Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On the Perils of Dream Interpretation

OK, a couple of confessions are in order. I'll be the first to admit that interpreting dreams can very much be like a Rohrschach test. The interpretation can often tell more about the interpreter than it does about the dream itself. So I think it's fascinating, when I have an interesting dream, to see how different people interpret the dream.

I think that's also why people are hesitant to interpret dreams. It's just a little too intimate. Telling what you think a dream might mean may tell just a little bit too much about what's lurking in your own subconscious!

Also, in case it isn't obvious from some of my other posts, I do regard dreams as a medium of revelation. Actually, there's a history of this in my family. I grew up hearing stories of family members who had astonishing prophetic dreams, or dreams through which they received personal guidance or insight into the nature of the human predicament. I believe that God can and does speak to us through our dreams.

I also believe that the interpretation of dreams is itself a distinct spiritual gift. Joseph of Egypt, for example, had this gift. Nephi and Lehi exhibited this gift as well in interpreting Lehi's dream of the tree of life. So the ability to correctly interpret a dream depends also on our harmony with the Spirit of the Lord, which is able to help us understand which meaning of a dream is most true, and can give us insights we might never find on our own.

I realize that these last two admissions make me kinda kooky, maybe a weird religious wacko, in some people's eyes. But there you have it. My own beliefs about dreams have evolved over the years. I've gone from looking at dreams as nothing but meaningless, random, electrical impulses in the brain; to reflecting our psychology and nothing more at best; to my current belief in dreams as a form of spiritual communication. I've regarded dreams with playful skepticism and utter seriousness. I have had some dreams that are utterly astonishing. I've always found them fascinating, regardless.

I've shared a handful of dreams on my blog. To date I've recorded over 700 dreams in my dream journal. Many (most) of the dreams I have are far too personal for me ever to share publicly on my blog. I do share them when I learn something from a dream that I think might be of relevance or interest especially to the Moho blogging community.

The other day, I was sort of going through my dream journal and noting that about 5 years ago, when I actively started recording my dreams, it seemed that I had what I would describe as "nightmares" relatively often. I would make a note of it in my dream journal "woke up scared," etc. And what I've noticed over time is that the number of dreams from which I've "woken up scared" has gradually dropped off to the point that I don't think I've had what I would really call a "nightmare" in a very long time. It's not to say that I haven't had dreams with some very frightening, disturbing or creepy imagery in them. I shared such a dream on my blog just last week. But such dreams just don't scare me any more. Why?

One thing I've learned is that the more frightening a dream is, often the more important the message is that is being communicated in the dream. The more graphic and visceral a dream is, the more likely it will get our attention. So I've learned from experience that the scary ones are the best. I now regard a nightmare as a kind of blessing! So maybe that has removed some of the queaziness I generally have felt in the past when I have one. Now, when I wake up from a scary dream, instead of being scared, I have an immediate hunger to write it down so that I can learn from it.

When I was a teenager, I had a recurring dream of drinking wine, and then feeling terribly guilty about it afterwards. I would wake up and feel a tremendous sense of relief that it was only a dream! On the other hand, I did not have a sense of relief upon waking up from dreams of a sexual nature. Such dreams upset and frightened me, and made me worry about the nature of my desires. I actually felt guilty about having dreams of a sexual nature. Of course, there is no reason we should ever feel guilty about a dream! But guilt is a common reaction when we don't understand the symbolism in our dreams.

A dream involving sex is often not about sex at all. A person we have sex with in a dream may actually represent some aspect of ourselves, or some character trait. The act of having sex in a dream may represent a desire to obtain intimate knowledge of that aspect of ourselves or to more fully incorporate that character trait in our lives. (Of course, sex in a dream can also be about sex! Or, as Freud put it, "Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.")

In order to truly understand a dream symbol, we need to pay attention to seemingly insignificant details in a dream. That's why the first thing I do after waking up from a dream is to write down absolutely everything I can remember about a dream: what people looked like, what kinds of clothes (and what color) they were wearing, which direction a person or animal or vehicle was moving, where I was sitting or standing, etc. In a dream, whether you are holding something in your left hand or your right hand can have tremendous significance. Furthermore, my number one rule in recording and interpreting dreams is "DON'T PANIC." Don't jump to conclusions about what you think a dream means until you've had some time to think (or even pray) about it. If you do this, you will begin to learn astonishing things about yourself.

Now, some readers of my blog seem to have a tendency to want to automatically interpret every single dream I record as proof that gay sex is evil and I need to stop having gay sex before I die (or I will be damned for all eternity). For instance, this happened recently in my Evil in the Arctic dream.

Now I can see how someone (particularly someone caught up in the throes of homosexual panic) might interpret the dream in that way. The dream features two men -- a white man and a black man -- engaged in invoking evil together. Each in turn is possessed by a demon. In Western culture, homosexuality has often been associated with demonic possession. (For a really good breakdown of this, check out Sexuality and the Devil: Symbols of Love, Power and Fear in Male Psychology, by Edward J. Tejirian.) So I can see how someone might, as a kind of knee-jerk fear response read that into my dream. In fact, since I am white and my husband is black, one might see that as further proof that the demon-possessed black man and white man in my dream symbolize me and my partner, and how the attempt to destroy the book of evil would symbolize the need to end our sexual relationship.

That's an interesting interpretation, but it feels fundamentally wrong to me. Paying attention to one's feelings in a dream is, by the way, a key to understanding the dream. But beyond the fact that such an interpretation just doesn't feel right, a significant detail in the dream is that the black man is demon-possessed first. Then as he frees himself of the demon, the demon leaves him and goes into the white man. The black man wrests the book of evil from the demon possessed white man and hands it to another white man -- me! -- asking me to destroy it. The race of the characters in the dream is significant, and so is the order in which the demon possessions occur and what happens both before and after the demon possessions.

I believe that this dream symbol was actually about the subject of my blog post of yesterday: racism. The black man is possessed by the demon first, because blacks have suffered the most immediate and obvious effects of slavery and racism in our society. When the black man frees himself from the demon, it then goes into the white man. In other words, the ill effects of racism do distort the lives of white people as well. There is a kind of "karma" that I believe has come back at white people as a result of slavery and racism, and that is distorting our lives and potentially cutting us off from God if we don't deal with it. But because white people benefited economically and socially from slavery and racism, the effects are not as immediate or obvious. We in essence, don't come to deal with the more immediate effects of racism until after black people have freed themselves and confronted us with the reality of racism.

(The "distorting" effects of racism are symbolized in the dream by the transformation of the right arm of the possessed person into a blackened, evil claw. It's the right arm because to a right-handed person like me, the right arm symbolizes the dominant mode of operating in the world.)

Racism exists in our society because slavery and other forms of institutional oppression promise social, political and economic power (symbolized in the dream by magic). Both whites and blacks are ensnared in the evils of racism, symbolized by the fact that both are using the book and both are possessed by the demon from the book. Through history, some blacks have also collaborated and colluded in racist behavior, because they perceived it as the only way to obtain social power. (For example, many of those who performed the infamous Tuskegee experiments were black medical professionals.) So magic symbolizes the allure that unjust social structures have, regardless of race or social standing. It also symbolizes the ways that the oppressed can unwittingly participate in a system that oppresses them.

At a key point, the black man, liberated from demonic oppression/possession, takes the Book of Evil from one white man -- who is now demon-possessed -- and hands it to another white man who is not demon-possessed. To me, that symbolizes the choice that confronts white people in American society. Which white man will I be? Will I continue to be blinded by racism, unable to see my own complicity in it? Or will I learn from those who have liberated themselves, and participate in the process of arousing my conscience and joining the struggle to end this evil?

Though I did talk about how indigenous people also played a role in this struggle in my dream (symbolized by the Saami and Eskimo people at the beginning of the dream), I did not mention in the description of my dream that the woman who helped me try to destroy the Book of Evil is an Asian American friend of mine. So that would seem to underline the need for the fight against racism to be collaborative -- across racial and gender lines.

Our inability to completely destroy the Book of Evil suggests that the temptation to grasp at power and wealth at the expense of the poor will always be with us. But we can try to contain it, and guard against it...

Now, why would I have this particular dream at this particular time?

I won't go into detail that is too painful, but in a word, this dream prepared me for some issues that I have had to wrestle with in my relationship with Göran. Göran and I had a pretty bad argument over the weekend, that left me feeling really shattered. But as a consequence of this dream, and as a consequence of the reading I've been doing (by the way, the dream came before the book), I felt prompted to reflect on some things. And at a key moment, when I was feeling really low, and really down about my argument with Göran, the Spirit used this dream and my readings to help me understand how to move forward. And as a result, I've been able to get some healing in this area of my life, his life, and our relationship. So the dream, in some ways, was prophetic, and it gave me the courage to face a challenge that might otherwise have overwhelmed me.

Göran did appear in my dream at the beginning. I've already said a couple of times on my other post that the Arctic in many of my dreams symbolizes the end of the world / the Second Coming. That's what I think it symbolizes here. And in that dream, Göran and I are facing the Second Coming together as partners. We are facing the on-coming challenges as a team, as a loving couple.

I think that the black man and the white man in my dream also do, in some sense, symbolize me and Göran. They symbolize the process by which Göran and I will heal some of the wounds we've suffered, and they symbolize the way we can transform those wounds into strengths and deepened understanding, so that we can face the end together, united.

Now that interpretation just feels right to me. Right down to the bones.

Pleasant dreams!

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