It’s the tone, not the content

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The car was skidding sideways now, for me in slow motion, and I remember having time to decide what to do. I felt the wheels beneath me leave the road’s edge, into the air above the ditch and I knew we were dead. Time stretched even wider, and I put my hands calmly over my face and waited.

There was no impact, just silence and softness and the feeling of tiny bits of glass scattering over the backs of my hands. It felt good.


I don’t talk about the meaning of dreams here much because it’s one of those topics that seems to attract over-reaching interpretations. Dream dictionaries rattle off one-to-one meanings as if they could possibly be the same for everyone. Dreaming about a lizard means you have anxiety about your libido, didn’t you know? Somehow it’s not supposed to matter who you are.

Not that what we dream about can’t tell us anything about what’s happening in our lives, even if we’re not conscious of it while we’re awake. They give us pretty strong clues sometimes, if a little general. We tend to dream about what we’ve been thinking about during waking life. This can include hopes and anxieties that only happen in the background normally, and which come to light when we’re asleep.

As random as they seem to be, if you look at what you tend to dream about over time you can get an idea of what might be occupying your subconscious in your day-to-day life, even over years. I’ve had thousands of dreams and certain specific themes and images have recurred consistently for long stretches of my life:

It’s the first day of school and I don’t know where my class is.

There is an exciting field trip about to happen and I miss the bus or it gets canceled.

My teeth become brittle and crumble in my mouth.

I lose my laptop and my heart’s in my throat until I find it.

I meet my dream girl and she disappears or turns into someone else.

I lose a body part violently, but rather than panic I just get kind of sad that it’s gone.

These aren’t all of them, but it’s amazing to me how consistently these themes have visited me over the last ten or fifteen years. You probably have your own, and looking at my own short list I can’t help but wonder what they have to do with me specifically. Why don’t I dream about laying comfortably on beaches or playing in the Superbowl?

It’s not that all my dreams are anxious or filled with the fear of loss. Some are euphoric, some are horrific. But the overall consistency of emotional themes seems to suggest that when my mind is left to its own, to create an experience without any external sense data defining the world for it — which seems to be the only difference between waking life and dreaming — that world is usually an anxious one. 

For years now I’ve been running into an aphorism about dreams, attributed to Emerson:

“Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams.”

[If anyone knows the context of this quote let me know, I can't find it. -D.]

I always hated that quote because I couldn’t help but agree with it, and I knew it meant that my character was defined primarily by my anxiousness. Ever since my forehead-smacking moment two years ago, in which I realized I was and had always been a pessimist, that thought doesn’t seem too off the mark. Historically, my defacto emotion has been the fear of loss and pain, and my dreams have been reflecting that all this time.

It was comforting to learn that studies done on dream content show that overwhelmingly, people experience negative emotions in dreams more often than they experience positive ones.

In waking life, we’re surrounded by external stimuli all the time, and we can manipulate it physically, so we get a chance to position ourselves in ways that minimize or placate negative emotions. If we feel deprived, we can eat something or buy something. If we feel lonely we can call someone. If nothing else works we can go buy beer.

While we’re awake do a lot of this kind of emotional “mood maintenance,” without even realizing why we’re doing it. In dreams, though, the world around us is created by raw thought and emotion, and in a non-lucid dream we have no control over that experience. And so certain themes naturally emerge. They are your mind’s emotional background tone — what it does when you can’t get it to do anything else.

I think that emotional vibe of our dreams says more about our personalities than what actually happens in the dreams. The emotion comes first, and the mind comes up with whatever events and images represent that in your mind. The tone creates the content.

So I still agree with Emerson. It seems that dreams, over time, can be a reliable barometer of the dominant emotions in your life.

What I didn’t know is that the “natural character” that Emerson is talking about is something that can change. It might seem intrinsic because our emotions are habitual and self-perpetuating. They can stay the same for long stretches of our lives. But it’s not an intrinsic part of our identity, it’s just the dominant emotion in our lives. Dreams give us a way of gauging what that dominant emotion is without the external distractions of waking life.

My last Raptitude experiment was on visualization — sitting down just to think about what I want in life, to address my lifelong pessimistic habit of thinking primarily about what I don’t want to happen. The experiment was kind of a disaster. I came to hate my visualization ritual because it became an obligation.

So I aborted it as an official experiment and almost right away it became appealing again, and something finally clicked. I know how to do it now. Don’t focus on the physical details of the vision, as in what it looks like specifically, but instead focus on what specifically it would feel like, emotionally, if it were real.

The tone, not the content.

In the last two months I have been thinking about what I want far more often than I ever have, and I’m noticing a dramatic change in my “background” emotional state. Before, whenever my mind wasn’t absorbed in something, it would default back to some kind of low-level worry — about an annoying to-do, tomorrow’s workday, the cleanliness of my bathroom, whatever.

My default seems to be shifting, away from worry and towards gratitude, and I can see this change manifesting itself most conspicuously in my dreams. The tone of them was so consistently anxious for so, so long, and now in most of them I’m relaxed and curious. I’m having a lot more lucid dreams.

Every September I have at least one back-to-school dream, even though I haven’t attended any kind of school for six years. The tone of these dreams has always been very consistently anxious. I had one again last week.

This time I had all the same problems as previous back-to-school dreams — I couldn’t find my class, I was missing certain mandatory supplies, I didn’t know anybody, I was late, and for some reason I was entering high school at age 27 — yet I stayed relaxed and curious and confident through the whole thing. Same situation, totally different tone.

The difference was so stark that I’m convinced now that this background emotional tone of our lives is the greatest determining factor in a person’s quality of life.

There is no question that it feels much better to be myself than it did even a few months ago. I’m more relaxed, more present. I see way more possibilities now. Social interactions are getting smoother and deeper. Negative thoughts aren’t very persistent. I don’t read bad news into every little thing that happens much any more.

It’s such a different feel, a different tone, and I can see that different tone leading me to a pretty different life than the old one. The predominantly anxious tone I carried all that time led to vain efforts to try and control the details of the content in my life to make it into what I wanted.

It seems obvious now the way to do it is the other way around. Get the tone right, and better content will emerge naturally. Just like in dreams, the tone creates the content, and I was always trying to control the content so that I would finally get a tone I like.

And so that’s where I want to exert my energy from now on: shifting the default emotions from worry to gratitude, by dedicating time daily to thinking about what I want. In upcoming posts I’ll talk more about how to do that consciously, but for now I’d like to know: What’s the dominant emotion in your dreams? Do you think it reflects the dominant emotion in your life?


On cue, a crow brought me back, squawking outside my window. It was really early and it took me a minute to realize it was a Saturday. I didn’t have to work and it was sunny.


Photo by Kema Keur

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Everyday mindfulness has transformed my life, and has for countless others. You can use it to reduce stress, deal calmly with trouble, and experience joy and peace throughout each day. Making it a habit is easier than you probably think. Learn how.


Leticia March 14, 2014 at 7:47 pm

Fascinating write-up. Will you send me to some more of your work??

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