Before the birth of Jesus, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:20)
There is nothing greater for Christians than the birth of the long-awaited messiah. And this was announced to Joseph in a dream. He was challenged to remain with Mary, to not shame her because of the pregnancy and to remain her husband (closer to our understanding of remaining engaged because he was not yet living with her. In the Bible dreams mark important events. So too in our lives, if we pay attention we can how important transitions are highlighted by significant dreams.
What I learned from the Dream Research Project
I did a self-analysis of 40 dreams I had recorded over the years. This was published in a peer reviewed journal: Bruce A Stevens, (2014). The self-analysis of dreams: Does it work? Psychotherapy in Australia, 20(2), 46-51.
It was a qualitative study with the goal of a ‘rich description’ of what is studied (Baker, Pistrang and Elliot, 2002). It encourages a process of discovery.
My creative interaction with dream material was patchy. Sometimes it seemed to flow, but equally progress could be arduous or not existent. It seemed valuable to be in an intuitive, almost ‘receptive’ mood, for dream interpretation. In order to enhance my understanding, I needed to enter into a like process to the creative process which created the dream. Maybe ‘like understands like’. The challenge seemed to be to find a similar mental state in waking life to approach the dream. In contrast, coming with a reductionist attitude seemed to miss what the dream had to say.
I wondered how to play with my dreams? (Ogden, 1990, 241) This was suggested by a Jungian analyst. Another parallel might be cognitive flexibility in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hayes, 2006).
I tried five different theoretical approaches and each had benefits. All generated a kind of check list. This countered some natural laziness and brought a more disciplined and comprehensive approach to understanding a dream. It was beneficial to incorporate other perspectives, “Oh, I will look at it from that angle too.”
At times insights were surprising. Something was seen that felt powerful and genuine. When an insight or relevant connection was made, what might it suggest about understanding a dream? It can feel like it comes from a transcendent source. Or even God.
Gradually the realization came to me that I experienced dream interpretation as a kind of self-therapy. Like keeping a journal, it takes my relationship to me seriously and strangely it had a similar feel to being in therapy. This seemed crucial. It was not just a matter of hearing a message from my unconscious.
The sense of doing ‘dream work’ was something I took from this study.
After working on the 40 dreams, I thought it might be valuable to apply what I had learnt on a more recent dream. When I began looking for a dream ‘to try out the method’ I had what I thought was a very significant 41st dream.
15 March 2011 The Ochre Man
I am driving around Canberra and I come to a quaint village, there are small but elaborate mud houses. Some have a number of stories with stairs up the side. The road becomes rougher so I avoid some streets and eventually find a place to park. There are some faded colours but mostly dusty brown. Then I meet Ken who is made of mud and says to me, “Hello Dr Bruce, thanks for sending people to me.” He offers to show me around. He is in charge of the place, “my shift” maybe for years. He said that the village has been there since Lazarus and I think of Biblical times. He wants to know my last name but I will not tell him because I fear that it may give him the power to keep me there. It turns to dusk and then night but with more colour in the street-scape. There is social life with people and dining places. I understand that if I stay, I will become part of the place, maybe for ever, so I intend to leave. I make the observation to Ken that he is trying to trick me and he laughingly agrees.
- Give the dream a name: “The Ochre Man.”
- Have an initial impression (about 5 minutes): I was puzzled by what this dream might mean but it felt very important. The title became the “Ochre Man” (after Ken). Maybe Ken was half alive but coming to life. The risk was to be imprisoned in the village. What did this mean? Should I join or must I escape?
- An extended reflection (about 30 minutes). I thought about the cost of belonging. Every community has a cost. The people were made of mud like in the Biblical account of Adam, the first human, created from the dust (Genesis 2:7). I was told that the village dated back to Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life. This seemed significant. What does it mean to be alive? Are the people inanimate or animate? Sterile? There was some ambiguity. Another puzzle was in relation to what Ken said to me, “Hello Dr Bruce, thanks for sending people to me.” How could I do this having only just discovered the place? A more alarming thought was that my work, as a psychologist, sends people to the mud village and somehow made them less alive – possibly trapped there forever? But this society became more alive and engaging at night. I was apprehensive that I could be captured by the place and unable to leave. There was a primitive fear in having my name known which evoked superstition with magical overtones. Did I have to leave before midnight when ‘I could become a pumpkin’? Ken reminded me of the male Barbie doll. Might this have been my destiny if I made the wrong choices, perhaps staying too long in the mud village? Was I already of becoming a resident of the mud village?
Dr Kate Stewart asked, after the Empathink conference (Canberra, 3 March 2012), “Funny that both you and Ken knew each other by first name only.” This final comment struck me and I wondered about the extent to which I tolerate trivial relationships?
It is curious that this dream has not readily yielded up its secrets. The 41st dream seemed the most important dream that I have ever had and yet it proved to be the hardest to understand. I struggled to find an organizing theme. The following were tried out: mortality, what of value is to be discovered among the familiar, life choices to be made, the denial of my creativity, the unknown consequences of my actions, my relationship to spiritual values, as a multi-faceted portrayal of my inner self and what blocks my growth. It was of course amusing that I should spend a year on a research project and then try to apply it but only to grind to a halt!
Comment 2023: It is now 11 years after I dreamt The Ochre Man. There been some huge changes in my life such as retiring from academia and counselling work, return to part-time Christian ministry, and facing the diagnosis of a chronic illness. I suspect that some dreams have an embryonic period and have to be birthed with later understanding. Sometimes you grow into an understanding. Sometimes there is a change in perspective, for example I recently stopped seeing people for counselling and I have expressed an intention to do more ministry work in the next couple of years. This opened the way for a different understanding.
It is 5 January 2021,I woke up this morning and had the thought that this dream was about the limits of my work as a clinical psychologist without a more spiritual or ministry perspective. This seems to click, to feel right. So it is a spiritual confirmation of my return to supply ministry – after an extended detour in academia.
Dreams are ephemeral things. We give them shape by recalling them, doing dream work and applying the insights in our daily lives. Dreams are spiritually significant. It is a realm in which angels inhabit. Messengers from God awakening us to depth and providing an opportunity to discover a new direction in life.
 Shakespeare noted “Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure”, Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1.
 This insight led me to understanding the self-analysis of dreams as serving a selfobject function.