Enriching your life in Christ through profound Christian Meditation
Bringing Ancient Buddhist Technique to
Modern Christian Meditation
Cultivate Spiritual Content
Now we come to the meat of this article: with regular dream recall and a reliable basis from
which to understand those dreams, how do we use them to enrich our spiritual life? To this
point we’ve been covering dreaming from an almost purely psychological perspective. In its
own right, this angle on our night time development can be very fruitful, much as prayer and
meditation can be healthy exercises when employed in a mechanical way. But if we stop
there we are losing out on some very rich growth opportunity; when we engage these
practicies as a way of exploring our ultimate nature, that of spirit, there is no limit to what we
At this point the question of what spiritual content we can legitimately pursue through
dreams arises. Over the years I have found a variety of approaches fruitful. They include
such things as having questions answered, receiving instruction (as described in Job),
exploring the idea of what I am here for, and looking for a more visceral sense of ultimate
reality than can be gotten through intellectual study. Given the very non-physical nature of
our dreams, there is little in the way of limitation to bind what you can pursue. Any concern
or question can conceivably be addressed.
Since this document is aimed at those not already using dreams in their spiritual life, let's
keep this a bit more grounded than “anything goes” and assume that you are challenged by
some aspect of your life. Perhaps an issue at work, or you are concerned about a
relationship, etc. Something that is meaningful to you and is not going as you would like it
to, or maybe you are simply unsure how to best proceed with it. In either case, you are
interested in finding a way of working through the issue in a fashion that is both practical
and in sync with your spiritual nature.
Let’s first assume that you’ve spent some time thinking about your concern, and researching
what your religious tradition might have to suggest. This is not a trivial first step – if the
answers that come to you through your night time research are without an appropriate
context the interpretation you might come to is at risk of being ungrounded, perhaps even
unsafe. Unfortunately, we see this frequently in the modern New Age movement: well
meaning people with access to sometimes sophisticated methods of garnering insight,
though frequently having no training in established spiritual traditions (or even in basic
reasoning), have experiences that lead to wild conclusions completely unmoored from
typical human thought. This can be fun, but it’s generally not very productive.
With research having taken place, you might already have your answer. Assuming this is
NOT the case for this exercise, you can move into a practice known in modern psychology
as dream incubation. The effectiveness of this process is well established and its simplicity
makes it a tool that can be at anyone’s disposal.
As the name suggests you germinate the subject that you wish to dream about, and then
carefully keep it warmed and growing. Start by having a very clearly stated intention, such
as “is pursuing my current career in the best interest of me and my family?” I would suggest
writing it down in your dream journal as soon as you have decided that this will be grist for
your night time mill.
Through the day continue to remind yourself of your desire to dream of that issue: “I will
dream about my career and if it is good for my family and me”. This isn’t a spastic thing that
you have to try and keep in your mind at all times, but let the question rise in your mind
several times throughout the day. One easy way of making sure this isn’t forgotten is to
intend to think of it every time you take a drink during the day, or some other frequent
action. As an example, I carry a cellular phone supplied by my employer with me at almost
all times, and regularly check it for email. Every time I check that phone I remind myself of
what I am incubating and/or I do a reality test (see the section on lucid dreaming). It’s easy
As you do this, remain mindful that you are looking for an answer that is spiritually coherent.
Prior to going to bed, if your schedule permits, spend some time reading the bible, or any of
your preferred spiritual writings. Spend some time in prayer asking for the insight you
need. Do whatever you like to do to keep the tone of this effort directed toward a more
open and ultimate perspective, as opposed to a simply psychological and materialistic
As you go to sleep that night re-read your intention and imagine yourself writing the answer
to your question during the night. Go to sleep expecting that answer to be present for you
upon awakening. Record your dreams as normal. The following morning see what you
have and what might pertain to your quest for insight.
What if you don’t have any dreams
that seem related to your question
or concern? First, don’t panic.
Unless you’ve just lived your last
day, you’ve always got another
night to see what your slumber
offers. This is as much a skill as
learning to speak or think
productively. If you don’t get an
answer the first night continue with
the same process the following
day; don’t be too surprised if you
have to try several nights in a row,
especially in the beginning. You
will find that as you become more
adept at this that your answers will
come much more quickly, almost
as though your sleeping mind is
eagerly teaming with your
conscious mind and is anxious to
provide the needed insight.
Lastly, as you put your new skill with interpreting dreams, don’t forget the spiritual context in
which all of this takes place. Once you have your dreams recorded, you’ve isolated the
various symbolic and emotional elements, and you begin drawing their relationships with
‘real life’ happenings, be sure to test what you think you might be hearing. To use a blunt
example, if the question is “how should I best pursue my career in a way that is right for my
family and I?” and in your dream you see yourself stabbing a co-worker in the back, do you
take that advice directly and begin defaming this person (let’s assume that you don’t take it
so literally that you actually try to kill the person)? Perhaps, if that person is doing
something harmful to your employer or co-workers the dream suggestion is to address that.
Or, your dreaming mind might be advising you to ‘kill’ any of your own behavior that you
associate with that co-worker. In any event, taking the view that you should inflict harm on
an innocent person’s career to advance your own would be difficult to reconcile with values
espoused by most modern spiritual paths, including Christianity.
While there is nothing wrong with an example like figuring out your career path, it is certainly
mundane and I’d hate to see readers limiting their explorations to such. You might think of
spiritual dreams as falling into three broad categories:
- mundane instruction, where the symbols and direction are directly related to your
daily life. The hypothetical example given above would fit this category.
- spiritual instruction, where the symbols and direction are aimed at topics that go
beyond our physically shared existence. There is a personal example given below
that falls into this category.
- supramundane instruction, where all imagery and symbol drops away for a more
direct experience of the divine.
The bible and other spiritual literature is filled with examples of each of these broad types of
dreams that more directly explore the nature of our relationship with God, as is modern
dream literature. Be guided by your heart (informed by the teachings of your tradition) in
how you can use this same process of dream incubation to grow your awareness of each of
these types of experience. Both historical records and my own experience suggest that
dreams tuned toward divine converse can have tremendous impact on how we see
ourselves, our world, and God.
You might also find that the ‘official’ steps to dream incubation aren’t 100% necessary. The
following is a dream I had a couple of years ago. There was no intentional incubation of a
dream, but I was spending a lot time reading and thinking about what makes us individuals
and how we relate to the divine. These ruminations unintentionally fed into the following
spiritual instruction type of dream:
I’m standing on a the beach of a deserted island with a firm wind at my back. The
sand feels very coarse on my feet and is a rich black. There are sparkles mixed
throughout (like flavor crystals in those old coffee commercials). On my right, I can
hear the surf rushing to the beach, repeatedly smashing to shore. To my left, the
sand changes to normal white, fine sand before rising to meet brush and trees.
Everything is beautiful and quite vivid.
I look out to sea and observe a humongous storm cloud approaching. There is a
noticeable tang of ozone in the air; I become aware of the tremendous amount of
energy brewing in this storm. I take a few steps on the beach toward the cloud,
feeling more of that energy in me with each step. As I reach the edge of the surf I
begin floating over the water, proceeding toward the cloud anvil. I can see lightning
flashing in the heart of the roil.
Into the clouds. Aside from lightning everything is dark. There is an immediate
awareness of high wind and buffeting air, but it doesn’t feel as though it is moving me
directly. Suddenly, I am swept straight up. It is a powerful feeling leaving a vacuum in
the pit of my stomach.
Above the clouds, floating bodiless, surrounded by blackness. Very soon I see this
blackness filled with tiny, multicolored specks of light – red, blue, white, green, etc.
These dots of light each shoot out a single ray of the same colored light, at first with
no apparent order, but soon they come together in a weave that forms a hollow
column of light in the middle of which I am floating. The column is not long: below me
the rays of light seem disordered before they gradually coalesce into the column, and
not too far above me they again lose that coherence. The column appears to be
spinning slowly and the threads of light are actually moving up – coming together
below me, spinning in order around me, and losing pattern as they move above me.
Initially I am witnessing this from inside the column, like being inside a Chinese finger
puzzle, then suddenly I AM the column, experiencing the flow of the light threads
coming together, turning in unison, and dissipating soon after.
I wake gently, with this dream firmly in mind.
Notice that there are specific images (the beach, ocean, storm, lightning, darkness, points of
light, threads of light), but many are hardly things we see in our daily life. There is no real
description of my current situation, nor is there any prescriptive advice. Instead I received a
wonderful gut level translation of the intellectual material I had been trying to digest for some
time. This is typical of dreams that provide spiritual instruction. Other historic examples of
spiritually explicit dreams include Jacobs’s vision of angels climbing up and down the ladder
between earth and heaven and possibly the bulk of Revelation by St John of Patmos, which
is not clearly labeled as having been experienced in a dream, though it bears all the
hallmarks of dream consciousness.
This class of dream is wonderfully suited for further contemplation and meditation. Using
this particular dream as an example, the last portion with the multicolored column of light
truly captured my attention. For several weeks after I would spend some time calming and
focusing my attention with a simple breath awareness meditation, then shift my attention to
recalling that imagery and the course of the dream. In this way I was able to deepen the
sense of process that is present in all being, extending my conscious understanding of our
nature, which is contingent on so many intersecting factors. There is no claim made here
for deep insight, but this dream and the follow up meditations have really changed how I see
our world and my place in it. Make sure that when you have a dream with real impact on you
that you don’t just record it in your journal and set it on a shelf as a trophy. Grab it, claim it,
work with it until you have digested it. As a result, you will be a more capable and worthy
vessel for the next such dream that visits.
The last, and least frequent, type of dream is what I call the dreams of the dark night where
supramundane experience is had. These dreams will typically (if anything about them can
be called typical) begin as either a dream of mundane or spiritual instruction. At some point
the dream environment drops away leaving the dreamer without sensory reference, yet still
aware. As there is nothing in this awareness to which we can associate worldly experience,
the everyday use of language to describe them is pretty useless – how do you describe an
experience if there is nothing to feel, see, or hear? Given this challenge, it’s difficult to say
anything meaningful about this class of dream. It’s certainly a shame, since these dreams
have the greatest capacity for directly fomenting spiritual growth.
This is not a trivial concern. Mystics throughout history have tried to communicate this
depth of awareness (or the fruits thereof), and are almost always frustrated in how they
might share an experience for which humans have few words. Often they rely on poetic
language; once such example is St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. In this
seminal Christian work on mystical union with the Divine, St. John poetically refers to his
‘house being now at rest’ and of a deep, beautiful darkness, lit only by the light from his
heart, finally finding and joining with his beloved in a restful oblivion. While such poetic
imagery will often have multiple layers of meaning, on the surface we can understand the
house to be our body and senses, the darkness is an awareness that is no longer
dependent on the light of the senses and worldly concerns, the light from his heart as his
zeal for union with God, and his beloved to be the Lord.
As Dark Night of the Soul is an instruction manual aimed at showing the reader the way of
contemplative prayer there are limits to the parallels we can draw between that practice and
dreaming, but there are strong correlations, as well. Specifically, as we sleep and shutter
the windows to the outer world (our physical senses) our ability to hear and assimilate the
more attenuated experience of our internal senses while dreaming is enhanced. When we
find ourselves in a position to slip even the boundaries of internal sensation we can find
what Thomas Merton frequently referred to as our True Self.
In this space of the True, where this is no sight, no feeling and no sound, we not only find
our most basic self, underlying all of the social programming, neurotic fear and greedy
attachment. We can also find the basis of our entire existence: God. In this brilliant
darkness that defies all convention and definition, we have the opportunity to allow, without
the reservation that typifies our conventional life, the embrace of the Divine that is the
ultimate goal of all spiritual practice.
Think about that. Face to face with the Creator of all, with the font of Love. No words to trip
over. No fear or desire to obscure the encounter. Just to be with Being.
This experience can be pretty intoxicating. It is also not without some danger. Having
experienced such primal knowing, face to face with that which cannot not be, there is often a
temptation to assume that you have ‘made it’, or that you are now special and beyond the
need for more growth. It must be born in mind that, so long as we are on this worldly
pilgrimage, further learning is a requisite. No matter how lofty the vision we can occasionally
enjoy, our human organism is not made for complete understanding of ultimate reality. That
is reserved (we can hope) for our next life, unencumbered by our current limitations.
With that proviso in mind, cultivate dreams of the dark night with all your heart. There is
nothing more moving or which can more readily prompt a conversion of heart than such an
encounter with the Essential. You aren’t likely to have them with great frequency, especially
as you begin your dreaming practice; don’t despair and don’t disdain the more regular
mundane and spiritual instruction. Coming to grips with those experiences paves the way
for the most mystical of experiences.
Bringing sleep into your spiritual practice
|Simultaneous to dream cultivation and
interpretation, see what kind of understanding
can come to you outside of specific dream
content. Your sleeping mind is busy in different,
quiet ways throughout the night. This quietude
can make us receptive to the teaching of the
Spirit regardless of whether that tutelage comes
through dreams, or not. True, dreams are the
most fantastic part of the night, and the most
easily accessed, but do not turn up your nose at
any help that comes to you. You will find that the
phrase 'Let me sleep on it' carries much
wisdom. There will be times that you wake
having recorded no dreams that seem related to
your question, but the answer will be there for
you none the less. As you continue improving
your ability to bring sleep and dreaming onto the
spiritual path, the entire night can serve your