When I finally took Rev. Jeremy Taylor’s class, “Dreams and Dreaming” I was in my last year at Starr King School for the Ministry. I knew nothing about dream-work, except that Jeremy’s class was one of the most popular at the Graduate Theological Union, and that it had taken me 3 years of begging and some good luck to get in. I approached the subject with good UU skepticism, which was somewhat allayed when I realized that Jeremy, an Ordained UU minister, approached the topic with questioning and high intellectual standards. Eventually I realized that beneath my skepticism was fear. I was afraid that my dreams had nothing to tell me. I was afraid that dream-work would be useless to me if I could not lay aside my doubt and rational mind frame.
But I followed the professor’s instructions. I made myself a dream journal, and kept it by my bed with a pencil. If I woke up in the middle of the night with a dream I tried to write at least a few words before going back to sleep. Each week in class we would start by going around the circle and each person would tell the title of a dream he or she had recorded. After a lecture and discussion about dream-work in general, then one brave soul would volunteer to share a dream with the class. We would listen to the dream once through, then ask clarifying questions of the dreamer. If we had an idea about what the dream might mean we began “if this were my dream” and gave our thoughts -- always speaking in the first person. We used this formulation so that both we and the dreamer could remember that whatever we projected on the dream were only our projections. However carefully our classmate described a dream, the vision we each had in our own heads would surely be different, our own imaginations filling in the details. We agreed that only the dreamer could say for sure what his or her dream was about, and the way the dreamer would know would be a sense of “Aha.” As the first dreamers told their dreams, it was mostly our teacher who offered “if this were my dream” or “in my years of looking at dreams about water, there is usually something having to do with the emotions” It was like learning a new language. Eventually the images began to come together in my own mind, and then I had my own projections to offer for each dream that was shared.
Over the first month of class, I had only remembered and written four dreams. I had written in my class notebook “I am concerned that my subconscious will not have exciting new messages for me, only things I already know” and in fact the first dream I recorded was one in which I had to go to my actual waking-life bank to transfer money from savings to checking, which in literal fact I had on my to-do list that night). During class following week I had asked “what about boring dreams?” and in my notes I find the response “Maybe the bank dream is showing me that dreams will remind me of something I already know but have forgotten and need to remember.”
Finally it was my turn to offer a dream. It was a longer dream with a dramatic story and had some emotional content for me. I was amazed by how different my classmates interpretations were from my own first impressions of the dream. There really was something new and fresh and radically different to be found in my dreams. Still for most of the class I had this fear that my dreams would not have anything new to say despite Rev. Taylor’s belief that “No dreams come to tell you what you consciously already know” and that “There is no such thing as a dream with only one meeting”
Despite my doubts, I liked the practice of keeping a dream journal -- a collection of these colorful worlds. I now have a row of journals dating back to that class in 1996. Some dreams were easy to call to mind, but others would have been lost forever if I hadn’t written them down. My dreams became like friends to me, each one a strange new world as amazing as any television show or storybook.
That’s how dream-work changed my life. Here was a daily practice that helped me make a link between the conscious and the subconscious, the waking and dreaming worlds. Regardless of how or why humans dream, these dreams are part of the same mind-body system that makes shopping lists or writes a newsletter column. Dreamwork gave me a kind of faith in my own innate creativity -- unconscious though it might be. It gave me faith that the flow of the strange and the new could not be stifled by my conscious limitations. It gave me faith that there were more ways to understand and relate to this constantly unfolding life of mine than I had even imagined. It helped me have faith in and curiosity about mystery. It also helped me by-pass my very controlling rational mind, to get at that knowledge some part of me had access to that my conscious mind could not yet express or understand.
Here is what it could look like to welcome your dreams more deeply into your waking life. Just paying attention is a start. Many folks find that they are more likely to remember their dreams when they give their dreams some attention. If you wake up in the morning with the sense that you have had a dream, don’t move, don’t fully wake, just allow your conscious mind to go back inside the dream and review it, revisit it. Notice the landscape, notice the colors and how you feel. Have you been to this place before? Have you felt this way before?
Many folks put forth the “day residue” theory of dreams and I think that’s partially correct. The sleeping brain sorts and puts away experiences and memories. That’s why some dreams don’t mean much more than the pile of stuff on your desk- the ideas and experiences in the dream are still unsorted or miscellaneous. Such dreams echo a sorting process that is just beginning and kind of random. I brought one of these dreams to dreamgroup once and there just wasn’t much there. I kind of had suspected as much because the dream didn’t feel powerful to me, there were no special emotions attached to it, and in fact working the dream yielded only minimal results. Other times we have dreams with intrinsic power. I propose that this is when the sorting is really getting somewhere. Some learning or growing is occurring for the dreamer and the dream may be a culmination of the synthesizing that the whole self has been working on for some time. If I the dreamer have a dream that feels powerful, either because it is delightful or terrifying, it is probably tied in to some important learning or growth in my life.
That brings us to nightmares. Many folks get in the habit of ignoring their dreams because at one point in their life they were beset by nightmares. But Rev. Taylor reassured us that “All Dreams Come in the Service of Health and Wholeness.” According to that theory the bad dreams aren’t caused by evil gremlins who want to ruin your sleep and have fun at your expense, but instead the dreams come from some part of ones self, a part of me that is scared, or worried, or knows some important choice is coming and wants to say “wake up and navigate this path in a wise way.” Looking at such dreams is a way of confronting the nightmares, of confronting the self. In the same way that psychologists would tell us that talking through our issues can help us move beyond them, dreamwork proceeds with the idea that if we notice and listen to our dreams, with the help of others if possible, we may be able to use the wisdom of our nightmares in a way that will help us live a more whole and healthy waking life.
The nightmare that had haunted me for most of my childhood was of being kidnapped or taken hostage. Occasionally I can break free, but if I tell an authority figure they never believe me. I can’t run away because I know I can’t outrun the bigger stronger adults. I had this dream quite frequently as a child, and even occasionally as an adult. During seminary I started running regularly, and when the dream recurred I had the thought “good thing I like to run” and was free. My nightmare changed and never was the same again. I like to remember this dream because it shows how the dream life can evolve as the waking life of the dreamer evolves, and because of the clear interplay between waking and dreaming life.
Sometimes we can work on these things on our own, but some important insights may be hidden from our conscious minds. When we work with a group they sometimes can see things about us that we hide from ourselves, or that are in our blind spots. Being in a dream group can be different from other kinds of group experiences, because sometimes when we are talking about dreams we can get right to the truth, while when we re talking directly about waking life we might fear to tread on such intimate or tender ground. Over time one comes to know the dreams and lives of other folks in the group, and we are able to see patterns and connections. At first folks may feel that a week when they don’t work their own dream is a wasted week, but eventually one starts to see the way when I work someone else’s dream, the things I project on my version of the dream show me about myself. As Rev. Taylor once quipped: just cause it’s a projection doesn’t mean it isn’t true and just because it’s true doesn’t mean it isn’t a projection.
As I look at your own dreams and the dreams of others, I start to notice that some images are very personal and other images are more broadly shared. Those images we share most widely are called Archetypes. Said Joseph Campbell “a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” [The Power of Myth p. 40]Carl Jung had said that “The archetype is a kind of readiness to produce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas… When an archetype appears in a dream, in a fantasy, or in life, it always brings with it a certain influence or power by virtue of which it either exercises a numinous or a fascinating effect, or impels to action.” [Quoted in Taylor Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill p. 238]
For example, I had a dream that I was in a small boat on a large body of water that capsized, and that in my bag were my cell phone, wallet and electronic organizer, all of which would be destroyed if wet, leaving me without resources. The image of water is commonly tied to emotions across culture and time. I’m sure thousands of people have dreamed about being in a small boat in a big body of water, and of capsizing. Perhaps this has to do with the hugeness of our emotions, and fear of drowning or getting immersed in them might be a common theme for folks who have this dream. I even bet there are more and more folks who have dreams about losing or damaging their cell phones- now that the cell phone plays such an important role in the daily lives of many. For me personally I often have a bag of crucial things that I carry with me in many dreams, and in any dream where I am conscious of the bag, it is usually because I am about to lose it. Perhaps there is something there about fear of letting go of my “baggage” (dreams love puns) or losing my connections to my community and friends whose contact information I keep in my cell and PDA. Perhaps confronting the great sea of emotions was more frightening to me without my network, or perhaps I worried that in falling into the sea of emotions I would endanger my friendships and networks.
The communal and the personal symbols flow and interrelate. Take a moment now and notice your response as I talked about my dream and my interpretations. Did you have a moment where you said “yes, that’s probably it” or “boy that doesn’t ring true?” That is an example of how each of us projects our own meaning onto any dream. If I have any kind of response to hearing a dream, it can tell me something about myself, whether or not it was my dream to begin with. Moreover, each dream may have multiple layered meanings for each person and across cultures. There are so many ways water has appeared as a symbol in different cultures over the generations. Water cleans, water flows and ebbs. Water is the birthplace of life on this earth, and reminds us of the womb. Water is crucial for life itself. Now I can go back over the dream with each of those meanings in mind, and see what other layers of meaning emerge.
The more I studied my dreams, the more I became interested in symbol and story, even the scriptures of more orthodox faiths. Now when I look at Jonah in the belly of the whale, I feel connected to all the folks who have ever dreamed of being lost at sea. I notice the special feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when someone in a movie puts down their bag and you know they are going to leave it behind. When I hear of oppression in the world or hear about our freedoms being impaired here in the US, my dreams of captivity and the refusal of authorizes to respond or help link me empathetically to my brothers and sisters who live that waking life nightmare.
When I took my sabbatical several years later, I was happy to see that Jeremy was teaching a dreamwork class at the University of Creation Spirituality where I was doing my sabbatical certificate. I had been part of a regular dream-group for several years after seminary, but then had moved out of town. Since that time I have not stopped writing down my dreams but had very little chance to work deeply with them. It was wonderful to sit in a circle each week telling dreams, and engaging in group projective dream work together. My understanding of archetypes and the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self deepened, and I came to a better knowing of my own self on this level.
I strengthened my belief that story and archetype are the greatest intergenerational teachers. The stories and dreams we tell one another shape our culture and our future. I returned to church recommitted to consciously choosing the stories we teach our children and lift up in worship, and committed to teaching them in such a way that they might be touchstones throughout our lives.
When looking through my dreams at something as simple as water shows me many possible meanings, it begins to expand my sense of the complexity and richness of the language of the soul. Looking at our dreams not only helps us see our own lives through a different lens, but helps us add layers of meaning to stories and symbols and even to ordinary objects or events. Our dreams show us new paths for exploration, encouraging learning and growth in a deep and multi-layered way.