In the spirit of a broken clock being right twice a day, let me just say that one of Job’s friends got it right about dreams. Elihu, the fourth and youngest of Job’s blowhard companions who sought to “console” him after his tragedies, says something in chapter 33 that has always seemed just right to me:
For God speaks in one way,
and in two, though people do not perceive it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
while they slumber on their beds… [Job 33:14-15, NRSV]
The second way is through suffering.
As a modern-day Elihu, I bemoan a culture that ignores both dreams and suffering as means of revelation.
And yet here we are.
Dreams have been farmed out to Hollywood. Suffering is cordoned off in sterile facilities and confined to support groups. We’d rather not pay attention to our own dreams and pains. They both seem unproductive.
I’m here to testify, however, that on the topic of dreaming, I’m a believer. Thanks to a great therapist and the author and analyst Robert Johnson, I have spent a lot of time working with my dreams and I can offer the following guidelines for listening to yours:
- Your dreams are you and you are plural. Of course, there’s a long history of dreams being predictive and prophetic as well. [See also Joseph & Pharaoh in Genesis.] But the revelation of dreams may be a lot more personal than you imagine. The elements of the dream are all a part of you, even those familiar faces of people you know. Our unconscious grabs those images and puts them to good use in representing parts of ourselves that are longing to breathe in our lives. We long for a unified self, but in reality we are fragmented and there are many sides to us.
- You can train yourself to capture your dreams. Many people say, “I don’t dream,” but I suspect that what that means is that they have not developed the habit of expecting dreams. The images of dreams are fleeting, but in that liminal space between sleep and waking they remain and if you keep a notepad handy by your bed, you may find that you remember more than you think you do. Ask for dreams as well before you go to sleep.
- Spend time with the elements of your dream. So there’s a panther in your dream. What do you associate with panthers? Be the panther. What do I look like? What am I doing in the dream? What do I want to see happen? Don’t be afraid to go after inanimate objects either. Be the room, the car, the strangely-patterned throw rug on the floor. Then ask, what part of me does this element remind me of? What is it trying to say to me?
Robert Johnson, in his book Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, says:
“Every dream, in some way, either shows our effort to integrate some unconscious part of ourselves into consciousness or our resistance against the inner self, the ways we set up conflict with it rather than learn from it. This is the primary subject that our dreams are reporting on, and this is what we should look for in our dreams.” (66)
4. Develop a physical response to what the dream is telling you. Once you get some sense of what the dream is about for you, come up with some act that will allow you to represent it in the physical world—a ritual, as Johnson calls it. “The ritual is a physical representation of the inner attitude change that the dream called for, and it is this level of change that is requested by the dream.” (99) It doesn’t have to be a grand and dramatic act. Just something that will mean something to you.
Recently, I had a vivid dream of standing around a circular table with a group of powerful, sage-like figures. Think Cate Blanchett in The Lord of the Rings. We all placed a fist into the center of the circle, Captain Planet-style. In response to the dream, I developed the habit of fist-bumping people who have that same empowering quality for me. A small thing, but a reminder that there is potential and possibility in this world.
What’s your experience with dreams? These four guidelines are only the beginning of working with dreams and listening for God.