Many spiritual traditions place great importance on nighttime dreams. The Old Testament, for instance, has many stories of God speaking to individuals through dreams, providing guidance, even warning. Science, too, has had interest in dreams, coming to view them as serving valuable functions in sleep cycles.
Dream interpretation tends also to be of great interest. Let me say right now, though, that I am not a fan of books that give you “a thousand meanings to your dreams”. Instead, I have felt drawn to Carl Jung’s notions that the meaning of a dream is far more personal. While dreams can include universal themes (archetypes), the meaning of a given dream speaks more to each dreamer.
I have had dreams that impacted my life. One dream redirected me at midlife to pay more attention to my writing. Another encouraged me to embrace my deceased sisters as a valuable spiritual resource. Another dream challenged me to face a resentment. The problem is we don’t always like what our dreams have to tell us.
Years ago, I was staff duty officer at the Army hospital. To pass the time, I was reading Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols, a wonderful book with many examples of Big Dreams (i.e., life-impacting dreams). I went to bed hoping for a Big Dream that would guide me in some meaningful way. Here’s the dream I had:
I am traveling to the Center of the Earth! But, rather than taking a tortuous path a la Jules Verne, I am taking an elevator. When I get to the Center of the Earth, I am expecting to find the Philosopher’s Stone, some great all-encompassing truth. What I find is a hot dog with thorns.
At the time, I was seeing a good Jungian therapist and so eagerly reported this dream. Ramon asked for my associations about hot dogs, pointing out to me that “hot dog” could be a term for a show-off. In essence, he was suggesting that the dream indicated my true attitude about personal growth — that I wanted the showy payoffs but without the hard work. This of course made me mad. Some years later, I saw that Ramon was right and further, that I indeed had that Big Dream. Thus, our unconscious mind can humble us when needed.
Not every dream is rich. Some are left-overs from my day. Others may indeed be affected by what I ate. And there is the category of trauma dreams, nighttime reliving of traumatic experiences that are terrifying. Such trauma-related dreams may reflect efforts of our mind to gain power over the events.
On your spiritual journey, then, dreams can be a useful barometer for how you are doing and, moreso, what is keeping you from progressing. It helps to write them down in as much detail as you can. In terms of approaching your dreams, I’d recommend Inner Work by Robert Johnson or, if you would prefer a more religious approach, The Kingdom Within by John Sanford. Happy dreams!
Reflection: Have you had any Big Dreams? What role if any have dreams played in your own spiritual journey?
I am wondering why there are not more comments given that we all dream. I think it is because it is difficult to know sometimes what our dreams mean. It requires formal study I believe, even though the interpretation of dreams is mostly an art. I was fortunate to have a psychologist friend who was a Vietnam veteran who gave me a lot of self-knowledge through the interpretation of my dreams. And, as Dr. Patterson mentioned, some of the knowledge about one’s self that is transmitted through our dreams is not necessarily flattering. Yet, with that self-knowledge we are better judges of ourselves and therefore others.
It is important to note that symbols often show up in dreams but the same symbol may have different meanings in other cultures. I once had a dream in which I was in a bathtub surrounded by three snakes (two brown ones and a red one). It is important to note that in Chinese culture the snake is not necessarily a symbol of evil. The snake is considered to have strengths and weaknesses, like other animals. In Chinese culture the snake is associated with malevolence but also mystery, acumen and divination. That turned out to be true in regard to the three people represented by snakes in my dream.