Solving the Mystery of a Dream


Welcome, once again, to the sunny Aquinas room at the University for Creation Spirituality in Oakland, where, with a fluttering pulse, I'm waiting to share an old and mystifying dream with a dream-interpretation class taught by pioneering dream worker Jeremy Taylor. To prepare us for the task, Taylor has us stand in a circle, join hands and breath slowly. This is to quiet what he calls the "monkey mind," and allow our intuitions to rise. It isn't working for me. My own personal monkey is chattering like Cheetah on a bender as I ponder what my dream, which came to me when I was 10 or 12, might reveal to all these friendly strangers.

"Remember," says Taylor, as we return to our seats, "only the dreamer can say with certainty what the dream really means. That certainty usually comes in a moment of wordless recognition we'll call the 'Aha!' It's up to Vince to tell us when that happens." Finally the room quiets, Taylor nods my way and my dream life takes center stage.

The Dream

I am climbing a steep, busy street in the town where I grew up. Near the top of the hill, the street becomes a bridge across a deep, narrow ravine. In waking life, I cross the bridge every day on my way to school. I always pause to lean over the railing and stare down at the railroad station a few hundred feet below But in the dream, when I reach the bridge, I'm stunned to see that the ravine below has become a vast blue lagoon with rock-strewn shores and a wide mouth opening to a misty, bounding sea. I am staring into the vivid blue distance, where a golden sun hangs above the ocean, when motion in the foreground catches my eye. Something is moving slowly through the clear water beneath the bridge, something huge and silent. I watch as its rippling shadow, the size of a behemoth, swells incredibly to the surface. Then, it gently breaches — a great blue whale.

The astoundingly incongruous sight of the whale beneath that uptown bridge fills me with the most profound sense of wonder I've ever known. As long as the dream lasts, I watch the mammoth creature swim.

Finding the Meaning in a Dream

There are a few appreciative grumbles when I finish, a soft, supportive gasp or two. My mouth has suddenly gone dry. After a brief pause, several group members point out the obvious sexual imagery of the dream — the feminine waters of the lagoon, the phallic nature of the whale. "Twelve years old ..." says a group member named Annette, "it could be a dream about puberty." Somebody mentions the Earth Mother. Somebody mentions the V-word. I choke down a momentary panic and fight the urge to flee. "I don't think it's about sex," I mutter. "No Aha." Someone wonders if it's an attempt to get in touch with the feminine side; someone else is struck by the image of a small boy facing a huge, mysterious universe. None of it strikes up a tingle.

Then someone says, "If it were my dream, I'd wonder if the dream was making an analogy between the train station and the whale." I didn't get her meaning, but somehow her comment set off a small depth charge in my brain, and I was amazed to remember, for the first time, that only months ago, I'd had the dream again. A distorted form of it, at least. This time, it was set in Philadelphia, on the banks of the Schuylkill River, which had fantastically become the shores of a shallow, crystal-clear ocean. In the clear water, I saw thousands of dolphin-sized fish, moving in precise rows stretching beyond the horizon, swimming robotically, inexorably, toward the shore. The group asks me to describe the details of this new dream and how it makes me feel. I tell them the fish are dull metallic gray and shaped like artillery shells, and that the dream gives me a slurred, minor key version of the stirring sense of wonder I felt in the first.

Solving the Mystery of a Dream: Exploring Dreams

Then Taylor shifts eagerly in his chair. "Here's a shameless projection," he says. "Vince is a writer. As a writer myself, I'm going to see this dream telling a kind of joke on the first dream. These robotic fish represent all the pieces I've ever written, coming back to me from the deep; kind of lifeless, kind of mechanical, because I haven't really followed them back to the source."

Taylor's insight was informed by several details of the dream that I'd shared with the group, including the fact that in the dream, I'd been driven to the banks of the Schuylkill by an editor I often worked for. He was supposed to take me to the train station, where I was about to embark on an exciting cross-country rail adventure. But he lost his way, and we'd wound up at the river, watching the drone fish streaming to shore. Now Taylor was saying the dream was an unconscious rebuke for losing the sense of wonder that had made me want to be a writer in the first place.

The Aha!

The Aha!

I felt the Aha! before I could put it into words. I remembered being a kid, thinking that the world was full of wonder, that miracles happened and amazing revelations lurked just below the surface. Being a writer, I thought, would let me spend my life gazing into the murky depths, luring something strange and important to the surface, then capturing it, bringing it to life in a story, so that others could see that there's more to life than the day-to-day routine.

I still feel the urge to do that, but the fact is, most of the work I do falls far short of that mark. I work on deadline for editors who have to consider market segments, circulation figures and data gathered from focus groups. I aim to produce work that is accurate, efficient and interesting. If my stories don't always glow with the mystery and wonder I'd dreamed of as a kid, well, neither do those mechanical fish.

And that's the message of the dreams: The first is telling me the world is full of wonder, the second is telling me that by forgetting the message of the first, I've traded awe and mystery for function and security. The important thing, though, is that the dreams are about something more fundamental than the frustrations of working the way I work; they are warning me about the cost of living the way I live. I've lost touch with the possibility of miraculous revelation.

I've forgotten how weird and fascinating the world can be. I've embraced the soulless mechanical fish, swimming to shore dependably in orderly rows, and have forgotten about the shadow of that awesome behemoth swimming portentously in the deep. I've become goal oriented and down to earth. I've let life get all rational and mundane. You might say I've grown up. The dreams, I think, are warning me that there are consequences for losing touch with childlike wonder; that I'm paying a price for neglecting my inner whale. But with any luck at all, he's still sounding in the waters of my unconscious, waiting for the chance to rise.