What is a Dream Character?



When you do IDL interviews, either for yourself or others, basic questions will sooner or later arise: “What is this character that I am interviewing?” “Is it real or imaginary?” Is it the same as a character in a dream?” A dream goat presents itself as a real, objective animal when we are asleep and dreaming a non-lucid dream. In a lucid dream, we will see the same goat and think, “this is a dream! That means this goat is not real! I created it!” Once we draw this conclusion, we may then refer to the goat as a “self-aspect,” as we generally do to the characters, objects, and events in dreams that we recall and look at from the perspective of waking life. Exceptions are those dreams that are so “real” – visits from deceased relatives, out-of-the-body experiences, or mystical hierophanies – that we are convinced that Jesus, deceased Aunt Valinda, or our view of our sleeping self from out of the body, could not be self-aspects. In those cases, we typically conclude that we were not dreaming at all, but instead had entered a “more real” realm: we were awake and out of our body, traveled to a different dimension or were shown reality beneath and beyond the filters of life in our body.

When we are confronted with genuine “non-imaginary” characters, like Jesus or a deceased relative, we can feel compelled to create a division between “real” and “self-created,” dreams, between “objective” and “imaginary” experience. In fact, this distinction is fundamental to both religion, waking consciousness, and most approaches to spirituality. Integral Deep Listening takes a different approach because there are several fundamental problems with this approach, problems that create real barriers to waking up and enlightenment.

When we draw the conclusion that there exist both a “real” realm of dharma, heaven, samadhi or nirvana, peace and enlightenment, and an “imaginary” one of delusion, the profane and secular, meaninglessness and suffering, we create a schism, chasm, gulf, split or schizoid break between a real “other” world and life, on the one hand, and an imaginary dreamworld, an imaginary “reality” of our own creation on the other. It divides life into truth and illusion, fact and delusion, reality and fantasy, obective reality and subjective self-creations. Instead of life being one and whole, a dualism is created in which life is divided against itself, and the nature between these two experiences becomes conflictual. We flee from one and long for the other; we purify ourselves so that we can see and experience the True, Good and Beautiful; we separate life into holy and unholy, sacred and secular, good and evil, that which is conducive to enlightenment and karmic. There are things and people to emulate and embrace and others to ignore or shun, both in our waking lives and in our dreams.

From the perspective of life itself it is obvious that this dualism is a creation of our minds. Sages have long known that this dualim does not exist when life is perceived from the perspective of life itself. However, functionally, in the everyday life of most of us, this distinction not only exists; it is announced as real by near death experiencers, channelers, mystics, lucid dreamers and traditional religionists. It is no exaggeration to say that we are immersed in a culture that either denies another reality besides the delusional one presented by our senses (the approach of secular humanism) or else affirms another reality as Real, Good and True (the approach of Socrates, Plato, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, most New Age, positive thinking, and “energy” based approaches, and shamanism), thereby creating a dualism that divides us from ourselves and from life.

Integral Deep Listening provides an effective and powerful way to resolve this fundamental and important dilemma. When you interview dream characters and the personifications of life issues important to you, these distinctions break down. Spit can be sacred and bodhisattvas can be mundane and secular; deceased relatives may say that they are both “real” and aspects of yourself. An interviewed dog may say that while it represents or personifies an aspect of you, that you represent and personify an aspect of it. You routinely discover an autonomy in responses to your questions, a willingness to disagree with your assumptions about what a car, building, or fire symbolize, that demonstrates that these interviewed perspectives will not be reduced to either self-aspects or symbols. They insist that their being is not derivative of or dependent on yours in any definitive way.

This is why Integral Deep Listening does not refer to interviewed dream characters or the personifications of life issues as “self-aspects.” This is a reductionistic understanding of what they are. In terms of Wilbers integral model, it is to not recognize their holonic nature. Instead, our normal and traditional approach reduces them to interiors, to individual thoughts, feelings, and levels of consciousness, on the one hand, and to personal values, interpretations, meanings and perspectives, on the other. But holons are not only interior; they are also exterior. This means that they have objective reality, “otherness,” and a claim to ontological separateness that is as real and valid as our experience of them as a part of ourselves.

Integral Deep Listening points out that viewing things as entities or separately existing beings with autonomous ontological status separates them artificially from their co-existent existence and arising with other objects, characters and events that share their context. It is therefore more appropriate and useful to emphasize their nature as processes rather than entities. It does so by calling interviewed dream characters and personifications of life issues emerging potentials instead of self-aspects. This is because countless IDL interviews demonstrate that the perspectives embodied by these interviewed perspectives include our own, in that they share our experience and are part of us, knowing us better than any other person possibly could, yet, at the same time, their perspectives transcend our own, in that they add interpretations, values and priorities that are broader than ours. Those things that transcend us are potential realities that we may or may not grow into and that we are waking up to their presence and perspectives. That they are awakening within our awareness means that they are not yet fully born; they are emerging.

Both of these characteristics, potentiality and emergence, are equally important to understanding not only what a dream character is, but who we are and what these other actors in our waking dream are. If the distinction between real and imaginary breaks down in our dreams and in our recalled dreams, then why should it not also break down in our waking lives and in our experiences that are “more real” than waking, such as mystical and near death experiences? Doesn’t it make more sense that all of these experiences are equally real or delusional and that the problem is in our own filtered, delusional awareness of them? A common objection is to say, “Yes, but there are gradations of reality. The sun only appears to rise, set and orbit the earth; it is more true to recognize that this is an illusion and that in fact the earth orbits the sun!”

These are two different issues. We can acknowledge that we undergo degrees of awakening, to realize that we are now more awake than we were when we were seven or fourteen, without thereby concluding that we are now awake. Based on our life experience, we can predict that next year we will look back at who we are today and recognize that we had more waking up to do. Because we experience states that are overpowering in their reality, such as mystical and near death states, is it realistic to conclude that we have seen absolute Reality, Goodness and Truth, or simply reality, goodness and truth that so far transcend us that they might as well be absolute? Which is more likely to be an accurate portrayal of our experience?

Similarly, it is one thing to say, “I had a dream in which my deceased Aunt Matilda spoke to me,” and quite another to say, “I had a dream in which my deceased Aunt Matilda spoke to me, and my perception was that she really exists and survives death.” What this does is clearly indicate that our reality is defined by and dependent on our perception of it, without saying that it is therefore illusory, imaginary, delusional, or a self-creation. IDL teaches us to recognize and respect both at the same time instead of doing what we normally do; insist on dividing life into categories of real and unreal, self and “other.”

IDL takes a further step in this evolution of understanding the nature of dream characters, the personifications of our life issues, and our waking experience. It notes that the essence of emerging potentials is to serve as wake-up calls. While calling them self-aspects is reductionistic and creates an unnecessary and unhelpful dualistic worldview, calling them emerging potentials emphasizes their existence as co-created processes rather than as real or imaginary entities. Referring to them as “wake-up calls” not only emphasizes their existence as processes, but as a certain type of process: one that is conducive to enlightenment.

In IDL anything, everything and everyone in a dream, vision or waking life can and does serve as a wake-up call for those who care to adopt such a worldview. This is an expansion of the concept of “symptom,” which refers to a health-related wake-up call. Dream characters can be, but are hardly limited to being symptoms. While it may be interesting and instructive to view life issues and the people in our lives through the lens of symptom, to do so implies that they are themselves out of balance and representing a state of disequilibrium in need of healing. However, many interviewed emerging potentials are obviously more whole than we are. Are they therefore “symptoms” of health? What sense does that make?

Symptoms can be wake-up calls but many wake up-calls are not symptoms. For example, a hoarse throat may be a symptom of a cold coming on but a call from an old friend is not a symptom of anything. However, it can be a wake-up call in that it reminds us of memories and may awaken new possibilities for relationship. Dream characters can be viewed as symptoms, but in the same sense that you are a symptom of some condition I have or I am a symptom of some condition you have. Most people would not view such an understanding of “symptom” to be very helpful. While we could take a radically idealistic viewpoint and say that everything is a self-aspect and therefore a creation of our mind, the result would be to reduce our reality to a kind of holographic solipsism, in which we are each not only the center of reality but the only reality, and everyone else is a projection of our own dream.

Just because everything can be productively considered to be a wake-up call and thereby used as a vehicle for our greater awakening, it does not follow that every dream character, life issue, vision, visitation, or entity in a near-death experience needs to be interviewed. A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you are convinced something or someone is “real” and “wholly other,” definitely not an aspect of yourself, interview it. See what it has to say about that conclusion. Similarly, if you are totally convinced that something or someone is imaginary and a self-generated delusion, definitely not real, spiritual, or valuable, interview it. See what it has to say about that conclusion. This is what makes IDL a yoga and a dream yoga. It is an empirical method and self-discipline by which you can test these observations for yourself and draw your own conclusions. In fact, IDL insists upon it, because by doing so you move these principles from intellectual abstract concepts to experiential truths. It is through your embodiment of those truths that your work as an IDL coach, practitioner or teacher rings true and becomes worth of respect and deep listening by others.

In summary, dream characters and the personifications of life issues interviewed by IDL are self-aspects, yet they are not confined to being self-aspects, because to do so reduces them to interiors when they are in fact interiors and exteriors. They are more correctly viewed as “emerging potentials” and processes rather than as “entities” or “things.” They are even more correctly viewed as “wake-up calls,” because to so emphasizes their purpose as processes and emerging potentials. When you read over interviews and attempt to make sense of the comments that are made, keep these distinctions in mind and ask, “Do they make sense?” “Are they helpful?” “Just who or what is this character that I have just interviewed?” “What is the best way for me to understand it and to communicate its nature and purpose to others?” “Is a dream goat a self-aspect? If not, what is it?” “IDL calls it an emerging potential.” “Is it?” “Does that make sense?” “IDL also considers it to be a wake-up call.” “Is it? Does that make sense?” These are evolving issues, and your experiences with interviewing add to our evolving understanding of how best to make sense of IDL interviewing and how to communicate it to our students.

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