The sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine explains why dreaming is best understood through a body, mind, and spirit approach.

There is so much more happening than we are able, or perhaps willing, to see. Great philosophers have taught that we routinely mistake the limits of our personal perception for the limits of the universe. Nowhere is this profound error more evident than in our posture toward dreaming.*

Historically, dreaming has been approached from three distinct perspectives. It has been examined scientifically as the neurophysiology of REM sleep, explored psychologically as an expression of the unconscious mind, and viewed cross-culturally as a spiritual phenomenon. I believe dreaming is best understood through a triangulation of these three perspectives—through an integrative body, mind, and spirit approach.

Because we live in a world where dreaming is commonly misconstrued and dismissed, we fail to appreciate its critical role in our health and wellness. Diminished dreaming is a hallmark of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.1 Jung and his students theorized that dream loss was an etiological factor in certain cancers.2 And we have long known that mood disorders are strongly linked to abnormal REM sleep patterns.3 The psychodynamic notion that depression is a loss of one’s dreams may have a physiological underpinning.

REM sleep actively regulates our moods and consolidates long-term memories.4 Just as our GI system processes food, dreaming digests the information and experiences we “consume.” It sifts through all we are exposed to by day and determines what to purge and what to permanently assimilate into who we are. We are remade, updated nightly in our dreams.

Unfortunately, so many of us are at least as dream deprived as we are sleep deprived. Common lifestyle practices including excessive alcohol consumption and overexposure to light at night disrupt dreaming.5 Most antidepressants as well as antianxiety agents significantly suppress REM sleep. Anticholinergic drugs, a widely used class of medications, also tamp down our dreams. Ironically, most sleep medications disrupt normal REM sleep patterns. Obstructive sleep apnea and sleep maintenance insomnia, which affect tens of millions of people, further diminish dreaming.3

I believe this silent epidemic of dream loss is an unrecognized public health issue that is wreaking havoc with our emotional well-being. It compromises the psychological digestion and assimilation of our personal experiences, resulting in a kind of mental malnourishment.

The first step in reinstating healthy dreaming involves managing the primary causes of dream loss. We must minimize the use of REM suppressive agents wherever possible. Healthy dreaming also requires that we sleep well. We must more effectively manage symptoms of insomnia and sleep apnea.

It is also helpful to set an intention to become receptive to our dreams by first considering that there is something worth paying attention to in our sleep. Rather than setting our sights on the shoreline of tomorrow morning’s awakening as we drift off, we can open our minds to the mysteries of the dream.

Whenever possible, it is useful to awaken gradually without an alarm clock. What we call grogginess is actually an exquisite hybrid form of consciousness—part waking, part sleep, and part dream. Lingering in our grogginess with eyes closed for a few moments makes us more receptive to dream imagery.

We can practice bridging our dreams into the waking world by journaling and talking about them. Morning dream sharing is a common ritual in many indigenous cultures. Not only will such practices improve our dream recall, they can also restore a sense of continuity between the dreaming and waking worlds.

Archetypal psychologists call our attention to the waking dream—a subtle, dream-like narrative that flows silently beneath our waking lives.6 In contrast to a daydream, which is about escape-avoidance mentation, the waking dream immerses us more deeply into the richness of life. It offers access to the backstory of the dream even while we’re awake.

The waking dream becomes more palpable if we practice viewing daily life with the same eyes we use to view our nightly dreams. These artistic dream eyes, much like 3D glasses that add depth to a film, can reveal new, rich, and mysterious dimensions of waking ordinary life.


Rubin Naiman, PhD

Sleep scientists typically view the dream as an artifact of nightly neurophysiology that is devoid of personal meaning. But because we cannot prove a negative, this is little more than personal opinion. The common tendency to view dreams as mere reflections of waking life is based on a similar bias.

This critical bias effectively downsizes the dream. It is a cultural blind spot that reduces dreaming to a distorted funhouse-mirror image of waking life that can be readily dismissed. It encourages us to examine the dream with our daytime, waking world eyes, which is tantamount to looking at a glorious night sky through dark sunglasses.

Such an approach can be comforting because it imposes a sense of familiar waking world meaning on the ethereal and, at times, unsettling world of dreams. But it does so at the cost of our sense of possibility, creativity, and spirituality. It chokes off our expanded sense of consciousness, our larger sense of Self.

As an alternative, we can choose to meet the dream on its own extraordinary terms. When we approach the dream without bias, we begin to sense a greater order behind its strangeness. And if we resist the temptation to reduce the dream to mere coded reflections of waking life, we can choose to have a direct, innocent experience of it. Perhaps more important than understanding the meaning of any particular dream is simply knowing that dreaming is meaningful.

Rubin Naiman, PhD, is the sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. The Center for Integrative Medicine offers a number of local and distance learning training options for medical, mental health, and other allied health professionals. These include residency programs, a 2-year fellowship training, certificate programs, and a broad range of courses in integrative medicine. For additional information, visit

*Although the terms dreaming and REM sleep are not synonyms, they overlap significantly and I will use them interchangeably in this general review.


1. Bliwise DL. Sleep disorders in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Clin Cornerstone. 2004;6 Suppl 1A:S16-28.

2. Evans E. A Psychological Study of Cancer. New York: Dodd, Mead; 1926.

3. Kryger MH, et al. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders; 2010.

4. Cartwright R. The 24-Hour Mind. New York: Oxford University Press; 2010.

5. Naiman R. Healing Night. Minneapolis: Syren Books; 2006.

6. Watkins M. Waking Dreams. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: Spring Publications; 1998.