by Christopher Penczak
(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)
In the holistic world of the mind-body-spirit connection, we still tend to focus on the body in our healing practice. Body work, yoga, herbs, and even crystals are physical therapies. They require action. If we don’t work with them, we don’t receive the benefits. Action is an important part of the healing process, but there is a whole other aspect of healing that goes on beneath the surface. Healing can occur in the seemingly unconscious parts of our life—in our dream life.
Dreams are magical things. They give us glimpses, usually unbidden, into our past, present, and future. They reflect our hopes, desires, and fears. They reveal mysteries, give lessons, and grant us messages from our highest guidance. The only problem is that we are not always versed in the healing work of dreams.
From a psychological perspective, dreams are a place where the various parts of our psyche explore ideas, work out issues, and interact with each other. Much of our modern dream lore from the psychological perspective has come to us through both Freud and Jung. Though related, both men had different views on the human mind and its processes. Many in the psychological field hold that dreams are simply internal and although they may provide interesting insights to the individual, they are not as important as objective reality. Many shrug off a nightmare with the phrase, “it was just a dream.” You’ll find that in the world of the healer, shaman, witch, and magician, dreams are simply another view on reality.
To a shamanic practitioner, a tribal healer who works with the spirits, all of reality is a dream. The physical waking world is a group dream, a “big dream” that we all dream and manifest together. That’s why it can take so long for our thoughts to materialize in our everyday collective reality. The dream is denser and our intentions take time to manifest. The science of quantum physics and a holographic universe theory back up what mystics have been saying for a long time. Reality is a dream-like illusion made of light and energy. It is solid because we perceive it to be solid, but it is really energy. The Hindu traditions call the world the Maya, the illusion, for we think we are all separate, but the truth is that we are all energy, all connected in a greater pattern.
Our personal dreams are like our own little personal universes of light and energy, where our thoughts can manifest nearly instantaneously. Some think of the dream world as synonymous with the spirit realms and astral plane, where we can interface and communicate with beings from a non-ordinary reality. Many people dream of loved ones who have passed, giving them profound messages of healing and insight. Those involved in the New Age believe that many people who do not consciously work with spirit guides and angels do so during their dream time.
To the mystic, dream life is just as powerful and vital as the waking life, simply different. Both have lessons to teach and experiences to have. Some researchers believe that we only sleep in order to dream. We experience states of REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, and NREM, Non-REM sleep. NREM is a quiet, deeper sleep, while REM is associated with movement and twitching. Those woken during REM sleep report they are dreaming. In laboratory studies, those who not allowed to have REM sleep, meaning they did not experience dreams, experienced a loss of health and well-being. Dreaming gives our consciousness some vital component. Without it, we begin to be irritable, unfocused, and eventually can lose our grasp on reality. Dreams are essential to our health and well-being on many levels.
The wonderful thing about dreams is that we all have them, but we all have different experience and beliefs surrounding them. You don’t have to belong to any one group, or school of thinking, to work with your dream. If you are more comfortable with the psychological models of dreaming, then follow them and I’m certain you can get therapeutic, healing results. If you follow a more mystical path, dream magic can be very rewarding. But any dream work involves becoming more conscious of your dreaming life.
On a purely physical level, the dream state helps us maintain health and balance. On a more in-depth psychological level, dreams can be very therapeutic. If we work with them, dreams grant insights into our own mind—the way we think, the way we handle problems, and the way we interact with ourselves and other people. Like a well-crafted play, the storyline in a dream can give us a moral or lesson. If someone just tells us the lesson, we don’t hear it. But if it is presented in a way that we must think about it, then the message takes root and healing can occur. Your dream state is like a good friend, telling you a story to point out a need for change.
Unfortunately the story is not always that simple. Our recall can be scattered, or the symbolism can be complex to our waking mind. We need tools to help us analyze the dream. Wise ones from times past, from the cunning woman to the shaman, were versed in dream interpretation. That role is now taken by the counselor, psychologist, or minister. Having a person outside of your day-to-day life, as an objective sound board, can be instrumental in understanding your dreams. Such people are hopefully versed in mythic symbolism, what many refer to as archetypes, and know how the archetypes play out in our life. They can identify these images in your dream, and help you apply them to your situation.
A great tool for self dream analysis, or when working with a counselor, is to keep a dream journal for at least a month. I prefer to start my dream journal cycle from New Moon to New Moon. Keep a notebook by your bed, and write the first thing you remember when you wake up. If you wake during the night, write down whatever you remember. Even if you remember nothing, write, “nothing.” This will get you in the habit of writing down the first thoughts of the waking period. Even if it’s messy, you will find you remember more and more as you train yourself. You can always recopy it later. If you really dislike early morning writing, have a tape recorder by the bedside and then transcribe your tape into your journal.
When analyzing, individual dreams might not be clear, but look for patterns over the monthly cycle. Does anything stick out? You might have strong male or female figures, mythic imagery, or mundane situations that repeat in some way. Themes that repeat give you insight into deeper issues.
Beyond the psychological interpretation of dreams, mystics feel that dreams can be prophetic in nature, giving the dreamer clues as to what will come to pass. Like most systems of prophecy or divination, the message isn’t always clear or exact. And almost always, it’s open to interpretation.
Some would argue that these are purely psychological manifestations, your unconscious mind making leaps in logic with the information you currently have, to draw the most likely conclusion. Others think that true psychic ability is more easily accessed while the conscious mind, with all its doubts, is quieted during sleep. But since this ability is coming through the dream states, it is much more symbolic and open to interpretation than most people would like it to be. Personally I think both things occur during prophetic dreams.
Often prophetic dreams seem to be portents of doom, but in reality they are warnings. Sometimes they are not necessarily psychic flashes, but our own consciousness warning us about potential paths and urging us to follow other ways.
Based on mystical symbolism, systems of prophetic meaning have been created. Dreams of certain types of people, objects, and colors each have a divinatory meaning, but the meanings are different, depending on the culture or system. An auspicious symbol in one culture can spell a misfortune in another.
People often worry about whether their dreams are just “regular” dreams or prophetic dreams. My best advice is to really learn from your dreams and if there is a message or warning, see if it applies to you. Don’t let your dreams completely rule your life, but if there is some good advice coming through your dreams, definitely take it. It doesn’t matter if it’s an answer coming out through introspection or a deep psychic flash. Good advice is good advice regardless of the source.
Dream interpretation books also work with the symbolic images and archetypes of both psychology and prophecy. These books can be a good starting point, but no one resource will have all the answers for you. You must see what resonates with you and strikes a cord in your consciousness.
We have three layers of symbolism to work with, in any analysis situation. We have universal archetypal images that seem to transcend culture or a specific time period. Other images are dependent upon a culture or point of view. Give the image of stars, crosses, animals, and tridents to a Wiccan Priestess, and then to a Baptist Minister, and you will get two different dream meanings. Each can be valid, but it will depend on the dreamer’s cultural experience too. Lastly, we have purely personal symbols that most people are not aware of. Most color books associated yellow with sunshine and happiness, so if you dream with the color yellow prominent, then you would have those associations. But one person might have a bad experience with the color yellow, perhaps the yellow swing set collapsed on him as child. Then personally, even if it is unconscious, yellow would not mean happiness and joy. Sometimes an outside resource is helpful. Different authors can give different perspectives. Researching several different books can give you a good start in interpreting your dreams.
Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2005. All rights reserved.