by Nimue Brown
Druid, author, bard and dreamer Nimue Brown offers a range of ways for making dreaming a meaningful part of your spiritual life.
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 46.
I first encountered dream dictionaries as a child. I’ve always had vivid dreams, and from the first was disappointed by what I found in books of meanings. They seemed to knock the magic out and replace it with dull things, or they failed to offer any useful insights at all. It’s taken me many years to realise what the underlying problem is.
Getting meaning out of things is a rationalist approach to reality. It goes with a worldview where anything of value can be measured, dissected, reduced to component parts, and made sense of. While this has its uses when dealing with the physical world, it’s a way of thinking about things that has seeped into our consciousness. Of course people trying to extract meaning from dreams pre-dates rationalism, but as far as I can tell, it was the business of priests and rulers to have important dreams. Everyone else, I like to think, was free to dream personally and on their own terms.
I find it a very odd idea that everyone, regardless of age, background, personality and preferences would use the same symbols when they dream. There are so many people I have nothing in common with while awake. Why, when dreaming, would that be different? Dream dictionaries go beyond the interpreting priests of ancient Paganism, and assume that if we all dream of houses, or cars, it all means the same to each of us. How can it? As a non-driver, I’m prepared to bet that my dreaming of driving has very different implications than it would for someone who does it all the time.
Some dreams of course respond very well to looking for simplistic meanings. These are often dreams inspired by bodily needs. When we’re learning something, that can colour our dreams in very obvious ways, too. However, most dreams defy obvious explanation, unless you assume that the content is symbolic and that the symbols in the dream can be decoded to provide meaning.
I think we really have to question the basic assumptions underpinning how we think about dreaming. Why do we assume dreams should cough up meanings? Why are we so keen to reduce them to everyday things? Why make ordinary and intelligible that which is wild and uncanny?
The rationalist world-view holds little place for mystery and magic. Anything mysterious exists only to be revealed. Anything magical is either a hoax or a delusion. Everything must be lined up in neat rows, put into tidy and clearly labelled boxes and rendered coherent. In such a culture, the nightly visitation of strange, inexplicable things must be understood in certain ways. It must be white noise from the brain, bodily functions, brain functions (learning and memory) and failing that it can be a diagnostic tool for a trained expert to help you deal with your personal problems.
Dreams can be glorious, whimsical and wild. In dreams, we may defy physics, and logic. We can be anyone and go anywhere, and any wonder it is possible to imagine may be available to us. What happens if we start by taking dreams at face value? What happens if we become less interested in squeezing meanings out of dreams, and more interested in the experience itself?
Mysteries do not respond well to logic. They do not reveal their secrets when cut open and pinned out for inspection. The more you try to plot a mystery into a graph, the less available it becomes. Like the collector’s butterfly pinned to a board, some semblance of the mystery may remain, but it will be a dry and dusty half-truth that does not capture anything about what it meant. To see a dry, still, pinned out butterfly is to know nothing about the butterfly in motion, the precarious grace of its flight, the delicacy of its fluttering or the sensation of one landing upon your hand. It is to know nothing of the sense of blessing and wonder that a butterfly on your hand can bring.
When we delve into dreams for meanings, we are taking living butterflies and pinning them to boards, to die. We are letting go of the experience, to replace it with this urge to make sense. Of course, making sense of things can give the impression of holding power over them. Our dreams may whisper to us of desires we dare not name, terrors we wish to deny, hopes we can’t afford to invest in, and old grief we don’t want to admit still hurts us. They can speak to us in ways that words will never articulate.
If a dream has an obvious relationship with our waking lives, not much interpretation is called for. We may have dressed our waking reality up in more entertaining clothes, but if it looks familiar, then it is. Trying to force more meaning out of a dream that was just a reflection of your ordinary life, may not be the most productive thing to do. However, recognising the ordinary dreams, and letting them go, makes space to really pay attention to the extraordinary ones. Not to unpick them. Not to forcibly take control of them in any way, but to allow them.
All of us dream, and most of us remember those dreams. Each time we lie down to sleep, we open ourselves to worlds of infinite possibility. We hold the potential for beauty, wonder, for powerful emotional expression, and for unexpected spiritual experience. Anything may come, if we allow it. Dreams tend to be responsive though – they are us. If we go into them looking for specific things, and looking for rational meanings, we’ll probably find them. The more we focus on having symbols we can look up and decipher, the more we are likely to find just that thing. It’s narrowing, and it throws away the better part of what dreams can be. Approach your dreams with no assumptions, no need to control them or take them apart, and they may fly on butterfly wings for you, and show you things you could not otherwise dare to imagine.
Meet The Author: Nimue Brown is the author of assorted Druid and Pagan titles with Moon Books. She studied with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and is involved with the Contemplative Druid group based in Stroud. She also writes fiction, including webcomic