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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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9 Responses

  1. Bette, I adore Mary Oliver and have taken to calling her St. Mary lately, a true nature mystic. It is a great book of poems, but despite the title it is not all about dream work explicitly.

    Wow Me, some great insights unfolding, I am delighted to hear that. I would encourage you to express some of that anger to God in prayer (some of the psalms of lament provide great examples) and also to both think and just be with the images, let them work their way into your body and notice how they feel and what they look like for you.

    Blessings, Christine

  2. I think I aha’d today. One point of the dream – was the dragon – and I am working my daughter’s dream into my thinking. The dragon it isn’t what I thought it would be.

    My daughter – I don’t know – she is aggressive and difficult and explosive. Brilliant but so hard to like and only five. We’ve struggled and struggled and struggled with trying different things to help her and so far nothing seems to make a lasting difference or impact…

    I thought the dragon applied to other older issues in my life…I think I know now the dragon is the anger that I grew up with (unexpressed and truly unexplained – it was never rational and never had a source but after I went on Zoloft the anger disappeared – my mother and I have discussed it and she thinks her father had that sort of unresolved anger that was complicated by the events in his life – so we think it is something hereditary) and that my daughter now deals with.

    Woa! As I write more clarity and more clarity comes to the issues of the anger and for her the dragon took her little sister away and I can see how that would be if it were me. And in my dream it started out as something beautiful a heron in flight and then turned into the dragon. Today when I was talking to my Mom about my daughter’s most recent outburst I told her about angry I was at my daughter even though I know it isn’t her fault she is this way and how angry I am at God for letting her go through this. It is one thing for me to go through trials and difficulties but I don’t want Him to let her have them. She was the most beautiful baby with huge clear soulful eyes and a gorgeous complexion and her fingers were always long and narrow and how could one have known so much anger lay beneath the surface.

    This thing keeps unraveling…the more I think.

  3. Thank you for the dream-tending suggestions. I will try them.

    I LOVE this poem. Its so beautiful. “Deep in the tree” “and fires surge through the wood”. Oh wow. I definitely want to get this book Dream Work by Mary Oliver.


  4. Thank you Christine for these helpful thoughts on dreams, on remembering dreams, on listening to our dreams. In this new season of my life, I’m looking forward to all my dreams may teach me and how they may lead me. Shalom,

  5. Oh wow is that a thought! Bush does work with his some (not sure how much though) and not sure about any other leaders. But wow what a difference that could make!

  6. I like the image of failed dreams, Zorra. I usually think when I get to scary dreams it means I haven’t been paying attention well. I just recently read Boundaries of the Soul for a dream program I am going to start in March and loved it! Thanks for mentioning that one.

    Thanks Wendy, glad you liked it! I love the image of the quiet revolution of dream-tending. What kind of healing could happen if our world leaders actively worked with their dreams?

  7. This was wonderful Christine! Today, taking the time and care to be “unproductive” enough to truly follow ones’ dreamlife is in essence a quiet revolution–and probably the revolution we need most deeply!

  8. I agree that we usually need to pay the most attention to the dreams that frighten us the most, even though it’s so difficult. Irvin Yalom calls nightmares “failed” dreams, in the sense that dreams serve the purpose of helping us either work through, or bind, our anxieties.
    Your suggestions for working with dreams are so useful, very similar to approaches I’ve found helpful. I bet you have already read June Singer’s classic
    Boundaries of the Soul, but if not, I highly recommend it.