In Western Christianity, especially in Protestantism, there has been an emphasis put on a “born again experience,” that defining and often exhilarating experience when one feels touched by the Spirit or has found Jesus. In the experience one may feel deeply loved, and temporarily released from fear, guilt or shame. It is often the topic of many testimonials at church gatherings. Retelling the experience also rekindles dwindling religious fervor. Therefore promoting this experience is often the goal for many preachers and evangelists: do all one can so that the new believers will have this experience and the old believers all feel rejuvenated in their faith.
Perhaps this stress on a peak experience comes from St. Paul and his conversion, providing a religious model that has gotten a lot of miles and is celebrated whenever it happens; and rightly so. This initial conversion experience is an important component of religious and spiritual development.
The problem arises when the honeymoon of this Christian experience wanes in the rough and tumble of real life, and the believer then substitutes the increasingly barren, hard path for a variety of panaceas like the secure comfort in joylessly adhering to religious rules, fake enthusiastic religiosity or active participation in the enjoyable social activities of a church.
However, religious and spiritual maturity involves two aspects and the barren, hard path is one of them. Just as a good marriage has its honeymoon experience and the long years often marked by fidelity and mutual support in times of dryness, sickness and financial difficulties, the truly spiritual religious life also has the same. Genuine religious faith based on a deep spirituality has learned to thrive in the hard times. However, how this awareness has been learned and what has been learned is often not talked about in mainstream Christian religions, yet this is the understanding that gives life to genuine religion.
As John Welwood says in his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, we need the realization experience that starts us on our religious journey, yet we also need to actualize the experience in the very fabric of our being through daily practices and life disciplines like prayer, dreamwork, meditation and a willingness to look at psychological issues which cause us to stumble. This is what makes the religious life real and alive. Otherwise, we are just trying to live off of a high by bypassing the nitty-gritty of life.
One of the special gifts that come with dreams is an experience of the sacred. We may have a dream of a holy person, a deity, a ray of golden light, or a physician that is healing us. These sacred dreams often have a numinous quality about them; that is, through the images and feelings in the dream we somehow know this dream is coming from a divine source. Once a person has a dream like this, they need no convincing that there is a greater power beyond them. These dreams are humbling, yet they can evoke profound gratitude and sense of joy in the dreamer.
Sacred dreams can come at any time but they often tend to come when the dreamer needs them, such as at the start of a major life change, or in the midst of a difficult transition. In these cases, there seems to be the purposes of inspiring and encouraging the dreamer make it through a difficult challenge, or to take on the challenge.
The Story of Jacob’s Ladder
When thinking of sacred dreams, the Bible story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28: 1-19) comes to mind. Jacob is in serious conflict with his brother whom he just cheated out of his birthright. He has run off to the desert, no doubt wondering what will happen to him. Instead of disaster, in a dream he sees a ladder on which angels descend from and ascend to heaven. The Lord appears to him and tells him that he will have many descendants and be given the land on which he rests.
The ladder is the connection between heaven and earth, just as the dream connects the dreamer to divine inspiration. Our dreams can be a ladder connecting us to our spiritual guides and higher truth. Have you seen a ladder in your dreams? Where was it leading to? It is definitely leading you to somewhere beyond where you are now. Are you willing to go there?
Jacob was so in awe of his ladder dream he named the place where he had the dream Bethel, the House of God. If we see our dreams as the place where divinity can come to visit us, we would take them much more seriously.
One of the classic signs of fear showing up in our lives is the overriding attempt control it. Our lives can literally get bent out of shape by fear as the flight or fight response kicks in—flight in our trying to run away from what we fear, fight in our desperate attempt to alleviate it, suppress it or shut it down completely. The flight/fight response was a coping method that worked well for our ancestors in the jungle for whom the main objects of fear were usually readily identifiable animals larger or more deadly than themselves.
Nowadays, few of us have to contend with actual alligators and lions just to get food on the table—but that is not to say we don’t have things to fear. The things we fear are now less tangible and as a result, often beyond our understanding and grasp, and therefore less easier to deal with, like a racial prejudice, unjust laws, people and cultures we are not familiar with, fake news that is difficult to verify, etc. This makes it harder to determine if what we fear is really worth fearing! The fear often cannot be tested immediately by just taking a quick look at the “beast” from a safe distance.
As a result, there are many fears that just hang in there or get bigger and more believable, and eventually rule our lives. When others fear the same things, a community of fear builds up which reinforces one’s own fears and often it happens that the one who challenges those fears is victimized and shut up. In this scenario, the individual and the community may never know they are dealing with fears based on an illusion, misinformation, etc. What is worse, because very few people are willing to challenge their own fears or even address the need to have those fears, fear becomes a solid foundation for their lives, informing all of their decisions.
One of the benefits of dreamwork is that it shows you when fear has some validity and must be taken seriously, and when fears are nothing but a colony of ants—a huge nuisance that can be easily managed. The way to tell is to look at the animals that appear in your dreams during a time of fear. The bigger or more deadly the animal, the more genuinely threatening the fear. And vice versa, the smaller, the less threatening. It seems our dreams remember when animals provoked fear and use those symbols to instruct us today.
I am thinking of a recent dream I had at a time when I felt overwhelmed by a variety of fears. It would have been really easy to fall into a desperate state of mind. In the dream I walked into my closet and found many ants scurrying out of a drawer. On waking, I reflected on what the ants meant and and how they reminded me of the many little fears I was experiencing, brought on by scam phone calls, a billing mistake by a company, hassles of straightening out paper work, etc., came to mind. As soon as I saw the connection, I felt relief and knew my dreams were telling me to put my fears in perspective. These fears were based on petty things and I should not take them so seriously. I could handle them.
Dreams are very much about healing at all levels, spiritual, emotional and even physical, if we would only be aware of them and attend to their efforts. If you are going through a rough transition that is taking a toll emotionally, dreams may come to let you know you are cared for and to let you know you are not yourself. Here is an example:
Dream: I am in a clinic and see my usual buoyant, optimistic, smiling self in a mirror. Then I let myself feel my real feelings. I am feeling unusually grim and pessimistic.A doctor comes up to me and uses a stethoscope to examine my heart. I ask why he’s doing this. He tells me I am not in my usual emotional state and he just wants to check me out. I know he is right and intuitively feel in the dream he is mainly concerned about my emotional heart, not necessarily the physical one. Then another doctor does the same, focusing more on the left side.
When I woke up I was touched that some dream physicians were taking care of me and my emotional situation. It made me focus more on what I was feeling at the moment and not on the breezy, upbeat persona I was reflecting to the world. I needed to look at the left side (the intuitive side) of my emotional heart.
Since I just finished teaching a class this past semester, I have time to rest and spend a little more time with myself and getting in touch with those feelings that are dragging me down. Maybe the dream doctors were tell me I needed to manifest their thoughtfulness and concern for myself.
It is said that the universe bends to where a genuine need exists and where a heartfelt request is made. I certainly do believe that prayer coming from real need is heard, and when prayers are not answered, one reason could be that God or the universe (whatever makes you feel more comfortable) just doesn’t perceive it as a real need, only an ego need on the part of the person praying.
What is Genuine Need?
The question arises then as to what constitutes genuine need, and how is it different from needing something just to soothe a bruised ego? It seems to me that genuine need arises out of significant suffering, the kind of suffering many people tend to actually deny, endure or cover up for a variety of reasons. This could be something horrendous like suffering sexual abuse or it could be something relatively less horrific like putting up with a chronic health condition.
Dreams and Pain
Dreams are very good at indicating where the genuine points of pain are located at the deep psychic level.
How Points of Pain are Symbolized in Dreams
These points of pain may be symbolized in the form of injured animals, a sick, dying or dead person, or some jarring situation such as a car accident. When these uncomfortable scenes are seen in dreams we tend to think of them as representing something outside of ourselves. In some cases, that may be true. However, usually, they represent an aspect of ourselves that is wounded, sick, dying, dead or being put in jeopardy.
When I have dreams like these, I immediately make it a point to pray for this aspect of myself that is suffering in such a way—even though I may not recognize it immediately since it may stand for something I may not yet be cognizant of in my waking life. I feel this is praying from the deepest and most genuine part of myself, surely opening a pathway to God and the universe for healing.
We all need sustaining visions that will get us through the worst times and give us clues to the good things that are to come. Ironically, it is often when we begin to go through difficult times, the veil is lifted from our eyes and we are given the grace, a “sacred moment” that gives us the strength to undergo any ordeal we must face. I remember a woman telling me that she was very nervous before a surgery to remove a cancer. As she prayed in the hospital bed, waiting to be taken to the operating room, she had a vision of light that came into the room and surrounded her. It gave her great comfort, so she was able to undergo the surgery with great peace.
One way we can experience profound sacred moments is in dreams. Almost everyone I’ve met has had some dream that is profoundly spiritual and sacred to the person who has had the dream. They may dream of flying effortlessly or they may dream of Jesus coming to visit them. They may dream they are healed of some shame or regret they once had.
My experience has been that the very special dreams we have are meant to prepare us either for a special mission, an ordeal like a surgery or a difficult transformation. For example, a dying person may dream of someone special, a loved one who has already died, coming for them and possibly leading them somewhere. The dream has a sacred quality about it and tends to literally help the dying person die. The dream then is a sacred moment which is preparing the person for transitioning from the worldly plane to the spiritual plane.
All of us have had “sacred moments” in our lives, either in dreams or in lived experiences. Some people have had visions and some have experienced a deep connection with God, nature or another person. What are some of your sacred moments? How have these moments helped you feel that life is worthwhile, even in the midst of the most difficult times? If you are in a low spot in your life you might consider asking for a dream that will present you with a “sacred moment” to get you through the hard times.