The Practice of Dream-Tending

I have written here a few months ago of The Illumination of Dreams.  Dream-tending is one of my primary spiritual practices.  I deeply believe that our dreams are gifts from God originating in a wisdom that is far greater than our waking consciousness.

Our dreams are not bound by the cognitive restrictions of our waking life–they speak in a different language from our usual linear and rational thinking, in the language of poetry and image and symbol.  They let us know how we really feel and think, not the way we pretend to think and feel and so help us to live more deeply from our authentic selves.  They also reveal what our conscious mind doesn’t already know, moving us toward an awareness of deeper truths not always apparent in our conscious, waking state.  One of the most prominent dream workers, Jeremy Taylor, says that all dreams come in the service of health and wholeness and that “bad dreams” are usually those that are really trying to grab our attention.  (Click on his name for his website, and go to “dream work” for several helpful articles).

Dreams are always inviting me to a bigger reality than the one I live in.  They are a deep source of wisdom for our spiritual lives.  I love that when we go to sleep and are in a state of deep surrender, we can’t help but be creative, creating stories and images that invite us to live a bigger life.

We don’t live in a culture that honors dream wisdom.  With our societal emphasis on productivity and speed, taking time to listen to dreams and allow them to unfold can seem like a waste of time.  Yet, there are many cultures, especially indigenous ones, that revere dreams and what they have to offer.  Honoring dreams and the unconscious takes deliberate nurture and attention. I find that awareness of dreams is usually in response to our attitudes toward them.  The more we honor them and make space for them, the more likely we are to remember them consistently.

Dreams usually have multiple meanings and layers of significance.  The different dream symbols usually represent different elements of yourself, so a dream about your friend or spouse may not be about them, so much as what their qualities represent in your own self.  It is wise to approach dreams with humility and unknowing and not co-opt the dream messages for our own agendas.  Only the dreamer can say with any certainty what meanings his or her dream may have.  It usually comes in the form of a wordless “aha!” moment of recognition.

Suggestions for Recording Dreams
Keep a notebook and pen by your bed, so that you can signal to your unconscious the importance of dreams for you and then write your dream down upon waking. The farther you move into waking consciousness, the further the dream will slip away.

When you wake from a dream try to stay still for a few moments and re-inhabit the dream space, noticing how you are feeling, what is happening, who is there.  I often wake from a dream and take a few minutes to close my eyes and walk around the dream landscape, seeing what I can hold onto to carry into waking.

Write the date and a description of the dream written in present tense.  Writing in past tense has the effect of putting distance between you and the dream.   Give a title to your dream, something to help you remember it when you flip through your dream journal.  In the description include the setting, people, animals, objects, actions/plot, and feelings.

Working with the Dream

What are the feelings you are most aware of in the dream? Have you felt this way in your past or current waking like?

Describe the setting of the dream. Does it remind you of any place in waking life? What are your associations with this setting or place? For instance, if there was a house in the dream, how would you define a house to someone who didn’t know what that was. Notice the language used in these explanations. How does it feel to be in this setting?

What are the other dream symbols such as persons, animals, or objects?  What are your associations with this person, animal, or object? For instance, if someone you know appears in the dream, describe your relationship to this person and how you would express who they are. Again, notice the language used in these explanations. Do they remind you of any part of yourself? Is there a time in your life when you embody these qualities?

Describe the major action in this dream. Does it remind you of any situation in your waking life?

Retell the dream by including the bridges that you made and notice if there is any place of resonance or insight.

Consider why did this particular dream come to you at this particular time?  What is happening in the context of your life that may add insight into the dream’s meaning?

The arts can be especially helpful in working with a dream, as they use the same language for expression.  Draw or color your dream, move your dream, embody a dream character and notice what it feels like, create a collage with images from your dream.  Any of these things help to give honor to the dream wisdom and slowly crack open what meanings are waiting for you there.  One of my favorite books for using the arts with dream work is The Art of Dreaming by Jill Mellick.

Dreams can be especially helpful to pay attention to during times of discernment and transition.  Carl Jung said that our primary language is image, and so the newness that is being born in us is first articulated in symbol and image and only later do we bring language to expresss it.

I also find being part of a dream group to be enormously helpful in the ongoing work of dream-tending.  Dreams often reveal our blind spots, so other people can notice things we don’t.  This fall I took two months off from participating in my dream group because of finishing this book I am working on and I have dearly missed it.  We meet monthly and use a contemplative process to re-enter the dream and then share with each other what we noticed about our own dreams and the dreams of others.

What have you been dreaming about lately?

-Christine Valters Paintner

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