It was winter 1979 in Edinburgh, and as usual the wind off the North Sea cut to the bone. A group of eight of us huddled in a circle around an electric bar heater in Winifred’s front room. Although we met weekly, we knew little of each other’s outer lives. Our only task was to explore the workings of our inner worlds through sharing dreams.
Dr. Winfred Rushforth sat in an overstuffed armchair, a gently commanding presence, her snowy hair forming a halo around a strong square wrinkled face framed by oversize glasses. At 96 she had been practicing as a psychoanalyst for over 50 years and her owl-like gaze could penetrate any dream to its most obscure depths.
Winifred was not simply a therapist; she was a spiritual force. Every night at 3.00am she practiced her own form of meditation dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The dream group I attended with Orianne, my future wife, left an indelible imprint, an enduring fascination for those nightly outpourings of our hidden psyches. Now, after all these years, I feel her presence whenever I approach a dream.
So what are dreams? They are not puzzles, not products of indigestion or an overactive brain; they are natural upswellings of our deeper selves, arising from a more ancient intelligence. In essence, a dream is an experience and like all experiences, it is simply doing what it is meant to do: enrich our being. Imagine them as stories from a distant country told in a language we almost recognize but do not understand. It is as if an Englishman listens to a story told in Dutch; it sounds familiar but he can’t quite make it out.
Confronted by a dream, our automatic reaction is puzzled dismissal. The dream has a cloak of obscurity; our consciousness pushes it away, finding it too slippery to hold. Easily forgotten, any dream we recall is a gift from our unconscious. Our deeper self works hard to create a set of mental images, a startling story or a riddle that is vivid enough to bypass our mental filters. Sometimes it delves deep to offer mythological and spiritual insights from the collective experience of humanity.
Dreams are messages, signals and signs telling us some aspect of our being has been overlooked or neglected. The unconscious is tapping us on the shoulder, asking us to listen—and we need to pay attention.
As a therapist, in an ordinary week I hear about 10 dreams—something like 20,000 over my career—yet I have never been bored. Each dream is a mystery, unique and as precious as a pearl embedded within an oyster shell. Before we can open the shell to reveal its wisdom, the dream demands we handle it with gentle curiosity, turning it over and over in our mind. Once we fully appreciate a dream—its elegance, strangeness and complexity—it might allow us to find the hinge that unlocks its meaning.
Dreamwork begins with respect and appreciation. Hanging out with the dream, it resonates in our imagination. A certain felt-sense or intuition pulls us toward particular aspects: a vivid color, a bizarre image, scary action, a mythological reference, a dark stranger or a juxtaposition of forgotten memories. These are the keys that invite us to explore, inquire, make associative leaps and even re-dream the dream.
Recognizing the intent of some else’s dream is not so hard. Understanding our own is always difficult—so it helps to have a few simple pointers. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help your dreams unfold:
- What main aspect of the dream attracts my attention? What does it remind me of?
- How active and engaged am I in the dream? How is that similar or different from how I am in my life?
- What is the main feeling of the dream? How is that related to my moods or emotion in my waking life?
- How does the dream end and what does it leave me with? Does it pose a question I need to answer?
- What is the quality of the relationship between aspects of the dream: people, images, animals and objects? If those are all part of me, what is it saying?
- Are there powerful numinous images that capture my imagination? How do these connect to the common experience of humanity?
As insights pop into our minds, we begin to get a sense of what the dream is pointing towards, though we seldom exhaust its full meaning. Our final task is to take the dream seriously, pay attention and put its lessons into practice. That might mean recognizing a blind spot, thinking through an issue, realizing a deeper aspect of our experience or creating a plan of action. What is certain is the more we listen to our dreams, the clearer the guidance we receive from our inner self.
Every night we enter the world of dreams. Vivid or vague experiences arise from somewhere deep inside, connecting us with the core of our being and offering glimpses of primal collective wisdom. Our deepest Self is there to help and guide us. All we need to do is to listen and appreciate its many riches.