Dreams have a poetic integrity and truth. . . .
These whimsical pictures, in as much as they originate from us,
may well have an analogy with our whole life and fate.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
My fascination with dreams began nearly two-and-a-half decades ago when, seemingly out of nowhere, a torrent of unusual dreams roared into my life. It was as though somewhere in my psyche, someone had opened an inner floodgate. Even though I was unable to interpret this inner, symbolic language at first, my intuition told me that these dreams were far more than just my brain purging residues from the day. They contained thematic images, symbols, and dramas that moved through my life, leaving strange tracks, exotic fragrances, tearing down old buildings, setting fires. I was captivated.
In the late seventies, I began working with others' dreams and with numerous dream study groups, filling several filing cabinets with fascinating examples of individuals' dreams. I realized early-on that dreams held many valuable keys to understanding life and especially the choices we make that inevitably chart our future course.
Over the years I discovered a something quite remarkable about dreaming: Our dreams relentlessly identify those essential, extraordinary qualities that make us unique and authentic individuals. At the same time, dreams are ruthless and often shocking in exposing influences from others that threaten our ability to live our own lives.
On one overcast, windy morning I was walking along a trail near our home and thinking how we all see the world through glasses of some sort: we put on our religious lenses that see life through a particular religious viewpoint; or we put on our political glasses and see the world through one political viewpoint; or we put on our familial glasses and see life through the expectations of our parents; or we put on societal glasses and live our life by adapting to social pressure to conform to acceptable, popular ideas. Or we interpret our dreams through the thick dark lenses of some theory. Or even worse, we let some “dream dictionary” to interpret our dreams. Our dreams carry the awesome potential to help us to see more clearly who we really are; our natural, inborn potential and unique character without anything “put on” us. And knowing ourselves is invaluable in the process of choosing what it is that we need to do with our life.
Our family's hopes and expectations for us, while usually well-intended, become one of the “things” we put on that often prevent us from finding the right vocation. For example, not long after the September 11th tragedy, one of my clients, clearly upset, told me about a dream that at first glance appears to have a literal warning. Aaron (not his real name), a soft-spoken young man in his late twenties happened to be right in the midst of struggling with what to do with his life. His dream appeared to be predicting a terrorist attack:
Someone keeps showing me a map. I notice it's a pie-shaped area and realize it's somewhere around the Great Lakes area, maybe Chicago. An unknown man's voice tells me that a nuclear bomb is going to be detonated there on November 1st and I should make sure that I'm at least fifty to a hundred miles away from there.
Aaron's family, particularly his mother, wanted him to follow family tradition and go into the medical field. But he had always loved art and architecture and felt a frustrating split between giving in to his family's expectations and following his own passion.
Dream images constantly clarify what belongs to the dreamer's Authentic Self or essential nature and what symbolizes self-defeating outside influences. I asked Aaron to describe what it would be like to imagine being that part of the country, and, as the land and the waters, to tell me what had happened. “The water has been polluted,” he replied. “And if I'm that land, I've been overrun by civilization, covered up.” Then I asked him to describe what it would be like, from the land's viewpoint, to experience a nuclear explosion? He explained, with a sudden smile of realization, “Everything that's been put on me is gone!” A few days later I received an excited call from Aaron, who couldn't wait to tell me that November 1st was the final deadline for him to enroll in dental school and that he had just decided not to register.
Aaron's dream, one week before the school deadline, dramatically showed him the power of this decision on November 1st. It had the potential to clear away all the attitudes and expectations from his family that were preventing him from living his life—everything that had been “put on” him, that had “overrun” and “polluted” his original, natural landscape. His “nuclear” family's influence was about to be exploded! Moreover, his dream was showing him that a nuclear reaction, promised to release tremendous energy, energy that would now be available to begin his new life—energy no longer tied up the exhausting effort to conform and to live someone else's life. And his dream also warns him to keep his distance from this event, to be aware of the “fallout”—the reaction from his mother and his family to his decision. Aaron avoided making a disastrous career choice.
Aaron's dream is a profound example of how our dreams are relentlessly purposive in seeking to move us into living our own authentic life, freeing inner potentials so that each of us can add unique values and characteristics to society and to our world. It would seem that our dreams want us to lead uncommon lives!
John Goldhammer, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the author of three books, most recently, Radical Dreaming: Use Your Dreams to Change Your Life (Kensington Publishing / Citadel Press). He lives in Seattle, Washington.