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Dreams: Finding Out What Really Matters

Today, my online slumberfest will take me to the University of Creation Spirituality in the city of Oakland where, as part of an accredited class in the doctor of divinity program, I will allow the deepest, most personal content of my secret dreams to be coaxed out of me for all the Internet to see.

The class I'm taking is taught by Jeremy Taylor, a Unitarian minister, heavyweight dream worker and author of some fascinating books on dream interpretation (including Dream Work and Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill.)

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Dreams As Personal Myths

For Taylor, dreams are personal myths that teach us how to be our most authentic selves and link us, through a universal language of archetype and metaphor, to a deeper, transcendent level of consciousness with which he believes we must connect if our lives are to have richness and meaning. "Dreams offer us a transcendent chance to grow," he says. "They are constantly inventing metaphors for the deepest meanings in our lives, and the primary reason to explore our dreams is to catch glimpses of that meaning closer and closer to the source. From my experience — and I'm casting aside my natural Unitarian queasiness about the G-word here — that source might as well be called 'divine' as anything else."

I don't have the time or space to explain Taylor's fascinating views on the spiritual nature of dreams, so I'll stick to the question of how dreams can help us live more richly. According to Taylor, dreams help us by reminding us, over and over again until we get the message, what really matters in our lives. All dreams, he says, have lessons to teach. Even the strangest, fragmented dream images have meaning. Even the grisliest nightmares have come to do some good.

"In 30 years of dream work, I have not met a single dream which has not come in the service of health and wholeness," he says. "There's really no such thing as a really bad dream." According to Taylor, it's all just a matter of making a point.

Dreams as Wake-Up Calls

"When the unconscious has something very important to tell us, it often dresses it up as a nightmare to make sure we notice," he says. "The generic message of every nightmare is, Wake up, pay attention, there's a survival issue at stake, and you can do something about it if you pay attention. The nastier the dream," he says, "the more valuable is the information it is trying to convey."

"If dreams are crucial dispatches from the inner consciousness, wouldn't lucid dreaming, in which we control our dreams, scramble the dream's essential meaning? I ask.

"Well, first," he says, "I don't believe we ever control our dreams. We can influence them, but if what I'm trying to do in a dream is not in harmony with what the dream is trying to tell me, it won't happen. The illusion of control only comes when what I want to do is in harmony with what the dream wants to do."

What about the grim visitation of death in a dream; how could that be a good thing?

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Death in Dreams

"In my experience," he says, "death in dreams is always related to the growth and transformation of personality. It's as if the old personality must die symbolically to make way for the new. That may be why children have so many nightmares — children change so quickly. Even happy childhoods are characterized by nightmares, and often these nightmares correspond with growth milestones."

In his book Dream Work, Taylor gives an example: One morning, his preschool-age daughter bounded into his bedroom and told him about a dream in which she, and both her parents, had been killed by a monster. Taylor and his wife were puzzled by the dream, and by his daughter's rather calm acceptance of it, until he realized she'd just learned to tie her shoes.

"There was a strong likelihood," he says, "that this dream represented the death/rebirth of the little girl who didn't know how to tie her shoes. It seemed likely that the dream also depicted the transformation, through death (and subsequent "off-camera" rebirth) of the mother and father who loved the little girl who didn't know how to tie her shoes best in all the world, into the mother and father of the little girl who knew how to tie her shoes best."

Get the picture? Dreams are urgent dispatches from deep inside. We ignore them at our own peril. But in order to benefit from the secrets they reveal, we need to learn to speak dream language. In my next dispatch, I'll show you how easily this magical language can be learned and shared, when Taylor and his dream-savvy doctoral students communally dissect the most memorable dream I ever had.

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