Dreaming in the Land of the Dead
Exploring how we interact with lost loved ones in dreams.
Posted July 28, 2015
Is it possible to interact with lost loved ones in dreams?
Whereas in my previous post (read about Lucid Nightmares here) I discussed the topic of confronting death in a nightmare from a psychoanalytic perspective, in this post, I would like to explore whether dreams of death may be something more than a mere projection of deep-rooted fears. There have been cases where the evidence suggests that dreamers have truly contacted the deceased in their dreams, a finding that may force us to reconsider current conceptions of consciousness and the boundaries between life and death.
I must first acknowledge that many reports of meeting lost loved ones in dreams are suggestive of a more conventional interpretation, that these dream figures are merely projections, representations thrown from the subconscious mind that may serve a purpose such as providing us with comfort or closure. In fact, dreaming of a loved one after their death almost always leads to a feeling of peace or closure after the experience (Waggoner, 2008; Chapter 17, “Interacting with the Deceased”).
Nonetheless, other consistencies between reports are rather baffling to comprehend from a psychoanalytic point of view. For example, in many instances the dream figure is revealed to be much younger and healthier than when they died, and may provide advice or warnings to the dreamer which foretell and assist in coming troubles. Sometimes the dreamer sees a version of the deceased that they had never known in real life, perhaps the dream figure wears an unusual hairstyle or outfit, which the dreamer later finds to reflect their true character at a younger age.
It is even possible to gather indisputable memories or details of their life that could not otherwise be known (Waggoner, 2008). Such accounts truly call into question the possibility of some form of life, or consciousness, continuing after death.
An acquaintance of mine recalled a series of dreams she had had as a child, where her grandmother (who passed away before she was born) visited her over the course of several dreams. In each dream, the grandmother was always showing the girl around the family home that her mother grew up in (a home the girl had never seen), revealing each room, the hallways, the closets, all of the bedrooms, even the cabinets under the sink. Initially, the girl was too shy to bring up these dreams to her mother, despite feeling very strongly about them. However, sometime after this dream series, the girl visited the family home and was shocked to find that many of the details from her dreams perfectly matched the home in reality.
When she recounted these dreams thereafter to her mother, she was met with tears of joy and warmth. Her grandmother had wanted more than anything to live long enough to meet and spend time with her grandchildren. Perhaps these dreams provided a way to share memories with her little girl even after death.
As an outsider, it is tempting to rationalize away such an experience. Perhaps the girl had merely constructed images of her grandmother and their home simply from pictures she had seen, or stories she had heard from her mother. Perhaps it was only after seeing the house in real life that she falsely recollected dreaming of the very same house. Maybe the dreams were just a projection of the girls desire to know her grandmother. Even an epigenetic view is possible, that actual genetic transfer of memory passed down from mother to daughter and reappeared in her dreams. All of these explanations resist and contend with our final option: that she really met her deceased grandmother in a dream. Even further, the dream space was somehow co-created and shared by her grandmother.
In my observations, I have found that even the most skeptical people, once they have had such experiences, may accept them as true interactions with the deceased. The emotional clarity and sense of connection in the dream feels too real to ignore. However, the broader implications of such experiences are rarely broached. Does human consciousness remain alive some“where” after the body has died? Is it possible for any one of us to interact with the deceased? Could we visit those who have died long ago?
In several other cultural traditions, the relation of dreams to death is quite common. For example, the Tibetan concept of “bardo” is used to define both dreaming and the state of consciousness after death. It is described as an intermediate “state of existence... after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body” (“Bardo”, Wikipedia). The practice of dream yoga, which is similar to lucid dreaming and focused on maintaining awareness during the dream state, is thus a means of preparing for the transitory state that consciousness will enter after death.
That dreams are similar to death is also intrinsic to Taoist dream practices, which are likewise used to prepare for death.
"When you fall asleep every night, in fact, you're having a small death…We can welcome sleep as an alternating rhythm with waking, and we can, in a sense, welcome death as an alternating rhythm with life. Meditation practice, sleep, and death have much in common.” (Charles Belyea; cited in Ochiogrosso, P., 1997)
Even further, both Tibetan and Taoist practitioners are taught to seek out old masters and buddhas for teachings while in the bardo state, interacting in the space shared by the bardos of dreams and death. This potential for visitation dreams is explained as a question of travelling through time instead of through space, as we do in waking life.
“[there] are places in dreams just as there are places in waking life. The difference is that in getting there when you're awake, you have to cross space, but in getting there while you're asleep, you have to cross time." (Charles Belyea; cited in Ochiogrosso, P., 1997)
While these concepts may sound foreign to the Western mind, there is current scientific research being done to explore more flexible ideas of consciousness; both the temporal and physical ties of consciousness to the living body and whether some form of awareness continues after life are being called into question (I will discuss this more in a future post). Such research reflects an ongoing shift in Western medicine from a view of death as being abrupt and final, to one of death as a gradual and fluid process (Parnia, S., & Young, J., 2013).
In the end, regardless of whether we approach these experiences as phenomenal by-products of subconscious desires, or true journeys into the land of the dead, the depths of the mind and the limits of consciousness are nothing short of fascinating.
Ochiogrosso, P. (1997). Dream Yoga. In Yoga Journal Magazine.
Parnia, S., & Young, J. (2013). Erasing death: The science that is rewriting the boundaries between life and death. Harper Collins.
Waggoner, R. (2008). Lucid dreaming: Gateway to the inner self. Red Wheel/Weiser.