In most ancient cultures, consideration and even veneration of dreams played a great pan. Some groups felt that dream life was more real and imponant than waking life. Not only were dreams looked to for information about hunting (Eskimo groups)
, but also for ways of healing physical and psychological ills (Greek dream temples)
and insights into the medicinal properties of herbs, barks and clays (African tribal witchdoctors)
. Common to most of these groups, and evident in the Old Testament, was also the sense that through dreams one had awareness of the transcendental or supersensible. St Peter’s dream of the sheet and unclean animals was a turning point in the history of western socicty —as was Constantine’s dream of his victory if he used the symbol of Christianity.
At its most fundamental, the human religious sense emerges out of several factors. One is the awareness of existing amidst external and internal forces of nature which cause us to feel vulnerable and perhaps powerless. Such natural processes as illness, death, growth and decay, earthquakes, the seasons, confront us with things which are often beyond our ability to control. Considenng the information and resources of the times, one of religion’s main functions in the past was the attempted control of the ‘uncertain’ factors in human life, and help towards psychological adjustment to valine rability. Religions were the first social programmes aiding the human need for help and support towards emotional, mental, physical and social health and maturity. Even if primitive, such programmes helped groups of people to gain a common identity and live in reasonable harmony together. Like a computer program which is specific to a particular business, such programmes were specific to a particular group, and so are outdated in today’s need for greater integration with other races. Religions also offered some sort of concept of and connection with the roots of being.
Example: ‘For two nights running I have dreamt the same nightmare. I am in a chapel walking down the first flight of several flights of steps when I hear loud noises behind me. I am told to run, being warned of the soldiers who ride the cavalry horses nght down the steps, and who run you over if you are in their way.
The horses are fierce and they absolutely race down the steps at the same time every day, and you literally have to lock yourself away in a nearby room which is a long way down the chapel. I ran into the room hearing the pounding of the horses’ hooves. It was a terrible pandemonium in that chapel. In the room were school children the same age as me and some perhaps younger’ (Maria H). Maria, who is 16, in describing her dream says she had recently been confronted with whether to have a sexual relationship with her boyfriend. Religion, represented by the chapel, is Maria’s way of locking out her powerful sexual urges. Many dreams show that religion, as a set of beliefs, is used as a way of avoiding anxiety in the face of life’s uncertainties.
For many people, the rigid belief system helps them to avoid uncertainty in making decisions.
Dreams also portray and define the aspect of human experience in which we sense a kinship with all life forms. This is the side of spiritual expenence through which we find a connection with the roots of our being. While awake we might see the birth of a colt and feel the wonder of emergence and newness; the struggle to stand up and survive, the miracle of physical and sexual power which can be accepted or feared. In looking in the faces of fellow men and women we see something of what they have done in this strange and painful wonder we call life. We see whether they have been crushed by the forces confronting them; whether they have become ngid; or whether, through some common miracle, they have been able to carry into their mature years the laughter, the crying, the joy, the ability to feel pain, that are the very signs of life within the human soul. These things are sensed by us all, but seldom organised into a comprehensive view of life, and an extraction of meaning. Often it is only in our dreams, through the ability the unconscious has to draw out the significance of such widely divergent expenences, that we glimpse the unity behind phenomena which is an essential of spiritual life, i.e. we all have a life, we breathe, we have come from a mother, so share a universal experience.
Example: To quote J.B. Priestley from his book Rain Upon Godshill: ‘Just before I went to Amenca, dunng the exhausting weeks when I was busy with my Time Plays, I had such a dream, and I think it left a greater impression on my mind than any experience I had ever known before, awake or in dreams, and said more to me about this life than any book I have ever read.
The setting of the dream was quite simple, and owed something to the fact that not long before my wife had visiied the lighthouse here at St Catherine’s to do some bird ringing. I dreamt I was standing at the top of a very high tower, alone, looking down upon myriads of birds all flying in one direction; every kind of bird was there, all the birds in the world. It was a noble sight, this vast aerial river of birds. But now in some mysterious fashion the gear was changed, and time speeded up, so that I saw generations of birds, watched them break their shells, flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grew only to crumble; bodies were sleek, and then, in a flash bled and shrivelled; and death struck everywhere at every second. What was the use of all this blind struggle towards life, this eager trying of wings, this hurried mating, this flight and surge, all this gigantic meaningless effort? As I stared down, seeming to see every creature’s ignoble little history almost at a glance, I felt sick at heart. It would be better if not one of them, if not one of us, had been bom, if the struggle ceased for ever. I stood on my tower, still alone, desperately unhappy. But now the gear was changed again, and the time went faster still, and it was rushing by at such a rate, that the birds could not show any movement, but were like an enormous plain sown with feathers. But along this plain, flickering through the bodies themselves, there now passed a sort of white flame, trembling, dancing, then hurrying on; and as soon as I saw it I knew that this white flame was life itself, the very quintessence of being; and then it came to me, in a rocket burst of ecstasy, that nothing mattered, nothing could ever matter, because nothing else was real but this quivering and hurrying lambency of being. Birds, men and creatures not yet shaped and coloured, all were of no account except so far as this flame of life travelled through them. It left nothing to mourn over behind it, what I had thought was tragedy was mere emptiness or a shadow show; for now all real feeling was caught and purified and danced on ecstatically with the white flame of life. I had never before felt such deep happiness as I knew at the end of my dream of the tower and the birds.’
Some Nonh American Indians developed the totem out of similar processes. In one generation a person might learn to plant a seed and eat the results. Later someone might see that through fertilisation more food was produced. Still later someone found that by irrigating, still more improvement was made. No one individual was responsible for such vital cultural information, and the collective information is bigger than any one person, yet individuals can partake of it and add to it.
The totem represented such subtle realities, as it might in a modem dream; as Christ might in today’s unconscious. That older cultures venerated their collective information, and that modem humans seem largely apathetic to it, shows how our ‘religion’ has degenerated. Yet utilising the power of the unconscious to portray the subtle influences which impinge upon us, and building the information gained into our response to life, is deeply important.
With the growth of authoritarian structures in western religion, and the dominance of the rational mind over feeling values, dreams have been pushed into the background. With this change has developed the sense that visionary dreams were something which ‘superstitious* cultural groups had in the past. Yet thoroughly modem men and women still meet Christ powerfully in dreams and visions. Christ still appears to them as a living being.
The transcendental, the collective or universal enters their life just as frequently as ever before. Sometimes it enters with insistence and power, because a too rational mind has led to an unbalance in the psyche—a balance in which the waking and rational individuality is one pole, and the feeling, connective awareness of the unconscious is the other.
Although it is tempting to think of the transcendent as ethereal or unreal, the religious in dreams is nearly always a symbol for the major processes of maturing in human life. We are the hero/ine who meets the dangers of life outside the womb, who faces growth, ageing and death.
The awe and deep emotions we unconsciously feel about such heroic deeds are depicted by religious emotion.
See angel; Christ, rebirth and Devil under archetypes; church; evil; fish, sea creatures; example in whale under fish, sea creatures; heaven, hell; sweets under food; dream as spiritual guide.
See also hero/ine; mass; masturbation; old; paralysis; colours; sheep under animals. ... religion and dreams dream meaning