Dream Work As Part of the Spiritual Path
Working with dreams has been a vital part of my spiritual practice throughout most of my adult life. In this posting I will speak in a theoretical way about dreams and their purpose. The next post will discuss strategies for working with dreams and their meanings so that dreams can be incorporated into a spiritual practice.
The modern understanding of dreams began with Sigmund Freud. But spiritual teachers, Tibetan Lamas, many Shaman, and Native American medicine people have recognized their importance since the dawn of humanity. From all of them we learn that dreams suggest the unconscious is a vibrant, resonating aspect of consciousness which points to the depths of who we are and reveals a great deal about our daily life.
Essentially dreams are a form of life which occurs during sleep. Dream life is in constant dialogue with waking life. Dreams are a form of life with no mass, no physical substance (except for the neurological changes when we dream) and no material elements. Dreams have great potential to significantly expand our consciousness, in part, by taking us out of the logical, linear, rational processes which so dominate our waking hours. They remind us of the many other aspects of our being. Dreams reestablish a balance between the logical mind and our natural, untrained, untamed, unconscious selves. They teach us that the spectrum of life is vast and varied.
There is a world within us and dreams are the pathway to that world. The unconscious is like a deep ocean with many currents, tides, depths, and energies. It is as though a dream is a message in a bottle released into the ocean of the unconscious which floats to the surface. The message is usually some form of request that we pay attention to a part of ourselves we’ve been ignoring. In this way, we can see that the unconscious has its own creative intelligence and even its own directional energy which moves us toward wholeness and completeness.
The stance of the dreamer in relation to the messages is of reverent listening and dialogue rather than interpretation or analyzing both of which suggest a sort of clinical dissecting and distance. Dreams are really poems from the sleeping world to be meditated upon and listened to from the heart.
There is no one way to understand a dream. Its meaning is unique to the dreamer. A boat in one person’s dream might suggest relaxation or in another’s a means of escape and in yet another’s a platform from which to explore the depths of the unconscious. The psychologist Rollo May said, “The value of dreams is not that they give a specific answer, but that they open up new areas of the psychic reality, shake us out of our customary ruts and throw light on a new segment of our lives.” They are basically stimulants for looking inward to other realities and meanings.
Dreams are often chaotic, irrational and confusing. They are like the mythic prophecies from the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece which were always vague, bewildering and mystifying. They call us to listen reverently and open our hearts, minds and souls. Dreams also include universal images (archetypes) arising from the storehouse of wisdom from all of human history (collective unconscious) which connect us not only with our own individual unconscious but with the unconscious of all people. For example, a rainbow in many cultures is often a symbol of a new beginning or of emerging peace after struggle or a portal to a different reality. Or the appearance of a beautiful being or a monk in a dream often symbolizes the presence of a spiritual teacher. Dreams are an opportunity to explore these universal symbols.
Dreams weave the experiences of life into a fabric that includes energies arising from the history of all humanity and our own individual lives. They can be an exceptional part of the spiritual path.
Carl Jung, a psychologist and founder of the school of Depth Psychology working in the first half of the twentieth century often expressed the view that modern humans had become unbalanced in their lives. The primary source of this imbalance was that they had lost touch with their natural, primitive, unconscious selves. One of the major themes of his work over more than sixty years was the restoration of this balance. He encouraged people to become closer to their unconscious inner world and one of the primary tools in this work was through dream work.