Is the dream a message?
We have learned now that the question is not so simple. When we ask “What do you mean, when you ask if a dream has meaning?”, several options unfold that make this question difficult to answer. However, we don’t have to be fooled by the legal terms. When Bill Clinton replied “It depends on what is, is”, we all knew what “is” was, it was sex with Monica Lewinski. And when someone asks what a dream means, they usually are asking if the dream has an important message for them. This message usually takes one of these forms:
· Is the dream a message?
· A message from the unconscious or psyche or myself-to-myself?
· A message from God or a spiritual entity?
· A message sent telepathically from a friend or entity?
· A message from the future itself?
· Does this dream indicate that I will have something occur like the dream in real life? It may be an accident, a marriage, or some good or bad fortune.
Again, in terms of science, there are no clear answers. Science is not capable of addressing these questions directly. We can say through survey research that when we look at dreams as-if they are messages, that this is often a more satisfying way of approaching dreams than as-if they are without a message. But new, non-representational dreamwork that works with dreams as a process of production, and creative expression, and presentation instead of a message are also valuable ways to work with dreams.
Do dreams actually predict the future?
We can ask how often dreams actually do predict the future, but this answer will vary widely on how literal one is being and how fixed one feels the future really is after a vision of the future. For example, a wild, ungrounded guy once told Jung that he had a dream of falling off a mountain. Jung told him to avoid mountain climbing. He didn’t follow this advice and fell to his death. But most Jungians feel that Jung was not so much looking at the dream as a prediction about the future as indicating the trend of this person to do things which would cause the dreams to show him as falling, or as an careless type. If the person persists in being careless, then these are the kinds of things that will occur.
If we take the view that dreams are metaphorically showing us psychological trends, like being careless, being unkind, being generous, being skilled, and so on, then we can say that dreams often predict the future or are a message from the future. However, if a person is not involved in doing their own psychological work, then they may become superstitious about dreams and always worrying about dreams that predict deaths, accidents and bad luck. They can also be used by people who feel the need for power. How many of us have had grandmothers or uncles that claim to see all sorts of bad omens in dreams?
Many contemporary dreamworkers feel that one can benefit best by taking these dreams as projections, as views we hold unconsciously about others and don’t usually admit, even to ourselves. By “re-owning” these projections (e.g. “O.K., maybe I do that sometimes too.”) we create a personal space for ourselves that is larger, more flexible and self-aware.
At the other extreme, we can test for the literal truth of dreams predicting the future. That is, science has begun investigating dream psi and the ability of dreams to see the future, to see distant events at all times, to send and receive messages from other humans and beings. For several years, the Maimodides Medical Center in Brooklyn investigated the dream-psi connection. The 50+ published articles are summarized both in a technical monograph (Ullman and Krippner, 1970) as well as two editions of the popular book DREAM TELEPATHY with Ullman, Krippners and Vaughn, (1973, 1989). Although it was very hard to replicate these experiments, the researches found a lot of evidence suggesting that we are more aware and connected during dreaming to events that have no direct physical connection to us. Still, the number of “hits” a person has is either small and few between, or depends on a “wide” interpretation (“Well, ok, I wasn’t dreaming about the target which was a blue beach ball, but I did dream about the earth as a globe…”).
For those interested in finding out how accurate their own dreaming might be, the key is to time stamp the dream. The best way to do this is to post it to a public forum online such as the ASD Bulletin Board or a Usenet Newsgroup like alt.dreams or alt.dreams.prophecy
Are dreams messages from God?
At this time, looking at dreams as messages from God or other spiritual or divine entities is not something that science has anything to say about. However, many people find great comfort, inspiration and value in doing so. Each religion has had its own struggle with the meaning and value of dreams. They have all had dream sharing at the beginning of the religion, which is later suppressed, and then usually recovered at a later time when hierarchical practice and thinking give way to more liberal inclusiveness. Modern dreamwork in spiritual traditions usually combine psychology with spiritual techniques and belief to explore the divinity of the dream as well as the day to day spiritual inspiration it may provide. For example, books written by Morton Kelsey or John Sanford use basic Jungian principles to elaborate a path for spiritual development Christians. The meaning and value of the dream is then aligned with the spiritual tradition itself. And so the answer here as to whether the dream is a divine message will depend on one’s individual or group beliefs and experiences. The “truth” (that a particular kind of dreamwork is valuable) is passed by showing, by example, by demonstration, inspiration, revelation.
Are dreams a message from the unconscious?
This leaves the final category, the view that dreams are a message from the unconscious, or the psyche, or from oneself to oneself. Again, it’s quite similar to the spiritual path. That is, psychotherapy for the most part is dependent upon how well the therapist helps his/her patient or client. Notions of the unconscious, the self, the ego, the super-ego, the Shadow, and so on, are useful notions and theories that can’t really be tested. You probably feel that the psychological self that you have is quite real, but you would have a hard time proving its existence. This comes from a long philosophical tradition as well, where psyche is located in time, but not in space. I am going on about this because I want to show that locating the meaning of a dream by locating it’s author is no easy feat.
The location of the meaning of the dream by locating the author has a parallel in the history of literary interpretation. In the beginning, one found the truth of the bible or religious text through divining the will or intent of its author, the god who wrote the text. What did God mean by that phrase or this chapter? With the advent of secularization, there was a shift to the human author. Find out what the author meant and you will know what the book means. But over time, people found that there was a surplus of meaning in texts. That is, people could read books in ways the author never intended and derive useful meanings. One could read about Capitalism and Adam Smith from the viewpoint of Marx and derive from the book much about class struggles that Smith never intended. Others found that they could read a book in the context of its times and get meaning from the book the author never intended, but included as part of the historical context from which he/she was writing.
Somewhat later more subjective approaches appeared. Here a person could read and book and derive from it any meaning they wanted, regardless of what the author intended. By the late 20th Century, the authority of the author over the meaning and value of his/her book had radically changed. Some even said the author’s intentions could never be clearly located, even if the author demanded one meaning for a book.
We are in a somewhat similar situation with the dream. The author, the ego, the I, the thing that tells me its me when I wake up in the morning, is more of an imaginal creature than anything else, and much more multiple than I usually sense myself to be. Ask me the meaning of my life at one moment, and the answer will be different than another moment. We say these are just moods and perspectives of the same-self, but saying this is just a conventional way to keep the single image of the self together.
Henry Bergson explains how this happens. We hear the tick-tock of a clock and spatialize the event. Each tic-tock sequence is seen as the same, ticking out even beats of time. tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock,tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock. But in fact, each tic and tock are NOT exactly the same, and form a kind of unique melody that is often beyond our perception. Still, we hear and expect them as the same and create a grid that spreads out across the universe. This grid is useful, but an abstraction of the discreet events. That is, it is produced as only a part of the event, the abstract part, which is then taken back into us as a whole. Like a pearl necklace, we see each bead of time being the same and assume that all of time occurs as regularly as our abstraction of it. But even further, to string all these beads together, we assume a being that is OUTSIDE of this time viewing it all. This second self is quite illusory, formless, indifferent, unchanging, but holds all the (abstracted) experiences together and sees them as one. This ego is a symbolic marker “…intended to recall unceasingly to our consciousness the artificial character of the process by which the attention places clean-cut states side-by-side, where actually there is a continuity which unfolds.” 12
Whatever your view of the self and its contributions to the dream, the problem of locating its influence remains. Again, it seems more prudent to use the story-context approach and say that from the viewpoint of self-influence, the dream may (or may not) contain a host of meanings that I have somehow given directly or indirectly. In this way, it doesn’t matter so much whether the self is an imaginal being, a fiction or a real entity. What matters are what meanings and values unfold when we talk about the dream as-if it were a message I am relaying to myself. This as-if perspective can also be applied to other notions of dreams-as-messages. What happens when we look at dreams as-if they were messages from the unconscious, from a distant relative, from the body?
What many dreamworkers find is that they like to know all these perspective (and continually add more) but that one will be their main perspective, one will be the most profound for them, one will move them the most. In this way, the meaning of the meaning of a dream will be aligned with an individual’s values, and yet admit other voices.
A summary of the ways we might see dreams as meaningful…
Levels of why the recalled dream has meaning:
· Existential Level – The dream has meaning because I give it meaning.
· Affective Level – The dream has meaning because it feels meaningful.
· Functional Level – The dream has meaning because it is useful.
· Ephiphonic Level – I am overwhelmed by the meaning(s) of the dream.
· Pragmatic Level – The dream is meaningful as the impact it happens to have.
· Autonomous Level – I listen to the dream for the answer about its meaning.
· Spiritual Level – All things have some alignment with the infinite, including dreams.
· Relative Level – Dreams give people more satisfaction than some other approaches.
· Testimonial Level – Dreams are meaningful and valued by many people.
Note that it is useful at times reverse these hypothesis. One can do this may ways. Obviously one can use contradiction, such as applying the existential level to a dream and saying that its is meaningless because I refuse to give it any meaning. But we can also maintain that dreams are meaningful and still use reversal. A dream is meaningful because I am personally incapable of giving it meaning, it always alludes and overflows my ability to force meaning on it. Or a dream is meaningful because it doesn’t feel meaningful, its different than other things in my life and this it part of its unique quality. The dream is meaningful because it is useless and can’t be commodified and used by the ego like other objects in its power and control. And so on. Productive reversal allows for new voices surrounding the dream image to emerge.
It is almost as though we should say that dreams are overloaded with meaning rather than lacking in meaning. Or more accurately, that dreams, by not being perfectly clear in their meaning to us upon first inspection, offer us the opportunity to explore a wide range of meanings and value not offered by instant clarity and understanding. It is as though dreams are the process of meaning itself. In their state of being not-yet complete as objects, they are complete as moving processes. Metaphors in motion, as Montague Ullman has said.13 Fluidic processes before the closure of full representation has territorialized and coded the meaning and value of the event. Just slightly ahead of being represented and turned into a slave as a representative, before being spatialized and abstracted across a grid of equal portions and statistical curves. Tickity-tocklolog, tilocity, ocity, ibility-nock, trumble, tic-tockity, smock.