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The Illumination of Dreams

I am driving around Vienna looking for the home of an old friend. I keep stopping the car to look at the map closely and find my way and then search again. At one of the stops two koala bears jump through my open window into the car and begin playing. They try to get my attention away from the map I am holding so I can give them some attention.

I had this dream last fall while in the midst of some serious discernment. The last couple of years have been a time of deep listening for me as I discern where best to devote my time and energy and what brings me greatest joy. In the beginning of December we had one of our Awakening the Creative Spirit session on working with dreams using the arts. I had led most of the day, suggesting ways of using image and poetry to allow the dream to unfold. Then, my wonderful colleague Betsey Beckman led us in a movement exercise. We were to take time to embody the different dream figures for ourselves and really enter into the experience of being the different elements of the dream. I began with myself driving the car, looking at the map. I felt very determined and serious, set on my goal of finding my friend’s home and not being comfortable with feeling lost. Then I moved into experiencing the koala bears of my dream, leaping joyfully, playing, eager to get some attention. The next step was to partner with someone and teach them to embody one of the dream roles from our own dream so that we could interact with them. I showed my partner how I was driving the car, stopping and looking at the map, very focused and let her take that role. Then I became the koala bear, following her around the room, being playfully annoying, trying to grab the map out of her hands, wanting her attention.

This is where I had my “aha” moment, that moment in dream work where something shifts and a part of the meaning of the dream is unlocked. For me, it literally feels like a key clicking in the lock of the door and the door opening onto something new. My discernment process was much like my driving the car and trying to follow the map, trying to get to my destination. God was the koala bears, inviting me into more playfulness, to give up my maps for a while, and not take my discernment process so seriously. This insight had a big impact on how I continued to move through discernment, realizing how much God’s desires are to be found in playfulness as in our careful mapping.

I offer this experience as an insight into the power dreams can have for our spiritual lives and for how we listen for new images of God and new invitations. Dreams emerge from the same unconscious place that images in art-making do. Because dreams often point to hidden insights, it can be very helpful to work with dreams in a group, as others often have insights into our dreams that we have been resisting or are in our blindspot.

When I was doing my doctoral studies at the Graduate Theological Union I took Jeremy Taylor’s popular class on group dreamwork. His method is what he calls “Projective Dream Work” and it rests on the assumption that when we work with our dreams in a group, any insights we have into the dream of another person is part of our own projection of meaning onto that dream. This means that when we offer feedback, we phrase it as “If it were my dream. . .” owning the projections and leaving the dreamer to be free to accept the insight or not, depending on their own “aha” experience.

After my mother died in 2003, I began having many dreams about her. It prompted me to be intentional again about paying attention to my dreams and working with them actively. I found a Jungian therapist who was offering a dream group which I participated in for several weeks, then for a time I gathered a few friends together to do dream work together, then finally I began to attend Penny Matthews’ dream group and have been working there with my dreams for over a year.

As my insights that came out of the movement exercise can indicate, art can be an especially powerful way of opening up the meaning of dreams. Dreams resist our rational, linear thinking in waking life and dream language does not translate easily into our waking consciousness. Often by engaging in the left-brain language of the dream itself, more doors open onto the meaning of the dream.

Recently I had another powerful dream:
I am at a party and a woman walks in, she is older and African-American. She sees me and her face lights up and she approaches. “Do you know who I am?” she asks me enthusiastically. “No” I reply. She says: “I am your birth mother, your parents adopted you from me when you were born. Didn’t they ever tell you that?” “No” I reply again a bit stunned this time. She replies: “Well I thought it was about time that you knew” and she wraps her arms around me. My overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude for having a mother again.

In my prayer that morning I knew that this was a dream about God. I am very comfortable with mother imagery for God, but this dream brought the image to a deeper level for me, one that was much more intimate and made me realize how in the absence of my own mother I am mothered by God.

I brought this dream to my dream group a couple of weeks ago and in our prayer time I felt connection between this dream and two others I have had over recent months but couldn’t articulate the connections clearly. As we shared our insights with each other, Jennifer suggested that maybe the other two dreams were images of God as well: God as child and God as lover. Again I had that “aha” moment that confirmed that there was some deep truth for me in this. The timing was blessed too as I was leaving for a week’s retreat the next day. I spent the first three days of my retreat creating a collage triptych, three icons of these new images of God presented to me in my dreams. I know these images will continue to illuminate the meaning of these dreams for my spirituality for a long time to come. In fact, they are being hung in my prayer corner.

I share some of these dreams, because I believe wholeheartedly that dreams are not for ourselves alone. I have had many experiences of listening to the dreams of others and feeling a deep resonance with the images and coming to my own epiphanies.

What if we lived dream-centered lives and when we woke up in the morning we could sit down to a leisurely breakfast with our loved ones and share our dreams from the previous night? What if our churches became places of really honoring dreams, dream-centered communities? What might be waiting to break through by the simple act of giving your dreams a privileged place in your waking consciousness? How might dreams illuminate your path?

I will post some recommended books on dream work later as well!
~Christine Valters Paintner

God as Child

God as Mother

God as Lover

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4 Responses

  1. I am realizing as I read your response that I need to put a koala somewhere on my God as Child icon, because both dreams were about the God who delights and plays. In the Hindu tradition, I have heard, that they even have a word for the playfulness of God — "Neela" I believe.

    I bet if anyone can find some playful moments at a Synod assembly it will be you. :-) Blessings on your way.

  2. Christine,

    My reading of your posting could not have been more timely. Tomorrow I head off to the NW ELCA Synod Assembly, and I spent the day downloading all of the resolutions that will be discussed. I found myself completely disheartened by what I read. So many feel utterly uncreative; so many seek to strain gnats, while swallowing camels. Seven of the sixteen resolutions to be considered have been put forth by competing factions in the gay and lesbian debate. Some insist that only hetersexuality is godly, while other insist that God is much more expansive in love, embracing all sexual orientations, and therefore, so should we.

    I can’t help but feel that we have lost touch with the God who creates and delights and offers fantastical solutions to heals our woes. When we box God in with our judgments of one another, we lose the “Koala God” who desires to “play” us into new life. Over the next two days, it’s the “Koala God” that I will seek in the mayhem of what is becoming the church, and who knows, maybe this Synod Assembly will turn out to be a bit more playful than I anticipate. Thanks for the image! It’s a gift!