Dream Koans … Koan Dreams

The concept of the koan came into the West with the spread of Zen Buddhism, and, in this column, I want to show the parallels it has with dreamwork practice. Even if you’re not sure just what a koan is, you’re probably familiar with an oft-mentioned example, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Developed within the Rinzai sect of Japanese Buddhism around the first millennium, the koan is a question posed by a teacher for the Zen student to meditate upon. It is unanswerable by ordinary conscious mental means, and is intended to provoke or spark other levels of cognition, imagination, apprehension. It would be akin to a riddle, puzzle, mystery, conundrum, or enigma.

The obvious parallel with dreams is that we often awaken wondering, “Why did I dream that?” Dreams frequently are experienced as puzzling, mysterious, baffling, and, if we have some training in dreamwork, we expect to mull them over for hours, days, even weeks or longer. Like koans, dreamwork also entails a type of contemplation or meditation. The job description of dreaming is to present us with an unknown that is worth knowing.

The koan was intended to be the object of a contemplative process that went on a considerable length of time—perhaps months but more likely years. During the process, the koan might be partially apprehended or understood, and the student would speak to the teacher of what they had discovered. Its ultimate purpose was to ignite the process of enlightenment. This may seem the point where the parallel between koans and dreamwork breaks down, since we don’t assume dreamwork to be a spiritual practice leading to enlightenment. Or do we? We do use similar language: working with dreams brings what is hidden to light, makes places of darkness accessible; dreams shine light on problem areas as well as aspects of our being that can be developed.

For some, dreamwork may not be viewed as a spiritual practice, so this analogy with the Zen koan tradition may not be relevant. For others, engagement with dreams may have spiritual connotations, and this analogy may help provide a link to an ancient practice. I trust that the field of dreams has room for this sort of diversity. There are many different kinds of dreams, and dreamers vary in the kind they tend to have. The proximate and ultimate causation and purpose of dreams also vary.

Dreamwork is well established as a means of psychological exploration useful for individuals, families, and groups; as a mode of problem-solving, and a source of creativity and inspiration. There are excellent resources for each of these applications that are widely available. By contrast, dreamwork is not especially well recognized or established as a mode of spiritual development or contact with a spirit dimension; and although there are certainly excellent resources on this topic that cover dreams in the historic context of major religions and indigenous traditions, they do not necessarily emphasize or describe how these practices might be adapted by us today. My hope in writing about the koan tradition is to provide a model for contemplating the puzzles, riddles, and conundrums dreams set before us.

I was introduced to Buddhist practice at the San Francisco Zen Center when I was in my twenties; and for a time I was a student at Tassajara Zen Center. During one of my daily sittings, a koan spontaneously presented itself. In Zen meditation, as in many others, emphasis is on observing the rising and falling of the breath as a way of calming and focusing the mind. The koan that came was the simple question, “Who breathes me?” It was a startling moment, as if a voice of authority had actually spoken aloud. I knew this to be a koan given to me for my practice.

Around this time, my dreams became very activated; my interest in understanding them, however, was not particularly encouraged by the Zen teachers I sought guidance from. At that point in the 1970s, dream practice and meditation practice were somewhat antithetical, one promoting engagement with images, and the other designed to let images, along with thoughts and emotions, pass through the mind so it remains clear. I soon made my way toward Jungian psychology, where the notion of a living center to the psyche that communicates via dreams and images is well accepted. Only much later did I realize that the autonomous emergence of that koan constituted evidence that the wisdom center of the psyche is itself capable of producing challenges suitable to the spiritual development of an individual.

That dreams might present koans occurred to me after having the following dream in 1977:

There are four obelisks in a new park. The bottom part is a half-circle of stone that joins the ground, like a gravestone, with lettering that looks old. The top part points upward and is quite high, perhaps fifteen feet. One obelisk, on which the dream focuses, has a crack through the middle of the lower part, jagged as if fissured. Along the upper rim of the half-circle are letters chiseled in an arc: m y s e r y. The fissure runs through the middle of these letters, creating the effect of a ‘t.’ The word thus could be read as either ‘mysery’ or ‘mystery.’

I was enthralled by the stone with its antique lettering, and made a drawing of it that I still cherish. Were I skilled at stonework, I would have made a replica of the obelisk for the garden. The dream seemed to capture the universal question about the mystery of human suffering, “my” portion of it and the “y” of it, which I would contemplate the rest of my life.

In my Jungian training in the 1980s, James Hall’s excellent, comprehensive work, Clinical Uses of Dreams, was a widely read text. In it, he has a small section titled “Koan dreams,” with four examples (p. 308–9). The first was from a man who had practiced Zen meditation in Japan: “I was in Philadelphia, in the train station, desperately trying to find someone who could tell me which train to take to get to Philadelphia.” Hall comments that he was already where he wanted to be, if only he could attain recognition of this. Another example shows the dreamer observing herself: “I was standing in front of a mirror, describing myself, saying, ‘I am . . .’ Each time, the mirror would respond that I had not given quite the correct answer, although I was observing myself very carefully.” This dream shows the classic struggle to reflect on oneself in order to see oneself clearly.

At a recent training I did for therapists, a woman told of recurring dreams in which she was always trying to “get home” but there are the typical obstacles: can’t find her tickets, can’t get there on time, just missed the plane or train. At midlife, she had a satisfying career and home life, so what was it she was seeking that would be symbolized by “going home”? Rather than use sophisticated clinical guesswork to explore the dream, I suggested that she consider the statement “trying to get home” as a koan to be meditated upon. I did not mean meditation in any formal sense, but simply that she set aside time to reflect on this puzzle and see what came to her.

There is increasing pressure in our society for things to be done hurriedly, and this trend seems to be affecting dreamwork. At a training I did for interns recently, I was struck by how hastily they tossed out “interpretations” without pausing to ask any questions or elicit associations. I said it was important that we join the client in “not knowing” what a dream means and allowing our curiosity to come forth. The expression “Zen mind, beginner’s mind” captures the essence of this breathing space, where our more obvious or superficial responses are set aside and an openness is created.

Sometimes the dream as a whole may be an enigma or koan, such as the ones Hall cited. Other dreams may contain a riddle or mystery, such as the “going home” motif. Mindfulness practice has become widely used in many settings, from grammar schools to corporate boardrooms. I think this will help make the notion of approaching a dream via a meditative practice less unusual. The concept of the koan seems to me a delightful parallel to dreaming. Though some dreams recreate the misery we’ve experienced, others are mysteries to be contemplated so they spark our deeper imaginal capacities.


Meredith Sabini, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and founder/director of The Dream Institute of Northern California, in Berkeley.