Here’s an infrequently heard, possibly risky-sounding proposition. Dreams are integral to our experience of God. They are not just pleasant, confusing, disturbing, and/or arresting nocturnal interruptions, of little meaning beyond weirdly echoing the fantasies and fears of our own unsettled psyches. Rather, they can convey insights and intimations, communications and knowledge of our relationship to the divine.
If that does sound spiritually off-piste, and I suspect it does outside of some charismatic circles, then our Christian forebears clearly thought differently. There are hundreds of references to dreams and dreaming in the Bible, from famous ones such as Jacob’s ladder and the Magi’s warning, to promises that life in the Spirit includes the young seeing visions and the old dreaming dreams. Abraham, Joseph, Samuel, Saul, Pilate’s wife and Paul are amongst those stirred by significant dreams.
But a clear warning note is heard amongst these Biblical references. Joseph tells Pharaoh’s officials that dream interpretation is “God’s business”. Jeremiah is particularly vexed by dreamers. “The prophets say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds?… Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain? declares the Lord.”
The caution is reflected amongst the early church fathers too. They felt dreams could be predictive and prophetic, though human beings are as readily deceived by them. Tertullian drew up an influential distinction between dreams emanating from God and those emanating from the Devil. Discernment of dreams was therefore crucial. A wrong interpretation could imperil your soul. Sexual dreams, for example, fell squarely into the latter category. When John Cassian came to write about the transformations of monastic life, one of his tests of a true conversion of heart was no longer having lustful dreams. They are involuntary, he reasoned, and so the monk who ceases to have them must truly now be living in God. But sexual content is only one indicator of whether a dream is to be trusted or not, and erotic fantasies are also distinguished by, of course, being easy to spot – unlike the many other seductive wiles of demons.
The worries of desert fathers and conservative bishops can appear anachronistic. But at heart, their insights are sound. Discernment is of the essence because whilst dreams are valuable, they are also routinely caught up in the conflicts and tensions of the dreamer’s mind – one way in which today we might understand references to dreams originating with demons and the Devil. If you have a dream in which you appear as a divine figure, say, someone who is spiritually powerful or capable of transcending the laws of nature, this is probably about your own grandiose or omnipotent fantasies, not signs of a calling from God.
But the art of discernment has had a new lease of life in our times, which is one reason the place of dreams in spiritual life is due a revival. In short, twenty-first century dreamers can gain from two twentieth century innovations: developmental psychology and depth psychology. The first tells us more than has ever before been known about the difficulties of early life, and how they can play on into adult life. Dreams are one route to gaining enlightenment about how the years we don’t remember remain active in our minds. The second, depth psychology, tells us about that part of ourselves of which we’re not very conscious and yet which still constrains and limits, even determines, our habits and personalities, our experiences and hopes. Understand that better, and all sorts of untapped potentials might be released.
The twentieth century innovations were kicked off with the new “science” of dreams proposed by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He famously remarked that dreams are the “royal road to the unconscious” and in his best-selling book, The Interpretation of Dreams, announces that whilst dreams have confused and deluded countless generations, he now can reveal their secrets. Freud actually got the specifics wrong, most psychotherapists now agree. But his achievement was to put dreams firmly back on the maps that might guide us in life so that we can face our demons and, believers might add, be assisted in finding a path back to God.
Though now contested, it is helpful to begin with Freud because his ideas have seeped into the zeitgeist. He argues that dreams serve a purpose, that of helping us sleep: if a dream wakes you up, your dreaming has failed. He thought that we need dreams to sleep for much the same reason that we develop neurotic habits to help us through our waking hours. I worry about the whereabouts of my cats, or whether I locked the front door, or I play with my hands when sitting still, because those distractions are preferable to the deeper distress that they veil. If the true anguish of my struggles, which I’ve been engaged with from birth or perhaps before, were to impinge upon my day to day existence then life would become intolerable. To put it the other way round, when life does become unbearable because of anxiety or depression or other forms of mental ill-health, that is, in a sense, because my little ticks and worries have failed to hold things together.
Dreams attempt the same during the night. They try to keep buried the profoundly disturbing thoughts and feelings that tend to have more power during the dark hours, when we are less defended, more vulnerable. For the most part, they succeed. But when your sleep is routinely disturbed, or nightmares wake you with a start, it may be a sign that your hard won mechanisms of self-protection are becoming fragile or brittle. Such experiences might precipitate seeking help.
Freud thought that dreams then offer clues. The individual stories of disturbance they tell might be of use, because within the details of your dreams will be concealed patterns that reflect your unconscious trouble. One of Freud’s famous dreams demonstrates how. It concerns a young widow, Irma. She was a patient of Freud and friend of the family. In Freud’s dream, Irma attends a reception. Freud there reproaches her for not accepting his “solution”, and she complains of pains in her throat, chest and stomach. Freud looks into her mouth and diagnoses an infection. He concludes that a colleague of his, Dr Otto, had given Irma an injection with a dirty syringe. Then Freud awoke.
He wrote many pages in his dream book analyzing the meaning of this fantasized encounter. He concluded that the dream represented a wish he had that Irma’s complaints were not his responsibility, but could be passed to his colleague, Otto. This notion of dreams fulfilling wishes is the touchstone of Freud’s theory. He felt that understanding a dream revealed secret desires or wishes that our conscious selves would prefer us not to have. One aim of psychoanalysis is to reverse engineer dreams and discover what they are attempting, but failing, to conceal.
His book is a fascinating read, hence entering the zeitgeist. The only trouble is that not many followers of Freud today go along with the wish-fulfillment idea. The big problem is that most dreams that wake us are clearly not of this kind. A traumatic dream, in which we repeat perhaps many times an experience of being attacked or of crashing, achieves the opposite: the wish is to forget the trauma and yet the dream persistently, painfully reminds us of it. An anxious dream, in which we find ourselves exposed in public or unable to run for the train, performs similarly. It prompts more apprehension, not less. So today, psychoanalysts are more likely to assume that dreams offer symbolic or narrative representations of whatever is troubling the patient. They capture a psychic disturbance or developmental deficit in a vivid, felt way.
Further, it is usually thought that different figures in the dream do not represent different people in real life but instead represent different aspects of the person having the dream. The dream uses individuals encountered during the day to stand in for qualities that belong to, or are sought by, the dreamer. You might dream of the man who was rude and abrupt as you left the supermarket yesterday because his behaviour chimed with a part of you that can be short and angry, but about which you’d prefer to forget. Your beautiful colleague with the comforting curves may feature in your dreams because you long, unawares, to be more in touch with a softer side of your rather independent and aloof public persona. The message is that next time you dream of an enemy taking a blow or worse, don’t wake happy; examine yourself. Your projective powers are highly likely to eclipse any predictive capabilities.
The art of dream interpretation did not stop with Freud and his followers. Complementing them is another interpretative model, one that is increasingly influential today, and even more conducive to those with a theistic sensibility. It was first developed by Freud’s erstwhile colleague, Carl Jung.
If, for Freud, dreams attempt at concealing, for Jung dreams are communications. Jung thought we dream, not in order to stay asleep, but because our conscious life lacks something. The dream conveys that lack, and we dream because the psyche has a potent capacity to try to heal itself. It is always struggling to do so. It wills to make us whole. For the spiritually-minded, Jung provides a dream model that allows us to understand both how our troubled past distorts our view of things now, and how the resources of our inner life might transform us by gradually expanding our personalities and developing our capacities in ways that currently elude, frighten, and/or seem impossible to us.
A first step is to recognise that the language of dreams is the language of symbols. The point about symbols is that they move us beyond the understanding of life that we might gain from empirical evidence or rational investigation. A biologist may look at an oak tree and see a member of the genus Quercus. But the mighty oak becomes a symbol when it conveys strength, rootedness and longevity too. Or I may catch sight of the sun. The astronomer sees an average star that is different only because it is close to us. But our star is also a symbol representing spiritual light, new life or radiant beauty – which must have been why the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun as Ra. Similarly, water, books, doors, running, mothers, lovers, crosses, spires – in fact, pretty much anything can become a symbol. To be human is, in a way, to be the creature who can look at the world and not fail to see all sorts of meanings and purposes imprinted upon that world.
Alongside sacred texts and thin places, rituals and poems, symbolization finds a natural home in our dreams. Their significance for us psychologically and spiritually rests on the fact that we have little consciously to do with their issue. They erupt from a place beyond our control. There’s a kind of freedom in dreams that releases us from the strictures of self- and social monitoring, and may awaken us. They are like icons, windows into depth. So when the symbols of a dream are correctly discerned, and incorporated into conscious living, the result is not unlike the processes of prayer, conversion or healing.
Only, it is a complicated, often painstaking process, because the language of symbols is ultimately not reducible to the language of rational understanding. In fact, we need symbols and dreams precisely because our empirical capacities and reasoning are limited. Alone, they could not lead us to a living sense of God.
So how did Jung suggest we work with dream symbols so as not to be led astray? The key word is amplification. When he worked with his patient’s dreams, he would elaborate on the symbols that they reported. But he did not interpret too quickly. The aim is to keep the dream alive in the individual’s psyche, gradually unfolding its meaning to conscious awareness – a process that must be felt as well as understood. So he would encourage his patients to re-enter the dream, as it were, and allow all its feelings and images to come back to life. The dream could then be explored in a hynagogic state, an exercise he called active imagination. The therapists role is not only to help create the right mood or frame for this to take place, but also to contribute in a more objective way, by making timely suggestions, particularly on the basis of what the therapists knows about the meaning of symbols. Here’s an example Jung offers in his chapter in the book, Man And His Symbols.
For instance, a patient of mine dreamed of a drunken and disheveled vulgar woman. In the dream, it seemed that this woman was his wife, though in real life his wife was totally different. On the surface, therefore, the dream was shockingly untrue, and the patient immediately rejected it as dream nonsense…
What then, was his unconscious trying to convey by such an obviously untrue statement? Clearly it somehow expressed the idea of a degenerate female who was closely connected with the dreamer’s life; but since the projection of this image on to his wife was unjustified and factually untrue, I had to look elsewhere before I found out what this repulsive image represented.
In the Middle Ages… it was said that “every man carries a woman within himself.” It is this female element in every male that I have called the “anima.” This “feminine” aspect is essentially a certain inferior kind of relatedness to the surroundings, and particularly to women, which (in men) is kept carefully concealed from others as well as from oneself…
That was the case with this particular patient: His female side was not nice. His dream was actually saying to him: “You are in some respects behaving like degenerate female,” and thus gave him an appropriate shock.
I like this example because it is so grounded. The man needed a shock from the unconscious if he was to integrate a part of himself that he was trying to expel, and in so doing caused him to behave like a lout. But Jung also introduces us to his notion of archetypes, the propensity that we collectively inherit to have shared kinds of fantasies and experiences in our inner lives – in this case, a man dreaming of his anima. Often when you read about archetypes they are enthusiastically presented as semi-divine figures within us, but as here, Jung himself tends to keep his feet on the ground. He shows quite clearly that most of the time such figures play a far more humdrum role: to highlight uneasy issues in our personalities – perhaps residues from specific difficulties in our lives; or tendencies that have become out of balance.
You might say that dreams can help free us from the entanglements of the past. But you might then also ask, if they help free us from that, then what do they free us for? This is where we come back to the role dreams might play in our intimations and knowledge of God. Through the miasma of our own confusions, amidst the detritus of inner lives, the divine may shine. A dream of Jung himself provides an example. It was one of the experiences he had that, later in his life, helped him return to a dynamic Christian faith, having become thoroughly disillusioned with the church in his youth. He describes this vivid, “waking dream” in his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
One night I awoke and saw, bathed in bright light at the foot of the bed, the figure of Christ on the Cross. It was not quite life-size, but extremely distinct; and I saw that his body was made of greenish gold. The vision was marvelously beautiful, and yet I was profoundly shaken by it.
The vividness and observation of being profoundly shaken is one indicator that this dream was about more than Jung’s own psychic conflicts. When he had this dream, he had already spent much of his life working through them, and so whilst as a rule, waking visions might be treated with caution, he realised that this dream was not psychotic but carried a sense of the numinous. It was tapping collective archetypes to speak of the divine.
As he contemplated and amplified the dream, one important detail stood out: the greenish gold of the corpus. He knew that green gold had long symbolised the living quality of the cosmos, a life-spirit that animates all things. He interpreted this detail to mean that the dream showed that the symbol of Christ on the cross had come back to life for him. “If I had not been so struck by the greenish-gold, I would have been tempted to assume that something essential was missing from my ‘Christian’ view – in other words, that my traditional Christ-image was somehow inadequate.” But from then on, the cross could speak to him not merely as a functional sign of Christianity but as an active intimation that points to “a darker meaning which eludes conceptual formulation and can only be vaguely apprehended,” but which is felt to be spiritually crucial and alive.
It is this aid that dreams can perform for us. Pay attention to them, and they may breath a fresh vitality into our imaginations and traditions by reawakening the power of symbols. That power is subjective, and all the more valuable for that. Dreams can help us intimately to know that God is and is alive.