Last night I was on the winning side of a battle in the late 1800s. As I fought to protect the young baby in my arms, I was not at all surprised that I knew how to operate a shotgun. My shots were natural and amazingly accurate. It didn’t even shock me when seconds later, I walked through the door of a house and ended up at my ten-year high school reunion. Everyone was there, including the guy I had a crush on. Unfortunately, I was completely naked and forced to give a speech on the importance of using cinnamon in all recipes.
Nowhere but the depths of sleep can we have such illogical, random adventures containing both fictional and real people. Some dreams are mundane, while others shake us to the core of our souls. What is really going on during dreams? Ancient China used dreams as one sign and symptom to assist medical diagnosis. Exploring the dream theories of ancient Chinese medicine as well as the ideas of modern science paints a poetic picture of the dreamy events of nighttime.
To understand ancient Chinese dream analysis, here is a quick crash course in Chinese medicine. There are twelve main channels of energy flow in the body. Each channel is related to a corresponding body organ. The organs and channels of energy work together for body function. If the energy in a channel is excessive or low, symptoms of ill health appear. With this simplified explanation of Chinese medicine, one can appreciate the dream diagnosis from the ancient medical texts.
Themes in dreams may be subconscious manifestations of energy flow imbalances in the channels. For example, if one cries during a dream, this implies the energy in the lung channel is out of balance. Grief is associated with the lung channel. Each channel is associated with an emotion. The five main emotions in Chinese theory are joy, worry, grief, fear, and anger. These emotions are related to the five basic elements. They are fire, earth, metal, water, and wood respectively. When these elements show up in dreams consistently it could have a connection to the channels related to the element. For example, dreaming of raging fires at night may be explained by an imbalanced fire element or heart channel energy, whereas dreaming of large bodies of water points to the water element organ of the kidney.
Of course, two thousand years ago, when the medical classics were written, there was no mass media to influence the subconscious. For instance, if I watch the TV show Heroes with superhuman men flying around, then I dream of flying, does that indicate excessive energy in my upper body or a subconscious memory? Or, if I replace Kate Winslet on the Titanic in a dream, then experience being shipwrecked in the ocean, am I kidney deficient or just lusting for Leonardo DiCaprio?
Modern science attempts to understand the activity of the brain during sleep. By measuring brain waves, it has been determined that there are five stages of sleep. Some dreaming happens in the third and fourth stages of sleep, but the majority of dreams occur during the fifth stage, the REM (rapid eye movement) stage. Every ninety minutes of continuous sleep we enter the REM stage. Early in the night, the REM stage lasts only five minutes before the cycle restarts. By early morning, the REM stage may last as long as fifty minutes, which is why we remember more dreams in the morning.
Ancient China did not have the technology to measure brain waves. Instead, they correlated the activities of the mind at night with the activities of the various spirits of elements. From 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., is considered wood element time. At this time, the wood channels are most active, therefore the wood element spirit, the Hun, is also active. This is the spirit of creativity, vision, and imagination. At night, it has adventures that we experience as dreams. Of course, the other element spirits can be involved too if the person has issues to work out. Each element spirit has emotional functions.
While the eyes are closed, the Hun resides in the liver. This is a time for creative energy to restore itself. Dreams are an expression of this creativity. If the wood element channels (liver and gallbladder) are balanced and the blood is strong, a person will have only a few dreams that help him or her work through obstacles along one’s path. If the Hun is not anchored, it flies around following the Shen, the fire spirit, and has many crazy adventures, which leads to excessive dreams. Too many dreams can exhaust the Hun and therefore create imbalances in the liver and gallbladder channels or vice versa.
Here is a summary of the elements, their spirits and the spirits’ function in the body. They are the closest things to ancient Chinese psychology.
- Channels Involved: heart and small intestine
- Spirit: Shen
- Functions: awareness, thought, and insight
- Channels Involved: liver and gallbladder
- Spirit: Hun
- Functions: dreams, vision, and imagination
- Channels Involved: Spleen/Stomach
- Spirit: Yi
- Functions: intent, matter, and body
- Channels Involved: Lung/Large Intestine
- Spirit: Po
- Functions: sub consciousness and faith
- Channels Involved: Kidney/Urinary Bladder
- Spirit: Zhi
- Functions: manifestations, fate, desires, and deep sub conscious
Dreams are fascinating and unknown. The Chinese theories offer us possibilities to ponder. My dream last night could be analyzed with Chinese dream theories. The battle scene indicates that my wood element is excessive. This often translates to experiencing stress. The embarrassing speech about food could be telling me that I really did need that extra cookie before bed. Finally, the cute guy showing up in the naked part of my dream just tells me that my kidney energy, in charge of sexuality, is working. Based on my self-diagnosis, I will prescribe myself some acupuncture, delicious food, and a hot date to balance my energy out.