Exploring the Power of Healing Dreams

Puzzling out what a dream might mean is hard enough. But there's a deeper question: What does it want?

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Fifteen years ago, I was abducted—there is no other word for it—into the realm of the Dream. It occurred without precedent or preamble: One day I was going about my business, with its usual mix of high goals and low concerns; the next, I was cast away in a far country from which I've never quite returned. Before I knew that there are dreams and there are dreams, I treated them as most people do: as nocturnal reshufflings of the mental deck; as fantasy and wish fulfillment; as psychic leftovers, those emotional coffee grounds and crumpled-up impulses toward sex and violence ditched nightly down some inner Disposal.

But suddenly my dreams, usually hazy and easily dismissed, acquired a jolting, Technicolor realism. They gleamed with mysteries both opaque and insistent, their meaning tantalizingly beyond my grasp. In one, a maniac heralded as “the greatest mass murderer in the history of mankind” had “escaped from a cell” and was chasing me with an ax to decapitate me. In another, Death peered through my basement window, his gaunt face glowing like phosphorus beneath his hood, coolly casing the joint. Necks were a puzzling leitmotiv. Six long needles were stuck in my “neck-brain” by a circle of primitive tribesmen; a “World War II bullet” was lodged in my neck, and a kindly Chinese surgeon removed it; or I was crawling through a tunnel full of crumbling bones in a Mayan “necropolis.” (“Neck-cropolis?” I asked myself, mindful of dreams' incorrigible punning, but I could make no further sense of it.)

I often went to my job as a magazine editor still enveloped in their creepy aura, determined to soldier on. But after one terrifying dream in which torturers hung an iron pot filled with red-hot coals beneath my chin, I couldn't ignore them any longer. I was sure that something inside me had gone drastically wrong. Each successive dream had spelled it out more explicitly until it glared down at me from a neon marquee: cancer.

I went to see a doctor and blurted out my fears, embarrassed that my only symptoms were a fistful of nightmares. After skeptically pressing and prodding my neck he informed me he felt nothing out of the ordinary. He suggested, not unsympathetically, that I was suffering from job-related stress, which was true enough. I awkwardly asked if there was an organ that might fit my dreams' peculiar image of a “neck-brain.” He suggested the thyroid gland and ordered a blood test, but my hormone levels were perfectly normal.

The nightmares continued. I badgered the doctor for a more complete workup, and this time, palpating my neck, he detected a hard lump—a thyroid nodule. A scan was ordered, revealing a dark suspicious mass that he assured me was almost certainly benign. Some weeks later, I felt a grim twinge of vindication when a needle biopsy confirmed what my dreams had hinted—it was a cancerous malignancy.

I took a sabbatical from my job. My days filled with a procession of friends, relatives, colleagues, and medical experts, each bearing conflicting advice, none willing to give my dreams their due. I could scarcely blame them. If I couldn't understand my bizarre visions, how could anyone else? But I felt doubly a pariah, self-exiled from an inner world I could not comprehend, yet regarded with suspicion by those who thought I was giving my dreams too much importance. I drove people to distraction trying to explain how these dreams were different—deeper, wider, higher, more real—but they didn't seem to know what I was talking about.

One evening before falling asleep, I scribbled, in some desperation, a formal request in the dream notebook I'd started to keep: What is the direction of a cure? That night, I had a startling vision: Under the ground a white, snakelike worm is turning in upon itself in a perfect spiral. When its head reaches the center, blinding rays of light shoot out, and a voice solemnly intones: “You have been living on the outer shell of your being—the way out is the way in!”

The image was as repulsive as a moldering grave (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out” goes the childhood sing-song). I would come to understand much later that the worm was an ancient, archetypal image of the spiraling inner journey often framed as a kind of death and rebirth. But at the time, if I sought anything from my dreams, it was specifics: I wanted status reports on my illness, with symbols as clear as those on a TV weather map, not these mysterious hieroglyphs. My medical quest—finding the most accurate diagnosis, the best doctor, the ultimate cure—was tough enough. Now, when I was feeling that I needed to stay outwardly focused, my dreams were pulling me deeper within. In the weeks and months that followed, the conflict became ever more maddening. In the end, I chose surgery as much to still my dreams as to save my life.

The operation was more traumatic than I had anticipated. My cure left me wounded in body and spirit. I was unable and finally unwilling to step back on the merry-go-round of ambition. Driven by a journalist's curiosity and a need to feel less alone, I spent a decade interviewing hundreds of patients and doctors, plunging into the literatures of medicine and mythology, seeking new compass points for the healing process, and a new map of my soul. I eventually wrote two books on the mind-body connection, and found myself in a new career as a quasi-medical expert. But even after years of conscientious probing, I was haunted by a mystery. What had been the source of the torrent of images that had threatened to submerge me even as I struggled for my life?

I had always been, in an unreflective way, a Freudian when it came to dream analysis. Dreams were elaborate concealments of the sex- and power-hungry id: Rip away the guise and there, invariably, would be the glowering features of our instinctual being. According to Sigmund Freud's “sexual theory,” which he championed over all other interpretive approaches, a dream, whether horrifying, ecstatic, or just plain baffling, had predictable mechanisms and symbols that could be deciphered.

Yet these dreams had made me feel utterly out of my depth. They had almost mystically anticipated events. (Had it been pure coincidence I'd dreamed that a Chinese surgeon took a “bullet” from my neck, and months later, a real Chinese surgeon—a Dr. Wang, the country's premier thyroid specialist and the spitting image of my dream doctor—had operated to remove my tumor?) They had galvanized me to act, almost against my will. What kind of dreams were these?

Most of us have had (or will have) at least one dream that stops us in our tracks. Such dreams tell us that we're not who we think we are. They reveal dimensions of experience beyond the everyday. They may shock us, console us, arouse us, or repulse us. Some are like parables, setting off a sharp detonation of insight; others are like gripping mystery tales, drawing us into the unknown; and still others are like mythic dramas, or horror stories, or even uproarious jokes. In our journey from childhood to old age, we may count them on one hand, yet they take their place alongside most memorable life events because they are so vivid and emblematic.

In the 15 years since I began my exploration, modern researchers have begun using a host of terms—impactful, transformative, transcendent—to differentiate these big dreams from ordinary ones. In fact, as I had learned, many ancient cultures made the same distinction. I coined the term healing dreams, because they seem to have a singular intensity of purpose: to lead us to embrace our deepest contradictions—between flesh and spirit, self and other, shadow and light—in the name of wholeness. The very word for dream in Hebrew—chalom—derives from the verb “to be made healthy or strong.” With remarkable consistency, healing dreams proclaim that we live on the merest outer shell of our potential, and that the light we seek can be found in the darkness of a yet-unknown portion of our being.

I'd had what psychologists call “prodromal” dreams, which anticipate a medical problem not yet clinically detected. But our healing dreams extend far beyond matters of physical health—indeed, they are a distinct category of experience, with their own special character. Like drama, they often have unusually coherent narrative structures. Islamic dream texts refer to ordinary dreams as azghas—literally, “handfuls of dried grass and weeds,” signifying a lack of arrangement. These differ from the more coherent messages of ahkam (“genuine inspirations from the Deity, warnings from a protecting power, or revelations of coming events”). Storytelling in healing dreams tends to be more artful, containing a rich array of literary or cinematic devices—subplots, secondary characters, sudden reversals and surprise endings, flashbacks and flash-forwards, even voice-over narration and background music.

Healing dreams often involve a sense of the uncanny or paranormal. Within the dream, we may have special powers to telekinetically move objects; receive information as if via telepathy; levitate; transform ourselves into other creatures; visit heavens or hells. Dreamers report out-of-body experiences; actual events foreseen; talking with the departed; having a near-identical dream to that of a friend or loved one; and other strange synchronicities. Such dreams can profoundly challenge our reigning models of reality. My firsthand experience with the precognitive power of dreams forced me to give serious thought to the mystical belief that time is an illusion. We may not be as purely earthbound as we think we are, but beings of another sort, plying a sea of past, present, and future.

Most importantly, healing dreams, if we heed them, can be transformational—creating new attitudes toward ourselves and others, magnifying our spiritual understanding, deepening the feeling side of life, producing changes in careers and relationships, even affecting society itself. After a healing dream, one may never be the same again.

Before my illness, this interplay between the dream world and the real one was at odds with my understanding of how dreams worked. I remembered from my college psychology texts that there were various schools of dream interpretation, although they were seldom on speaking terms with each another. There were what might be called the symbolists, who took dream elements as representations of hidden meanings that could be decoded by a skilled interpreter. On the other hand were the phenomenologists, who said there was nothing hidden behind the curtain—dreams were dress rehearsals of new ways of being and doing, experiences that could in themselves lead to personal growth. And then there were physiological reductionists, who insisted dreams were mere neural discharges, “noisy signals sent up from the brainstem” that created random images. Dr. David Foulkes, a leading proponent of this now-resurgent viewpoint, has written, “The reason why dreamers can't understand what their dreams mean is that they don't mean anything.” The dream, he has suggested, has no “message”; moreover, “if we persist in search for one, we're in the angel-counting business.”

One of the great services rendered by Freud was his stalwart insistence that all dreams were meaningful. Severing dream interpretation from religious dogma, Freud attacked the lingering view that dreams with grotesque or “sinful” images were nonsense or worse. To the contrary, he said, the dreams we find most repellent are the very skeleton keys to self-revelation, and even a commonplace dream, passionately inspected, is a “royal road to the unconscious.”

Freud enlisted Carl Jung, a brilliant young Swiss analyst, to help him dispel what he viewed as centuries of encrusted superstition. In one letter to his heir designate, Freud expressed his delight that they were setting out together to “conquer mythology,” unaware that the obverse would soon come to pass. Jung had already begun to treat the dream less as a libidinal rebus than as a labyrinth leading to humanity's “collective unconscious.” If Freud saw a snake as a phallic symbol, Jung was interested in its mythic heritage as a creature associated with wisdom and healing. And if Freud believed symbols were a dream's way of concealing the truth, Jung believed they were more an attempt to reveal it.

History has judged the founding work of both Freud and Jung to be a mix of brilliant insight and misconception, a legacy their successors still contend with. A therapist once remarked to me that it was a shame there were only these two lights to illuminate the vast region of dreams, but this is hardly true. The world's indigenous peoples possess a treasure trove of dream knowledge. The opinion endures among many Western psychiatrists that tribal peoples do not understand how to interpret their own dreams—indeed, naively believe them to be real occurrences. But non-Western cultures have long been aware of subtleties in dream-life that the West has myopically missed.

In dreams, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once pronounced, “we are concerned exclusively with ourselves. . . .'I am' is the only system to which thoughts and feelings refer.” Yet the privatization of the dream remains a peculiarly Western practice. Dreams in many cultures—among the Plains Indians, for example—are a key component of social problem solving, with vital public and even political implications. The Zuni Indians of New Mexico have a custom of making public their “bad” dreams (“good” dreams, however, are sometimes withheld even from close relatives). Anthropologist Barbara Tedlock reports that dreams are of such integral importance to Mexico's Quiche Maya people that one out of four people are initiated as “daykeepers,” their term for dream interpreters. An Australian Aborigine told me, “We tell our dreams to the group because different people have different gifts and might help understand it.” It sounded to me like the informal dream-sharing groups that have sprung up in Western societies over the past several decades (until he added a comment I found intriguing: “We often meet each other while we're sleeping.”) The psychoanalytic idea that one's dreams pertain solely to the intricacies of one's own personality is a viewpoint that indigenous peoples find almost laughable.

Jung made it a point to seek out Hopi Indian elders and African shamans to learn their opinions on the subject. Those conversations contributed to his conclusion that our minds contain not only our own personal unconscious, but also a deeper stratum of universal motifs. How are the contents, which he called the storehouse of relics and memories of the past, transmitted from one generation to the next? Jung seems to suggest that such collective images are contained within what could be called a “nonmaterial sphere of awareness.” For the past 50 years, researchers have used many labels to describe such a sphere, hoping to explain cognitive functions that shouldn't by rights exist: clairvoyant reality (Lawrence LeShan); nonlocality (David Bohm); one mind (Erwin Schrödinger); totality (Jung); mind-at-large (Aldous Huxley); morphogenetic fields (Rupert Sheldrake).

Whatever name or concept one applies, there is pure mystery in how healing dreams appear to draw upon unfamiliar myths and icons, “know” the archaic meanings of words and even, seemingly, display images of the future or the thoughts of distant minds. While these almost occult elements should not overshadow the need for careful, humble psychological work—or for healthy skepticism—it is also no good hiding our heads in the sand, pretending such phenomena don't exist. Some would say that the healing dreams are simply presenting back, in exotic form, our own intelligence: We are talking to ourselves; where else would it come from? But I am persuaded that the tracks of something beyond the egocentric “I” are unmistakable.

It now seems clear to me that any dream theory I've heard is, if not wrong, at least radically incomplete. Any single interpretive strategy is inadequate. To expect conventional psychological theory to explain it all is akin to playing by the rules of checkers when the healing dream is playing four-dimensional chess.

We live in a practical era, one that stresses the productive usage of things. Yet healing dreams are not easily reduced to the utilitarian. Although they offer practical revelation, they have more in common with the realm of art, poetry, and music, where what you “do” with an experience is not the overriding issue. Such dreams open up a gap in the ordinary, allowing something new, and often indefinable, to enter our lives. We can work with our dreams, “unpack” them, analyze them, learn from them. But it is that residue of mystery that gives them enduring power, making them touchstones we return to again and again.

Many people wonder why they should bother with their dreams at all. A common answer is that they will help us with our lives, and this is certainly true. Even the most extraordinary dream, properly investigated, has much to say about bread-and-butter issues like work, love, and health. But the healing dream is less the promoter of our waking goals—material achievement, perfect romance, a modest niche in history—than an advocate-general for the soul, whose aims may lie athwart those of the ego. It is often uninterested in the self-enhancement stratagems we mistake for progress. “It's vulgarizing to say that we can use dreams as tools, like shovels,” a dreamworker once told me. “It's more like the dream uses you.”

But we're “used” only if we're willing to dwell for a time within a dream's ambiguities without resolving them. In some cases, we may not be meant to solve the mystery, at least not right away. Rather, it means to solve us. Solve comes from the Latin solvere, “to loosen, release, or free.” It is the same root as in the word solution—one of whose meanings is the dissolving of individual ingredients into a greater whole. In dreams our narrow selfhood is loosened; the ego experiences itself as an element in something larger.

No interpretive task is more dicey, more fraught with peril and promise, than depending on dreams in crisis. We are being confronted with an ancient, urgent question: not merely What does the dream mean, but What does the dream want? Here, when our lives may be at stake, dreams persist in their symbolic utterance (though sometimes the dreams themselves get fed up with the bobbing and weaving of metaphor and opt for a gloves-off punch in the eye). Even more troubling, healing dreams may ultimately care as much, or more, for our spiritual growth as for our physical survival. In the case of illness, for instance, our only reasonable goal should be how to get better; but dreams seem to insist, over and over, that it is not enough to cure our physical maladies. Become well for what purpose? they inquire, sharply, persistently. To what end?

I've puzzled over my dreams, cherished them and run from them, and when I couldn't figure them out, saved them as one would save stray bolts in a junk drawer, wondering if they might someday prove valuable. But to take dreams seriously—enough to act on them, to live by them—is potentially subversive. Dreams smash down the barricades: They admit all, proscribe nothing, view life through a different moral aperture. They do not always flatter us. They are a mirror of human imperfection, held before the face of our most burnished ambitions. They may scare us: A nightmare is a concrescence of our most private terrors. But even a purely exhilarating dream, a flight to the heavens astride a winged horse, stirs a different sort of unease—a suspicion that we may harbor an unrealized greatness, a potential that, if we dared fulfill it, would bring an end to ordinary life.

These days, I try to listen to my dreams, even for critical decisions, though such a provisional reliance on phantasms may mark me for a fool. I can't help but see life in a binocular way, through night eyes as well as day sight, and this changes everything—my relationships to others, to myself, to reality in general. Some dreams, I think, area form of reality. These don't seem “dreamy” in the normal sense, denoting things that are wispy and indistinct. To the contrary, they make the everyday seem cloudy, evanescent. The closer I look, the more my dreams seem to insist upon the same spiritual onus: You must live truthfully. Right now. And always.

In an era when everything is being mapped—every geographic feature from the highest heavens to the sea bottom, every physical object from distant supernovas to the last glinting speck of the human genome—dreams remain, by their very nature, terra incognita. They push at the edge of our limitations, urging us toward the wild lands of the possible.

Adapted from Healing Dreams: Exploring the Dreams That Can Transform Your Life by Marc Ian Barasch (Riverhead, 2000). Copyright 2000 by Marc Ian Barasch( www.Healingdreams.com ).