Dream Interpretation: A Brief Historical Overview

 

Dreams. We all have them. We all recognize how different they are from our normal way of perceiving. We know them to be at times exhilarating, disturbing, even terrifying, strange and fascinating; and so often frustrating, because we sense there is something crucial for our lives trying to reach us through them, yet we cannot come face to face with it.

Enter the magical world of dream interpretation.

Since times immemorial, human beings have sought ways of penetrating the hidden meanings of their dreams. As long ago as 3000 BC, ancient Egyptians were going to temples of Serapis, the God of Sleep, to consult with priests specializing in dream interpretation, seeking to induce dreams of power, in sacred places, which would enlighten them about their future.

In ancient Mesopotamia, it was much the same. The Bible indicates the importance of dreams and dream interpretation in the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar, and depicts the skill of Daniel in deciphering the dreams of that mighty king.

Later, in ancient Greece, a system of dream incubation emerged, similar to that of Egypt under the pharaohs. A series of "dream temples" arose, dedicated to Aesculapius, a God of Healing and Medicine. Devotees would come to these sites seeking dreams for healing and guidance, sleeping on the sacred grounds in the stronghold of the Godís power, probably after fasting and undergoing special preparatory rites. Afterwards, priests specializing in the interpretation of dreams would come to help the pilgrims unravel the mysteries of their experience, though sometimes the meaning was clear, as when, for example, Aesculapius himself would appear before the dreamer, in his sleep, and touch the afflicted part of his body.

To many cultures, dreams have represented omens, messages from the Gods; a time of wandering free of the body, during which the soul could meet with spirits both good and bad, and Gods, and tap into the powers of mysterious worlds beyond our own. There was great knowledge here, great strength, and also great danger. The Native American Dream Catcher was hung beside sleeping children to protect them from evil spirits, wandering about in this unknown world. While ancient Egyptians who saw themselves injured, sick, or dying in a dream, took it so seriously that they would undergo special magical rites to ward off or undo the bleakness of the future they had just seen.

In modern times, as Western culture lost its spiritual frame of mind, the magical powers of the dream world were reconceived in scientific terms - reshaped into the instinctual forces of the psyche; and the "other world" became the "subconscious", or "unconscious" - that part of our mind which, although we are not aware of its goings-on, nonetheless contains and hides powerful memories, feelings, and instincts which often affect our actions and behavior from "behind the scenes"Ö Dr. Sigmund Freud, the "father of modern psychology", developed a revolutionary new theory of dreams around 1900, stating that many dreams are expressions of instinctual desires which societyís conventions, or our own conscience, have "repressed" - driven out of our awareness, into the hiding places and containment areas of the subconscious mind. Out of sight, however, does not mean extinguished. According to Freud, the desires are still there, and so strong that they often erupt at night, during sleep, seeking to spread their wings in fantasy (dreaming), even though they can never truly come to life in the real world. Even so, however, the fantasies, themselves, could be disturbing to us - emotionally tumultuous - and overthrow the other purpose of sleep, which is to give us a chance, each evening, to rest and physically regenerate. And so, according to Freud, our mind very often "censors" the fantasies, which could be sexual or violent in nature, and defuses their impact by disguising them in symbols (for example, seeing a womanís bed could symbolize having sexual intercourse with her); or by distancing us from the fantasy acts which take place (for example, we could see someone else doing what we longed to do, yet would feel mortified even fantasizing about).

According to Freud, by interpreting a patientís dreams, the psychoanalyst - a modern variation of the priest of the ancient Greek "dream temple" - could help a patient to uncover secret wishes and desires whose "repression" was costing a tremendous amount of psychological energy: sort of like trying to hold down a powerful, struggling creature, attempting to break free of oneís grip. Devitalization was the inevitable result of this energy expenditure, with frequent occurrences of depression and neurosis. By uncovering the secret desires, however, and by convincing the patient that such desires were a normal part of being human - no source of shame or horror, though they did not have to be acted out, either - the psychoanalyst could help the patient to shed the weight of his dark load, and return to the light of being fully alive and free.

Freud, rather than dismissing dreams - the oracles of the ancients - perpetuated our reverence for them within a modern "scientific" paradigm. He called dreams the "royal road" to the unconscious (subconscious), and saw the subconscious mind as a powerful realm of secrets, whose exploration and comprehension could lead to healing.

Although Freudís theories provided a monumental contribution to our understanding of dreams and their significance, many challenges and amendments to his theories have since taken place. Many psychologists now see his theory as too restrictive, and insist that many other dynamics are at work in dreams, besides wish-fulfillment, and/or the symbolic disguising and release of forbidden/repressed desires.

Some psychologists have followed in his footsteps, pursuing the study of dreams in his same spirit, but also with a widened perspective of the possible functions of dreams.

Others have trashed Freud and his theories entirely, and downplayed the significance of our dreams, essentially dismissing them as meaningless nighttime escapades without influence or power over our lives, without connections to the heart of our being. These ones, whose strict laboratory view of science does not allow room for the frequently intuitive/artistic approach of Freud, part company not only with Freud, but with the vast majority of human cultures through time, which have always believed in the significance of dreams.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a small but important group of spiritual psychologists, indebted to Freud, yet broken free of his ferocious loyalty to reason: moderns who have in some ways returned to the ancients. Detractors call them "occultists", and accuse them of using the trappings of science to try to legitimize a new religion, or resurrect an old one. Supporters call them open-minded, and praise them for escaping from the confines of the modern scientific paradigm; for leading the way back to truths that science, perhaps, judged too quickly, too harshly, and left behind, along with one half of who we are, and one half of who we could be. Foremost within this vein of psychology - its "founding father" - is Carl G. Jung, whose mixture of modern science with ancient mythology and spiritual seeking, set into motion a powerful current which is still alive, still offering us the hope of finding and harnessing the best of both worlds.

Nowadays, there are many who see dreams not only as a pathway to understanding the individualís psychological dynamics, his needs, and the roots of his personal problems, but also as a pathway into another dimension or state of knowing: a realm of paranormal powers and insights capable of utterly transforming the dreamerís life, and of awakening and empowering him. According to this new school of spiritual psychology, a human being, by dreaming, may come into contact with sources of knowledge exceeding his own personal experience, whether this source be the "collective unconscious" as described by Jung - a vast reservoir of symbols, myths, and archetypes belonging to the entire human race, yet carried by, or accessible to, every individual; or the Akashic Records, as described in Hindu metaphysics - that universal storehouse/imprint of everything that has ever happened, been thought, or felt, which the individual consciousness is believed capable of tapping into.

Likewise, proponents of the "holographic model" of reality, a centerpiece of "New Age physics", believe that the individual may encounter truths, in dreams or "altered states", which are beyond his knowing, if one considers only the experiences he has had in his current life on the earth. According to the holographic model, there are no impermeable boundaries between the individual and the Universe which engulfs him, everything really IS one, and the part contains the whole, just as much as the whole contains the part. It follows that nothing is really "outside" of the individual and, therefore, unknowable to him.

Whatever model of reality is used to explain it, there can be no doubt that enhanced and extraordinary experiences are sometimes attained by dreaming. There are most definitely, and verifiably, a small percentage of dreams that could only be classed as psychic, clairvoyant, or paranormal: dreams in which some aspect of the future unfolds before its time, or faraway secrets are revealed, or knowledge from other times and places leaks into the dreamerís mind.

Surprising though it is, as our scientific, rational, materialistic civilization progresses, more and more people are turning back towards the ancient view of dreams, choosing to see them, once again, as gateways into a mysterious world of power, fear and hope; portals leading back to the inner wealth we left behind, in our mad drive to conquer the external world; portals leading back to the shining of our soulís sun, that which makes us truly humanÖ

 

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