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Dreamwork As Part Of Our Spiritual Heritage

We live in a culture that so easily distracts us, entraps us in unnecessary anxieties, draws us into addictions. Where are the signposts that can guide us on our real journey as human beings?
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The dream is a little hidden door
in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul....

-- C. G. Jung

We live in a world in which we are saturated by so much information, but how much of this information nourishes our soul or reveals the real meaning of our life? In a world of so many choices how can we know what is right for our true self? When we are asleep and are no longer caught in the chatter of the mind, dreams can speak to us about the mystery of our soul and its journey in life. They can guide through life's maze and reconnect us with our divine purpose. And yet in order to understand the meaning of their messages, we have to reclaim this ancient language of images and symbols.

Spiritual traditions have always stressed the importance of dreams and their interpretation. Sometimes they speak about our inner connection with God, as in Jacob's dream -- in the Book of Genesis -- of the ladder with angels ascending and descending, or they may speak symbolically about happenings in the outer world, as in the Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dream of the seven prosperous years and seven lean years. Sadly our Western rational culture long ago banished the wisdom of dreams, disconnecting us from this deeper knowing. But in the last century psychology has once again given us access to our dreams, and in particular through the work of Carl Jung, we can relearn this language of our symbolic and spiritual self.

Carl Jung rediscovered the language of symbols in the Western tradition of alchemy, which he understood as a process of inner transformation, turning the lead of our darkness into the gold of our true self. Dreams can guide us on this inner journey, and anyone who has ventured into this interior world knows the value of their symbolic meaning. Our soul belongs to a world of images and symbols, and this is the language it uses to speak to us. Jung rediscovered the meaning its archetypal images, for example royalty, a king or queen, as a symbol of the nobility of our real self, while a mandala images our inner wholeness. Or we may find dark, threatening figures chasing us down nighttime streets, monsters hiding in our basement, bringing into consciousness our rejected, "shadow" self.

But dreamwork is not about a right or wrong interpretation, but a process through which we work with the images of the psyche. Through dreamwork the energy and meaning of the inner world is made accessible to us, through its symbols our outer life is made sacred. It enables us to have access to the inner figures of wisdom and power, the wise old man or woman, the child with stars in her eyes, who inhabit our dreams and from whom we can learn the wisdom of our soul.

When we work with dreams it is important to know "from where the dream comes." Some are just mind dreams which only repeat the happenings and impressions of the day, while other dreams come directly from our soul. Dreamwork is a part of our spiritual heritage, and if we are prepared to listen and be receptive, our dreams are here to guide us. In our masculine culture the feminine wisdom of inner listening is easily overlooked, as is the practice of being inwardly silent and attentive. But these qualities are needed if we are to access the inner symbolic world that gives sacred meaning and purpose to our daily life. How many dreams are lost between the bedroom and the bathroom? Do we have time to be present with our dreaming self, and learn its language?

What we rarely understand is that our spiritual self is waiting to communicate with us, to invite us to share in the wonder that is our deeper being, to give us its knowledge and understanding. Sometimes our dreams may give us direct guidance, as when a dreamer was wondering about a possible business relationship and he dreamt he was at the cleaners. He quickly realized that this relationship did not have good prospects! Or a dream may speak about the inner journey, as when a dreamer, being kissed by her lover, opens her eyes to discover that she was embracing a snake, and it was the snake's tongue in her mouth. Rather than being an horrific nightmare, this image of embracing a snake describes the descent into the unconscious, whose primal energy and power would transform her.

We live in a culture that so easily distracts us, entraps us in unnecessary anxieties, draws us into addictions. Where are the signposts that can guide us on our real journey as human beings? They are within us, waiting to be read. But it is not always easy to understand this fluid world in which images change and evolve, whose symbolic language speaks in such a different way to words. We have also lost many of the wise women and shamans who traditionally interpreted the language of dreams. But there is a way to work with dreams, and the recent interest in Jung's Red Book, in which he records in words and images his own encounter with the inner world, reflects a real hunger for a symbolic life. We need to reclaim the mysterious and magical depths within us and dreams are always a doorway to this world. When we feel we can no longer trust the outer world, no longer believe in its promises of material fulfillment, we can be nourished from within, from the numinous images of our own soul.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D.,
For a longer article on spiritual dreamwork, see "Sufi Dreamwork.
Or listen to ""Why Dream Work?."