Dream Train (written 2018)
Last night I dreamt that my husband handed me a broken bird. The bird's body was weighty and soft , and its lolling head fell off as he dropped it into my hands. I woke myself in tears. In the aftermath I noticed the way in which my mind reflexively began to interpret this dream...to give the bird symbolic meanings...broken dreams maybe... to find a story to explain the image. And then, I remembered my teacher's voice, the voice of wisdom. Bring this runaway mind into the body.
I was hot and uncomfortable. My shoulders ached some. My head felt full and heavy. My breath was still jagged with the crying that woke me. What is this? Anxiety. Fear maybe. Regret and lamentation. This is how it feels in this body. Because of years of meditation on the breath, I begin here. Notice the breath and how it changes. Count the in-breaths, the out-breaths. I notice how in just a few moments, the breath smooths out, my shoulders soften. Whatever it was that had me by the throat has given way.
Teachers use different metaphors for the reactive chain that happens so quickly in the human mind. A train at a station is one. The train is passing through...this is the thought that arises. If we reach for the hand rail by the door we begin to grasp, a foot on the step takes us further, boarding is when we're pulled into the story, and as the train begins to move, the momentum of the story and the physical and emotional responses take over, carrying us away. We can abort the journey at any stage, but the further we are in the process the more difficult it is. A hand touching the rail and pulling back. That is to notice the thought and move away. A foot on the step and we're more committed; it's harder perhaps to pull back. Once on board, we may not even notice as the train begins to move. Disembarking then is painful and difficult.
In waking life, often (some days I might even say “most of the time”) I am able to touch the rail and let go, at most to set a hesitant foot on the step before sati/mindfulness/remembering kicks in because of persistent training. Yet, sleeping, I've discovered, is a different territory.
One of the benefits, the Buddha said, of metta or loving-kindness meditation is that one sleeps well. Over years of practice I found that the nightmares that plagued me in childhood, and went on to make intermittent visits in adulthood, abated...were almost non-existent. The treatment is unconditional loving-kindness, not just outwardly directed but looping back here, to this very heart and mind. Why are these painful dreams nudging the door open again now? Well, currently it is more difficult for me to send love and comfort to myself, to not believe my self-judging mind. My teacher calls this 3:00 a.m. mind: revisiting every mistake in your life while you count the hours of the dark. Where you shame and blame yourself for all the wrong turnings you've taken. In my dreams especially, I have trouble loving myself these days. In my dreams, I step on the train that holds memories of mistakes and difficulties. One car in this train wonders what I might have done differently, another mourns the pain I've caused others through ordinary irritation and lack of patience, another acknowledges intentional acts and words of anger. Yet another wishes so much of a good life had not been wasted in the self-induced pain of unskillful living.But that's in my dreams.
Thoughts arise. The way sight and sound and smells, taste and tactile sensations arise when the sense doors open. Conscious, I am able to intervene and reroute them. Sleeping, the guardian at the gate is dismissed. When we are learning to meditate, the Buddha reminds us, virtue is important. Without regret and shame, anger and greed, the mind settles naturally. What is happening in my sleep these days is a painful kind of remembering. And it has no beneficial consequent. It's serving time for what has passed. Calling out, I wake, jump from the dream train back to this sleeping body. It hurts for awhile. But I cultivate remembering to be here. Filling each breath with acceptance and love, I move from tears and pain into calm and peace.