Once, when asked, “Who are you?” by a bedazzled admirer, the Buddha replied simply, “I am awake.” This famous statement is often misinterpreted. While it speaks of his uncovering of the Four Noble Truths—of suffering, its cause, its relief, and the path to its release—it can make it seem as if the Buddha never slept, as if he never dreamed, as if perpetual alertness was his main attribute. The Buddha was certainly awake, but he was not on guard. He was attentive to all who came his way, alert to their traumas and to their reluctance to admit to their traumas, and he was equally attuned to himself. In awakening to his true nature, the Buddha did not neglect the reality of those around him. A concern for others defined his attention.
One of the most important steps in the Buddha’s awakening came in his sleep. Right after remembering his childhood joy under the rose-apple tree, after taking his meal of rice pudding and being abandoned by his five former friends, after throwing his begging bowl into the river and watching it float upstream, he had a series of dreams. They are recorded in one of the original collections of Buddhist sutras* but have been given scant attention over the years. The dreams were catalytic for the Buddha’s growth and development. Not only did they reveal much about his own history of trauma, about who he was before his enlightenment and what he had to recover to get there, but they helped open him to a dormant capacity of his mind, one that he was then able to use to help others with their suffering. In dreaming himself into wakefulness, the Buddha remembered, and took possession of, a quality of human relatedness he had all but ignored previously. It was this recovery that made his enlightenment possible.
Dreams are dissociative by definition. They occur when the rest of the mind is shut down, and they allow difficult feelings to be expressed in symbolic form. In most cases, they are forgotten upon awakening or remembered only in bits and pieces, the forces of dissociation keeping the feelings disguised and away from waking consciousness. This was not the case for the Buddha at this crucial time in his life. In the process of turning his mind around, he became ready to face something he had been estranged from, and he needed his dreams to help him.
Aṅguttara Nikāya (Book of Gradual Sayings)