In the May 2011 issue of the Scientific American Mind magazine, a reader asked the question “Why do memories of vivid dreams disappear soon after waking up?”. According to current science, clarity of dreams depends on neurochemical conditions in the brain. Dreams are forgotten due to deficiencies in the hormone norepinephrine in the cerebral cortex, and more generally, due to the fact that dreams are not highly conscious activities in the brain. Check the link given above to read the entire answer. In this article, we will examine this question based on the Integral Psychology of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
Before delving into the question at hand, it would be helpful to briefly summarize the general theory outlined by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The physical world is not the only world that we live in; the Universe consists of layer upon layer of occult worlds differentiated by the gradations of consciousness. In our regular daily routine, we are unable to perceive these hidden worlds because our mind and eyes are fixated on the earthly scene. It is only in our sleep, when mental control is relinquished that the consciousness abruptly transitions into some occult world and we have what are called “dreams”, whose faint and haphazard transcription we retain after waking up. Sleep is like the uncapping of the lid on the jar which releases the genie.
Furthermore, we have five sheaths in our body which are intended to correspond to the multiple layers of the Universe. During sleep, each of these sheaths can, one after another, separate from the physical sheath and sojourn into its corresponding occult world, bringing back some experience which we denote as “dream”. The subtle physical sheath journeys into the subtle physical world; the vital sheath goes into the vital world; the mental sheath goes into the mental world, etc. As is explained later, if these different dreams overlap in the brain, then a particular dream becomes difficult to recall. Through Yoga, the bridges between these transitions can be strengthened and dreams become easier to recall.
To understand why dreams appear incoherent, consider an analogy. When you return to a place on Earth where you had lived many years ago, your senses are stimulated and you spontaneously recall memories of past interactions at that place. The same principle applies to dreams. Dreams appear incoherent because we are unable to return to the same place in some occult world every night. Every dream is an experience which deposits a latent memory within some part of our consciousness, but these memories cannot get reactivated until we return to the same place(occult world) again. Children, according to the Mother Mirra Alfassa, are however capable of continuing their dreams because they possess the spontaneous ability to return to the same place(1). With aging, the subconscious invariably becomes begrimed with emotional trauma, and that diminishes the ability to dream vividly.
Given that background, here is the answer to the question posed in the title.
Question: Why do we forget our dreams?
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Because you do not dream always at the same place. It is not always the same part of your being that dreams and it is not at the same place that you dream. If you were in conscious, direct, continuous communication with all the parts of your being, you would remember all your dreams. But very few parts of the being are in communication.
For example, you have a dream in the subtle physical, that is to say, quite close to the physical. Generally, these dreams occur in the early hours of the morning, that is between four and five o’clock, at the end of the sleep. If you do not make a sudden movement when you wake up, if you remain very quiet, very still and a little attentive – quietly attentive – and concentrated, you will remember them, for the communication between the subtle physical and the physical is established – very rarely is there no communication.
Now, dreams are mostly forgotten because you have a dream while in a certain state and then pass into another. For instance, when you sleep, your body is asleep, your vital is asleep, but your mind is still active. So your mind begins to have dreams, that is, its activity is more or less coordinated, the imagination is very active and you see all kinds of things, take part in extraordinary happenings After some time, all that calms down and the mind also begins to doze. The vital that was resting wakes up; it comes out of the body, walks about, goes here and there, does all kinds of things, reacts, sometimes fights, and finally eats.
It does all kinds of things. The vital is very adventurous. It watches. When it is heroic it rushes to save people who are in prison or to destroy enemies or it makes wonderful discoveries. But this pushes back the whole mental dream very far behind. It is rubbed off, forgotten: naturally you cannot remember it because the vital dream takes its place. But if you wake up suddenly at that moment, you remember it. There are people who have made the experiment, who have got up at certain fixed hours of the night and when they wake up suddenly, they do remember. You must not move brusquely, but awake in the natural course, then you remember.
After a time, the vital having taken a good stroll, needs to rest also, and so it goes into repose and quietness, quite tired at the end of all kinds of adventures. Then something else wakes up. Let us suppose that it is the subtle physical that goes for a walk. It starts moving and begins wandering, seeing the rooms and.. why, this thing that was there, but it has come here and that other thing which was in that room is now in this one, and so on. If you wake up without stirring, you remember. But this has pushed away far to the back of the consciousness all the stories of the vital. They are forgotten and so you cannot recollect your dreams.
(How to remember dreams…) But if at the time of waking up you are not in a hurry, you are not obliged to leave your bed, on the contrary you can remain there as long as you wish, you need not even open your eyes; you keep your head exactly where it was and you make yourself like a tranquil mirror within and concentrate there. You catch just a tiny end of the tail of your dream. You catch it and start pulling gently, without stirring in the least. You begin pulling quite gently, and then first one part comes, a little later another. You go backward; the last comes up first. Everything goes backward, slowly, and suddenly the whole dream reappears: “Ah, there! it was like that.” Above all, do not jump up, do not stir; you repeat the dream to yourself several times – once, twice – until it becomes clear in all its details. Once that dream is settled, you continue not to stir, you try to go further in, and suddenly you catch the tail of something else. It is more distant, more vague, but you can still seize it. And here also you hang on, get hold of it and pull, and you see that everything changes and you enter another world; all of a sudden you have an extraordinary adventure – it is another dream. You follow the same process. You repeat the dream to yourself once, twice, until you are sure of it. You remain very quiet all the time. Then you begin to penetrate still more deeply into yourself, as though you were going in very far, very far; and again suddenly you see a vague form, you have a feeling, a sensation… like a current of air, a slight breeze, a little breath; and you say, “Well, well…. “It takes a form, it becomes – clear and the third category comes. You must have a lot of time, a lot of patience, you must be very quiet in your mind and body, very quiet, and you can tell the story of your whole night from the end right up to the beginning.
Even without doing this exercise which is very long and difficult, in order to recollect a dream, whether it be the last one or the one in the middle that has made a violent impression on your being, you must do what I have said when you wake up: take particular care not even to move your head on the pillow, remain absolutely still and let the dream return.
Some people do not have a passage between one state and another, there is a little gap and so they leap from one to the other; there is no highway passing through all the states of being with no break of the consciousness. A small dark hole, and you do not remember. It is like a precipice across which one has to extend the consciousness. To build a bridge takes a very long time; it takes much longer than building a physical bridge Very few people want to and know how to do it. They may have had magnificent activities, they do not remember them or sometimes only the last, the nearest, the most physical activity, with an uncoordinated movement – dreams having no sense.(2)
- Collected Works of the Mother. vol. 8, p 117; Mother’s Agenda, Nov 4, 1958.
- Collected Works of the Mother. vol. 5, pp 37-39.
- Towards more conscious sleep and dreams
- Sleep and Dreams
- Explaining out-of-body and near-death experiences
- Spacetime in occult worlds
- The existence of vital signs during sleep or coma
- The action of subliminal memory
- Sleep disorders : somnambulism and somniloquy
- How can we “see” in our dreams when our eyes are closed?
- Physical marks appearing after injuries sustained in dreams
- Similarity between Neurological and Yogic models of human memory