after our thinking-oriented waking routines. In other words, our dreams allow us to directly tackle our most authentic source of inspiration, by giving us access to the deepest parts of our creative identity.
Dream Journaling: Reconnect With Your Hidden Creativity
It’s been a few years since I started exploring the potential of dreams and the sleeping state for accelerated personal growth. It all started with my interest for dream interpretation and the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung, and it soon developed into my hands-on intensive practice of lucid dreaming and enhanced states of consciousness.
However fascinating and transformative the world of lucid dreams might be, it’s not what I want to talk about in this article. However, there is one specific lucid dreaming practice that proved to have unexpected benefits in my creative life: dream journaling.
I started writing down my dreams every morning as a technique to achieve lucidity during sleep: I was using it to improve my dream recall, to recognize dream signs, and to train my brain to be familiar with my dream world (if you want to learn more about lucid dreaming, here is a book I recommend).
However, I soon realized that this practice was also influencing other aspects of my life.
When you get into the habit of writing down your dreams everyday after you wake up, you are sending a message to your brain saying that your dreams matter. Therefore, you will become better and better at remembering them.
As I exponentially improved my dream recall abilities, I started noticing fascinating patterns about my personality, and getting unexpected ideas for creative projects I was working on. I started making connections between my dreamworld and my waking life, and discovering a whole new world of artistic possibilities.
How Dream Journaling Blew my Mind — With Examples
Understanding my Challenging Emotions and Creative Blocks
According to J. Allan Hobson (in Dreaming, Oxford University Press, 2005), the main purpose of dreaming is “to facilitate the consolidation and advancement of procedural learning” — in other words, to summarize and process our memories in a way that will improve our survival skills by allowing our mind to replay them and learn from certain emotions and dream situations.
When I sit down in front of my notebook in the morning, one thing I always look for when trying to recall my dreams is the emotions I felt in that dream.
Here is an excerpt from my dream journal that might help us analyze this with more detail:
I am back in my hometown. I am guiding a “tour” for a group of four people: one of them is Rachel* from my university; the other ones are three young males that I find attractive, and they make me feel shy.
I feel confused regarding where to take them. I suggest a couple of places, including a park. Rachel comments “Park? That’s not even a park, it’s a swamp.” I feel furious when she says this, and embarrassed that the other guys heard it. I don’t make any more suggestions with fear of being judged.
However, in order to feel better, I tell a witty joke to Rachel; I realize that I do this in order to be accepted by her. When she and the guys laugh, I feel much better, more empowered.
Just by looking at this short dream example and the emotions I felt in it, I was able to learn and integrate some precious information. The feelings and situations in the dream were extremely relatable to my waking life, and I could make the connection immediately:
1. When I was in university, my interactions with Rachel were triggering the same anger and annoyance as in this dream. Since then, there are a few other people and social situations that make me feel the same — Dream-Rachel was a way of my brain to represent those emotions and help me notice them.
2. Throughout the week that preceded this dream I had been meeting some new people and feeling generally shy around them, and just like in the dream I was keeping myself from sharing my ideas because of my fear of being rejected. Again, the dream made it obvious that this was a frustrating creative block in my life. It was also keeping me from pitching my work to possible clients, and from reaching out to start artistic collaborations with some creative people around me.
3. Probably the most important thing I found out was my instinctive reaction to use my sense of humor to hide my true feelings. Not only do I tend to do that in social situations, but also in my writing. By having it enhanced by the dream, I was reminded of how much I dislike this tendency of mine, and I was reminded to avoid it.
Accessing Pure Creativity and Brilliant Ideas Within the Subconscious Mind
Sometimes I have certain dreams that seem kind of magical. How so? I don’t know, they just have so much symbolism and artistic depth that I believe they are valuable messages from my inner self, waiting to be deciphered.
They don’t happen every night, but when they do, they bring me direct inspiration and concrete ideas for creative projects that I might be currently working on.
This is exactly what happened in a beautifully mysterious dream I had recently:
I am part of a Celtic pagan festival. It is the middle of the night, and there are candles and body painted people in cloaks all around me.
There are different groups, and each plays a different role at the festival. My friend Raven* is leading the group that I want to be part of.
In order to be accepted to the group, me and the other candidates have to go through a ritual. Raven sits on the floor with a candle in front of her, and we have to walk past her without putting away the candle’s flame.
I feel very nervous, and I really want to be accepted. I am standing in the back of the queue and I see everyone in front of me entering the group successfully, despite all the wind made by the cloaks as they walk past the candle. As my turn arrives, I hesitate: I grab my cloak to keep it from making too much wind, and then I pass successfully.
Once in the group, we are divided in pairs. My pair is Hannah*, a girl who used to be part of my class in high school. I am not super excited to be paired up with her — we were never close friends and I never felt particularly attracted by her personality — but I accept it.
She tells me that in each pair there is a “mother” and a “child”. She tells me that I should take on the role of mother, and she explains that I will be responsible for guiding her and nurturing her throughout the festival. This makes me happy, and I feel empowered and confident.
So what kind of creative input did I get from this dream?
One thing that is very important to note is that dreams communicate with us in a special language: we can’t just expect to understand them by interpreting everything literally — we have to pay attention to the symbols.
In this specific dream, there were two details that inspired me.
One of them was the ritual with the candle. By analyzing it in hindsight, I was fascinated by the subtle beauty created by my sleeping mind. I found it amazing that my dreaming imagination could come up with a practical selection mechanism based on such volatile and delicate natural phenomena (fire and wind and body movement). I got inspiration from nature, embraced its unique simplicity and used it as a tool.
The other detail was the “mother-child” dynamics. The first thing this made me realize was the fact that taking initiative and supporting others is a great tool to help me feel more confident. Apart from that, this leading-following dynamic based on parental guidance gave me ideas for new written material, for improving my relationship with my partner, and for new content for the project we are working on together.
Practical Tips: How To Keep a Dream Journal
Just like dreams and sleeping patterns vary from person to person, so do dream journaling techniques — so be aware that whatever works for other people might need to be tweaked in order to become your ideal practice. However, if you are new to dream journaling, I have some tips that have been helping me stick to my routine, as well as making it the most efficient possible for creative purposes.
1. Set an intention to remember your dreams. “How can I keep a dream journal if I can’t even remember my dreams?” you might ask. Well, if you don’t remember your dreams, it’s likely that you have never given it a serious try. Our brains are highly susceptible: if you decide that you want to remember your dreams and interiorize this intention every night before falling asleep, you will see your memory improving and soon you will have much better dream recall.
2. Do it everyday. The more you tell your brain that your dreams are important, the more you will remember them, and the more information you will be able to get every night. It’s as simple as that.
3. Do it first thing after you wake up. Have you ever experienced remembering your dreams very vividly in the first five minutes after you wake up and the next moment having them completely vanished? As soon as waking life worries and commitments enter our morning thoughts, the memory of our dreams is as good as gone. So do it straight after you wake up — if you still struggle, I recommend not moving your body for the first 2 or 3 minutes, as this will help you keep the memory more vivid.
4. For better results, wake up 3 hours earlier and go back to sleep. The last hours of our sleep have the longest REM cycles, which is the period of sleep during which we dream. Therefore, if you set your alarm for 2 or 3 hours before you usually wake up and write down your dreams, you will likely hit an REM period right in the middle, which will make your it much easier to remember your dreams (whereas if you only do it in the morning, you will only remember the last dreams you had).
5. Don’t try to write everything down. As you develop your dream recall skills, you might be tempted to try and write down every single detail from your dreams. Maybe that works for you, but I found that when I obsessed about registering everything I would soon get frustrated and lose motivation due to the amount of time I would spend journaling. So pay attention to the most important details: what were the strongest emotions you felt in your dream (anger? fear? pure ecstasy? arousal?); any major life changing conclusions? Any useful/inspiring information? Soon you will be able to discern what pieces of information matter to you, so allow yourself space to explore.
6. Use a notebook with nice paper and a pen that is a pleasure to write with. When you begin this practice you might feel discouraged and tired, and your sleepy mind will find all the excuses to go back to bed instead of writing down your dreams. So make it as easy as possible for your morning self: place your notebook by your bed — and maybe open it on the right page with the date already written there.
* All the dream characters have fictional names.