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Working with our Dreams in the Spiritual Life Part I

In the Christian tradition, many people are becoming more interested again in working with their dreams, recognising some intuitive value and wisdom in them that needs to be listened to.

However, most of us these days don't have a clue where to start to begin to try and work with our own dreams. They contain a language of symbolism that is alien to our modern Western mindset. On top of that, as each dream communicates information that is not consciously known by the dreamer, it can take real effort, stretching some of our capacities, to get hold of what the dream is saying.

I have been writing down some of my dreams for a number of years now and have been to several workshops looking at working with dreams in spiritual direction. I have also, over the last year, had the immense privilege of working occasionally on some dreams with a Jungian analyst, who is highly trained and experienced in dream work. It has all been a truly enlightening journey for me and I am ever more deeply convinced, along with Tertullian, Origen, St Augustine of Hippo and other early Christians (see my earlier article looking at a brief history of dreams in the early Christian tradition - 'Spiritual Life and our Dreams'), that each dream is for us a means of deep revelation.

But how do we go about working with our dreams in the spiritual life? It is difficult for some of us to even know where to start.

I offer below a 5 step practical approach you can follow to try and begin to work with and understand your own dream life:

1. Record your dream

Recall and write down all the flow, details and feelings, in the present tense, as you experience them in the dream. You may also want to title your dream. Let this arise naturally from the dream material itself rather than impose something on it. It can be a word or series of words; ask yourself, 'What title does this dream want itself to have?'

What 'feeling-tone' did you have on waking from your dream? Note also any particular emotions or feelings you felt in your dream.

As part of this stage, you can also look at the structure of your dream:

  • What is the initial situation?

  • What develops or changes?

  • What is the action of the dream? Often a dream will have one or more actions that range from going on a journey, to performing a task, to having a conversation.

  • What is the climax? Often at a climax there is a fundamental change in the situation. Something is born, dies, is understood, or even changes in a small way.

  • How does the dream end? Has the situation changed from the beginning of the dream? How are things left?

Note the characters: Who is the main actor in the dream? Often it is the dreamer, but not always. Who are the other characters? What role do they play? Animals can often appear in dreams; note any particular characteristics they have including size, colour and emotional disposition.

You can also make a note at the end of your dream detailing the context and events of your outer life at the time of the dream: What were the circumstances of your life when the dream occurred? These may or may not be related to the meaning of the dream, we don't know at this point of the process.

You may like to keep a dream journal or voice recorder by your bed, ready to record any dream on waking.

2. Write down any associations you have to the images and symbols in your dream

What connections or memories do the people or things or places in the dream have for you? This is the key foundation for understanding and interpreting your dream. It is true that images and symbols sometimes can convey universal meaning, but the images and symbols in your dream have come from your unconscious and, therefore, only you have the key to understanding their meaning; your unconscious contains within itself the references for every symbol that it generates. Therefore, the symbolic language in your dream can be decoded. Our task begins with waking up to the associations that spontaneously flow out of us in response to these symbols.

So, go through your dream and write out every association you have with each dream image. A dream may contain persons, objects, situations, colours, sounds or speech. Each of these, for our purposes, is a distinct image and needs to be looked at in its own right.

The basic technique is to write down the first image that appears in the dream. Then ask yourself: 'What feeling do I have about this image? What words or ideas come to mind when I look at it?' Your association is any word, idea, mental picture, feeling or memory that pops into your mind when you look at the image in the dream. It is literally anything that you spontaneously connect with the image.

Usually every image will inspire several associations. Each brings to mind a certain person, word, phrase or memory. Write down each association that comes directly from the image. Then go back to the image and see what other associations come to mind. Keep returning to the dream image until you have exhausted your associations. Only after you have written all the associations that you find in the one image should you go on to the next image and begin the same process.

At first this can feel like a lot of work. But after you do it a few times and discover the power of this technique to key you into the meaning of your dream symbols you will see its worth. You will also begin to see why symbols have such power over human beings: symbols connect spontaneously to the deep parts of ourselves that we have longed to touch.

At this point it is important not to try and decide which association is the so-called right one - just write them down.

There are a couple of ways you can use to do this as illustrated below. Find the method that works best for you.

Suppose you have a dream that begins: 'I am in a blue room.' The first image you have to work with is the colour blue. You can list and write down the associations you would produce in this way:

Or, in the manner here where the dream image - blue - is at the hub of the wheel and the associations radiate out like spokes.

If a meaning of a symbol is not clear after exploring personal associations, then further amplification may be helpful. As I mention above, some symbols and images may potentially carry more universal meaning. If one of your symbols does feel a bit like this, I have found looking up archetypal understandings of symbols helpful. Two particular texts I can recommend are 'The Herder Dictionary of Symbols' by Chiron Publications and 'Symbolic Mythological Animals' by J. C. Cooper.

For the next steps in 'Working with your Dreams' please see my continuing article.

For further reading on dreams:

Morton Kelsey : 'Dreams: A Way to Listen to God.'

John A. Sanford : 'Dreams: God's Forgotten Language.'

Savary, Berne & Williams : 'Dreams and Spiritual growth: A Judeo-Christian Way of Dreamwork.'

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