Photograph by Caitlin Van Dusen
Photograph by Caitlin Van Dusen

On a recent Saturday evening, 80 people with pajamas peeking from beneath their overcoats filed down West 17th Street in New York City and slipped through the doors of the Rubin Museum of Art. In the lobby, tea lights flickered and soothing music played. In the galleries above, great works of Himalayan art awaited the guests, who would spend that night sleeping— and, hopefully, dreaming—in their shadows.

This slumber party was part of the museum’s Brainwave series, devoted to exploring “the mysterious phenomenon of dreaming.” According to legend, the Buddha was conceived when his mother dreamed of a white elephant penetrating her right side with his trunk. Given the preamble, it was hard not to feel a certain dream performance pressure. As bedtime approached, the expectation seemed to hover beneath every remark by the speakers and staff hosts, in each bite of dream cloud-like meringue cookie, in the notes of the sitar lullabies that drifted up from the lobby. Who would the dreamers be? (The guy in the kimono? The woman in the cocktail-print pajamas?) Would we remember our dreams? Would they relate to the artwork? Would they be interesting or noteworthy—or even shareable?

Based on a questionnaire we filled out prior to our arrival (“What color resonates with you most strongly?” “What were the three most important events in your life?”), the staff had selected an artwork for each participant to sleep beneath. After we were shown to our artwork and assisted in setting up our air mattresses and sleeping bags, participants—mostly women of varying ages, many with friends— padded downstairs to the auditorium. (What novelty to be roaming a museum in slippers!) There we prepared for the night with a “dream training” session with a psychiatry professor, a neuroscientific explanation of dreaming (which almost put me to sleep), an art meditation workshop that provided some pointers on how to relate to our piece of art, and a midnight snack, concluding in small-group discussions.

I was assigned a painting of the six-handed Tantric deity Akshobhyavajra. Despite the fact that he was lapis-lazuli blue (my chosen color), I can’t say I felt an immediate connection. More compelling was a golden Buddha statue nearby that seemed to shine down on me beneficently.

Around midnight, we brushed our teeth in the public restrooms. The galleries echoed with the sound of zipping sleeping bags. The staff had written individual bedtime stories, based on each participant’s painting. Soon, a docent approached and knelt by my pillow. She focused her story on the lotus flower in one of Akshobhyavajra’s hands. It was a symbol of renewal in Tantric Buddhism, she said, which is about finding enlightenment in everyday activities. The lotus grows through ordinary mud to bloom into an extraordinary flower. I should, likewise, take the events of my day and throw them into the “muck of sleep” and see what emerged.

The pressure was on! I drifted off quickly. The few times I awoke, I was astonished at how safe and peaceful I felt, uniformed museum guards notwithstanding. No one was snoring; no one was having Tantric sex; no one was chanting or doing art-prostrations. Everyone seemed to be sleeping, or dreaming, or, dutifully, both.

Around dawn, I awoke from a dream about discovering a hidden compartment beneath the (lapis blue) bathroom tiles in my new apartment. Inside, I found my belt. A family car had also featured in the dream, though the connection was fast fading. Thankfully, I looked up to find a gentle trio of “dream-gatherers” by my side, equipped with notebook, tape recorder, and video camera.

In an event that was already intimate, the dream-gathering was the most so— and also the most revelatory. MySlumber Party! sleep mask hung around my neck, my hair was tousled, I had to pry out an earplug. Yet I found myself talking about my lifelong recurring dream of discovering hidden spaces in my home and how I’d recently added holes to my belt because my pants were falling down; describing the smell of my father’s pipe tobacco in the old car.

The dream-gatherers asked intelligent, sympathetic questions. I began to sense connections. The blue tiles were obviously Akshobhyavajra embodied. The belt suggested the enlightenment found in everyday things. The childhood car represented comfort and familiarity. The dream, like the lotus, must be about having roots in the past, growing through the muddle and small discoveries of the present, and blooming in a new place.

As the dream-gatherers moved on, I noticed beside my sleeping bag, beneath the golden statue, a fabric lotus flower, its leaves flecked with plastic dewdrops. A quick glance at my neighbors revealed no gifts by their bedsides. I felt a surge of wonder—and triumph. Had I, like Queen Maya, conceived the next Buddha? Or was this flower another gesture of a graceful event, a reward for my dream?

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