Our dreams tell us what is going on inside our bodies. This can help us avoid medical problems. When we do have a problem, our dreams can be a reliable source of diagnosis. Here is Janice’s story of a dream that helped to alert her and her doctor to a problem he had missed:
When I was in my late twenties. I went to the doctor for my annual check up. My doctor gave me a clean bill of health. The night after my visit to his office, I had the following dream:
I am screaming at the doctor, “I told you to check my arm. Now, look! You had to cut it off.” As I’m screaming at the doctor, I am looking at my right arm which has been cut off above the elbow. My arm is wrapped in gauze.
Upon waking from my dream, I had a very troubling, heavy feeling that I could not shake off. I immediately called my doctor and told him – not a request – that I would be coming in that very day to have him check my right arm. He insisted that I was fine. I told him about my dream, and insisted that no matter what I was coming in to see him.
When I got to the office my doctor checked my arm. After examining my arm the doctor said, “You know, your arm doesn’t look right.” There was a slight purplish hue to a part of my skin, the size of mosquito bite. The doctor suggested that I see a surgeon. I went to the surgeon who decided to remove the little bump. The little bump however, turned out to be a tumor the size of a very large green grape that was hidden deep under my skin. The tumor had begun to change and, fortunately, it was fully encapsulated when removed.
I have a scar on my right arm an inch above the elbow, at exactly the place where my arm had been cut off in my dream. I’m grateful for that scar, because it is a daily reminder of the importance of paying attention to dreams.
I look forward to the day when our doctors are schooled to look to dreams, along with other resources, for diagnosis of complaints, as they were in the ancient world.
Aristotle noted that the most successful physicians paid close attention to their patients’ dreams. Throughout the Hippocratic corpus – the large body of ancient medical texts attributed to Hippocrates, the great early physician from whom the oath of our medical profession is derived – the diagnostic value of dreams is recognized again and again. The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Regimen [fourth century BCE] tracks dreams that foreshadow physical symptoms and reveal their progress. He maintains that in sleep “the soul becomes its own mistress” and is able to tour its bodily residence without distractions. In the morning, it leaves the dreamer some pictures from its nightly tours. To read the diagnostic meaning of these souvenirs, we need to recognize that inside the body is a whole world. Thus earth, in a dream, may represent the body as a whole. A river may be the blood, a tree (for a man) or a spring (for a woman) the reproductive system.
Second only to Hippocrates, Galen (128-210) was the most important person in the rise of Western medicine. As he recorded medical case histories, Galen paid close attention to the appearances of the god Asklepios in diagnosing and prescribing for different ailments, and in facilitating direct healing. He was in no way superstitious. It would have been irrational, from his perspective, not to work with a friendly god who could fix the parts other medicine could not reach – and demonstrated this again and again. The surviving text of Galen’s essay On Diagnosis from Dreams shows his no-nonsense approach. He explains that dreams can provide accurate diagnosis because during sleep the soul travels inside the body and checks out what is going on.
Notes on dream diagnosis in ancient Greek medicine are adapted from my Secret History of Dreaming (New World Library, 2009).
Joshua, 11 years old, lives in California and loves baseball. He is
quite good but had never hit a home run until this weekend. Joshua
participated in the play-offs for championship title for his team as
the all-stars for his age group in Northern California. It was really a
big deal. Saturday was the big day and the last game.
Saturday morning, Joshua told his mom that he dreamed he had hit a home
run. He was really pleased because the dream was so real that he now knew what it felt
like to hit a home run. He seemed satisfied that the dream had given
him this fabulous experience. They didn’t talk about the possibility
that he could actually hit a home run on the baseball field.
in the big game later on Saturday, Joshua’s team is behind. Joshua, not
being a star hitter, had been kept back. All the bases are loaded, and
Joshua’s team is running out of good hitters. Finally they are left
with Joshua and think they have lost.
“Joshua gets up and smashes
a ball harder and farther than he’s ever done. He’s hit a home run and
he’s given his team the championship. The team goes wild, screaming
and yelling as they carry Joshua around on their shoulders. Joshua calls
me full of excitement. He’s so happy that reality can measure up to the
Bravo for Joshua, who is clearly an all-star of
Little League and of dreaming! This a terrific story to share with
sports-minded parents who may not have woken up to how dreaming can
help us to hit home runs (in many senses) and produce winning teams. Compare this report with Wanda’s previous account of a psychic dream of her son Evan – Joshua’s father – when he was very young, and you’ll see how the practice of dreaming can be nurtured and grown in a family from generation to generation.
Children don’t have to be told that we are all psychics in our dreams. They know this, because they have psychic experiences in their dreams all the time. They see into the future, they encounter the departed, they see things happening at a distance and behind doors that are supposedly locked to them. The problem is that very often the adults around them won’t listen, sometimes because they are afraid of what the child may be seeing.
Let’s talk here about how kids see into the future in dreams. Years ago, I led a series of dream classes for sixth-grade school children as part of a “talented and gifted” program in a school district in upstate New York. At the start of each class, one of the questions I put to the kids was, “Has anyone dreamed something that later happened?” On average, nine out of ten kids said they had had this experience. A tough young boy who looked like Rambo in the making shot up his arm, eager to tell his story. “We went on family vacation in Myrtle Beach. I dreamed the whole ride from the airport, turn by turn. I kept trying to tell Dad which way to go but he wouldn’t listen to me. So we spent an hour getting lost and doubling back, because Dad doesn’t believe in dreams.”
My friend Wanda Burch, the author of She Who Dreams, remembers what her son Evan saw in a dream when he was just three years old. Although this is a family of dreamers, the parents did not understand the dream until it began to play out in waking life – at which point the dream prompted the quick action that may have saved mother and child from serious injury. Here’s how Wanda tells the story:
“My son was just a bit over three years old and already sharing great
dreams. He told me he had dreamed about “the dogs,” was terribly
frightened of the dream but seemed unable to express why they terrified
him so much. My husband was working very hard and was really exhausted on the evening of one
of a board meeting, so I offered to drive him the fifteen miles from our home in the Mohawk Valley.
“Just as we closed the
door of the house, Evan began screaming “THE DOGS, THE DOGS!!!”, pulling on my hands. I had to pick him up to get him in
the car and told him over and over again there were no dogs. He calmed
down. When we dropped off my husband and prepared to drive home, Evan was got agitated again, looking out the back
window and telling me there were growling dogs. We spent a few minutes
discussing nightmares and things he could do with the dream in order to
work with it. I don’t recall what I told him at that time, but he was
usually quite capable of dreaming his own solutions to his nightmares so
I was surprised this one was scaring him so much.
“We drove back home. The same scenario began again. I had to carry
Evan into the house. This time he was screaming so hysterically I could
barely pick him up. He calmed down again in the house. Time to pick up my husband. This time, Evan was hysterical, thrashing around in a desperate attempt to avoid getting in the car.
“When we returned to our home with my husband, Evan started screaming.I was struggling to get him from the car to the house. When we were just feet away from the glassed enclosed porch I
heard the most terrifying barking and growling. I turned in that
instant to see a pack of wild dogs coming over a slight rise just yards
away from the cottage. I literally threw Evan into the porch, screaming
at my husband to close the door and stay in the car. I barely made it through
the door to slam it against several of the dogs as their bodies lunged
against the porch. Several crashed against the door and walls of the
enclosed porch before they whirled around and ran off with the pack.
“If I had not been able to throw Evan into the porch and myself after
him, we would have been in serious trouble. At this point, my son was
completely calm, staring out the window at the dogs as they vanished
into the creek bed. He looked at me and said, “The Dogs!” I said to him,
“yes, I got it”
My son has shared his dreams, big and small, with me all his life – and still
does, now he is in his late thirties. I turned
to him in my darkest moments when I was experiencing doubts about my
ability to heal from a life-threatening illness. I asked him, ‘Am I okay? What are you dreaming?” I’ll never forget his response: ‘You are fine. I am dreaming you into the future.'”
If you have any doubts about our ability to dream the future – and to use our night previews of possible future events to make better choices and change things for the better – listen to a young child telling his or her dreams.
For more information about Wanda Burch and her book She Who Dreams, please visit her website.
Welcome to a path of limitless adventure, healing and possibility. The Aborigines of my native Australia believe that our personal dreams may open doorways into the Dreamtime, the deeper reality from which the events and circumstances of our lives are emanated, and the place of encounter with ancestors and spiritual powers. In my experience, this is simple and practical truth.Nietzsche wrote that “in our sleep and in our dreams we pass through the whole thought of earlier humanity”.
That is part of the story, but the story is even greater than this.
Dreaming is traveling. In dreams, we slip free from the normal constraints of space and time and from our everyday consensual hallucinations; we get out there. We travel to places where our departed are at home, and to cities and schools and pleasure palaces on various levels of the Imaginal Realm, the realm of true imagination. Shamans and mystics have long practiced the art of journeying consciously into this world-behind-the-world, and we can learn similar practices through the techniques of shamanic lucid dreaming that I have termed Active Dreaming.
I n dreams, we go beyond the curtain walls of everyday consciousness. Through the play of coincidence, the powers of the deeper world come through those curtains to prod or tickle or goad us awake. Real dreamers work with the signs and symbols and synchronicities of everyday life as well as with night dreams, conscious visions, and liminal states of consciousness. In this blog, I’ll offer techniques to help you become a dreamer 24/7, by playing with all these states of mind. I’ll share stories from dreamers today and in history to encourage and incite you to make more room in your life for the gifts of dreaming.
What’s that? You’re going through a dream drought? And you don’t notice much magic in the round of your days? Don’t worry: you have a world-class dreamer inside you who is ready to help you reopen your dream gates. This is the child in you who is the beautiful dreamer and knows the magic of making things up. In my next post, we’ll learn how by listening to the dreams of young children, we can not only support them, but reawaken the dreamer inside our supposedly grown-up selves.
We’ll discover, when we do this, that dreaming is not fundamentally about what happens during sleep (though there are great gifts in spontaneous sleep dreams that show us aspects of ourselves and our worlds that the waking mind doesn’t see). Dreaming is essentially about waking up to the bigger story and the deeper logic of our lives.
NEXT: Listening to children’s dreams.
Graphic: The torchlit path to the big yurt at Mosswood Hollow, a magical private retreat center (think Wind in the Willows transplanted to the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest) where I lead many playshops and trainings in Active Dreaming.