A dream is one of three states that the soul experiences during its lifetime. The other two states are the waking state and the sleeping state.

Since the old times, people regard dreams as mysterious and meaningful. Many people believe that the dream world—with its own metaphoric language, can help us fully understand our life in sanity and lead us to greater knowledge and self-realization. Dream interpretation has been practiced throughout all time very likely by all civilizations.

Unconscious lies hidden beneath the conscious mind of every person. It is an area that has a very distinct effect on dreams and on all human thoughts and actions.

Consciousness and unconsciousness

Consciousness is not a simple state, but has many “layers.” Even when wide awake, we are not equally aware of everything around us or of our own actions. An experienced bus driver, for example, does not need to concentrate in order to change gear. In the same fashion, unconsciousness does not mean a lack of inactivity. During sleep, the brains are very active. Data from some unconscious layers can appear during sleep in the form of dreams. When we awaken that very unconscious data can trigger sudden inspirations or déjà vu itself.

What is sleep?

Sleep is an active process in which the body repairs and regenerates itself, as our brains process and analyze the days awaken state of action. We experience four or five sleep cycles, which are made up of various stages or kinds of sleep. Each has its own unique characteristics and is designed to maintain health and prepare us for a new day.

How much sleep?

The amount of sleep needed to maintain health varies from individual to individual. Most newborn babies spend 80% of their time asleep. By the age of three to five months, babies need less sleep, and the requirement continues to decrease throughout life. Someone needing eight hours in middle age is likely to need only seven when they reach old age.

The duration of sleep also changes as people grow older. By the age of 10, most people need between nine and 12 hours to sleep. The average for most adults is between seven and eight and a half hours.

Some adults need as little as six hours, while others require as much as nine. In general, a pattern of decreasing sleep needs continues until old age when a more interrupted, infant-like pattern may re-emerge.

The average person in the course of a lifetime will spend around 20 years asleep and experience at least 300,000 dreams. Sleeping and dreaming are active functions of the nervous system.

People die more quickly from lack of sleep than they do from lack of food. A person kept awake for long periods becomes increasingly disoriented, starts hallucinating, and after about 10 days of total sleep deprivation usually dies. Many people, however, have survived years with little sleep. It has been demonstrated that both dreaming sleep and non-dreaming sleep are necessary to maintain health and vitality.

Stages of Sleeping

Sleep involves four distinct stages that combine to form the sleep cycle. During the first stage, the individual relaxes and drifts between sleeping and waking. In the second stage, the person can be woken by even slight disturbances. The eyes roll from side to side. During stage three the body is greatly relaxed and only a loud disturbance could wake the person up. These three stages together take about 20 minutes. In stage four the body’s tissues are repaired with the aid of growth hormone. After stage four the cycle goes into reverse but instead of waking up after stage one the person enters REM sleep and begins to dream. The cycle from stage one to four and back takes between 90 and 100 minutes. In the course of a night’s sleep, this cycle repeats itself between four and five times.

Dreams in Chinese culture

The old form of the Chinese character for dream 夢 is made of characters for an eye, a man, a bed, and a moon, which indicates the process of sleeping with higher visions.

Ancient Taoist philosophers believed that a healthy person should sleep peacefully without dreams. The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic (黃帝內經) states that the body’s qi during the day circulates on the body surface, while during the night circulates within the body’s interior.

Superhumans dreams in Daoism

Daoism is the Chinese primary religion and faith. Daoism sees dreams as delusions or results of daytime experiences and attachments. We have a tendency toward external objects as result of our attachments. Daoism tends to seek the perfect or true nature of human beings (Chin. 真人), which represents the original state of human beings without ego. People in the perfected stage occur to be in a dreamless state (Chin. 無夢).

When perfected men are in sleep, (or dreamless state of dream (Chin.夢中無夢)), it means they can control the actions in the dreams. Primarily they communicate with saints, deities, or superhuman beings in order to receive higher knowledge and purification.

People with wisdom search for great awakening (Chin. 大覺), which indicates that our life cycles are only a great dreaming (Chin. 大夢).

As previously mentioned the state of no dreams indicates that individuals have no dreams while sleeping and have no anxiety when awaken.

Famous Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chin. 莊子) from the 4th century BC expresses the foundation for future Chinese understanding of dreams and reality. He tells the legendary story of Zhuang Zhou seeing himself in a dream as a butterfly, enjoying life and flying around without knowledge of his human origin. After he awakes deliberately wonders around and questions himself if he really is a person named Zhuang Zhou who dreamt of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuang Zhou. Such state he defined as “transformation of beings” (Chin. 物化).

Famous Taoist text Liezi (Chin. 列子) was compiled around 4h century BC gives instructions about dreams and reality. Dream waking state is associated with the spirit (Chin. 神), while the waking state is with the physical body. It differentiates waking horizons: happening, action, gain, loss, sorrow, happiness, birth, and death, which are connected to the body. Dreaming perspectives are direct dreams, upside-down dreams, thoughtful dreams, awakening dreams, joyful dreams, and fearful dreams. Spirit is connected and crossed with these six perspectives. During waking up, the body connects to external objects as it is attached. However, during dreams spirit seeks visions.

The dreams of the common people compared to people united with Dao are baseless from the original Chinese point of view. Ordinary people's minds are greedy, involved in outer affairs, full of desire and passions.

The Buddhism concept of the dream

The best explanation of Buddhist point of view in China expressed famous Chinese Buddhist monk and leader Yunqi Chuhong (Chin.云栖祩宏 1535-1615) aka Lianchi Zhuhong ( Chin.莲池祩宏) known as the "Master of the Lotus Pond".

According to old scriptures, he wrote: Living in this world (reality) is like having a big dream. When we arrive at this world, it is alike a dream process. "Like" and "comparable" are the terms merely used because there isn't a better way to compare things. However, it can be concluded that this life is the real dream, having no data for comparison. During our life phases, from youth to adulthood, and from maturity until death, in a flash of the cosmic moment, we entered the womb and came out of another. Shortly we are in and out of it again ad infinitum. When we are born we do not know where we come from, so when we are dead we do not know whether we are going. Finally, after thousands of births, we are still as ignorant and full of ourselves as ever. Even when we sunk to become other creatures, in thousands of rising again, we are still ignorant and full of ourselves as ever. Isn't this a real dream?

Dreams in traditional Chinese medicine

In TCM dreams are indications of internal conditions. In the case of TCM, cosmological principles of the traditional Chinese concept of the human body are applied. TCM has been studying dreams for more than 2,000 years and holds that recurring dreams are strong indicators of our health.

In Chinese medicine, dreaming is most closely associated with the Shen 神 (or Spirit), which is stored in the heart. If the heart is well and balanced, the spirit is stable at night, therefore people sleep peacefully and have pleasant dreams. In case the heart is deficient (energetically), symptoms such as insomnia, vivid dreams, or nightmares occur.

TCM states that during the day, vital energy (Qi) circulates on the body’s surface through meridians, which are connected to organ systems. A balanced flow of vital energy regulates all organic systems to function well. During the night, vital energy moves to the interior of the body in order to let our body heal and reset. If this process is abrupt, sleep disorders will occur.

The five major internal organs (liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys) may give us warnings in our dreams about our health issues.

Generally, happy and pleasant dreams indicate that qi (energy) is flowing well and there's no major problem. Recurrent nightmares and troubled dreams; when we are angry, agitated, terrified, sad, usually mean there's trouble with the flow of qi.

It is written in the Internal medicine of the Yellow emperor (Chin. Huang di Neijing黄帝内经): when the Yin ascends, it appears dreams of wading through great water in fear. When the Yang ascends, it appears dreams of great fire burning and scorching. When both Yin and Yang ascend, it may appear dreams of killing and mutilation. In case the upper pulse is abundant, we receive dreams of flying. When the lower pulse is abundant, we receive dreams of falling.

If overeaten we go to bed, we may dream of giving donations. Vice versa, in case of poverty or hunger, we might dream of receiving help.

For example, the heart is associated with the element of fire, therefore it appears dreams of smoke and fire when the heart is deficient, whereas when the heart's energy is abundant during sleeping one dreams of laughing. Joy emotion is linked to the heart (or lack of joy). Laughter is connected to joy.

In TCM, the heart governs the mind and is closely related to our ability to think clearly, sleep soundly and have a good memory. It is written in the first part of Huang di Neijing, known as the “Basic Questions” (Chin.素問): “When the heart is weak, one dreams of fires; if the dream takes place in the summertime, one dreams of volcanic eruptions”.

The liver is associated with the element of wood, therefore dreams about forests and trees occur when is liver deficient, or when the liver is overactive, we dream of being angry.

The gallbladder has an influence on the length and quality of sleep. If the gallbladder qi is deficient, a person will wake early in the morning and not be able to fall back asleep. Also in this state, we can have dreams of fights, trials, and suicide.

When the lungs are overactive, we have dreams of crying and battles, whereas when lungs are deficient one will dream of white objects and murderous events. White is the color of the metal element in Chinese philosophy, and metal is the element of the lungs.

An abundance of activity in the small intestine delivers dreams of meeting a crowd. Hyper-activity of the large intestine causes dreams of fighting and hurting.

If the spleen is deficient, one dreams of being hungry and when the stomach is deficient, one dreams of having a large meal. In simple words, when our spleen is deficient we urge for nourishment and this manifests in our dreams.

When the kidney is deficient, one dreams of swimming after a shipwreck. If the dream takes place in winter, one dreams of plunging in water and being scared and when the Kidneys are weak, one dreams of being immersed in water. The emotion most closely associated with the kidney is fear.

The kidneys have a close relationship to the heart in Chinese medicine. The kidney energy is the source of all warmth and energy in the body. The second part of Huang di Neijing, known as Spiritual Axis (Chin. 灵枢经) states that, “When the kidneys are in excess, we might have dreams that the spine is detached from the body… when kidneys energy is weak, one dreams of being immersed in water.”

Instead of conclusion

All cultures in the world tried to unbundle the mysteries of dreams. Chinese culture gives a great deal of importance to dreams in our daily life. Originally Chinese thought is described in Daoism and Buddhism. Traditional Chinese medicine for centuries studies the meaning of dreams and their interpretations. Chinese medicine relates dreams to our health and which changes we undergo. In a systematic and logical way, TCM documented its findings. Chinese medicine analyzes dreams according to Yin Yang and the Five elements theory.

The main factors included in the analysis of dreams are: time, season, color, emotion, place, social status of the dreamer, and daily activities.