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Incubation: Growing your own Dreams

For most of us, our dreams are nonsensical, random and out of our control. We wake with a spattering of images, or snippets that seem to lack rhyme or reason. How do we even begin to make sense of it all? Simply put, through focused intention and patience.

There are many ways that a person can access and utilize the unconscious mind, for example through hypnosis, psychotherapy, art therapy, and others. And just as the approaches into our unconsciousness are varied, so too are the tools within each approach. Dreamwork itself comes with an array of separate tools that one can utilize in order to get some results and create some changes. One of these tools in the Dreamwork toolbox is that of Incubation.

This word almost instantly stirs up in the mind's eye the image of a mother hen nurturing an egg, or of a premature baby in a little cocoon of care in a hospital. The essence of these images - the warmth, the caring, the intention - is precisely what is harnessed in terms of Dreamwork. To incubate one's dreams is essentially to embrace an idea or a thought until it "hatches" within a dream. While much of the present-day Western world views such an idea - or Dreamwork in general - as "airy fairy" or pure hogwash, there has been a number of studies that has helped to legitimize and validate the practice. For example, Dr. Dierdre Barrett of Harvard Medical School published a paper titled The Committee of Sleep: A Study of Dream Incubation for Problem Solving in which she states, "The results of the present study would lead one to expect that about half of such therapy clients or self-help practitioners would experience themselves as influencing their dream content toward a specified problem and about a third of them would report a solution appearing in a dream."

History has been made through the use of dreams to stimulate creativity or solve problems. For example, the Periodic Table of Elements, the structure of the benzene molecule, and even the sewing machine were all created after influential dreams occurred at some point during the incredible waking efforts to find such solutions. Furthermore, pop culture wouldn't be what it is without the influence of dreams. Edgar Allen Poe and Billy Joel were known to stimulate dreams to mine inspiration, and, how can we forget the one-and-only Frankenstein, born directly from the dreams of creator Mary Shelley.

So, is it pure happenstance? I mean, it seems random when we lack intention. I know that sometimes I will remember dream images related to recent conversations, or things I have seen, so there is certainly some connection between recent occurrences and one's dreamscape. With Mary Shelley, the story goes that she and her friends were discussing campfire horror stories before bed, each agreeing to come up with a scary story to tell. It was that night that Mary dreamed up her now-iconic monster. For the inventors and scientists, well they live and breathe their work, slipping into slumber after a likely state of problem solving repose. This seems to imply that the focus on certain ideas and problems can lead to related, solution-focused dreams.

From my own experience, my sister was starting her own home salon business and was trying to think up a catchy name for it. I told her to leave it with me, that I would "dream on it," and sure enough that night I dreamed of a pair of scissors and one single word: "Envy". That word resonated with her, and she decided upon the name Shear Envy, pun included.

The practice of dream incubation will be highly personal and ritualistic. No, I do not mean you need to dance around naked, chanting. Ritual in this sense is merely a process of habit that works well for you. For some, simply repeating a question or a word over and over in the mind while heading into slumber will be enough to evoke some form of response. For others, it is helpful to be more tactile and to write the question on a piece of paper, either placing that under your pillow or inside a special box or container intended for this purpose. The important thing here is the intention around the activity. For me, I need to physically write things down in my dream journal and place that, or some other token that reminds me of dreaming, on my night stand.

This practice may be fast and clear, or it may take some time and be shrouded in a bit more dream mystery, which is where other Dreamwork practices and exercises would come into play. In my example above with the hair salon, it was a simple response: one word, and one image. However, we face complex challenges in waking life that will include complex thought processes to work through them. Dream Incubation is not necessarily foolproof or straight forward, but it can inspire other ways of thinking about things or highlight considerations you may have been keeping in the dark, however consciously or unconsciously.

There is certainly a subset of people, if not the majority, who believe that dreams are just electrical noise or merely systematic brain processes such as memory integration. While I agree with these points, I go further, believing that within such activity lies information we miss - or outright ignore - in waking life, and that information can be helpful. The memory centres of the brain become active during our sleep cycles, this is shown in a number of studies, illustrating the utility of unconscious brain activity. This discovery speaks to purpose of dreams and I find it hard to believe that the purpose ends at mere memory creation.

Dreams can shake us and wake us. They can create fear or fantasy. They can leave us in awe and confusion. They can re-traumatize us. There are so many profound experiences surrounding dreams that I believe there is greater utility involved, we merely need to harness it. Incubation is one such approach toward grabbing that harness. Give it a try, and be patient.

Chad Walters-McNaughton

Dreamwork Counsel


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