Who looks inside, awakens.
Carl Gustav Jung
In the ancient wisdom tradition of the early church, it was an accepted fact: we dream in order to know God. How, then, is this ancient tradition connected to the contemporary idea: we dream in order to know ourselves?
This, I think, is a great question for our consideration. It addresses the criticism of some who see working with dreams as simply a form of navel-gazing, a merely selfish — while entertaining — enterprise. While others, such as those involved in Christian dreamwork circles, see dreams as a way to bridge “knowing the self” and “knowing God.” We can, they claim, do both — and do so with curiosity, increasing skillfulness, humility, reverence, and even entertainment as well!
Death, for example, is a familiar theme in both religious practices and depth psychological ways of viewing the life of the soul. “Dying daily” to sinfulness and selfish-attachments is not just the perview of Christians seeking to become closer to God. For death, symbolically, speaks to multiple ways in which our ego-centered lives are confronted by the challenges of growth and openness to change — always a blend of hope and new life mixed with suffering and angst. We can literally “die” inside, for example, if we stubbornly resist adjusting to changing circumstances — classically exhibited in cases of delayed adult maturity or in cases of dependency on substances rather than relying on building healthier means of coping. “Letting go and letting God,” a slogan made famous by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, embodies the reality that growth and change involve both dying to self and walking more intimately with the Divine.
So, while experiences of death in a dream — of either ourselves or others — can be deeply disturbing on the face of things, depth psychology and dreamwork open the way for seeing God’s hidden hand at work shaping our souls. Death can be seen as a metaphor or symbol, rather than as a conrete fact.
For example, a recent conversation between me and my wife centered around the death of beloved “parts of me” in a dream that I had the night before. It turned out that both of us were holding fears within us about impending changes in our lives and how those changes — which both of us wanted and desired — felt somewhat threatening at a personal level. Our discussion did not absolutely resolve the “threats,” but by allowing the metaphor of death a legitimate voice, we were able to experience a greater sense of mutual support, understanding, and energy for facing into the changes.
In the Christian tradition, the Celebrant at the Lord’s Table calls out to us in the name of Jesus Christ: “Come, die with me. Come die with me, so that you might really taste life and live fully!” And the promise is that, in dying to ego-centeredness, we will find both more of God and more of our authentic selves at the same time. Spiritually then, death is not necessarily a tombstone blocking our paths. It may be, instead, a potential warning, or an invitation to grow, or a mirror that shows us truths about our struggles, or even a spirit-guide who leads us onward towards a life of Resurrection, of hope, of faithfulness, and of vitality.