This article was adapted with permission from "Soul Sisters: The Five Sacred Qualities of a Woman's Soul," published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a division of Penguin Putnam.

The idea that God speaks to us through our dreams is powerfully conveyed in the Old Testament story of Jacob and the ladder; in it, Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching up into heaven, with angels ascending and descending. It is a beautiful metaphor of the way dreams are a bridge between worlds. In their prayers, students of the Sufi Order invoke the "spirit of guidance," who embodies the wisdom of all the illuminated souls. Thus, like winged messengers, our dreams take flight at night to the universal source of divine knowledge, returning like angels with advice to help guide us through the labyrinthine confusions of everyday life.

This was a well-known secret to the shamans of Paleolithic cultures, who turned to their dreams to get guidance on the next day's hunt. Both the Greeks and Egyptians made pilgrimages to sacred dream sanctuaries, where they sought visitation from a god in a dream to cure their illnesses through the practice of "dream incubation." The ancient Egyptians, for instance, worshipped Serapis, the god of Dreams, and built temples devoted to his worship. In Greece, dream interpretation was considered one of the "important signs of civilization" and dream incubation became a highly developed art. People traveled from around the world to visit the famous shrines dedicated to the god of healing, Aesculapius, where they underwent elaborate purification ceremonies before sleeping in the god's temple.

These historical accounts show the great benefit that can come from attending to the voice of God through dreams. The technique of dream incubation - formulating a question to be answered in our dreams before falling asleep - tells us that within our psyches resides a wise oracle, a spirit of guidance, to whom we can turn for help. Though we may not have a temple to retreat to for dreamwork today, we can draw upon the wisdom of the past in crafting our own dream incubation ritual. By showing our unconscious the same respect we would give to a priest or a goddess, we create the conditions that allow our spirit guide to speak to us. Indeed, dreams are a kind of ongoing conversation with our own soul. For this reason, when we work with our dreams over time, a gradual evolution in consciousness occurs as we are allowing our soul to do its work within us. It's as if the wisdom of nature within each of us is cooperating through our dreams in order to help find the healing solution to our life dilemmas.

To consult the dream oracle within, begin your preparation a day or two in advance. According to dream expert Gayle Delaney in her book All About Dreams

, it is imperative to be free of drugs and alcohol so that the mind is alert. In addition, she recommends that you choose a night when you are not tired or overly anxious. Clear your evening, so that you have time to relax, meditate, listen to music, and spend time writing in your dream journal before bed. In your journal, describe the emotional tenor of your day, getting your thoughts and feelings on paper. Next, focus specifically on the issue for which you are seeking dream healing, what Delaney calls "incubation discussion." Ask yourself questions about various aspects of the situation you are in: What are its causes? How might it be resolved? How would life be different if it were resolved? What benefits might you be receiving from the situation as it is?

This is the raw material that will help you to shape what Delaney calls your "incubation phase," the question that you are addressing to your dream oracle. As the Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun said, "The dream words produce a preparedness in the soul for a dream vision." Simply finding the right way to frame a question is powerful magic: by asking the question that needs to be asked, we are at the same time calling upon the unseen spirit of guidance, evoking its presence, and summoning the answer forth from the cosmos. After finding the right phrase, I recommend writing it down on a piece of paper, folding it up, and putting it on your altar or some other centering spot in your home. You may even wish to leave it there for several more days, allowing the question to take root in your mind.

The evening you hope to direct your dreams, sit, question in hand, and spend some time in meditation

. Then, before falling asleep, place the piece of paper beneath your pillow. As you drift into sleep, keep coming back to your question as you would a mantra or a prayer.

Then, give yourself over entirely to the magic world of sleep and dreams. These are the hours when your dreammaker takes over, weaving new insights and perspectives to present to you. Enriched by the wisdom of the collective imagination, as well as by the storehouse of your accumulated life wisdom, your dreammaker is capable of poetic and ingenious insights.

The final step in the dream incubation process is to record the dreams of the previous night. It is best to do this first thing in the morning, when the details are still fresh in your mind. Indeed, when incubating a dream, plan to do it on a night when you know that you won't have to jump out of bed right away and can awaken slowly. As you emerge from sleep's depths, try to stay close to your dream, going over and over it again in your mind. Steep yourself in its atmosphere; memorize every detail, rehearsing it as you would a play or a favorite scene from a book. Then, write it down, making no judgments.

Often I notice that after I have requested a dream, I have an initial sense of disappointment as my critical mind takes over. "Oh," I might say to myself, "It's nothing but a dream about the grocery store," or "What meaning can it possibly have that I'm chewing a big wad of gum?" After writing down the dream and playing with its possible meanings, however, a light begins to dawn. Very often this is because our dreams respond in unexpected and surprising ways that can startle our conscious minds and upset our usual way of thinking.

If, after requesting a dream, you either don't receive one, or you have a dream that you don't understand, try not to become impatient and dismiss the process. Sometimes I have found that if I don't have a dream about a problem, it's because the issue simply isn't as important as I thought it was.

Or, if the dream remains indecipherable, I sit with it as I might with a Zen koan, savoring the mystery until it reveals itself slowly over time. Jung said that we should take our dreams from the night and turn them over and over, like a stone in our hands, during the day. If your dream seems to be pointing you in a certain direction, yet you still feel unsure about the dream's message, after some reflection go ahead and make your decision while at the same time affirming your intention to do the right thing. Dreamwork does not require the same aggressive and ambitious stance that we might bring to achieving our goals in the world. Rather, dream incubation is a gentle opening to the wise spirit of guidance within; like a rare and precious flower, our inner oracle reveals herself to us through our sensitive attendance to her well-being. She is a helpful soul sister who is on our side and who is the essence of our destiny.

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