Navigate Life with Dreams
A Guide to Happiness and Peace by Working with Your Own Dreams
Written by Bei Linda Tang, founder of Dream Heals, forword by Kelly Bulkeley, PhD, a psychologist of religion and the Director of the Sleep and Dream Database.
Available in Kindle and Paperback on Amazon.
"This book is an excellent guide to the practice of dream interpretation, but don’t let that fool you. In addition to providing a wealth of information about sleep and dreams, it weaves together an amazing variety of literary genres, and does so in a way that brings a distinctive, magical touch to each one. Whether you are a newcomer to the realm of dreaming or an experienced traveller, Navigate Life with Dreams will help you clarify the path of future growth and discovery that is beckoning in your own dreams."
- Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., Director, The Sleep and Dream Database, and author of Big Dreams, The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion
"Bei Linda Tang presents an inspirational tale of the journey of enriching her life by attending to dreams. The reader can feel the power of the “big dreams” she recounts and interprets. Ms Tang courageously reveals intimate details of her life and the dramatic ways in which these dreams affected how she related to her husband, children, parents, and career."
- Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School Psychology Professor, Editor in Chief of the APA Journal Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, and author of a multitude of books related to dreaming, creativity, and evolutionary psychology
Chapter 1: The Role of Dreams
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
- Marie Curie
A few months ago, my children and I watched the movie Kubo and the Two Strings. It is a brilliant animation film about a boy named Kubo who battled against evil spirits. After the movie, my children went to bed. My six-year-old son Ladon fell asleep right away; however, in about ten minutes, he woke up crying because he had a nightmare about the evil spirits in the movie. I held him tightly and told him that movies were not real. He fell asleep soon after and slept through the night peacefully.
Dreams provide us with honest and timely feedback about our states of mind. Although the monsters in my son’s dream are not real, his fear is. When he is scared and anxious, he gets nightmares. When he feels happy, he dreams of flying or turning into bunnies.
Even though we are the ones to dream, what and when we dream is beyond our control. This proves the existence of a part of us that we are not consciously in charge of. Some people call it the unconsciousness, while others call it the soul.
Although dreams are not always easy to understand, they are honest and authentic. The human mind works in complicated ways. In wake times, we navigate complex situations, taking into consideration of long lists of pros and cons, and make trade-offs, sometimes against our better judgements. When things don’t sit right, strange dreams will show up to tell us that.
A Dream of Two Whales
I had a strange dream about 10 years ago. I was alone in this dream, hanging precariously onto a zip line with hands and feet and inching slowly over a vast and treacherous ocean during a raging storm. The wind was howling, the atmosphere dark and thunderous, and waves violently pounding into one another. Two whales emerged from the deep sea, a mother and a calf. They swam right under me and exhaled a big splash of water. I felt the cold vapour on my skin and woke up - feeling exhilarated and awe-struck.
It’s been a long time since I had my whale dream, but it has always stayed vividly in my mind. Whenever I think about it, my mind takes me straight back to the sensation of clutching to the zipline, bracing gale, suspending in midair, and cold water hitting my skin. It felt so real and astonishing. Most people can remember at least one or two such dreams they’ve had in life. These are the big dreams, as opposed to mundane small dreams that quickly vanish in the daylight.
My whale dream didn’t make sense until recently. I came to realize the meaning of this mythical dream and its relevance to my life as I became familiar with dream science and started practicing dreamwork and dream sharing.
My early life - growing up in China as the only child of working parents, immigrating to the United States in my late teens, changing career from an investment banker to an independent small business owner, and balancing work and my multicultural and multigenerational family - had set the stage for this dream to manifest. In fact, it revealed my outlook on life up to that point and mapped out a path towards happiness, which eventually compelled me to share my personal dreams, stories, and perspectives with the world through this book.
I had the whale dream right around the time when my first child was born. Before that, I had been very career-focused. Over the last ten years; however, motherhood, though challenging at the beginning, has become my primary sources of joy. The love for my children is motivating me to move the world towards a safer and more peaceful direction because that’s the world my children will live in. One of the things I do to accomplish this is to advocate for dreams because I genuinely believe they can help everyone attain happiness and bring transformative changes to our societies.
The knowledge I gained from the meaning of my whale dream fundamentally changed my view on dreaming and dreams. I now see my dreams as navigation tools to help me make better decisions in life, and I believe anyone can utilize their dreams to do the same.
Dreams in History
Throughout history, dreams have played an integral part in human lives. Dreams were considered gifts from God(s) by ancient humans who used them to guide and plan their daily lives. Ancient Egyptians from 4,000 years ago believed dreams were like oracles. They even built dream temples to incubate dreams and to receive advice on health, relationships, and warfare[i].
All of the world’s religions originated from some forms of revelations delivered to humankind in dreams, linking humanity to that unknown realm where creation, destiny, and hope reside. Many people believe that God(s) speaks to people through their dreams. One of the most central religious beliefs to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - the concept of heaven, comes from the well-known Jacob's dream at Bethal, in which there was a ladder that stretched from Earth to Heaven[ii].
Before modern times, people used to pay much more attention to their dreams. However, most people today choose to do nothing at all and let their dreams go to waste.
Dreams in Modern Times
Only in the last century or so with the rise of technology and media have dreams faded out of mainstream consciousness. Radios, TVs, computers, and mobile devices offer endless streams of information, entertainment, marketing, and propaganda, all competing for our ears, eyes, hearts, and minds.
We communicate through stories. Both dreams and media function this way. Dreams, with their subtle signal strength, simply cannot compete against the thought-provoking contents, award-winning acting, sophisticated visual effects, and masterful storytelling present in today’s news, videos, movies, games, and social media.
Instead of waiting for dreams and internal thoughts to quietly manifest in our heads, most people can now turn on a screen anywhere any time to experience stories originated externally. Our egos tend to cling to stories that support our existing narratives, which are built upon circumstances we were born into and experiences we have accumulated in life. Without dreams to remind us of what’s really important in life, it’s easy for us to lose sight of the big picture and surrender to external influences that could lead to extreme views.
Dreams, once the headline act throughout history, have been pushed off the centre stage that is our mind and heart and into obscurity. As a result, our minds become grounds to be conquered and manipulated for ideological and economic gains.
A New Role for Dreams
It’s more important than ever to remind ourselves to think independently and not to be brainwashed and radicalized. Dreams can help us stay true to ourselves, but only if we pay attention to them. Without dreams, we lose touch with our true selves and become unsure of our ability to make a difference in the world and attain happiness.
To reclaim the autonomy of ourselves, we need to value our own dreams, which hold the records of our past and clues to our future. Although my dream of the whales was surreal and incomprehensible at first, it appeared in my mind as a real experience. Rather than discarding it as total nonsense as many people would, I treated it as an unsolved mystery. As time passes, I have gained knowledge from new life experiences. This past dream suddenly made sense and revealed a path to the future.
Many people today don’t believe in God(s) or spirituality; however, no one can say that they have never dreamt. With the discovery of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and advances in neuroimaging and technology, scientists have been studying dreaming and dreams in labs and have made significant progress in recent years.
Dreaming is universal. Dreams transcend race, religion, gender, ideology, nationality, wealth, age, ability, and whatever else that makes people different and divided.
Differences breed stigmas, while divisions lead to competitions and conflicts. In our globalized world today, conflicts are everywhere and escalating in intensity. Violence against innocent people for all sorts of reasons have become frequent occurrences. Just this year, over the Easter holiday, the deadly terror attacks took place in Sri Lanka, killing 290 innocent people and injuring over 500. This was carried out in retaliation to the deadly mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand that took 51 lives.
These senseless acts of violence, fueled by generations of vengeance and hatred, are happening all over the world - on the streets, in schools, at places of worship, at businesses, and in government offices.
For parents of young children, it is extremely alarming to observe these never-ending violent behaviours, the gradual erosion of safety and stability, and widening fragmentation in society. I often wondered, if these trends were to continue, what the world would be like in twenty years when my children have grown? Would it ever be possible for people from different walks of life to coexist peacefully and happily?
How do we end deep-rooted hatred and violence and make the world a safer and more peaceful place? To achieve resilient and long-lasting peace, we need to help every member of our society achieve happiness. This may sound like an impossible task, but I genuinely believe dreams can help.
Dreaming is natural, free, personalized, and a self-healing function of the brain. Dreamwork is capable of resolving various psychological problems and lead each person to happiness.
Our society is formed by individual human beings, just like the ocean is made of drops of water. When each drop of water changes, the tide will change. When each person feels happy, they will feel less isolated, scared, anxious, desperate, and angry. They will want to help rather than harm others. There will be less violence and bloodshed and more peace and happiness.
Our lives are all different; thus, our paths to happiness all vary. There is no one size fit all solution. However, no matter where you are in life and what your circumstances are, your dreams can provide timely and personalized intelligence to guide you towards healing and happiness.
In today’s world, many people feel lost, hopeless, and have no idea how to be happy. Our own dreams can function as the personal navigation system that tells us which way to go, warns us when we are lost, and recalculates the route to get us back on track. By working with your own dreams, you can overcome negative emotions and find solutions to wake time problems that can orient you towards attaining long-term, resilient happiness.
Chapter 2: The science of dreaming
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance. It’s the illusion of knowledge.
- Stephen Hawking
Before I start a discussion about the science of dreaming, I should mention that I am neither a scientist or a psychologist. I live, think, feel, and dream, just like every other human being. Based on the work of many scientists and psychologists, I am able to draw parallels between the dreams and the events from my life and those close to me to highlight the role of dreams as a navigational tool to happiness.
Nonetheless, I feel it’s necessary to include a chapter on the science of dreaming because most of the knowledge is relatively recent and unknown to the general public. Please feel free to skip this chapter if you are well informed on this topic.
New Dream Science
Contrary to the mainstream belief that people rarely dream, we dream abundantly and spend a significant amount of our lives dreaming – about 2 hours per day and 6 years in total over an average lifespan. We dream typically during REM cycles. On any given night, we may have 3-6 dreams, even though we forget 95% of them within 5 minutes after waking up[iii]. When we dream, our brains are as active as when we are awake, while our bodies are paralyzed.
Most people do not think of or talk about their dreams. They think it's a waste of time, or they do not have anyone to share their dreams with. Over time, their dreams reduce to nothing but worthless entertainment.
Benefits of Dreaming
Dreaming may be free, but dreams are far from being worthless. Recent discoveries in sleep science have advanced our understanding of how we dream, why we dream, and have brought to light many vital benefits of dreaming, all of which concern the mind, including critical thinking, creativity, imagination, memory processing, problem solving, and emotional healing. They are all invisible yet paramount aspects to our short-term and long-term health and wellbeing.
Below are some of the remarkable benefits of dreaming that everyone should be aware of:
Dreams help us think and make breakthroughs. When we dream, our minds are active and continue solving problems that occupy us during wake times. Among many documented examples, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, after a period of mediocre performances in the early 60s, visualized a winning technique in a dream that helped him succeed throughout his entire career[iv].
Dreams enhance learning by helping us process data collected from wake times, discarding useless ones and retaining important ones. In a study led by Harvard Medical School researchers, 99 participants were taught to navigate a computer maze. Half of them took a two-hour nap afterwards while the other half remained awake. Later that day, they were retested. The group that napped did better than the one that did not; and, from the group that napped, the ones that dreamed about the maze scored the highest[v].
Dreams provide original contents to those in film, art, writing, theatre, music, and other creative pursuits. One of the greatest songs in modern times, "Yesterday", composed by Paul McCartney, presented itself to him in a dream about 50 years ago. He heard the melody in a dream one morning played by a classical string ensemble[vi].
Dreams offer alternative approaches to taboo situations in real life, breaking boundaries and limitations. During the struggle for India’s independence, Mahatma Gandhi tried to fight British rule in the legislature but with no success. He announced one day that he had a dream where the whole country observed a general hunger strike, and thus began the idea of nonviolent protest, which led to India’s independence and inspired many other social changes around the world[vii].
Dreams remind us of the unknown, stimulating a sense of discovery and curiosity - essential traits for thinking outside of the box. One of the most well-known surrealist artist Salvador Dali painted many mind-bending images from what he actually saw in his dreams. These images continue to challenge our constraints on consciousness and inspire our imaginations[viii].
When we dream, our brains stop releasing anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline, allowing our minds to heal by reprocessing upsetting memories from stressful sometimes traumatic events[ix].
Dreams help us evaluate relationships and situations by revealing hidden anxieties from distant memories[x].
Dreams flush out emotional stress that can cause anxiety and depression. Nightmares are commonly experienced after a traumatic event. The unresolved emotional trauma appears in dreams to seek healing[xi].
Dreams generate theta waves in our brains, similar to deep meditation, which is linked to mental healing, particularly to those who have experienced trauma[xii].
Dreams ease the sadness associated with grieving by adding a spiritual dimension to death. A common type of dreams is called visitation dreams. In a typical visitation dream, a recently deceased loved one appears and assures the grieving dreamer that they are well and not suffering[xiii].
Talking about dreams with others is life-affirming. Dream-sharing fosters meaningful connections and can deepen existing relationships with others[xiv].
The contents of dreams are products of our own minds and closely related to the dreamer’s life. What we experience and think about during wake times set the stages for dreams to manifest. This explains why pro golfer Jack Niklaus dreamt of a golf technique, singer/songwriter Paul McCartney dreamt of a melody, and social activist Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of a hunger strike. When my daughter read Hunger Games, she dreamt of fighting alongside Katniss. You may be wondering how my whale dream is related to my life. The short answer is I live near the ocean, and my husband drives ships for a living.
Dreams provide insights into our mental states. When we feel happy, we have happy dreams; when we feel anxious, we have nightmares. Our minds produce dreams based on our memories and circumstances and how we feel about them. Because of this, we not only can use dreams to understand our psychological issues such as depression, phobias, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but can also work with the contents of our dreams during wake times to overcome them.
The psychologic benefits of dreamwork do not stop at overcoming negative emotions. Consistent practice of dreamwork can increase self-awareness, mental clarity, and bring happiness. We’ll discuss this in detail in Chapter 4.
There are many benefits of dreaming as well as sophisticated techniques such as lucid dreaming and dream yoga, which are very interesting both intellectually and spiritually; however, I will not discuss them in this book. My focus is to explore dreams at a level most people can relate to and to give practical advice on using dreams to guide life decisions that will lead to happiness. I will include a list of recommended readings at the end of the book if you are interested in expanding your understanding of dreams.
Dreams, especially the ones that we do remember, are incredibly valuable. They are the ones that typically occur during the deepest states of sleep, which is closest to our natural waking time and are longer and more elaborate than the rest. These dreams may appear to be too complicated or strange to understand. However, because they reveal our most intense hidden emotions and may offer solutions, they are also the most important.
The more dreams you can remember the more information you’ll have at your disposal to learn about yourself and guide your future. But what happens if you can’t remember them? Oftentimes people say with certainty that they don't or rarely dream. As mentioned earlier, recent scientific studies have proven this to be false. So why do people say they don't dream? They do, in fact, but most of them just can't recall their dreams. Even though we dream night after night, we forget the vast majority of them soon after we wake up.
Remember a dream is a bit like collecting your thoughts after watching a movie. Dreams are fleeting like butterflies. If you want to catch them, you have to be patient and persistent. Keeping a dream journal at hand is very helpful to get yourself into the habit of recalling and analyzing your dreams.
I used to think that I only dream once a month or every other month. However, since I downloaded a dream journal app to my phone three months ago to write down my dreams upon waking, I have already logged fourteen dreams, which is in line with most people’s ability to recall dreams[xv].
One recent morning when I first woke up, I thought I didn't have any dreams. But after lying in bed for a few minutes, I started to realize that I did indeed have a dream, quite a complex one nonetheless. There were at least six characters in my dream. In the dream, I was a teenager and moved with my parents to a new city. We needed to purchase a house to live and work in. My father showed us a newspaper ad that had the layout of a house, which we moved into. My dream ended with me driving a Volkswagen Beatle convertible to transport pillows, which actually happened in my first year as the owner of my company, Dream Designs.
This dream clearly stemmed from my personal experience of relocating to a new place. I felt fortunate that the details of this dream did not escape me, and I got the opportunity to think about those past experiences and consider their impacts. Dreams reveal lingering unconscious feelings from long-forgotten memories. When you remember a dream, you regain access to those distant memories, which you can then work with to understand and evaluate your thinking patterns and guide your future decisions.
Memories of dreams can quickly vanish in the morning if you are in a rush to get to work, hush the kids to school, check your emails, watch the news, catch up on social media, or conduct some other tasks that demand your immediate attention. I remembered my moving dream because I happened to wake up that morning before the alarm went off, and there were no pressing issues for me to address right away.
It is so important to give yourself a few minutes to stay in bed after waking up, so that you don’t have to rush, and have the time to recall dreams. Going to bed early and establishing a morning routine that's not abrupt and chaotic would help. Keeping a dream journal is even more helpful because you'll be able to observe recurring themes over time.
Here are some measures that have helped me remember my dreams, which you may find helpful.
Keep a dream journal - Keep a notebook on your nightstand and record your dreams upon waking. You can also use a smartphone app to record dreams. Review your past entries periodically to see if there are recurring patterns;
Media cleanse - Reduce screen time, especially before going to bed. Media overstimulates the senses and engrosses our mind;
Darkness break - Spend a few minutes of your wake time in darkness and observe what comes to mind;
Daydream - Relax your mind during simple activities such as yoga, hiking, meditation, cooking, cleaning, or gardening - this is daydreaming - an excellent practice to destress and clear your mental space;
Join or start a dream-sharing group - By committing to sharing dreams with others, you’ll be more motivated to remember your dreams.
In the following chapters, I will further demonstrate the link between dreams and personal experiences, teach you how to make sense of your dreams, and demonstrate the most necessary and underutilized function of dreams - transforming interpersonal relationships.
 Making sense of dreams and using their knowledge to overcome negative feelings and attain happiness.
[i] 1991. languages of dreaming : Anthropological approaches to the study of dreaming In other cultures. In Gackenbach J, Sheikh A, eds, Dream images: A call to mental arms. Amityville, N.Y.: Baywood
[ii] Genesis 28:10-17 Jewish Publication Society (1917)
[iii] Hannah Nichols and Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP, Dreams: Why do we dream? Medical News Today, 28 June 2018
[iv] Deidre Barrett, The Committee of Sleep (Oneiroi Press, 2001) 138-139
[v] Robin Nixon, Naps and Dreams Boost Learning, Study Finds, April 22, 2010 livescience.com/9874-naps-dreams-boost-learning-study-finds.html
[vi] Deidre Barrett, The Committee of Sleep (Oneiroi Press, 2001) 66 - 67
[vii] Deidre Barrett, The Committee of Sleep (Oneiroi Press, 2001) 150
[viii] Michelle Carr, How to Dream Like Salvator Dali, Psychology Today, Feb 20, 2015
[ix] Matthew Walker, Why Your Brain Needs to Dream: Research shows that dreaming is not just a byproduct of sleep, but serves its own important functions in our well-being, Greater Good Magazine, OCTOBER 24, 2017
[x] Leslie Ellis, Diving Deep: A Clinician’s Guide to Simple and Effective Dreamwork (Routledge, 2019), 21
[xi] Leslie Ellis, Diving Deep: A Clinician’s Guide to Simple and Effective Dreamwork (Routledge, 2019), 86-87
[xii] Benjamin T. Dunkley , Paul A. Sedge, Sam M. Doesburg, Richard J. Grodecki, Rakesh Jetly, Pang N. Shek, Margot J. Taylor, Elizabeth W. Pang. Theta, Mental Flexibility, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Connecting in the Parietal Cortex, April 24, 2015
[xiii] Patrick McNamara, Visitation Dreams: Can dreams carry messages from loved-ones who have died? Psychology Today, Oct 08, 2011
[xiv] Kelly Bulkeley, Dream-Sharing Groups, Spirituality, and Community, October 2, 2009
[xv] Kelly Bulkeley, The Science of Dreaming: 9 Key Points - The essential scientific findings about dreaming everyone should know, Psychology Today, December 7, 2017
To download or purchase the whole book, please visit: https://www.amazon.ca/Navigate-Life-Dreams-Happiness-Working-ebook/dp/B07SZNRWYH.