The Practice of Dream Appreciation #1: Remembering a Forgotten Language (Dreams and Spiritual Growth, Part #2)

Oblate School of Theology

By Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI

Dreams are our first language. In evolutionary terms, our hominid ancestors dreamt before they could speak. Dream appreciation means befriending an ancient innate ability in all of us. It is not about learning a new language. It is about reclaiming a forgotten one. It means reconnecting with our analogical mind through the grammar of symbols and metaphors. In dreams, people and characters are also a metaphor. The practice of dream appreciation entails remembering, recording, playing with, and moving beyond dream elements to paint their meaning and explore resolutions. These steps bring positive outcomes in personality change and spiritual transformation.

Letting the soul speak its first language is attractive and frightening. We fear entering the mystery of God and dreams. Rudolf Otto said the “numinous,” the utterly ineffable, the holy, the spiritual dimension of life possesses two different forms: the mysterium tremendum being overwhelmed and repulsed through dread and fear and mysterium fascinosum being overwhelmed by beauty, glory, and an adorable quality. This sense of being overwhelmed is a paradox. We desire God’s presence and fear it. Similarly, we hope to explore what dreams want to communicate, and we apprehend the results!

When we approach dreams as speaking analogically, images and symbols become safer to explore and share. For instance, death dreams where we are killed or kill someone or where we commit suicide or die in a tragic accident become revealers of inner states and life situations. Are we going through a significant shift in our lives? Are we repressing anger towards someone? Does the ego or behavior, or attitude need to die to find new freedom? Are we experiencing a critical transition, or is a relationship ending? Indeed, death as a symbol for radical change is not foreign for Christians who perceive death as a final threshold holding the promise of new life. Letting go of anger also brings new life.

Sexual dreams may reveal unmet sexual, or intimacy needs or indicate a life problem disguised in sexual metaphors. Nightmares and dark dreams strike our memory and senses precisely to grab our attention towards unresolved issues and dramas between ourselves and our God-given identity as beloved children. I remember a terrifying nightmare I had as a young adult. It warned me of the devasting emotional effect of an unhealthy relationship to which I clung for fear of being alone. It also meant finding ways to care for myself without looking for intense experiences to feel alive. In Dream Language (2012), Robert Hoss indicates that nightmares caused by trauma become more symbolic and dreamlike as more integration and healing occur. Interestingly, the first dream ever recorded in human history (3,000 years BC) of the Sumerian King Dumuzi of Uruk was a nightmare. It contained images and symbols suggesting danger, uprootedness, and death.

The first general rule of dreamwork as practice for spiritual growth is differentiating dream appreciation from dream interpretation (see Working with Dreams by Ullman & Zimmerman, 1979). Dream appreciation is for everyone. It is a language we can all appreciate, like a work of art. Dream interpretation is more specialized and technical. Therefore, dream appreciation consists of practices rather than techniques. Dream interpretation is concerned with levels of objective meaning conveyed by experts. Dream appreciation holds that the ultimate interpreter of one’s dreams is the dreamer. The dreamer is the expert. Anyone can exercise dream appreciation: a friend, a parent, a co-worker, a community organizer, a church leader.

The practice of dream appreciation includes helpers who assist in reading metaphors and dream elements to pursue their meaning further. Like the finest of spiritual companionship, dream appreciation is non-hierarchical, non-invasive, suggestive, and process oriented. Professionals learn for years through training and supervision how to keep projections and counter projections in check. It enables them to say: “in my opinion, your dream seems to say that…” In dream appreciation, therapists or fellow dream workers will own responsibility for their projections. They do so by using language that makes it clear one appreciates the dreams of others by using the phrase “if this was my dream… does this fit in your search for the meaning or the deeper question in your dream?” It is a discipline to keep owning our projections as much as it is to steer away from literal readings of dreams to embrace analogical ones. As Ullman and Zimmerman affirm, helpers assist in supporting to “bring an honest perspective on dreams.” The paradox lies in that dreams as “the product of our most private and intimate being, can best be brought to fullest realization through being shared with another or others.

Jeremy Taylor (The Wisdom of your Dreams, 1992) speaks about ten interrelated assumptions about dreams. For instance, all dreams come in the service of health and wholeness, and they reveal something the dreamer does not yet know; all dreams reflect inborn creativity and the ability to face and solve life’s problems. He also believes that working with dreams improves relationships and builds community, intimacy, and support, and can impact society. Christians can view these statements through the prism of the theological virtues. As beloved children of God, the virtues are “a pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1813). We exercise the faculties for creativity, face difficulties, and improve our relationships through faith, as we seek to know and do God’s will, not through our strength since hope relies on the Holy Spirit. Charity perfects, orders, and articulates faith and hope. The spiritual freedom that results intensifies our bond with others and helps us share that bond in concrete ways. Dreamwork activates theological virtues for spiritual growth to live, share and love more fully.

To recall our dreams, we pray to God and wholeheartedly decide we want to remember our dreams. It is an act of courage and trust in what God wishes to reveal to us during sleep. Close to our sleeping place, we prepare means to record dream memories: with voice-memo apps, journals, and pen, or by sending an e-mail to ourselves. As we drift to sleep, we renew our intention to recall and comprehend our dreams. Upon waking, we keep our eyes closed for a while and pray to remember our dreams. It is best not to force a recall. It can be a protective mechanism, a form of “healthy amnesia.” In due time, adult maturity will come to a person to deal with complex material or severe trauma. Despite frustrations, unrecalled details from dreams will hold the promise of things to come. J. Taylor speaks of a woman who had a beautiful dream of an elaborate Church service she could not recall. It turned out the inability to remember the service’s details was symbolic of her progress in developing greater spiritual awareness in waking life.  Most comforting of all, the healing effect of dreams is not related to our ability to recall them. Like prayer, perhaps most foundational and deep transformations from dreams occur when we remain unaware of their benefits.

After looking at past life associations connected to our dreams, we give voice to them through drawing, collages, or poems. Some people allow themselves to move or dance and play from an element to connect more deeply to feelings: any means that help flesh images, colors, and metaphors. This step of dreamwork appreciation is like making a 3-D printing of the coded language of a computer program; during the process, the result is not yet visible.

One of the most effective practices for metaphor exploration consists of dialoguing with an image or symbols through role-playing. Using a series of six simple questions, with an “I” statement based on Gestalt role-playing, we become the element and make it speak (see details, Table 7.1, page 49: .)  I once dreamt of a brown wooden ship gliding close to the port. It was reminiscent of the Old South. As I became this beautifully textured wooden boat, the statements I voiced led me to accept journeying confidently as a treasured witness of the Church. I saw an invitation not to doubt my purpose despite the loss and sting of getting older in my present life.

This statement and sharing with someone allowed feelings of nostalgia, regret, gratitude, belonging, and contentment to emerge. After this step, pulling things together in a summarized fashion and active imagination will help bring resolutions and actualization for waking life. One guarantee of spiritual growth through dreamwork is its cyclical nature. When divine energies and revelations surface, they invite new ones. Dreamwork never ends; its grammar and language, once remembered, continues to flow, and as with Jesus’ deeds, “where every one of them to be written, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21-25)

Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI is a priest, religious and itinerant preacher with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate of the US province. Fr. Renaud ministers from the campus of the Oblate School of Theology (OST) in San Antonio, Texas. Fr. Renaud has degrees and training in drama education, theology, pastoral ministry, and psychodrama. He is a Certified Spiritual Director from Creighton University and a Spiritual Directors International member, and in current training for certification in dreamwork with The Haden Institute in North Carolina. Fr. Renaud has preached retreats to priests, deacons, religious and laypeople in Canada, the US, and Asia on various topics such as desire and spiritual intimacy, 12 steps recovery, Ignatian spirituality & Jungian psychology, a spirituality of priesthood, and ecological conversion. Fr. Renaud is adjunct faculty at OST and is a regular blog contributor. His areas of interest are resilience and trauma recovery, dreamwork and spiritual growth, and contemplative practices and mysticism. For more details see