“Dreams come in the service of health and wholeness.” – Jeremy Taylor, author of “The Wisdom of Your Dreams”
A few weekends ago I attended one of the most inspiring, nourishing, revelatory workshops of my life. It was a workshop on dreamwork facilitated by the world-renowned Unitarian Universalist minister, author, and spectacular human being, Jeremy Taylor. Jeremy has spent nearly fifty years studying the world of dream, symbols, metaphors, archetypes, and the unconscious – and if you’re familiar with my work and mindset you can see from that list alone why the workshop would knock my socks off. I was sitting there the whole time thinking, you mean, I get to sit in a room with twelve other people who are as excited about dreams and metaphors as I am? People who understand that life – including dreams and symptoms like anxiety – cannot be taken at face value? Have I died and gone to heaven?
I understand that not everyone is charged up by the world of dreams. But for me, having been a dreamer since I was a young child, faithfully recording my dreams and sharing them with my mother and the random psychics and tarot card readers we would meet at the 70s hippie fairs we would occasionally attend, then following up this passion by attending Pacifica Graduate Institute in my early 20s where the focus is on the realm of the unconscious, this was pure, delicious delight to me.
As I sat rapturously taking notes and nodding my head, I thought of all of you – my readers, course members, and clients – many times throughout the weekend. I thought of you every time Jeremy reminded us of the above quote, that dreams comes in service of health and wholeness, that there are no “bad” dreams, “only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.” Sound familiar? This is exactly how I talk about anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts and all of the other deeply uncomfortable symptoms that grab our attention. If we don’t pay attention to the inner realm, our psyches, who are in service of healing and wholeness, will do whatever it takes to get our attention. And if we don’t listen during the day, it will pipe up at night.
Now I can hear the audience shifting and grumbling with questions like, “But what if my anxiety is telling me to leave my relationship?” or “What if my dreams that I’m having sex with someone else are telling me that I’m with the wrong person?” Here’s the point that I make over and over again, which Jeremy corroborated with his five-decade work with the unconscious: Dreams don’t speak literally. And neither do the symptoms of psyche. Jeremy says that one of the biggest mistakes we make in our attempt to decipher the messages in our dreams is mistaken literalism. YES. That in our “rationalist-materialist culture” (I love that phrase of his), we are conditioned to read life in all of its manifestations literally. We aren’t taught to listen in terms of metaphor. We see a stop sign and it can only mean a stop sign. Aside from the possible literature class in high school where we were asked in some kind of monotonous voice what so-and-so image could mean in so-and-so archaic poem, we are doused in literalism at every turn.
And that’s exactly the mistake me make in analyzing our anxious thoughts and symptoms. When we take life – whether waking or asleep – at face value we miss the messages completely. We circle around at the surface level like a wind-up mouse chasing its own tail and getting nowhere. We must go deeper. We must recognize that psyche and body and heart speak in the language of metaphor.
I’ve said it a hundred times before and I’ll say it again: Your anxiety is a gift. When you turn to face it and ask it what it wants to teach you, putting aside the obvious interpretation (you’re with the wrong partner; you shouldn’t feel anxious), you will begin the process of delving into your inner realm and deciphering what lives underneath the anxiety. Anxiety is the ambassador, just as “bad” dreams and nightmares are. It’s psyche’s way of leading you by the hand down the labyrinth of your inner world, shining the light on the dark and scary places, and saying, “Here. Look inside. This needs attention. This needs helps. You have old pain that is sitting like a scab inside your heart, and streams of tears inside that scab. This isn’t pretty work. This isn’t fun work. But it’s work that must be done if we are to heal and move toward wholeness.”
At the heart of all spiritual traditions rests the belief that we are here not only to heal ourselves but to help the world and the universe move toward wholeness. Along these lines, everything I teach rests on this premise that you are already whole, and that your symptoms and struggles are pointing the way for you to repair the wounds and false beliefs you’ve collected on the way and regain the knowledge of your intrinsic wholeness. I bristle at any indication that the sensitive, loving, compassionate people that I see every day – the people who, as children, didn’t quite fit into the system or, almost worse, squeezed and contorted themselves to fit into a system that they knew didn’t reflect and celebrate their essence – are anything less than exquisite manifestations of the divine.
This is what it means to say that our dreams, our symptoms, and our anxiety come in the service of healing and wholeness. They are coming to point you in the direction of remembering who you really are. The come bearing gifts, even when we wake up scared or uncomfortable. Your dreams aren’t here to torture you. Your anxiety isn’t a sign that you’re broken in some way. But you won’t know this unless you turn to face what scares you most, when you turn the mindset of literalism on its head and instead trust that your dreams, depression, and anxiety are ambassadors bearing gifts and clues on how to heal. Embedded inside the language of unconscious and the body lies your wisdom, your health, and your wholeness. It’s time to listen.