First published at Huffinton Post
Our dreams take us into a world of images. Many of these dreams are just “mind dreams” in which our mind reworks and digests the images and impressions of the day, like a cow chewing the cud. But sometimes our dreams take us into a deeper realm within us, into the sacred dimension of our soul. Then the images of our dreams have a different quality and meaning. We may recognize these dreams by their symbolic nature, for example we may find our self in a cathedral, temple or sacred building, we may see a cross, stone, a tree, the sun or moon, or any other image that belongs to the archetypal dimension of our deeper self. Or the dream may evoke a quality of feeling, a numinosity that belongs to the soul. Sometimes these dreams seem “more real than real life.” When we encounter such a dream we should know that we have entered the realm of the sacred, that the ground we walk on is holy ground.
Our Western rational culture dismissed the world of symbols as superstition, though recently as we hunger for meaning in our surface lives we have begun to revalue these archetypal images. The popularity of Dan Brown’s novels about symbolism speaks to a growing need for the symbolic world. Throughout history other cultures have always carried an awareness of the sacred dimension of images. For example the mystical tradition of Sufism has always known of the importance of symbolic dreams and their images, which may have a spiritual meaning, for example the image of grapes as a symbol of divine knowledge.
In earlier times a dreamer would know to take such a dream to a holy man or shaman, who was trained to read and understand the message from the inner world, its wisdom and meaning. In some indigenous cultures a dream could be for the whole tribe, and could determine where they might hunt, what sacred ceremonies should be enacted, or what healing needed to be done. Today we have mostly lost touch with these traditions and their understanding of the inner world. Instead our culture has celebrated the individual, and now it is for each individual, for each of us, to rediscover the meaning and power of symbols as they are given to us in our dreams.
Traditionally symbolic images form a connection between the outer world of the senses and the inner world of the soul. They are like stepping stones to reconnect us with the divine mystery that is within us. This has always been their sacred function, as is illustrated for example in the symbols of the Catholic mass, the bread and wine, as well as the cup or chalice. Such symbols are like manna that can sustain our daily life with sacred nourishment. When such a symbol comes to us in a dream we need to learn how to hold it in our consciousness throughout the day, to give space to it in our moments of solitude or meditation. We need to welcome the image and let it speak to us, let the dream tell its story. Such symbols are often charged with a certain power or meaning, a quality of feeling that can deeply affect us. Then maybe a week, a month or a year later, we will be given another symbolic dream, another stepping stone to the sacred. Though some dream images may last a lifetime, continually reconnecting us with our inner self.
However, there is a big problem for us today in that we have debased the inner world of images. Just as we have polluted our outer world with our consumerism until the water we drink and the air we breathe is no longer pure, we have also desecrated the inner world. It used to be understood that the world of images was a sacred connection with the the divine, with the realm of our own soul. Instead today we are constantly bombared with advertiser’s images that try to manipulate us into unnecessary desires. And recently we have rediscovered the power of using the imagination to work with inner images, but rather than respecting their sacred nature we have learnt how to use (or misuse) their magical potential for materialistic gain–to attract the outer life we want, even the car we may desire. This selling of a “secret” for personal gain is a form of prostitution: the prostitution of our own soul that is polluting the inner world just as we have polluted our outer world.
We are hungry for the sacred, for meaning to return to our lives. And this meaning is waiting within us–the sacred is present in the symbols of our dreams. But first we have to create an inner space that is not corrupted by outer desires, purify ourselves and our intention. In the Native American tradition the individual often had to fast and be purified by a sweat lodge in order to be ready to fully experience the inner world. Any dreamwork, but especially spiritual dreamwork, requires a continual attitude of inner attention and a commitment not to use the energy of the inner for personal gain. Dreams can reconnect us with the sacred but only if we learn how to be receptive and respect their symbols and images.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D. www.goldensufi.org
For a longer article on spiritual dreamwork, see “Sufi Dreamwork”
Or listen to “Why Dreams Work”