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.
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.
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.
Dreams and Mindfulness
Working with dreams is a powerful way of bringing mindfulness to aspects of ourselves and our lives that we may not otherwise acknowledge, bringing new vitality and wholeness. We suggest approaching dreams as a mindfulness practice rather than as an intellectual puzzle. While the meaning of some dreams will become clear, some will remain mysterious. Whether dreams are understood or not, it is helpful to work with them, to hold them in mindful, meditative awareness as you would other important parts of your life and experience. If you try too hard to figure dreams out and press that knowledge into the service of your conscious self, the unconscious may retreat before the violent grasping attitude of such an approach. But if you approach dreams with gentleness, patience, persistence, and respect, they will bless you.
How to Work With Dreams
Here are 12 ways in which to work with dreams to understand and integrate their message. When you work with a dream, you might like to review this list and try a few of these approaches. You will probably never want to do all of them with one dream.
1. Maintain a receptive attitude: Respect, don't dissect. This is essential. Take a meditative attitude. Do not try to force meaning to emerge. Do not try to decode anything. Just hold the dream in awareness and see what comes. If you try to force an interpretation, your effort will be frustrating and, most likely, incorrect.
2. In working with your own dream or another's, first say, "This is a wonderful dream." This is not an empty ritual, but a way of cultivating the proper attitude. To contact dreams is to contact the deep wisdom in us. Jung said: "Together the patient and I address ourselves to the 2-million-year-old man that is in all of us. In the last analysis, most of our difficulties come from losing contact with our instincts, with the age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us. And where do w contact with this old man in us? In our dreams."
4. Meditate on the dream. Hold the dream as a whole, or some aspect of the dream that feels important, in your awareness. Breathe in and out, just being present to this, exploring what it feels like, not trying to figure anything out. Welcome whatever comes. If nothing comes, welcome that.
5. Retell the story in general terms. For example, if you have a dream about having dinner with Ted Kennedy, this becomes, "I'm sitting down to eat with a powerful person." If you dream that you leave your purse somewhere, and you associate "purse" with personal identity, since it contains your wallet and identification, you can retell the story as, "It's as if I left my identity behind somewhere." In what way might your life be like that?
6. Give the dream a title. Doing this after you have written the dream out in full can help focus you on what stands out most about the dream. It also provides a convenient handle for the dream when you look back through your dream journal, without having to read the whole dream again every time.
7. Beware interpretations you already know. Remember, a dream should challenge you in some way. Why would the unconscious send a message about what you already know?
8. Pay attention to the body as you work with your dreams. You may be able to feel in your body what the dream is about long before you have an intellectual, verbal understanding of the dream. When your ideas about the dream are at least partly right, the body sense of the dream will ease and loosen, letting you know you are on target. Sometimes you will sigh a little and feel a slight release of tension when you touch on something important and have had a shift in your insight.
9. Tell someone your dream. Writing down a dream is powerful, but telling someone else can be even more so. Sometimes you don't understand a dream at all, but as you begin to tell it, you have an "Aha!"
10. Work actively with the dream. Sit with paper and pen and re-enter the dream atmosphere. Feel the story. See if the dream seems to want to continue in some way. If it does, let it. Record what happens. Try to let the dream unfold without making it go a certain way.
Or focus on an important character in the dream. Just be with her, breathing in and out, feeling her presence. Let her speak and write down what she says. Ask questions and record the answers. Interact with her in full accord with your normal, waking attitudes and perspectives.
You might draw the dream. Paint a significant object or person or scene. It does not matter if you have no artistic talent. In fact in some ways, if you don't, all the better. For then you may have more of those fortunate accidents that reveal more than you initially are aware of. Some say that if a dreamer starts moving his hands while describing a dream, this means that the dream wants to be drawn.
Sometimes when you are stumped in working with a dream, the minute you start to work actively with it, you get a feeling of understanding. Working actively is one of the most important things to do with a dream, and will often be more helpful than trying to figure a dream out intellectually.
11. Change your body position. Doing so helps us change our mental perspective. If you feel stuck, move to another chair. Or lie on the floor. Or think about the dream as you go for a walk. If you have a dialogue with a dream character, sit in one chair when you are speaking, and sit in another when the character speaks.
12. Ask yourself what your dream may be about. Could it be about:
something that happened yesterday?
the place the dream occurs in? the story? the characters?
some aspect of me? which?
my body or my health?
personal growth? spirituality? issues of meaning or faith?
an unacceptable wish of some sort?
work or career?
While the dream world operates under very different principles than our waking life, and while it can be a strange, confusing, and even at times terrifying realm, it can also bless and guide you greatly. If you do not know your dreams, you do not know yourself.