Reprinted with permission from "Finding the Center Within" (October 2003, $14.95, paper) published by John Wiley & Sons.

When we set out to live spiritually, we can make a number of wrong turns. One of these is attempting to repress our nature rather than mindfully transforming it. We can avoid this by working with dreams.

By their nature, dreams remind us of those aspects of ourselves most in need of attention and mindfulness. If we repress our anger, for example, we may dream it nonetheless, witnessing horrible things happening to the people we are angry at in our dreams. If we are willing to listen to such dreams, we allow this anger to be more conscious. We can work with it mindfully instead of repressing it, so that the energy of that anger remains part of us and provides us with needed vitality and enthusiasm for life.

The true nature of the spiritual path is not avoidance or repression but transformation. Transformation requires contact with the raw material -- all of it. No evasion will do. This is why suffering lies at the heart of the Buddha's teaching. Suffering is a sure teacher, calling our attention to what needs healing. The world does not make us suffer, but our grasping and avoidance do. Whether we cling to impermanent things as though they were permanent, or try to avoid painful truths, we hurt ourselves. We suffer.

As we put these insights into practice, we develop a more refined notion of what is worth grasping at and what is worth turning away from. Before, we grasped at fleeting pleasures. Now, we grasp at enlightenment. Before, we sought immediate gratification; now, we try to hold onto a vision of ourselves as spiritual. This is almost as bad and nearly as pointless.

This problem has been called "spiritual bypassing." People try to avoid real-life issues on the emotional/psychological level by trying to be so spiritual that they transcend them. This does not work. It does not work because avoidance does not work. No matter how many hours a day you meditate, if you use meditation to avoid your life rather than to live it, you will continue to be plagued by the same issues.

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Look to Your Dreams

Using dreams as a tool to better understand our unconscious wishes and desires, our disappointments and yearnings, is a major contribution of Western psychology. This is an area where the West has excelled in helping people uncover and unravel those hidden signposts, life struggles, repeating patterns, and fears that often get in our way. Working with dreams can help you to get to your inner core, your life purpose; it can lead you to glimpse your true soul.

Many Buddhist traditions do not emphasize working with dreams. There seems to be a feeling that working with dreams is to involve oneself increasingly in maya -- in illusion. But there are exceptions. Some Tibetan traditions practice a form of dream yoga, with the rationale that if we can learn to see through the illusion of our dreams clearly and mindfully, then we will be able also to see through the illusion of the waking dream as well, and ultimately, be able to deal with the difficulties of the bardo realm -- the transition realm after death. But this is the exception among Buddhist traditions.

Many spiritual traditions value dreams. In the Bible, Joseph helps the pharaoh by interpreting his dream of fat and lean cattle to mean seven fat years followed by seven lean ones, and thereby prevents catastrophic starvation. Another Joseph, the father of Jesus, is warned of Herod's plot to murder Jewish children, and he saves the day by fleeing with mother and child to Egypt.

Whatever these spiritual traditions say, in modern culture, we are in great need of the counterbalancing dreams provide. We are disconnected from our deep, unconscious, and supraconscious selves. Our culture is desperately one-sided. We have become far too rationalistic, scientific, and technological. It is precisely in such a culture that dreams take on great importance. For while our rationalism is clearly valuable, it has come at a greater cost than we imagine. In his usual complex and discursive prose, Jung put it this way: "Modern man does not understand how much his 'rationalism' (which has destroyed his capacity to respond to numinous symbols and ideas) has put him at the mercy of the psychic 'underworld.' He has freed himself from 'superstition' (or so he believes), but in the process he has lost his spiritual values to a positively dangerous degree. His moral and spiritual tradition has disintegrated, and he is now paying the price for this break-up in worldwide disorientation and dissociation."

Working with dreams heals the split, returning us to our own soul and its wisdom. As the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson put it, "If we don't go to the spirit, the spirit comes to us as neurosis." In less fragmented cultures than ours, this may not be so necessary. In our world, it is vital.

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