By Gerald Epstein, M.D.
One day the Chinese philosopher Chang Tzu exclaimed upon arising: “last night I dreamt of a butterfly. I didn’t know if I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was a Man. This short comment speaks to the heart of the spiritual understanding of dream life and of the event called “dream.”
Dreams are real. They are as real as events and lived experiences of waking life. Commonly, I hear people exclaim: “I dreamt last night but in reality…” More accurately stated, “ I dreamt last night but in waking life….” This seemingly minor point has a major impact in consciousness so that we don’t fall into the error of trivializing the dream life by calling it unreal.
Freud fell into this error as a result of his misunderstanding subjective life. He regarded dreams as a “psychotic phenomenon” which had to be made sense of through our logical faculty of discursive thought (i.e. interpretations) rather than honoring the analogical or non-logical expression of dream images.
These images – not words – are the natural and true inner language.
Like imagery, they are inner hieroglyphs encountered by us when we enter the dream world by turning our senses inward from their outward direction that we use them for in waking life. Like imagery, those senses discover an inner world of subjective reality, given objective apprehension through sensory perception.
When we turn inward we discover a world beyond the self, beyond the time-space world, and embark on an adventure to discover our inner Book of Life. This book written in picture language can be learned to be read. Once we do that, we gain information, direction, and guidance to fulfill in our waking life.
To introduce you to how we surpass our physical presence and go beyond, here is an example: suppose you dream you’re on a beach in Hawaii looking out at the ocean. I ask you the following question: “Are you closer to the beach in Hawaii or to your physical presence on the bed?” Almost all of us would honestly answer “Hawaii”, not the bed you are sleeping in. You are really in Hawaii! You are much closer to that experience then to the bed. This is where your senses have taken you. The “you” referred to is much more than the physical form here existing in this time-space world.
What Dreams Can Show Us
Now that we have given the dream its rightful place as a meaningful event in our mental life, what can we learn from it and how do we go about understanding and reading this inner Book of Life?
- Analogies to our everyday life experiences (Ask: what is the analogy to my everyday life?)
- Qualities of ourselves that may need attention.
- What’s going on in our body physically.
- Our degree of freedom or enslavement.
- A gauge of our progress in/of healing.
- Answers to questions we may have about life.
- Our existential place in the world right now.
- Portent (s) of the future.
Dream themes are the same for everyone. There is nothing you dream about that hasn’t been experienced by everyone else. How we live out these themes historically is different for everyone, just like our fingerprints are unlike anyone else’s.
Knowing the meaning allows us to make corrections in our lives, as well as telling us what are our strengths, and giving us indicators for how to pursue our life’s aims.
A Dream Uncovers New Truths
One of my students shared a dream with me, wondering what it meant: “I dream that I am walking on the street carrying a Torah scroll. The Torah (Jewish sacred bible) slips through my hands/arms and slides down to the sidewalk touching the sidewalk. I bend down trying to prevent it from falling, at the same time the Torah is also bent over on the lower third of the scroll, similar to a person bent over at the pelvis. “
I asked her “what is the analogy of the Torah falling, to your everyday life?” She replied that she felt that she was letting her spiritual practice and her connection to her Jewish heritage slip. On a physical level, her lower back had been bothering her, as she had not been attending to its physical care by exercising. In addition, she felt that the Torah scrolls were analogous to her spine that was emotionally and physically a bit collapsed with the many responsibilities that she was now carrying within the past year.
To correct the dream, she chose to participate in an upcoming communal religious fast and prayer service – something she had not done in several years. She also set aside a few minutes a day to read from a spiritual text, and considered rejoining a synagogue. Additionally, she crafted an imagery exercise based on the dream. Finally, I asked her if she was worried about money as low back issues often speak to this. She replied more so in the last few months.
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Gerald Epstein, MD, is director of the American Institute for Mental Imagery in NYC, a training institute for healthcare professionals and adult educational center for the general public. He is the author of Healing Into Immortality, Waking Dream Therapy, Kabbalah for Inner Peace and the audio sets “The Natural Laws of Self-Healing” and “The Phoenix Process.” drjerryepstein.org