Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dream Diagnosis

As a student of Chinese medicine, I see dream imagery as diagnostic. East Asian medical traditions, which include dreaming as one of many tools for diagnosis, have a lot to say about how the condition of the body's organs gives rise to specific dreams. Two classical compendia, The Yellow Emperor's Classic "Spiritual Pivot" (Huangdi Neijing Lingshu) and "Simple Questions" (Huangdi Neijing Suwen), arranged around 2000 years ago, offer a clear compilation of these symbols that emerge while we're sleeping. 

First, I will provide a quick primer on the organs and corresponding elements, then I will organize excerpts from the ancient texts on dreaming, and finally, I will offer examples of how to modernize the use of these symbols in clinical practice, self care, and in lucid dreams themselves.

The Five Elements

The relationships between the organs and the five elements are associative, rather than literal, unless we foster a sympathetic link between them. A Yoruba folkway repositions a breech baby by slowly rotating a watermelon in front of the mother's belly. The watermelon is not literally the baby, yet, there is an intimate kinship between the two. The Liver can have a similar intimacy with Wood. 

The same is true of all other elemental organ associations, including the Earth element and the Spleen/Stomach. However, the Earth element signifies much more than brown dirt; it is "that which is above, below, and around everything[...] It is auspiciousness and abundance itself." [1] Earth includes everything we know.

Water - Kidney/Bladder
Wood - Liver/Gallbladder
Fire - Heart/Small Intestines
Earth - Spleen/Stomach
Metal - Lung/Large Intestines

Ancient Texts:

The Spiritual Pivot (Lingshu) states:
If the Kidney Qi is in excess, there will be dreams that low back and spine are separating and cannot be joined back together.
凡 此 十 二盛 者 , 至 而 瀉 之 , 立 已 。[2]

When [there is deficiency] in the Kidney,  there will be dreams of overlooking an abyss; drowning inside the water.
客 於膀胱,則夢遊行;
The Simple Questions (Suwen) states:
When the Kidneys are weak, one dreams of swimming after a shipwreck.
If the dream takes place in the Winter [the native season of the Kidney], one dreams of plunging in the water and being scared. [3]

When [there is deficiency] in the Bladder, there will be dreams of swimming around.
客 於胃,則夢飲食;



If the Liver Qi is in excess, one will dream of rage.
肺 氣 盛 , 則 夢 恐 懼 、哭 泣 、飛 揚;

When [there is deficiency] in the Liver,there will be dreams of mountain forests with established trees.
客 於 脾 ,則 夢 見 丘 陵 大 澤 , 壞 屋 風 雨;

When the Liver is in excess, one dreams of being angry. When the Liver is deficient, one dreams of very fragrant mushrooms; if the dream takes place in Spring [the native season of the Liver], one dreams of lying under a tree without being able to get up.


When [there is deficiency] in the Gall Bladder, then there will be dreams of fighting and arguing that wound the dreamer.
客 於陰器,則夢接內;

When the Gallbladder is deficient, one dreams of fights, trials, and suicide.



If the Heart Qi is in excess, one will have dreams of excessive laughter causing terror and dread.
脾 氣 盛 , 則 夢 歌、 身 體 重 不 舉;

When [there is deficiency] in the Heart, there will be dreams where one sees hills and mountains with smokey fire.
客 於 肺 , 則 夢 飛揚 , 見 金 鐵 之 奇 物;

When the Heart is weak, one dreams of fires; if the dream takes place in the Summertime [the native season of the Heart], one dreams of volcanic eruptions.

Small Intestine

When [there is deficiency] in the Small Intestine, then there will be dreams of crowded cities with busy streets.
客 於 膽 ,則 夢 鬥 訟 自 刳;


If the Spleen Qi is in excess, there will be dreams with songs, and the body feels so heavy it cannot rise.
腎 氣盛,則夢腰脊兩解不屬。

When [there is deficiency] in the Spleen, there will be dreams where one sees grave mounds covered with swamp as well as an earthen room (tomb) with wind and rain. 
客 於 腎 , 則 夢 臨 淵 , 沒 居水 中;

If the Spleen is deficient, one dreams of being hungry; if the dream takes place in late Summer [the native season of the Spleen], one dreams of building a house.


When [there is deficiency] in the Stomach, there will be dreams of eating and drinking.
客 於大 腸 , 則 夢 田 野 ;

When one has eaten to extreme repletion, then one dreams of giving. [4]



If the Lung Qi is in excess, one will have dreams of terror, weeping and ascending upward. 
心 氣盛,則夢善笑恐畏;

When [there is deficiency] in the Lung, there will be dreams of flying upward where one sees marvelous things made of gold and iron.
客 於肝,則夢山林樹木;

When the Lungs are in excess, one dreams of weeping. If the Lungs are deficient, one will dream of white objects or about bloody killings; if the dream takes place in the Autumn [the native season of the Lung], one will dream of battles and war.

Large Intestine

When [there is deficiency] in the Large Intestine, then there will be dreams of fields gone uncultivated.
客 於小腸,則夢聚邑沖衢;


How do we recontextualize classical Chinese dream diagnosis for modern people? It helps to understand that these passages are not theory; they are based on observation. So, we can start by observing our own dreams and the dreams of the people around us. 

I have found, for example, that helicopters can be a modern symbol for the Metal element and Lung organ. If the helicopter is on fire, this could signify Lung heat. If it is generating a lot of visceral wind within the dream, this can indicate an impending wind invasion (common cold). If we treat ourselves and others based on these diagnostic images, we are not treating pre-emptively--we are treating traditionally, with greater sensitivity and awareness. 

Here is an example of how we can apply the wisdom of Chinese classical dream literature in our dreams themselves. In a lucid dream:

I find myself moving quickly through a forest. As soon as I realize I'm dreaming, I look around to see the state of the trees. I notice that they are mostly green and healthy, with some dryness and brown foliage as well. "Good," I think, with my eye toward diagnosis. 

Up ahead, I see a tree that is bigger than the rest. It is brown and dying, with brown palmettos around its base. I wonder if all this is an expression of my Liver [The Lingshu states, "When [there is deficiency] in the Liver, there will be dreams of mountain forests with established trees".] I close my eyes, call upon my inner energy, and send a resounding pulse of health toward the tree. When I open my eyes, the tree is no longer there, and the palmettos are green.

This is an example of Wood's potential intimacy with the Liver. When we create a sympathetic link between them, we can expedite healing from our dreams. I love the reflective quality of our bodies and the Earth body--how even in waking life, by minding our relationship with trees, we can help the Earth's body and our own body at the same time. 

Of course, dream images need symptomatic corroboration. In other words, I wouldn't diagnose a person with Liver deficiency if she did not also experience some of its wake-world counterparts: blurry vision, floaters, dizziness, dry skin. It's just as important to let the diagnosis go as it is to correctly name and treat its temporary manifestation. Getting caught up with having a "deficient Liver" isn't helpful. Nothing is really deficient; everything is complete.

As we deepen our understanding of holistic medicine and physiology, so too will new revelations surface from the fluid symbology of diagnostic dreaming. We can continue to playfully explore the healing possibilities that arise within the landscapes of our dreams and our waking lives.

[1] Ming, Liu. The Butterfly Book: A Workbook for the Practice of Shamanic and Path Dreaming and the Dao of the Night. Da Yuan Circle, 2007.

[2] Many thanks to Becky Groebner of slateandshellpdx.com for permission to share her translation of the Hungdi Neijing Lingshu. All excerpts from this book (Unprincipled Xie Giving Rise to Dreams: Chapter 43) are hers. The brackets and use of the word "deficiency" are mine. I chose this word to simplify her translation, "Jue Qi" to make the text more readable.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts from the Suwen come from Joyce Marley's Acupuncture-services.com."What Do Dreams Mean According to Chinese Medicine?" 2010.

[4] Unschuld, Paul and Tessenow, Hermann. Huang Di neijing suwen: an Annotated Translation of Huang Di's Inner Classic -- Basic Questions. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA 2011.

Illustrations by Erin Langley

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