Working with Dreams in Pastoral Counseling

Exploring the deeper meanings of dreams remembered from sleep is one of the most potentially important, effective, and valuable ways of touching the deep psycho-spiritual lives of all people, regardless of their culture, their gender identity, or their conscious, professed religious convictions, (or the lack of them.) The religious traditions of the world speak with one voice on this matter: we human beings are closer to the Divine in our dreams than in any other regular state of consciousness. All the sacred scriptures and mythic narratives of the world are filled with stories of religious folk receiving divine guidance and instruction in their dreams.

Contemporary scientific research confirms that all human beings dream, whether we remember these nocturnal adventures upon awakening or not. Any one who says, "I never dream..." is actually confessing that he/she has gotten out of the habit of recalling these curious nightly adventures. Fortunately, remembering dreams is a learnable skill, and anyone who wishes to can improve dream recall with a minimal effort.

The symbolic/metaphoric language of dreams is universal. We human beings are inherently predisposed to dream spontaneously about and imagine the most important events of our psycho-spiritual lives with essentially the same kinds of symbols. Although the deeper meanings and resonances of these simultaneously personal and transpersonal archetypal symbolic forms are for the most part "out of sight and out of mind", hidden away within and not-yet speech-ripe, at the same time they are also "known" at a deeper level of unconscious awareness. These deeper levels of unconscious knowledge can be invited up to the surface of waking self-awareness through gentle questioning and responsible peculation and projection.

The most important thing to remember when exploring someone's dreams in search of their deeper levels of meaning and awareness is that /all/dreams come in the service of health and wholeness. In other words, there really is no such thing as a "bad dream", because even the worst, gut-wrenching nightmare arrives in the dreamer's awareness to convey information of great potential value and importance. No dream ever came to say, "Nyeah, nyeah - you've got these problems and there's nothing you can do about them!" If I remember dreaming about some problem in my life, the very fact that I have remembered a dream about it means that there is something positive and creative I can /do/ about that situation, whether I can see immediately what that creative action might be, or not.

The generic message of every remembered dream is that there is a potentially creative, effective, transformative role for the dreamer's waking mind to play in the further unfoldment of whatever life issues are being given symbolic shape in the dream. This is a very important fact to keep in mind when helping others to "unpack" the deeper meanings of their dreams.

No matter how nasty it may seem to be on first encounter, every dream comes to draw the dreamer's attention to issues in his/her waking life that can be dealt with creatively. In fact, the "worse" the initial experience of the dream is, the more important the information it carries is to the dreamer's health and wholeness. We human beings are inherently predisposed to pay close attention to nasty, threatening stuff. In fact, we are predisposed to pay more attention to information that enters our field of awareness in a nasty, threatening way, than we are to pay attention precisely the same information if it were to come into our field of awareness in some more seemingly benign and supportive fashion.

Chaplains working with the sick and the dying should be particularly aware that dreams come with even greater urgency to people in dramatic, physical-health-threatening circumstances. In many instances, simply being a non-anxious presence, listening to and witnessing the dreamer's the intense feelings and responses to the dreams, and reflecting back to the dreamers the idea that they would not even recall these experiences if they were not fully capable of dealing creatively with all the implications of their dreams, can be an immensely healing and spiritually centering ministry, (even if the counsellor is unable to help the dreamer to more specific insights about the layers of symbolic meaning and implication in his/her dreams.

Familiarity with the sacred scriptures of the world, particularly those passages where the Divine addresses people in their dreams with guidance and direction, can be of great help in providing comfort to those afflicted by "bad dreams". Reminding them of the passages in their own tradition where dreams were instruments of grace and wisdom can go a long way toward calming and opening a troubled heart.

Imagining the dream of the other person as vividly as possible, and then sharing what you believe the dream might signify if you had the dream yourself is a safe and responsible way to help a dreamer toward an deeper understanding of the specific meanings of his/her dream. When doing this, always make it clear that only the dreamer can say what the deeper meanings of his/her dream might be, and that any comments are only suggestions for the dreamer's consideration.

Any idea anyone has about the meaning of someone else's dream can only have come from me imagining his/her own version of his or her narrative. It is my idea about my imagined version of the dream, and therefore is simply my projection. Just because it's a projection doesn't mean that isn't also true. In fact, since we are all basically the same kind of human being, if it's true for me, it's quite likely to be true for the dreamer as well, (but the only thing I can say with honesty and certainty is that it is at very least true for me.) For this reason, it is always both wise and polite to preface any interpretive suggestion with some version of the idea: "If I were in your position, and this were my dream..." Working with dreams in this way can be of immense benefit and value in all aspects of Interfaith ministry


© 2013 Jeremy Taylor