Dreaming is something all of us do. Some of us don’t remember what we dream about, and most of us forget our dreams soon after they occur. But recent studies have established that we do, in fact, have them – and fairly often.
We talk of dreams as if they were mere fancies, maybe impractical or even embarrassing. Very rarely do we respect them or hope that they might enrich our lives or solve our problems. This is unfortunate. People all over the world – both living and dead – have paid close attention to these nighttime visitors and benefitted from them.
In fact people in many cultures go to great lengths to prepare for a dream experience that they hope will resolve a problem they need help with. If they experience a lot of meaningless images in their normal dreams, they might travel great distances to dream in a particularly sacred place or to dream with the guidance of a religious guide. They understood that some dreams are more meaningful than others.
Christians, in particular, have a rich history of dreaming. And the sacred texts of our Judeo-Christian heritage are filled with important – even divinely inspired – dreams. Our ancestors often referred to these sacred dreams just as they referred to their own dreams and the dreams of friends and relatives. They wanted to know what they meant. They sometimes altered the course of their lives based on these dreams.
Recent decades have changed this for most of us. And the change has been one of loss, not enlightenment. For many Christians, the study of dreams has become the prerogative of psychologists – many of whom have no religious sensitivity and can’t be trusted. Who can blame them? The followers of Freud so often sound like pagans or atheists – or both.
Understandably, some of this science of dreams seems suspect to Christians. But I have come to believe that some of it deserves more of our attention. Maybe we should even acknowledge Freud (and Jung) for some of their contributions even as we reject many of their materialistic claims. One thing we Christians should insist on: not all dreaming can be appreciated by using laboratory electrodes, statistical questionnaires and other similar methods used by modern scientists.
Intuitively we know this. Of course we can objectively understand the dreams we have. But the subjective meaning that dreams sometimes leave on our souls is a different sort of experience. Some dreams can convey profound spiritual meanings and can be a source of much needed spiritual strength if we let them. And this requires a little work and understanding. The religious study of dreams, after all, is a spiritual quest. It is also a very rewarding quest.
Just recently I had my first experience with an induced dream. Students of dreaming would call this an incubation dream. An incubation dream is a dream that we hope to have – a dream that we prepare ourselves for – because we want an answer to a specific question.
My induced dream came about because of a message I received from my boss. He wanted to meet with me but wouldn’t tell me why. Needless to say, I was curious and concerned at the same time. And since this happened when I was learning more about dreams I decided to see if I couldn’t ask my subconscious self (my dreaming self) for a little guidance.
I also asked for a little Divine help in my evening prayer and specifically requested understanding about anything useful concerning my upcoming meeting. Before going to sleep I kept the question on my mind.
The dream I had (the one I remember) took place in a Christian setting. In fact I don’t remember the details other than the fact that it was just that: a Christian setting. I even forgot after waking up that I had even requested a helpful dream. When I did remember, it took me a few minutes to connect the request with the dream.
And then I had to ask myself the question: what did a Christian setting have to do with my upcoming meeting? I couldn’t tell and so dismissed the dream and my own unsuccessful efforts. But then it occurred to me that my boss is an honorable Christian man. I don’t know him very well, but I do know that he tries to live Christian ideals. I then understood that the only thing I needed to concern myself with about the meeting was to be a Christian.
The realization was surprising. It was also very satisfying. And I knew that it was the answer I had sought even if it wasn’t the kind of answer I expected. As it turned out we were able to discuss a few difficult issues in a friendly way and ended up talking about certain passages in the Bible that he was interested in. He didn’t want to end the meeting because we were having such a good conversation. I left the meeting very glad for the insight I gained from my dream.
I have learned that there are certain things that can help induce dreams. For starters, it is important to believe that you can receive guidance in your life from dreams. If this is difficult for you, try opening up the Bible and look in the index (or topical guide) under dreams. You may be surprised and what you will find.
It might be helpful to spend a few days reading these Biblical examples before you venture on your own. Reading the stories of Joseph (of Egypt), Daniel, Mary, Joseph (Mary’s husband) and others will remind you of the importance of dreaming in our faith.
Perhaps you have been guilty of placing these Biblical examples in a mental category of “they don’t happen anymore, especially to people like me.” If you have been guilty of this (as I have) let me ask a simple question: if dreams are not important, why do we have them?
Sacred literature clearly rejects the claim of Freud’s followers that all dreams are merely wish fulfillment formulated in so many symbols by our subconscious mind. Religious dreamers during all periods of this planet’s history have insisted that dreams can often be prophetic.
You may have heard the term “precognitive” or “mantic” referring to dreams. These are modern equivalents of what we Christians know as prophetic dreams. They aren’t always profoundly significant or concern the fate of the world. Our subconscious mind is rarely worried about such things.
We believe that God has revealed these kinds of dreams to prophets. But for each of us, prophetic dreams will likely be more individual. I don’t mean that our individual dreams will be unimportant. In fact they can, and will, be profoundly meaningful to us. But they may not be meant for anybody else.
“Yes,” you say. “But my dreams are far too mundane or irrelevant to be truly helpful in this way.” If you are guilty of thinking like this, you’ll have to change the way you think. Meaningful dreams happen when we believe in them, not because they are inevitably written in the stars.
The big problem is that we have stopped concerning ourselves with dreams. We get most of our answers from a culture steeped in the proclamations of professionals. And these professionals get their answers – even their credentials – in materialistic ways. There is no room in their calculations for the unmeasurable spiritual realities that speak to our subconscious minds.
So you will have to practice with your dreams. Avoid the temptation of expecting unambiguous visions. Our spirits aren’t fluent in the precise language of modern pragmatism. Remind yourself instead of the importance of symbols in sacred literature. Consider the hundreds of stories written in the Old Testament that refer in interesting ways to the New Testament. Consider the almost exclusive way that Jesus taught His disciples. He used stories – parables – that are very symbolic.
Analogies of many kinds – especially parables – are at the very heart of sacred teachings. The reason may have escaped you if you have tried to understand these texts from a modern reductionist standpoint. But they weren’t written for the curious mind. They were written for the soul, and the soul speaks the language of symbols.
Consider also the reason we have rituals. As a young man, I didn’t really appreciate the reason for such seemingly primitive practices associated with religion. In fact some of the authors I read implied that Christian rituals were no more sacred than the war dances of headhunters. I developed a condescending attitude about them for a time.
Eventually I gained a bit more spiritual maturity as I admitted the spiritual essence surrounding these practices. It took me years to realize that rituals too are meant to speak to our souls and not just our rational minds. They too are crafted in the language of symbols. The sacrament is a very obvious and very profound example.
And so are our dreams. They present images to us that are meant to be interpreted symbolically. In ancient cultures there usually existed an official interpreter of dreams. This person was usually associated with the established religion. But occasionally someone unexpected developed the ability and was appropriately recognized. Joseph of Egypt and Daniel are examples.
I would discourage a Christian from looking for this kind of help today. There are several dream resources available. Books on dreams have been written by the hundreds. Some of these might be helpful but many of them draw from pagan motifs. The safest approach for a Christian dreamer is to follow your own faithful instincts. Maybe you know someone trustworthy with whom you talk about your dreams. Certainly you can ponder and pray about their meaning.
Another concern you might have is that some of your dreams appear to be inappropriate. Maybe the dream stage of your mind becomes filled with things that embarrass you. Perhaps you seem to be having an affair or interested in something or someone you shouldn’t be. A devoted Christian might well become bewildered by such images. How could these things come to someone who would never contemplate such a thing when awake? Modern dream advisors aren’t much help here. They follow Freud in stating that this is all natural and only your subconscious mind forcing you to deal with your true sensual wishes.
Maybe there is truth in such thinking for the carnally minded. But for a Christian that truly seeks to do the will of God, doing his or her best to avoid improper thoughts, sinful situations or suggestive media, this is certainly misguided.
The key is to remember that our spirits speak to us in symbols. If you dream of craving an apple pie, you’re spirit is probably not very worried about being hungry. It is probably telling you that it is hungry for something else. If in your dream you find yourself in an inappropriate relationship, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have an affair. More than likely your spirit is telling you that it needs a more meaningful unity with someone with whom you have already committed your love.
Maybe this sounds far-fetched to you. If it does, it is because you haven’t come to appreciate just how important symbols are in the understanding of the soul. If you really want to understand what you are missing, decide to spend a month or two evaluating your dreams.
Decide on something in your life that has concerned you – something about which you could use a little (or a lot of) enlightenment. Pray about your wish to gain understanding. Retire each night without a lot of other things on your mind. Mental clutter has a way of diluting our spirits. Focus on the subject of your quest.
Keep a pad and a pencil near your bed in case your dream comes in the middle of the night and wakes you up. If you don’t write it down quickly you may lose it. More than likely your dream will come in the morning just before you wake up. Again, make sure you write it down immediately.
If you normally don’t remember your dreams, or even falsely believe that you don’t have dreams, try the following experiment. Set your alarm clock for half an hour before you normally wake up. Sometimes it happens when you are woken up at unexpected times that you still have your dream images present in your mind. Some people need to be woken up in the middle of the night for this to happen.
Another technique that sometimes works is to mentally focus on an earlier time to wake up before you go to sleep. This may sound a bit far-fetched but it works for many people. The mental effort of focusing on a particular time is picked up by the sub-conscious – which is fully active while our minds sleep. It prods us to wake up. This activity by itself, if you practice it a few times, will give you added confidence in the reality and accessibility of your spiritual (and subconscious) self.
If you do this for several weeks, you will be surprised at the insights you gain about important things in your life. You may gain answers that will change your life. But you will have to respect the answers. It does no good to disregard what seems to be a trivial dream that answers your questions because it appears to be so simple.
Be humble enough to recognize that your spirit knows more than your mind does. It also knows what you really need in order to find meaning in your life. Your mind gets confused about this all the time.
Remember that Christians have been paying attention to dreams for a very long time. Ask yourself if being a product of the 20th Century is more important to you than this long Christian history. Are you a citizen of the modern world first, or does your spiritual self trump the vagaries of our time? Do you really have faith that God might communicate with you?
I promise you one thing for sure: your spiritual self – the one that communicates with symbols in dreams – is much more conversant in the true things of God than is your fallible mind. You should give it a chance to teach you what it knows.
Patricia Garfield’s book Creative Dreaming, though not written specifically for Christians, has many insightful suggest ions on preparing for dreams. It was published by Simon and Schuster in 1974.