When we think about dreams, there images that strike us as strange, unreal and even frightening. Dreams come from a different place and speak a different language. We can recognise that dreams speak the language of the unconscious.
Robert Johnson makes the point that we can experience our unconscious either in a voluntary or involuntary way. We can have explosive negative reactions to people or even overly positive responses ? this was a way that our unconscious can influence us without our choice. Or we can choose to listen to our dreams or other manifestations of our unconscious life (such as Freudian slips of the tongue, daydreams or active imagination). Johnson makes an interesting point, “All the forms of interaction with the unconscious that nourished our ancestors-dream, vision, ritual, and religious experience – are largely lost to us, dismissed by the modern mind as primitive or superstitious. Thus, in our pride and hubris our faith in unassailable reason, we cut ourselves off from our origins in the unconscious and from the deepest parts of ourselves.” (Page 9-10). The Jungian take on all this is that if we don’t open ourselves to the unconscious it will return as neurosis.
Reflect: do you have a sense of your unconscious and its importance or otherwise? In what ways do you notice this dimension.
There is a long history of dream interpretation. Over the centuries people have developed dream manuals to aid the dreamer in understanding dreams. Freud’s famous Interpretation of Dreams (1900) was the analytic equivalent and today there are countless new age manuals and internet sites.
How does the Bible approach dream interpretation? Some dreams are quite obvious. Joseph in Genesis 37 dreamt of his own greatness “a sheaf of the field” with others bowing to him. His brothers were resentful that he was their father’s favourite child, and they had no difficulty interpreting this dream. The brothers asked, “Are you indeed to reign over us.” (37:8) They sold Joseph into slavery. Later after Joseph arrived in Egypt, Pharaoh dreamed 7 fat cows, followed by 7 lean cows, which swallowed the 7 fat cows (Gen 41). He had a similar dream of 7 ears of grain. Joseph interpreted the dream as foretelling 7 bountiful years followed by 7 years of famine. The pharaoh responded to the message of the dream and used the good years to build a reserve of grain which fed the nation. We notice that the language of dreams is the language of symbols.
In other interpretations of dreams the symbols needed to be decoded. The Israelite Daniel was described in the book of Daniel as having “understanding in all visions and dreams” (1:17). The King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which troubled him. He went to his court appointed interpreters (2:2) but they could not tell him what he had dreamt. This was no problem for Daniel “You saw, O king, and behold great image. The image, mighty and of exceeding brightness stood before you, it’s appearance was frightening. The head of the image was of fine gold, its breast and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked stone was cut by no human hand and smote the image on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and gold altogether were broken to pieces and became like chaff on the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. The stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. (Daniel chapter 2:31-35). Daniel (Dan 2) interpreted this as the rise and fall of kingdoms, “You are the head of gold. After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze which shall rule over all the earth. There shall be a fourth kingdom strong as iron. Because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things … it shall break and crush all these. And as you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the firmness of the iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the miry clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly either partly clay so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with miry clay so they shall mix with one another in marriage but they shall not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. And in those days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break to pieces all those kingdoms and bring them to an end shall stand for ever.” Note that Daniel explained the meaning of the dream to the King “in order that the interpretation may be known to the king and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind.” (Daniel 2:30) This not only honoured the dimension of dreaming, it was a trust in the unconscious.
When dreams are interpreted in the Bible there is a standard approach in which the symbols are identified and this ‘un-locks’ the meaning of the dream. In Daniel 2 the various metals descending in value were identified as the present rule of Nebuchadnezzar and then following kingdoms until the divided kingdom which is destroyed by God. This is a foretelling dream but essentially the interpretation follows a standard process of identifying dream symbols and then making meaning out of the dream as a whole. I will recommend something similar.
Discuss: Look around the church what symbols do you see?
Broadly, there have been various approaches to interpreting dreams which I’ll introduce now. I will identify three approaches:
- Using a dream dictionary and look up the suggested meanings. I did a research study about 10 years ago and I was surprised to find that this is reasonably effective. See www.dreamdictionary.org/
- Freudian approach which means you take your dreams to a classical analyst who is an expert in dream interpretation. This is costly, if you can still find an analyst, and I am not convinced that the expert approach works well.
- Jungian approach puts the responsibility to interpret the dream back on the dreamer. In my experience this works well. The assumption is that it is your unconscious and you are the expert in understanding it with the right tools.
I will advise some practical steps which follow the self-interpretation of dreams along Jungian lines. The approach is well explained in Robert Johnson’s Inner Work book (now about 20 years old).
Discuss: have you ever tried to interpret one of your dreams? Was this successful or did you become frustrated?
You might be thinking I can’t remember my dreams, so I remind you to put a pad and pen beside your bed. This action will signal that you are receptive to your dreams. It is important to get down as much of the dream as possible including all the small details. All this is essential for the following steps which will help you to interpret the dream:
- The most important dreams are vivid, surprising and possibly repetitive. When you wake up and remember something of a dream, record it on the note pad or journal. Begin with fragments and add details as you recall them. Make sure every detail that you can recall is recorded on the pad. Then I would advise you to go back to sleep, you can think further about the dream in the morning! But note that writing the dream down takes it seriously and indicates your intention to work on understanding the dream.
- Set a time, maybe 30 minutes to work on the dream. Underline the key symbols. This includes people, actions and places. These will be central to ‘de-coding’ the dream. It is like when you learned a language at school. I did three years of Latin, you look at a passage, gradually you can get some sense of meaning, but a few words puzzle you until you get the dictionary to look the unknown word up. Then hopefully all becomes clear. It is the same process with dreams.
- Then put the symbol-words on a page and associate meaning until one ‘clicks’. For example “rocking chair” then you might associate: grandmother, retirement, mortality and when one ‘clicks’ for you giving the meaning for that word, but not yet for the dream as a whole.
- Do this with all the symbols, insert the meanings into the flow of the dream and then you will start to have a sense of the meaning. Make it about you personally. The dream will not be about mortality in an abstract sense but your vulnerability to death.
- When you have a sense of the dream as a whole, try to hear a message to yourself. Try to express the meaning of the dream in a single sentence addressed to you, “My dream is telling me…”
- Johnson also recommended doing an action to honour the dream. I have rarely done this but it does have the effect of making it part of daily life.
I am not saying that these steps will work every time. Also, I had long periods in which are hardly paid any attention to my dreams. But I have also had a number of significant dreams which have influenced the course of my life. I have come to think of the dreamer and the interpreter in me as part of my ‘wise self’. Not based on rationality but somehow caring and knowing what is best for me. I have found the messages very reassuring, especially in times of transition or making a major decision. It adds to my confidence in making a life decision to have this ‘wise self’ and my rational brain ‘in sync’.
To Do: begin with what you have. Do you have a dream fragment, the recollection of a repetitive dream from your childhood or adolescence, or a dream you recorded this week? Make a start.
Have you ever played the game of throwing a flat pebble and watching it skip across the surface of a lake? I suppose we all have. A harmless activity but it is a metaphor for how we live much of our lives. Just skimming the surface of life. Of course, there will be life crises when we are plunged beneath the surface: a health crisis, losing employment, a separation or the death of a loved one. But we can choose to go deeper in the water. I see the spiritual life as an invitation to depth. Of course, this is helped by our common worship, the beauty of music and art, meaningful friendships and intimacy with family.
Attending to our dreams is another pathway to psychological and spiritual depth. Dreams remind us of another realm: mysterious, potentially deep in meaning, and at times insistent. A little like God.
Rev’d Dr Bruce Stevens is supply minister at GUC 2022-2023