Why Our Dreams Are So Important
Doing dream work is like entering a portal of fascinating and healing energy. Dreams come to reveal important truths which can help us make significant life changes.
They provide a more complete picture of who we truly are. Dreams offer us practical advice and can also serve as a means to psychological self-awareness and creative inspiration.
The earliest records of human dreams date back approximately 5,000 years. In what is referred to as Mesopotamia (now central Iraq), archeologists have uncovered written fragments referring to dreams. In the famous Gilgamesh saga, dream interpretations play a key role in the success or failure of the protagonists. A ruler who sought advice from dreams would go to a temple or sanctuary of a dream god, go through preparatory rituals, and sleep there overnight.
Dreams and the divine gifts they bestow figure prominently in the Old Testament. God granted Solomon’s gift of wisdom in a dream. And it was Joseph’s ability to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream which won the release of the Jews from bondage.
There are hundreds of references to dreams in the Talmud. One of my favorites is “A dream not interpreted is like an important letter unread.”
Ancient Chinese cultures had a reverence for dreams. One of the most famous insights came from the Taoist sage Chuang-tzu. Commenting on the deep connection between our dreams and waking life he famously commented, after experiencing a dream in which he was a happy butterfly, that he wasn’t now sure whether he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly or was actually a butterfly now dreaming he was a man. The ancient Chinese tended to favor a more meditative relationship to dreams rather than one focusing on active interpretation.
The ancient Greeks considered dreams to be a fundamental influence on both personal lives and the fate of the entire culture. In Homer’s Iliad, dreams are sent by Zeus to chosen people who are always male. In the sequel, The Odyssey, the female deity Athena sends the dreams and the chosen recipients are female (interestingly, the Iliad is about a major battle which destroys both sides and the Odyssey is about the recognition of the futility of war and the need to reclaim one’s soul by taking on a spiritual journey home).
The ancient Greeks then developed ornate rituals dedicated to Asclepius, the god of dreams. Under the Greeks “dream incubation” became a highly developed art. The person seeking a healing dream prepared by going to what we would in modern times call a spa, cleansing the body in healing water, eating a special diet, and honoring the dream god Asclepius with prayer. The seeker would then ask for a dream to come which answers an important question. The dreamer then spent the night sleeping in a temple dedicated to the dream god. In some of the temples snakes were brought in (a symbolic representation of Asclepius which endures today as the caduceus, the modern emblem of the medical profession).
In a future column we will look at a simple, yet effective technique we can practice for “incubating” dreams (no snakes or ornate temples will be required).
Moving to the modern world, it was Sigmund Freud at the turn of the twentieth century who introduced the revolutionary idea that human behavior was primarily influenced not by external events and divine intervention, but by unconscious drives revealed through dreams. By connecting dreams back to the powerful myths and stories of ancient Greece and introducing therapeutic techniques such as “free association,” Freud opened the world of dreams to the medical, psychological, literary, and artistic communities.
Freud has subsequently been marginalized for his restrictive Victorian perspectives on women and sex. His specific methods are no longer as influential. Yet Freud deserves credit for opening up the creative and therapeutic power of dreams to a wide audience of medical professionals, scientists, writers, and artists.
Freud’s student, Carl Jung, famously broke with his mentor over what Jung saw as Freud’s insistence that dreams are repressed fears about sex and death and always reflect childhood traumas. Jung demonstrated that dreams look forward as well as back. By fearlessly diving into and analyzing his personal dreams and connecting western psychology with Eastern mysticism, Jung discovered how dream work not only helps heal psychological blocks, but provides meaningful insights into the deeper meaning of our lives and satisfies our longing for personal wholeness. As a result Jung’s style of dream analysis became the most influential of the twentieth century.
I was taught dream work by two prominent dream experts, Dr. Montague Ullman and Dr. Jeremy Taylor. They both relied heavily on Jungian techniques, but also incorporated an eclectic blend of other insights as well. In future dream columns I will offer many of their insights for personal dream work as well as some of the ones I have learned on my own.
Doug Grunther is a certified dream work facilitator and has been Woodstock, NY’s most noted radio talk show host for over twenty-five years. One of his current programs, The Dream Show, heard over WDST-FM, Woodstock, and over the Internet at WDST.com, offers listeners the opportunity to call in with a dream and receive valuable insights from dream experts.