Mindful Dreaming: The Healing Power of Dreams

It’s dark and I’m alone. I feel cold. Suddenly a large, dark hulk of a figure appears out of nowhere, coming right toward me. I run away, my chest pounding, trying desperately to find a place to hide. I’m terrified to turn around and look behind me, afraid that if I do I’ll be shredded to pieces in this monster’s claws.

We’ve all had similar dreams—but why do we dream them and why do they haunt us as they do?

In the decades that I’ve been working with my dreams and those of my clients, I’ve learned that these nightly tales strive to teach us mindfulness of the emotional and spiritual lessons we need to progress on our personal life journey. In fact, the people, animals, spirits, and forces of nature in dreams—our Dream Mentors—teach us 10 core lessons in mindfulness that have been honored by spiritual traditions throughout the millennia.

In these lessons, dreams encourage us to be aware of five habits of thought that cause our everyday suffering—distraction, control, judgment, impatience and attachment—while also offering the direct experience of healing that arises with our mindful embrace of five perennial values needed to replace those thoughts—solitude, humility, compassion, presence, and non-attachment.

Dreams prompt us to become mindful of distraction and to embrace the experience of solitude. Relaxing our grip on control, our dreams teach us humility (surrender) and open us to guidance from the Source. Mindful of our destructive rush to judgment, dreams move us to embrace compassion for our own suffering—not just that of others. They teach us mindfulness of our impatience so that we may live with presence—more conscious and awake in the present moment. And, finally, dreams help us see through the illusion of permanence, teaching us to release our attachments and embrace the experience of what is eternal and unchanging.

Let’s look at how our dreams teach a few of these lessons in mindfulness.

Dreams of Control and Humility (Surrender)

We virtually worship control in our culture. We want to control our feelings, the weather, what others think of us, what they buy and wear, how we act, how they act, and what they believe.

Not surprisingly then, the predominant mood and behavior in Dreams of Control are ones of frustration, stubbornness, arrogance, rigidity, refusing advice, and literally feeling “out of control.” These are the classic dream experiences of becoming lost or unable to arrive at the destination we intend, or finding ourselves blocked, paralyzed, or immobilized in attempts to accomplish our goal:I’m lost on a deserted highway and can’t get through to the police. Then I drop my cell phone and it breaks. People drive by but no one helps me out.

In every case this experience of utter frustration reflects the wisdom that, despite our negative perspective in the dream, it is not the correct time or in our best interest to have such control. Contrary to Freud’s notion, dreams do not grant even our most heartfelt wishes unless they are in the interest of our health and wholeness.

Learning to release control is a central tenet in most spiritual practices. By their very nature, prayer, meditation, and dreamwork are powerful methods to assist us in the willing sacrifice of this ego strategy. In prayer and meditation, we set the conscious intention to release our ego, while sleep itself subordinates our ego, allowing the natural wisdom of our Self to shine through more transparently.

In contrast to Dreams of Control, here is a Dream of Humility (releasing control or surrender) shared by my client Sasha, a woman who had spent much of her life frustrating herself and those around her with unending efforts to be in charge of the nature and outcome of every relationship and event in her life. In the weeks prior to her dream, she had become more aware of the suffering her thoughts of control had been causing her. She began to wonder aloud in her therapy sessions whether there was a better way to live and what that would feel like. Here’s the gift of experiencing humility and surrender that Sasha’s dream provided:

I am on the bow of a sailboat with my friend Justine. Amazingly, I’m allowing her to steer the boat while I stand in a canvas enclosure without any way to see where we’re going. I’ve given over complete control to her. I’m shocked to realize I’m trusting her and that I’m not upset at all by the huge waves hitting our boat. Incredibly, I feel no panic, as I always would have in the past. Instead I’m just immersed in the joy of the wind and water, not even caring where we’re headed. It’s the most glorious experience to feel such peace in my body by just letting go.

As the Taoist sage Chang Tsu said: “Do not struggle. Go with the flow of things, and you will find yourself at one with the mysterious unity of the Universe.”

Dreams of Judgment vs. Compassion

The intention to judge is ever-present when we interact with others—no matter whether friend or foe. We judge how people believe, speak, look, act, and laugh. We judge their political party, their clothing, their hair (today), their color, their height, and their weight (as it surely will increase if they keep eating that way). They’re probably too smart for their own good, probably too beautiful to have brains, no doubt too good to be true. Sadly, we are even less kind to ourselves.

Consequently, the predominant mood and behavior in our Judgment dreams is that of mistrust, fearfulness, being chased, attacking or feeling attacked, and literally feeling judged by those we see as malevolent or evil—as in the dream at the start of this article: “…a large dark figure appears out of nowhere coming right toward me. I run away, my chest pounding…”

Yet, these are among our most profound dreams. They parallel the fables and fairy tales of old, like Beauty and the Beast, in which we are called to kiss or embrace that which we see as most unacceptable. In our nightly dreams, they embody the attitudes and perspectives that we have learned to mistrust and reject—the long-lost precious parts of ourselves, the pearl in the mud. In Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall a character recalls:

I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept on to my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it is my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible—but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms.

So every frightening figure in our dreams—everything beastly or repulsive that pursues us—when given the benefit of the doubt, is found to be a mentor chasing after us with a most precious gift of healing.

My client Art was an academic who over-relied on his intellect as a source of self-esteem and worth. He was burning out under the pressures he placed on himself to meet deadlines and achieve tenure. Here is the dream he shared with me:

I’m on a college campus and I’ve just left class, carrying all of my books and papers. Suddenly a huge, foreign-looking man comes out of nowhere and tackles me, knocking me to the ground, where I end up rolling on the grass. Before I even get up I see that half of my books and papers are missing. I wake up really scared and upset.

When I asked Art to reflect on the image of “rolling in grass” his face lit up: “Oh, that takes me back to when I was a kid when I would lay back on the grass in the summertime, watch the clouds, and just relax without any pressures or deadlines.”

In that moment Art saw clearly that his stern Dream Mentor was not an enemy. He had not tackled him as a punishment, but out of compassion to provide him with the much-needed medicine of rolling around in the green grass of childhood once again. To make a space for this healing experience in his life, however, he would have to lose, so to speak “half of his books and papers.” And to permit himself to re-embrace the joy of life, he would also have to release judgment about himself as being lazy and unproductive.

As we mindfully practice releasing our thoughts of judgment, our dreams’ message of compassion becomes increasingly clear. Consider, for example, this Dream of Compassion shared by a friend whose life was profoundly altered by the experience it provided:

My dear old friend I’ve known since I was a child takes me into my bathroom. Bending down, she says, "You’ve got to see this!" She reaches deep into the toilet and pulls out my own beating heart.

“I woke up in sorrow,” the dreamer said, “for the years I’ve treated my own needs as crap and tried to flush away what my own heart wants—pleasing everyone but myself. But now things will be very different.”

And so it is that our dreams lead, push, drag, cajole and otherwise shock us in the service of healing. For this reason, truly mindful dreaming is not about discovering the meaning in our dreams, but rather the life-giving experience they always offer. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell reminded us, it’s not the “meaning for life” that we’re seeking but “the rapture of being alive.”

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