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broadening and deepening prayer
United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Dreams and spirituality

Mark Argent
1 August 2018

The Bible is peppered with references to people having profound experiences of God through their dreams. The readings from around Christmas include two classic examples: Joseph being assured that it was right to take Mary as his wife, and the Magi being encouraged not to go back to Herod. Down the centuries, many mystics have laid great store by dreams and visions.

Yet today people are sometimes wary of letting the language of dreams and the language of the spiritual be too close together. Perhaps that’s because dreams have become a major part of the psychoanalyst’s toolkit, and so there can be a lingering fear that talking about dreams reveals more than one realises.

But there’s no simple rule to explain what dreams “mean”. In analysis, dream work offers a route to engage with things in the unconscious. There’s an immediate link with spirituality because the unconscious is also a key place of spiritual experience — which is to say that many religious experiences go outside people’s conscious control. One of the lessons of psychoanalysis is that the most important thing about dreamwork is not what it says about the unconscious, but that choosing to work with one’s dreams is a way of co-operating with the unconscious healing process going on in them.

There’s a striking parallel between that and choosing to co-operate with where God is active in one’s life, without needing to understand that. At times, actively “saying” prayers isn’t is what people need. But it can also be too controlled — the danger is that God can only be encountered in ways that fit in with the prayer and the understandings of the one praying. An alternative is to talk of “being” prayer rather than “doing” prayer, so it becomes about tuning into a space which one needs neither control nor understand. Dreams — along with visions, “stray” thoughts and what comes from imagining oneself into scripture — are really helpful because they are outside conscious thought. If one lets them, they gently challenge assumptions and open a person to a new space. In the background is the idea that God is at work in us in all of these.


Most people have far more dreams than they actually remember, so the first part of dreamwork is to make the choice to note dreams down — which usually means a notepad by the bed as it’s normal to forget even the fact of a dream having happened within a few minutes of getting up.

As far as working with a dream goes, one approach is just to ask the question “What does this dream hold for me?” and see what the intuition offers, trusting that the simple process of asking the question is enough. Another is to be very unstructured. It’s very helpful, in the evening, to think back over the day asking the question “Where was God in the experience?”. If there are memories of a dream, let them be part of that question. The answer may not be obvious, but it’s quite common for things associated with the dream to connect with stray thoughts in the day which become part of the sense of what was going on at the deep level where God is encountered.

When a dream needs more probing, a useful trick can be to write down a list of all the elements in the dream — all the people, objects, actions, colours — in one column, and then in the next column write the first thing that comes to mind associated with each of those things, and see what emerges. If nothing’s obvious, try a second column, free-associating one step further with each item. Things don’t have to become clear — there is always scope for more to happen in future dreams — which is to say that spiritual experiences don’t have to happen in one go. “Being”, rather than “doing” prayer, is about entering into a process of deepening, with enough generosity to God to live out of the assumption that something of value is going on, and not rush it to become clear too soon.