The Mystical Interpretation of Dreams

If you grew up in Western culture and someone asked you to list the ten most important events in your life, chances are you would not include anything that happened in a dream. Because Western society is dominatedby a materialist worldview in which only 'objective' events are deemed to bereal, we tend to dismiss dreams as being mere 'subjective' phenomena—figments of our imaginations with little or no relevance for the actual conduct of ourlives. The one exception to this rule are those schools of psychotherapy which value dreams as a way to access unconscious contents of the psyche. But even here (except for the Jungians) the aim is usually restricted to improving a person's ability to relate to the 'real' world of family, friends, work, andsociety. Any suggestion that dreams might serve as a conduit for spiritual guidance emanating from a Transcendent Source simply does not fit their limited paradigm.

This attitude toward dreams in the modern West contrasts sharply with that of virtually all other human societies which, having been based on sacred worldviews, regarded dreams as indispensable windows intoinvisible realms of the cosmos. This has been especially true of the world's great mystics, most of whose biographies are peppered with accounts of significant dreams conveying various kinds of teachings, instructions, and advice. Before his Awakening, for example, the Buddha had a series of five dreams foretelling that he would attain full Enlightenment and become a renowned teacher, while Socrates insisted that dreams guided him throughout his whole teaching career:

I maintain that I have beencommanded by the god to do this, through oracles and dreams and in every way in which some divine influence or other has ever commanded a man to do anything.1

Here is what Maryam Abdun, the wife of Sufi master Ibn'Arabi, reported about a dream she had:

I have seen in my sleep someone whom I have never seen in the flesh, but who appears to me in my moments of ecstasy. He asked me whether I was aspiring to the Way [the Sufi Path], to which I replied that I was, but that I didn't know by what means to arrive at it. He then told me that I would come to it through five things, trust,certainty, patience, resolution and veracity.2

So, too, the great Kabbalist Isaac of Acre wrote this of adream in which the angel, Metatron, appeared:

While I was yet sleeping I, Isaac of Acre, saw Metatron, the Prince of the Face, and I sat before him, and he taught me and promised me many good things that would come to me.3

Of course, as the mystics themselves knew, not all dreams are spiritual. St. Augustine, for instance, divided dreams into two main categories, those that are true and those that are false, whileTibetan Buddhists distinguish between clarity dreams and dreams that are merely karmic or (as we might say) egoic in nature. So the first question for anyone wishing to tap into this ancient source of wisdom is: How can you tell spiritual from non-spiritual, or egoic, dreams?

The primary difference between spiritual and egoic dreams lies in their content. Egoic dreams are woven from the fabric of our personal histories and reflect the self-centered concerns that arise out of our worldly pursuits. Perhaps the clearest examples of such dreams are the ones we tend to have when our minds are preoccupied with some on-going crisis occurring in our waking state. For instance, if you are grappling with some difficult problem at work, your dreaming mind is apt to continue trying to figure it out while you sleep. Similarly, if you lose an important argument with someone during theday, chances are your mind will replay it in your dreams, hoping to arrive at a more satisfactory outcome. Because the situations we encounter in these kinds of dreams are simply continuations of our waking experiences, they rarely need any interpretation.

Most of our dreams, however, are considerably more jumbled, and their meanings are more difficult to discern. The reason for this difficulty is that, as we fall asleep under normal circumstances, our attention shifts from our work-a-day predicaments to those long-term dilemmas that haunt our lives but which, for one reason or another, we are afraid to fully acknowledge. This repressed material—as it is called in modern psychology—then re-surfaces in our dreams, but only in a disguised, or symbolic, form.

To give one over-simplified example, suppose that ever since childhood you have had a recurrent dream in which you feel strangely gratified at the sight of a lumberjack lying in a coffin. Never having worked in the timber industry or known any lumberjacks, you have no idea what this dream means. Later, however, you might undergo some form of psychoanalysis which reveals the following: 1) You had an abusive father who made you so angry you often wished to see him dead. 2) At the same time, having this wish plunged you into emotional turmoil because you feared that, if it actually came true, you would be held responsible and severely punished. 3) Unable to resolve this dilemma, you banished all signs of it from your waking consciousness. 4) Finally, in the course of your therapy, you connect your father's name Jack with lumber-jack and suddenly realize that your dreams have been giving symbolic expression to your suppressed childhood wish to see your father dead.

Notice that, although dreams that express repressed wishes for a parent's death may be fairly common, they are by no means universal. Moreover, the choice of a lumberjack to represent your father depends entirely on a fact drawn from your own individual circumstances—i.e., that his name happens to be Jack. The father of someone else whose name was Art would have to be represented by a different symbol. Perhaps such a person would dream that they saw a work of art going up in flames. The point is that, because thedilemmas which form the thematic content of our egoic dreams arise out of our personal histories, the symbols in which they are expressed also tend to be personal. This is why interpreting them usually requires spending a lot of time sifting through old memories with the help of a skilled therapist.

Fortunately, far less effort is needed to interpret spiritual dreams. In fact, as a general rule we could say that the greater the amount of spiritual content in a dream, the easier it is to interpret. Why? Because the spiritual contents of dreams are not derived from our personal histories, nor do they express purely egoic dilemmas. They come from a transpersonal dimension of the psyche and are composed of archetypal elements having universal significance. To interpret spiritual dreams, then, we need to understand what an archetype is.

In its broadest definition, an archetype is the original model, or pattern, that gives a common form to objects that are instances, representations, or variations of the archetype. To give one concrete example, the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor serves as the model or archetype for all the miniature statue-of-liberty souvenirs sold to tourists. This kind of archetype is easy to spot because a physical object is serving as a model for other physical objects.

There are other kinds of non-physical archetypes, however, which are far more profound and mysterious. Consider for instance, the natural numbers. If you were asked to describe the contents of your living room you might begin by saying, "Well, there's one couch, one table, and three chairs." In this example, the one couch and the one table are both instances of the number one. Similarly, the three chairs are an instance of the number three. So what are the numbers, themselves? If you think they are the words one, two, three, consider that in Spanish these numbers are represented by the different words uno, dos, tres. The same applies to the arithmetic signs 1, 2, 3 that we use to indicate numbers. These numbers could just as easily be represented by different signs—say, for example, the Roman numerals I, II, III. Thus, while we may see many physical instances and representations of the natural numbers, the numbers, themselves, never manifest as physical objects in time and space. They are conceptual archetypes which, along with other primordial Ideas or Names, exist only in an unmanifest realm known variously in the great traditions as the "Mind of God" (Christian), the "Treasuries of Allah" (Muslim), the "Granary of the ten thousand things" (Taoist), the "Para Vak" (Hindu), and the ground "Alaya" (Buddhist).

Even more mysterious (at least to us in the modern West) than conceptual archetypes are what we might call those psycho-spiritual archetypes which help shape the behavior and destinies of all human beings. These are manifested in the pantheons of gods and goddesses, heroes and ancestors, spirits and angels who—according to all spiritual traditions—inhabit incorporeal realms of the cosmos, and whose deeds are recounted in the myths and legends of every culture. Now, at first glance, the manifestations of psycho-spiritual archetypes found in one culture may appear to be quite different from those found in another. But comparative studies by psychologists such as Carl Jung and Marie-Louise Von Franz, and by scholars like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, have demonstrated that, despite their local variations, these archetypal manifestations perform the same symbolic functions and their stories express the same dramatic themes in all cultures.

Especially relevant for our present discussion is a remarkable discovery made by Jung: These archetypes appear spontaneously in the dreams of all sorts of people—even those who have never been exposed to them in waking life. To account for these phenomena, Jung posited the existence of a collective unconscious shared by all human beings which can be accessed in certain visionary or dream states by any individual, irrespective of his or her cultural background. We can glean something of what Jung was talking about by making a brief cross-cultural comparison of our own. For instance, Igjugarjuk, a Caribou Eskimo, gives this account of what happened to him at the end of a vision quest:

Only towards the end of the thirty days did a helping spirit come to me, a lovely and beautiful helping spirit, whom I had never thought of; it was a white woman; she came to me whilst I had collapsed, exhausted, and was sleeping. But I still saw her lifelike, hovering over me. ...She came to me from Pinga [a goddess] and was a sign that Pinga had now noticed me and would give me powers that would make me a shaman.4

Similarly, during a dark retreat undertaken when he was still a young man, the famous Tibetan master Longchen-pa had a vision of a beautiful woman riding a horse who gave him a crown of precious jewels and told him:

From now on, I shall always bestow my blessings upon you and grant you powers.5

And here is the last part of a dream this author had long before he had ever heard of Igjugarjuk or Longchen-pa:

With great difficulty I struggle on towards the top [of the mountain] and, at last, I make it. I look out over a breath-taking landscape spread at my feet. The seven continents and seven seas extend before my eyes to a 360-degree horizon. Both the sun and moon are simultaneously visible in the sky, one half of which is night, the other, day, and a sacred hush envelops the world. Suddenly, I become aware of a woman standing at my side, wearing a helmet. She hands me a sword and says, "This sword is as bright as the moon and as sharp as the stars, and with it you can cut through the heart of truth."


I take the sword and hold it in the palm of my hand, and it feels powerful and good. Then I turn to the woman and ask, "Who are you?"

"Don't you know?" she laughs, gently. "I am Athena and I've been with you always."6

In the above examples we can see clearly that it is the same archetype—The Feminine Guide (to give her a generic title)—who manifests to empower and encourage these spiritual seekers living in very different times and places.

But while Jung's pioneering work has been key to our modern understanding of archetypes, it nevertheless falls short in one crucial respect—at least as far as mystics are concerned. Jung believed that becoming conscious of archetypal influences helps human beings evolve toward the highest goal of life which, in his view, was individuation—becoming a whole and self-actualized individual. This process of psychic integration is driven by what he thought of as a greater Self—the total psyche including its unconscious dimensions. In the mystics' view, however, the highest goal in life is not any sort of individuation process. On the contrary, it is the attainment of a Realization, Gnosis, or Enlightenment of one's identity with that Ground of all Being which is called variously God, Brahman, Buddha-nature, the Tao, or—as we would say—Consciousness Itself.

In fact, for mystics, the struggle to attain this goal constitutes the Ultimate Archetypal Drama, which is re-enacted by every seeker who walks a spiritual path. Thus, understanding this Drama is essential not only for understanding the spiritual path as a whole but also for the spiritual interpretation of dreams, which consists precisely in seeing how the archetypal elements that appear in dreams fit into and further the action of this Archetypal Story. What follows, then, is an overview of this story, which we shall title "The Journey to Enlightenment," drawn from versions found in all the great traditions.

Because, from a mystical perspective, psychology and cosmology are ultimately indistinguishable, this Journey actually involves a double movement which has its beginning in the eternal Now before creation. Here, in the limitless ocean of Pure Formless Consciousness, everything is Blissfully One. In order to realize Its potential for manifesting infinite forms, however, Consciousness starts to imagine, or dream, a world of forms in which It appears as a perceiving self.

At first, as It witnesses the dance of Its own creation, the self experiences nothing but delight. At some point, however, the self begins to hallucinate that this cosmos of swirling forms has a reality separate from itself. Now, instead of Oneness, the self experiences loneliness; instead of Bliss, fear; instead of delight, suffering. Having fallen into this delusion and forgotten that its true identity is Consciousness Itself, the self starts to weave a story within the Story—a dream within the Dream—in which it sees itself as an isolated ego moving farther and farther out into the world of forms searching for its lost happiness.

Because this world of forms is inherently ephemeral, sooner or later the self starts to realize that its quest for worldly happiness is futile, and so begins to lose interest. Now that its attention is somewhat freed from worldly pursuits, the self begins to remember—however dimly—the ocean of Consciousness from whence it came, and to which it increasingly longs to return. Thus, having reached the limit of its outer journey, as it were, the self reverses course and begins the inner, spiritual journey that will eventually carry it back to its Source. Only then can the dream break and the self Awaken to its True Identity as Consciousness Itself.

Now, for most of us, accomplishing the second part of this journey is by no means easy. In order to realize our true Identity we must shed all the layers of egoic identity built up during our long sojourn in the land of delusion. Fortunately, however, we are not alone in this task. In fact, from the very beginning Consciousness has been calling us to awaken from our dream-turned-nightmare. The trouble is, we have been too absorbed in worldly pursuits and egoic dramas to hear it. This absorption persists whether we are awake or sleeping—which is why worldly people's dreams are filled primarily with worldly contents. Once we embark on a spiritual path, however, everything begins to change. Now, we call out to Consciousness—usually in the form of some Divine Other—and the Divine Other responds by sending us various kinds of guidance. In our waking states, this guidance manifests in the form of teachers and teachings that we start to encounter. During sleep it manifests in the form of archetypal figures, motifs, and symbols that begin to appear in our dreams.

Sometimes, a dream with an exceptionally strong archetypal content can actually precipitate a shift from worldly to spiritual life. In most cases, however, this happens more gradually. Thus, even after we begin a spiritual path our dreams still tend to be dominated by egoic contents, with archetypal elements appearing only sporadically and in somewhat diluted form. This results in mixed dreams which still require a good deal of interpretation if we are to fully decipher their meanings. But the more we progress on the path, the more archetypal contents start to emerge and the clearer our dreams become, until finally the ratio is inverted so that archetypal contents now dominate while egoic contents come to play only a secondary role.

Although dreams with predominantly archetypal contents need far less interpretation, to comprehend them we must still learn the language of the archetypes, which is a language of symbols. This requires familiarizing ourselves with the world's great myths, epics, legends, and folk tales, as well as exposing ourselves to various comparative studies of them. Here we only have space to consider briefly only a few kinds of archetypes so the reader can at least have some idea of how this language functions.

First are archetypal beings. The loftiest of these beings, and easiest to identity, are those Gods and Goddesses, Avatars and Saviors, Prophets and Gurus who are most revered in the tradition to which the dreamer belongs—Christ for Christians, Buddha for Buddhists, Krishna for Hindus, etc. These exalted figures also tend to be the most important in terms of the messages they convey. This is why, for instance, Sufis insist that if Muhammad speaks to someone in a dream his words can be relied on as much as if he had spoken to them in the flesh.

Just below these supernal beings there are a host of lesser archetypes—angelic spirits, venerable ancestors, mythic animals—most of whom act as emissaries for the higher powers. The archetypal beings that show up most frequently in dreams, however, are human figures who serve archetypal functions—a high priest or priestess, a pious hermit, a magnanimous monarch, a noble knight, a pure virgin, a wise old man or woman. To give one example of how this works, you might dream you are whizzing along a highway when suddenly you see that the road ahead is blocked by an avalanche. Not knowing what to do, you get out of your car and start milling about with the rest of the travelers. Then you notice an elderly gentleman draped in a cape, beckoning you to approach. When you go over to see what he wants, he points to a little footpath you hadn't noticed before that leads into thick, primeval forest. The message of this dream is that you cannot get to Enlightenment by following the ways of the world. You must travel alone, on foot, and be willing to enter into totally unknown territory. As a practical matter, it might mean it is time for you to go on a vision quest or retreat.

Of course, not all archetypal beings appear to be so benevolent. One can also dream of what the Tibetans call wrathful deities. In the West, these are the devils and vampires, dark witches and warlocks—all of whom seem intent on doing us harm. But no matter how malevolent they seem, in reality, all archetypes serve to help us on our journey in some way. For instance, a demon who pops up in your dreams might represent (depending on the context) a shadow side of yourself that needs to be acknowledged and accepted or some deep-seated fear that you must face and overcome before you can move forward on your path.

In addition to archetypal beings, certain features of a dream's terrain can have archetypal significance—especially if they are unusually awesome, numinous, or pristine. A particularly majestic mountain, for instance, almost certainly symbolizes the Sacred Mountain known to all spiritual traditions, e.g., Mt. Meru in Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies, Mt. Olympus in Greek mythology, or Mt. Kenya among the Kikuyu of Africa. Wherever this mountain is said to be located, it always represents the axis mundi, the center of the world, that place where heaven and earth, God and man meet. Thus, Moses encountered God on Mt. Horeb; Muhammad first received the Qur'an in a cave on Mt. Hira (possibly in a dream); and in modern times the sage Ramana Maharshi took up residence near the holy mountain of Aranachula. If such a mountain appears in a mixed dream, it may indicate that what seems to be a mundane problem actually requires a spiritual solution. For example, suppose you dream you are searching through a city looking for your lost wallet. In the background looming over the rooftops there is a huge snow-capped mountain which seems somewhat out of place. Because wallets contain documents that indicate who we are (driver's licenses, social security cards, etc.), they usually symbolize our personal or egoic identity. A city—especially a modern one—often represents the arena of worldly affairs. Thus, the dream is saying you will never find your true identity following a worldly path. Instead, you have to become a spiritual seeker and take the path of transcendence.

A desert appearing in a dream can also have archetypal significance, usually representing an intermediary region between the sacred and the profane. Thus, it is fairly common for spiritual seekers who are undergoing a desert experience in their waking lives (i.e., a period when worldly pleasures no longer satisfy but spiritual fruits have not yet been tasted) to dream they are wandering around lost in a physical desert. Such dreams often end with the dreamer catching sight of a lake or a stream just ahead, but waking up before he or she has had a chance to drink from it. Since water is an archetypal symbol for the regenerating power of the spirit (e.g., as in baptism, bathing in the Ganges, or Native American sweats), a dream like this may be taken as a sign of encouragement: Stay on the path, is its message, and eventually you will find spiritual refreshment.

Water can symbolize not only the Spirit's capacity to renew us, but also its power to destroy everything that stands between us and our goal. This is why it is not uncommon at a certain stage of the path for seekers to dream of a great tidal wave that threatens to sweep away everything in its way. The sight of this wave at first produces nothing but terror. But, once it has passed, the dreamer is relieved to discover that he or she has survived without a scratch. Dreams like this serve to reassure us that in the future, even though it may feel as if everything we have is being annihilated, this is necessary if we are ever to complete the journey.

Whether egoic or archetypal, most dreams tell a story. Usually the plot revolves around the dreamer attempting to achieve some objective, arrive at some destination, prepare for a test, communicate with a friend, care for a child, escape an assassin, etc. Archetypal dreams have archetypal plots which are variations of the plots of the world's great myths and legends. One of the most universal plots is the quest for some kind of supernatural treasure—the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, the Philosopher's Stone, the Elixir of Eternal Life—all of which, in the mystics' view, represent Realization, Gnosis, or Enlightenment. But, as in any good story, first there are obstacles to overcome, oceans to cross, mountains to climb, dragons to slay. And these, of course, represent those spiritual obstacles—all our self-centered desires and aversions, attachments and fear—which must be abandoned and surrendered. In most mixed dreams of this type, the object of the quest is represented by an archetypal symbol while the obstacles are represented by personal symbols. You might, for instance, dream you are walking up a mountain path in search of some precious jewel (e.g., the Christians' pearl beyond price, or the Buddhists' wish-fulfilling gem) when suddenly you come upon a lumberjack with tears streaming down his face, who bars your way. If, as in the previous example, you had an abusive father named Jack, this dream could well mean that, before you can make further progress, you need to forgive your father and completely let go of any resentment you are still harboring toward him.

Finally, it is possible—especially during more advanced stages of the path—to have dreams whose archetypal contents are so clear that they need little or no interpretation—provided, of course, that you are familiar with the traditional symbols and metaphors in which they have clothed themselves. The great Sufi Rabi'a, for example, had a dream in which she met a young girl who took her to a palace full of serving girls carrying trays of light. The serving girls told her that their light trays were funeral spice intended for someone who was "drowned in the seas and became a martyr." The young girl told the serving girls to rub Rabi'a with the spices, then gave Rabi'a this advice:

Your prayers are your light. Your devotion is your strength; Sleep is the enemy of both. Your life is the only opportunity that life can give you. If you ignore it, if you waste it, you will only turn into dust.7

All that is needed to understand the meaning of this dream is to know that the phrase "drowned in the seas and became a martyr" is a common Sufi way of alluding to that spiritual death which is a prerequisite for attaining union with the Ocean of Divine Consciousness. Similarly, anyone familiar with the archetypal figures found in the Christian tradition will recognize how the following dream, which the Franciscan monk Brother Leo had, illustrates the power of unconditional love to vanquish sin and guilt:

Leo saw two ladders leading up to heaven, one as red as blood, the other as white as lilies. At the top of the red ladder there appeared Christ, his face full of wrath. St Francis beckoned to his brothers not to fear and to climb the ladder. They try, but fall. Francis prays, but Christ displays his wounds and thunders, "Your brothers have done this to me." So St. Francis runs down and leads his brethren to the white ladder, which they scale effortlessly and without mishap, to find Mary at the top, all smiles, to welcome them.8

The most transparent of spiritual dreams, however, are those in which the seeker receives direct instructions or teachings that need no interpretation whatsoever. If an archetype appears at all, it is not to add anything to the teaching, but only to underscore its importance. One of my own students, for example, dreamt that he was sitting on a cloud, listening to a Tibetan lama giving a talk on spiritual practice to a group of disciples. After a while, my student spoke up, saying: "Oh, I get it. The highest practice is to do nothing!"—to which the lama replied: "Even that is too much."

Needless to say, this teaching pertains only to the last stages of the path. In the meantime, there is much to do, not the least of which is to pay attention to your dreams and the guidance you can receive from them. Peace.

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Summer-Fall 2003. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


  1. Plato, GreatDialogues of Plato, trans. W. H. D. Rouse,ed. Eric W. Warmington and Philip G. Rouse (New York: Mentor, New AmericanLibrary, 1956), 439.
  2. Ibn'Arabi, The Sufis of Andalusia, trans.R.W.J. Austin, (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1971), 22-23.
  3. MosheIdel, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), 118-119.
  4. JoanHalifax, Shamanic Voices, (New York:E.P. Dutton, 1979), 67.
  5. LongchenRabjam, The Practice of Dzogchen, 2nded., trans. Tulku Thondup, ed. Harold Talbott (Ithaca, NY: Snow LionPublications, 1996), 149.
  6. Joel, NakedThrough the Gate (Eugene, OR: Center forSacred Sciences, 1985), 35.
  7. Rabi'a, Doorkeeperof the Heart: Versions of Rabi'a, trans.Charles Upton (Putney, Vermont: Threshold Books, 1988), 49.
  8. Cited inDavid Kinsely, The Goddesses' Mirror: Visions of the Divine from East andWest (Albany NY: State University of NewYork Press, 1989), 238.
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