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Interpreting dreams

The interpretation of dreams is an area of discomfort for some Christians.  Too often the
process of discovering the meaning behind these nocturnal visions is confused with
divination, something regularly proscribed in the Bible.  By itself, this can be a bit confusing,
as several of the biblical examples of dreaming specifically advise the dreamer of what is to
come.  Remember Joseph and his dreams predicting his brothers would all bow to him, his
interpreting the dreams of the fellow prisoners while incarcerated, and how the dreams of
the pharaoh were used to direct major Egyptian policy decisions for decades.  How does
that square with the injunction against seeing the future?

In this article, I’m going to shamelessly side step the issue by simply noting that in years of
paying attention to my dreams I’ve never had an example of seeing the future.  There is one
possible exception: a dream wherein I was standing in my home watching a small shadow
boy running like crazy around the house before zooming up to the room my pregnant wife
and I were turning into a nursery.  It reminded me a bit of Peter Pan’s prodigal shadow, and
in the dream I was quite taken with it.  I wondered aloud the next morning if the dream might
indicate we were having a boy, and took to calling ‘him’ Kage (Japanese for shadow).  I sure
wasn’t sold on the notion we were having a little boy, but several months later the name
Kage became John Vincent. Six years later, our little boy continues to zoom around the
house and the yard with the zeal that comes from being completely in love with life.

Is that dream pre-cognition?  I don’t really know what to make of it.  In retrospect, it felt like I
made some kind of connection with my little boy earlier than is usually possible for a father.  
But regardless of whether we’d like to call it knowing the future, making some kind of spiritual
connection with my child, or simply a wishful fantasy there were no plans made or changed
because of it.  It was simply an experience that impressed itself on me, and helped open
room in my heart for the newest addition to our family.

Aside from that dream, my own experiences include no dreams that hint overtly at the
future.  I’ve yet to run across a single person who can successfully use dreams to tell their
own, or others’, future.  I’m sure that many will claim to have heard of such examples, but
these are typically after-the-fact curve fitting that did nothing to help the dreamer know what
to expect.  Given the absolute paucity of examples of a dreamer benefiting from dream
precognition, I’m not sure there is any reason at all to involve oneself.  Instead of wasting a
lot of time and emotional energy in dubious pursuits with little promise of benefit, it seems to
make much more sense in attending to dreams as a means of better understanding what we
are called by God to do with our lives, and to remake ourselves into persons better able to
heed that call.

As we look to understand our dreams, this first piece of advice might surprise some readers:
avoid the ‘dream dictionaries’ that are so popular in self-help and New Age sections of book
stores.  For the most part they either make obvious observations, such as ‘
dreaming of
drowning symbolizes a feeling of being overwhelmed by some circumstance
’, or they
aggressively assign meaning to dream symbols where no such inherent significance exists.

As a nod to fairness, I should point out if you have access to one of these books and you
believe the symbolism it touts, your dreams will come to mean what the author claims.  That
is not necessarily a bad thing, but my preference is to use the internal language I already
have in place.  As you’ll see, understanding your dreams without such a book is not difficult,
and it does help further understanding of your own subconscious processes.  

If you have followed the instructions given earlier, you should have at least one dream to
analyze most mornings.  Review your notes and flesh out the descriptions with additional
details you remember.  This is the time to make it as much a narrative as you can.  Be sure
to include the emotional tone and any impressions that come to you, as these are often the
keys that will unlock the message.  

Very often, the meaning of the dream will be unambiguous.  You'll simply wake up and the
meaning underlying the dream will present itself without effort.  Make note of that meaning in
your dream journal, as well.  

This might also be a good time to mention that it doesn’t appear to me as though every
single dream is loaded with meaning.  This runs contrary to various current psychological
schools of thought that teach every item in every dream are elements of your subconscious
or unconscious mind trying to be heard.  Like the dream dictionaries, if you believe that to
be true it will be.  Just be aware that unless you have been indoctrinated into one of those
psychological outlooks, you are going to have lots of dreams that don’t carry much import.  
The good news is that you’ll know the difference almost immediately, so you can focus on
the good stuff.  How do you know?  I haven't found any hard and fast rules, but generally I
either wake from the dream specifically intending to remember it, or the emotional content
has an intensity that makes ignoring it impossible.

When you know there is a meaning to a dream, but are unclear about what that meaning
might be, identify the emotions you experienced in the dream.  Now, go through the various
elements in your daily life and see what excites the same sort of feeling.  These are almost
always related, as the following dream I recently had illustrates:

I'm in some sort of brightly lit nicely set up space; feels like a boutique shop of some
sort.  I'm describing for several folks at different times (don't remember knowing them)
a movie about a town located at Highway 1 going East and West and Highway 1 going
North and South.  I don't really go into any detail about the movie - keep saying that I
don't want to spoil it for them.  I don't recall anything about the movie upon
awakening, but I do remember the sense of tremendous longing for a place like that,
and the fabulous serenity that thinking about it created for me.  I awoke from this
dream specifically wanting to remember it for the log.

There are a couple of things to note about this dream:
  1. I specifically wanted to remember it for my dream log – there was clearly something
    important to me in it’s message
  2. there were just a few specific images that impressed themselves on me: the
    converging highways, both Hwy 1; the movie about the ‘town’ that exists at that
    meeting point; me trying to describe the movie to people I don’t know; not wanting to
    say too much so I don’t ruin the experience of seeing it for themselves; and the feeling
    of serenity and longing that comes upon me as I think about such a town.

Upon first inspection the next morning, this dream didn’t suggest much meaning to me.  But,
since I woke up knowing I wanted to remember this one, I ran through the images several
times, paying special attention to the emotional context.  As I followed the various
associations sparked by those emotional cues, there was eventually one of those “Ah Ha!”
moments as thought of the book I’m working on,
Tantric Christianity, came to mind.  The
book explores the possibilities of making the power of ancient Tantric Buddhist meditation
technique available to modern, faithful Christians.  

Once that possibility hit me, each of the dream symbols fell right into place:
  • East/West highway 1  =  Tantric Buddhism
  • North/South highway 1  =  modern Christianity
  • Movie about life where they intersect  =  book Tantric Christianity
  • Telling various strangers about movie  =  bringing attention to book
  • Longing  =  my deep desire to have material available to Christians
  • Serenity  =  the feeling that comes when using the strategies in Tantric Christianity

In dream analysis it is very common for most, if not all, of a dream’s meaning to hit all at
once.  Further analysis can still add clarity to what you have uncovered, but you will often
have the bulk of it in a flash.  

Finally, with the themes identified, you’ll want to determine whether your dream is descriptive
or prescriptive.  Descriptive dreams are very helpful in clarifying the forces that are truly at
play in our lives.  When we are sometimes confused about what is really going on around us
descriptive dreams can assist in settling the dust, pointing out for us the primary concerns
and challenges, or reminding us of where our core values lie.  The dream I related in this
article's
introduction is a good example of a dream settling out the dust and lending clarity to
my situation.  In that instance I was searching for answers in my spiritual life, but was
concerned about how my family and friends might react.  There was huge hope for what I
might find and how my search might make me a better person.  Any number of other hopes
and fears played around my mind and the resultant fogginess was not helping any progress
be made.  The dream I had didn’t tell me what to do, but it cut through so many of those
tangential concerns I was able to make several choices I would almost certainly NOT have
made otherwise.  

As the name suggests, prescriptive dreams provide direction, telling us how we might best
solve dilemmas, or better our lives.  The process of understanding such dreams is the same
as descriptive dreams, but coming to terms with the direction given is sometimes more
difficult.  Our dreams often show us true ways of going forward, but those ways can be at
odds with our preferences, or call upon reserves of courage it would be easier to leave
untested.

Another personal example shows some measure of this.  I’ll set the stage by sharing that I
was living on my own in Iowa, near all of the family that I loved and had grown up with.  Not
long before this I’d had the dream of being on the road alone that assured me that my
personal search for spiritual meaning was appropriate for me, but I had not really settled into
a particular path.  I had many questions around my Christian faith, I had become somewhat
familiar with several Eastern spiritual traditions, and there were no end of sincere teachers
willing to make themselves available to me through books, seminars, and even some local
practice groups.  I was leaning toward studying with noted teacher of a fantastic martial
tradition and of esoteric Buddhism, Stephen K Hayes, but he and his students were located
several states away – it felt like a world away, at the time, and leaving my comfort zone
seemed quite a risk.  

After months of knowing I needed to do something I had the following dream:

I’m standing at the top of a gentle hill, covered with grass and a clear view in every
direction.  The feeling was one of great openness and space.  Suddenly, and seemingly
from out of nothing, I am beset by a horde of ‘bad guys’: street punks and biker
hooligans.  As they attack en masse and from all directions I am initially able to defend
myself.  While I have never studied a martial art, in this dream I appear to be
reasonably capable.  Before long, though, I realize that I am doomed.  There is simply
no way that I will be able to survive this onslaught.

As I begin to despair, another figure enters the dream; SKH has begun moving
through the crowd of attackers quickly dispatching all that come within his reach.  He
says nothing and I am somewhat taken aback by his unexpected presence.  In short
order the attackers have been finished off.  I turn to thank Stephen, but he continues
on his way, still having said nothing.  I wake knowing that his assistance was the help I
had needed to make it through that ordeal.

A pretty simple dream and the symbolism seems pretty clear.  Surrounded by tremendous
possibility, plagued by innumerable questions and doubts (the hooligans), and losing hope
that I would be able to deal with them unaided (despair setting in), the teacher I needed
appears unexpectedly and makes wiping those challenges away possible.  I woke from that
dream suddenly more sure than I had been in a long time which specific path to follow.  

I won’t claim that I immediately jumped on the bus and moved to Ohio, and just having this
dream didn’t make the move far from home any less daunting.  There were still times of fear
and doubt, practicalities that had to be attended to, and explanations made to family
members who were supportive, though no more happy about my leaving than I was.  
However, my direction had become clear and that clarity allowed me to set aside trepidation
long enough to make the move and establish myself as part of the training community that
had grown up around Mr. Hayes.  As a result, I have studied under several wonderful
teachers, made some terrific friends, met and married the love of my life, and had two
beautiful children – because, in some measure, this dream gave me the confidence this path
was where I could find my answers and conquer my doubts.  

Obviously, this kind of talk runs the risk of sounding like I’m urging everyone to do exactly as
their dreams dictate, regardless of risk or consequence.  Nothing could be further from the
truth.  Don’t abdicate your brain or your ability to reason; the point is that you can glean
much of what you
already know, away from the noise of competing voices, through
conscious understanding of your dream life.

There is much more that can be covered in this involved topic.  If you’ve found this
interesting, see the books in the recommended reading section – several of them go into
great detail about how to interpret your dreams.

EXERCISE

Take one of your more recent dreams, preferable one that had some emotional impact on
you, and list out the clear symbols and actions that you noted the following morning.  Write
down those elements separately, as I did above in the example of telling people about the
movie.  Do any of them immediately speak to you of their meaning?  If so, do those various
inputs relate to each other in your waking life?  Make note of those correspondences,
though remain open to changing them if they don’t click.  

Do the same with the emotions that you experienced during the dream.  Of those
remembered emotions, which resonate with your daytime emotional experience?  Are there
obvious connections?  There’s usually no need to force this – as you roll that feeling around
in your head and body a clear correspondence will usually assert itself pretty quickly.  Make
the same kind of note documenting this emotional connection as you did for the more
concrete symbolism.  

Continue to work and knead the dream until you get the 'Ah ha' moment or you feel a
settling in that indicates you've found the meaning.  When you have that fit, do you find
anything that surprises you?  Would you have expected a different message from your
unconscious mind, or from spiritual sources?  Pay close attention to these elements as this
is where you'll get the most insight.

Lastly – is this descriptive or prescriptive?  They are both useful, just be clear what you are
getting from your gut.  With that perspective in place your interpretation will be pretty solid
and you can either take advantage of whatever clarification your descriptive dream might
bring, or assess the advice given through your sleeping prescription.  Don’t lose your mind
and ability to reason as you do this, but do take advantage of whatever ‘out of the box’
thinking you find.  


Next: Cultivating Spiritual Content
Christian Dreaming
Bringing sleep into your spiritual practice
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