Wisdom

YJ Tried It: Using Dreamwork to Explore the Untapped Wisdom of Dreams

Very few people know how to make sense out of their dreamlife. Yet, these nighttime stories can be valuable guides to discovering our greatest desires—and what's holding us back.

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In recent years, my most trusted guides are not my dear friends, close family, therapists, parenting coach, or even the spiritual teachings of Advaita—they’re my dreams. After spending eight years in India in my 20s, immersed in the teachings of Papaji’s compelling non-duality, my spiritual life ground to a halt, as I found myself absorbed in marriage, children, and house-holding. Petty resentments had rushed in where vast spaciousness previously reigned.

Then in 2015, through some friends I had spent many years in India with, I had the good fortune to cross paths with Michael Regan, whose spontaneous vision of the divine focuses on dreams as a source of guidance. I’ve been working with Regan for over seven years, using dreamwork to complement a rich, generative conversation about my heart’s desire for God. Over these past years, what I’ve learned from my dreams has provided support as I navigated divorce, parenting, the death of my mother, the courage to write poetry, and even house hunting.

Very few people know how to make sense out of their dreamlife, including me. Even after years of recording my dreams and working through them with a mentor and guide, if I try to analyze them myself, I can get into trouble. The task of the dream is to expose entrenched beliefs in the psyche and to provide a solution that represents a deeper alignment with the Self. But if left to my own devices, I would interpret the dream in a way that reinforces my blind spot, as most of us would. By definition, I can’t see my own blind spot. The biases are so fully entrenched that they skew interpretation without me even realizing it.

The role of dreamwork is to take you past your blind spot into a new way of thinking and being, as modeled by the characters, scenes, or landscapes expressing qualities that function as exemplars. In every dream exists a more mature aspect of your soul that is trying to break through. The guide midwifes the dream, coaxing it from obscurity into intelligibility. Oftentimes the process can be dismantling and uncomfortable, as cherished identities and principles get demolished. On the plus side, the creative medicine that dreams offer is uncannily precise. I’ve never had a dream steer me astray. However, dreams don’t prescribe a course of action. They speak to a shift in attitude from which right action can organically arise.

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The study of dreams

Regan sees dreams as a launching pad for courageous conversations about our deeper potential. Fluent in the archetypal language of dreams and relentless in his pursuit to free himself of personal biases that can interfere with interpretation, Regan, a former policy wonk and leadership consultant in Washington, D.C., now offers individual consultations and workshops for people excited to explore new—and often radical—spiritual and creative edges.

Initially, his work with dreams started organically, during a fiery revolution inside the heart that mystics often speak of. His explorations continued in a small village outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he met an iconoclastic and reclusive neighbor, Alvaro Lopez-Watermann, who had pioneered a new theory of dreamwork. Regan, a tall, rugged, no-nonsense type of guy, loves nothing better than to forge a path beyond self-imposed limitations into mastery.

When we first met in 2015, Regan was quick to observe that I had adopted a flowery non-duality spiel infused with passivity—whatever must happen will happen—forgetting my own agency in my destiny. Unwittingly, I had become complacent, overlooking that, although grace can’t be willed, will is essential for grace.

Although I still feel somewhat sheepish to admit it, dreams have become a primary, intimate source of guidance. As it turns out, historically speaking, I’m not alone. Dreams have been used for guidance in a variety of spiritual traditions, from the Old Testament to the Koran to the Upanishads, as well as indigenous linages, including the aborigines, Native Americans, and in the curandera (folk healing) practices of Latin America. Sigmund Freud, who considered dreams the “royal road” to the unconscious, reignited interest in dreams by incorporating their interpretation into psychoanalytic practice, with some serious limitations.

But there’s so much misinformation regarding dreams—and how to interpret them—that I was daunted to even try to write this story. I figured the best way to do justice to this work was to ask for a dream to shape the content of the article, which I have never “tried” before in my entire, albeit humble, journalism career. I’ll leave it to you to see if it works.

Making a dream request

Though dreams often come unbidden, one can also use a dream request to help clarify the nature of the questions and the kind of answer you might receive. They need to be formulated with utmost respect, as in the following format:

Dear Inner Self/Beloved,

Thank you for my beautiful life. If it is your will, please send a dream to clarify the core theme of (what you want to know) and any shift in alignment that I need to make to be at one with You.

In devotion,
Your name

In this case, my request was:

Dear Inner Self,

Please send a dream to show me how I can come into my fullest potential and help others come into theirs.

In devotion,
Elizabeth

What to do after you dream

If you do have a dream that comes in response, don’t judge or evaluate the content. Write it down as best you can, with as much detail as you can, about the thoughts and feelings of the character who represents you in the dream. Even a snippet of a dream, a half-glimpsed image, is worth investigating. And even if you think the dream is so vivid there is no way you could forget it, write it down. Writing out the dream helps you remember details with more vibrancy.

Another caveat to dreamwork: It is best to utilize dreams while the iron is hot. Since dreams always draw on the current creative intelligence, they are time sensitive truth bombs. With rare exceptions, what’s relevant for you to hear one week won’t have the same pertinence a week later. I was lucky to set up a phone appointment with Regan for the day following my dream. I recounted my dream notes to him:

“My sister and her husband had come to visit me. I had done a huge, creative remodel on my place. In the last scene, there are a bunch of people sitting in my renovated basement. My sister is giving a speech about the basement and how she would like to contribute financially to the project. My stepmother Frederique, her mother, interrupts her. She tells my sister she is doing this thing where she speaks softly, out of the corner of her mouth. My stepmother tells her to speak up and not mumble. My dream character is empathetically vibing that this is an awkward, cringe-y moment for my sister. Inwardly, with vicarious mortification, I object to her public shaming—right in the middle of her speech, to be criticized on how she was speaking while she was speaking.”

Analyzing the dream

To start, Regan does not give credence to my dream character’s point of view. He asks me a series of pointed questions to help me explore the overly sympathetic response to my sister and shift to a more appreciative view of my stepmother’s clarity and directness. He proposes that my resistance to Frederique’s “critique” stems from a preoccupation with my own emotional wounding—a common occurrence in the culture at large—and invites me to hold a more spacious mindset. We role-play a dialogue with Frederique in the dream, to help me coax out the virtue of her character’s point of view.

“Frederique, when you’re listening to your daughter and you hear her mumbling, you start to intervene without the usual consideration for her self-consciousness. What is your intent and why would you not wait for some other moment?”

I’m seeing Frederique as being harshly critical, Regan says. He asks me to find a more neutral or impartial term for her interruption. What’s the advantage in how Frederique behaves? She’s chosen a visible moment that might be of benefit for others, he says. Her message is “speak up, be outspoken, if you are going to say something meaningful, say it all the way.” What if instead of calling it criticism, you called it encouragement?

I can feel myself almost getting dizzy, which happens during every good dreamwork session, as my previously held assumptions start to delaminate. All my righteous opinions regarding what constitutes supportive behavior are turned on their head. It’s disorienting at best, because to have a guide able to discern—and unmask—a blind spot can be a form of devastation. The narratives I hold about myself get pierced, and something more real can enter through the perforations. For example, I’ve often resented Frederique for her bluntness, which I’ve felt as unnecessarily hurtful. But Regan asked me to see this quality as a form of fierce truth-telling and activation of untapped gifts.

The dream posits that when words are filtered through a diminished self, they tend to be read as a shaming critique, but when a more empowered version of myself listens to Frederique’s words without bias, they offer loving encouragement. In dreams, every character represents an aspect of oneself. In the dream, Frederique is not just my stepmother—she represents a more unencumbered version of myself. She shows me how I might move from mumbling self-consciousness to a more outspoken, declarative position. Furthermore, that I might not only benefit from such prodding, but may be the one—the Frederique—that calls people into a more confident embrace of their own power.

Regan goes on to elaborate that Frederique does not dance around delivering her message by making it more sympathetic or sentimental, or sugar coating it with an affirmation sandwich. In the current cultural climate, we’re told to support one another through our injuries, to bond through our pain. Many circles demand a certain hyper-sensitivity so that feelings don’t get hurt. Thus, collusion with fragility rather than strength becomes the lingua franca of relationships and empowerment work. We find ourselves engrained in pain—more invested in honoring wounds than healing or transcending them.

With my dream, the shift is around what support means: Instead of bonding over the tendency to mumble, to elicit in myself—and others—the capacity to speak up. If the dream had a mission statement, it would be: Free from inhibition, express yourself in the world in an upgraded way (referring to the creative basement remodel) without getting caught up in the volatility of emotions.

Regan’s final words on the dream were: “You can’t give your allegiance to your brokenness—give it to your wholeness. In that wholeness you come into balance. That’s where you find your inner marriage, your center and ground. And then you are able to be in relationships that foster strength, not dependence. This is what makes it possible, as the poet Rilke says, ‘for each to see the other whole against the sky.’”

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Five basic tenets of dream language

  1. For reasons of specificity and reverence, it’s helpful to make a dream request.
  2. The central character in the dream, the person most closely aligned with what you perceive your identity to be, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. While it’s tempting to “read” the dream from the lens of the person who represents you in the dream, all that does is reinforce an entrenched point of view. Your dream character represents quite a limited field of vision that the dream is trying to help you expand through other characters/settings/situations.
  3. The dream is meant to expose the blind spot or habit, so deeply rooted that it can’t be seen. This makes accurate, useful self-interpretation of dreams misleading. The tendency to identify with our dream character’s perspective will merely reinforce the past habit, perspective, or stance.
  4. The exemplars in the dream are delivering the answer to your dream request, although often in such a way that it’s hard for the dreamer to realize and integrate the solution. The shift the dream proposes is a new way of thinking, one that is foreign to the dreamer’s conditioned style. This proposed shift is often the source of surprise in a dream. Where there is surprise, there tends to be radical disruption followed by insight—especially if you are working with a guide deeply steeped in this territory.
  5. Regan emphasizes that, with dreamwork, it’s not enough to glean the insight, to take note of it. The real work of transformation, he says, comes in the application of the insight into your daily life. The dream is a form of grace, but self-effort is also needed. “Grace and self-effort are two wings of the same bird,” Regan says, and “if you don’t make the effort, everything will bog down.” Doing dreamwork has a core component of being dismantled, as the identity we unwittingly sanction as “the right way to be” has to be pierced. This allows for a deeper shift to take place within that relates to our capacity to identify ourselves as worthy vessels of the real/the whole/the sacred.