Do dreams ever tell us literally what to do with our lives? Do they tell us what decision to make? When to change jobs, or when to move to a new locale, or what relationship to pursue?
Here is what Carl Jung had to say about this question:
“A dream never says what one ought to do….You must know the details of the conscious condition in order to interpret a dream, for the dream is made up of all we don’t live or become conscious of. In my conscious I might go too far to the right. When you lean too far over on one side, there will be a compensation in the unconscious. The unconscious is like a compass, it doesn’t tell you what to do. Unless you can read the compass it cannot help you.” (Lecture, 1929)
Jung’s words are consistent with his concept of the Self, which is sort of like a psychic compass. He believed that there is an unconscious organizing principle within each of us that is constantly working behind the scenes to bring us into line with who we truly are. It’s as if there is a mysterious person or entity or energy within us that is always praying for our healing and wholeness, whether we are conscious of it or not. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this “prevenient grace” – an unfortunate term, actually, since no one ever uses the word “prevenient.” But the meaning, I think, is the same.
In a recent dream, I was deep underwater, and I swam up to a window on a deep water vessel, like a spaceship. As I peered inside, I saw a group of people and a woman in the act of giving birth. As the doctor delivered the child, he looked over his shoulder and shouted, “Well, isn’t anyone going to say ‘thank you’?
I am struck by this poignant question and how it is addressed to my conscious self – my ego (self with a little “s”). It’s as if this larger sense of Self that is underwater, but very active in bringing things to birth for my conscious enjoyment and usage, is challenging the way I am apparently an outsider to my own experience of mystery.
How many times have I been given a solution to a problem by sleeping on it? Or how many times has something new and unexpected come into my life — a new relationship, or a new opportunity, a wonderful new book, or a new and fulfilling direction — and yet, I have treated these instances of amazing grace with relative indifference. It’s as if my sense of gratitude is represented by me “looking in” on the mysteries of my own life, rather than really joining the celebration.
So, my dream doesn’t tell me, “John, be more thankful!” But it sure shows me where I am in relation to the sacredness of my life — on the outside looking in. That’s not where I want to be, for sure. My dream, though, gets my attention, which for me is an invitation to be more aware, less intellectual about the holy, more attentive, and certainly more in awe at the ineffable workings of grace that easily go unnoticed every day.