I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after,
and changed my ideas.
They’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water,
and altered the color of my mind.
Dreams are gifts of the Spirit meant to alter us.
- Emily Bronte
Much of our chronic “depression, " which has reached epidemic proportions in the U. S. , is one of the symptoms of “non-being, " of an unlived life. This also means that depression can be one of our most valuable signposts, a red flag, a spiritual distress signal, a deep inner protest about something we are doing to ourselves. To anesthetize our depression with drugs is equivalent to cutting the wires of our psyche’s natural alarm system. It also makes sense that “depressing" or burying our natural talents, our passions, and our dreams would logically create feelings of depression.
After twenty-plus years of researching dreaming and techniques of dream interpretation, working with well over twenty thousand individual dreams, I discovered that the majority of our dreams have a profound intent and purpose; they stand as guardians at the gates of the human spirit, defending us from all manner of nefarious influences. Dreams focus, with laser-like precision, on freeing us from anything that is self-negating and self-defeating. Remarkably, dreaming appears to function as a very effective psychological immune system. As we learn how to understand and apply the meaning in our dreams, it’s like a fog lifting as the sunlight emerges, we begin to understand what we need to eliminate from our live and most important, what it is that we must do with our life. And one of the remarkable side effects of this process is the healing of unrelenting depression. Here’s an example:
I first met Laura* in a weekly dream group. A professional accountant in her late fifties, she described her life as “having plenty of material things, " but feeling a persistent depression and a “baffling" angst about what to do with her life. On one, hot July night, she brought a dream that changed everything:
I’m at a big attraction, like a Sea World. The crowds are huge. A large porpoise is the main attraction; it’s swimming in a deep concrete canal. Everything around is lush and rich. Then I’m in a very cluttered gift shop and I see this exquisite mandolin for sale. I offer to buy it if it’s less than $1,000 but the clerk says it’s $2,222. I ask why it’s so much but there’s no answer. I notice the back of it is slightly crumpled. **
For Laura, the “big attraction" was a place “designed to make money by amusing and entertaining people. " As part of the crowd, she is one of many “observers"—in contrast to a participant—who has come to see a wild animal, to see it up close, to perhaps feel a particle of what it would be like to be such a creature. But the concrete canal imprisons this porpoise, separating it from its natural environment. Laura described the porpoise as “playful, but confined—a big fish in a small pool. " When she imagined being the porpoise, she said, “I have all this capacity but I’m not using it; I’m in the wrong place, " her voice breaking with sudden emotion. “It’s my work, " she said. “I’m in the wrong place. " For Laura, the “concrete" represented all the “practical" reasons she “should not" and “could not invest" in creative pursuits, the walls that keep her true nature contained.
Feelings of deep regret and heartache surrounded the mandolin. Laura explained that in her twenties she had loved music and that she had especially loved the mandolin and had learned to play it. “I’m handmade, unique. I feel rejected and damaged, unappreciated, left on the shelf to collect dust. Where is my home? People don’t see me but I can help make music, " Laura said, letting the mandolin in her dream speak to her. Hesitating, tears welling up, she added, “It’s the musical, creative part of myself. "
Laura will buy it if it’s less than $1,000 but her dream presents her with a dilemma: the mandolin will cost her $2,222 —a curious series of “twos. " She realized that her dream was telling her that a rejected, damaged, musical part of herself has a price tag beyond what she is willing to pay. She must make a profound choice: to once again reject a valuable part of herself or resolve to pay $2,222 for the mandolin. This dream also reminded Laura that she had been feeling rejected and because of her age was also feeling that she was too old, ready to be “put away on the shelf. "
When something in a dream has a price tag, our willingness or unwillingness to pay the price often means we are choosing whether or not to put our energy into something. Laura’s dream ends with her decision left hanging, unresolved. She would like to get the mandolin at a far lower price—meaning with much less effort. Her desire to reconnect with her inner musician—a straightforward reference to a valuable aspect of her Authentic Self—might not happen; it’s her choice. She might refuse the adventure, turn back, put a valuable part of her genuine nature “back on the shelf, " spend her remaining years with another unsettling spiritual abortion gnawing away at the fabric of her life.
Her dream says that she must make a $2,222 effort. All these “twos" reminded her of the words from an old Sonny and Cher song: “It takes two babe. " And in her dream it would indeed take “two" to create “her" music: the mandolin and the musician. One, $1,000 or less, will not do it. Perhaps her dream requires a relationship between the mandolin and the musician creating a third element: music. Without such a relationship, this connection to the mandolin, the musical composition of her creative life will never be heard.
Laura’s dream does not necessarily mean she needs to start playing the mandolin; that would be a literal interpretation. But she could play the mandolin as a way to ritualize her dream’s meaning, to serve as a reminder of the dream’s transformative message for her life. Indeed, it is in the nature and character of such dreams to stir things up, as Laura’s dream illustrated, to produce a healthy, necessary, creative tension between a depressing status quo and her own unlived, depressed potential.
Her dream inspired her to think seriously about leaving a job she said was exhausting her. She began to explore ways to reconnect with her creativity and her love of music—to create time and space for these valuable aspects of her essential nature. And Laura knew she would have to overcome that part of herself who was resisting putting the necessary energy into her efforts. I was not surprised when Laura reported feeling much better as she began opening herself to the idea of exploring new creative possibilities in her life.
Ironically, attempts to “fix" depression with drugs often end up perpetuating the wrong life. That’s what had happened to Peter. When I first met Peter, a nerdy computer programmer in his early forties, he told me, “I’m sick of being labeled with one of those personality disorders from that horrible big book and then having some therapist try to fix me. " Peter explained that he “hated" his job and the company he worked for, but had stayed for nearly twenty years for “the security and the money. " He had just begun taking a new prescription drug for his depression when he told me about a scary dream that he called a bad nightmare:
It was just getting dark and I was standing outside and realized that there had been a nuclear war. Everywhere I looked I saw blackened remains, a burned-out landscape. It was horrible! Then three, white Atlas rockets landed like space ships, the kind that carry nuclear warheads. As I watched, three alien beings came out of the rockets’ doors. A strange, green glow came from the doorways. I woke up really frightened wondering how aliens can be in U. S. ICBMs?***
After allowing Peter’s dream images to speak to him, he understood the true impact of his devastating bout with depression, how it had effectively wiped out his worldthe “burned-out landscape" that he described as being “dead, there’s nothing growing anywhere. " And when I asked him to imagine being one of the ICBMs and to tell me his “job description, " he realized, with a look of real shock, that the three, white ICBMs in his dream represented the outside world’s remedy he had chosen as well as the actual, three white pills he took each daya powerful, synchronistic allusion to the gravity of the pharmaceutical establishment’s attack on his “depression"a quite real “alien" invasion of his psyche.
From this dream he began to rethink his approach to his depression. Instead of chemically altering his brain chemistry so that he would not feel depressed and could continue working at a job he loathed, Peter began to consider other alternatives including exploring what his depression wanted, using his depression as a catalyst to change his life and his career, to stop depressing his hopes and dreams and his unlived life. Peter’s dream helped him redirect his life by illuminating foreign influences that paradoxically were preventing him from getting to the heart of what his depression really intended: to free him from living someone else’s life!
Our dreams carry the awesome potential to help us to see clearly who we really are—our natural, inborn potential and unique character without anything “landing" in our world that does not belong there. When understood, they become our passport into a life that has meaning, passion, and purpose. Our dreams want our lives to make a difference. We need only remove all the isms and complex psychological systems that would like to tell us what our dreams mean and instead learn how to give our dreams the respect and the freedom to speak for themselves. A single choice can change our world. A creative, fulfilled life requires us to, as James Joyce suggested, turn our minds “to an unknown art. "
© 2005 by: John D. Goldhammer, Ph. D.
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* Names and certain identifying details have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
** John D. Goldhammer, Ph. D. , Radical Dreaming: Use Your Dreams to Change Your Life (New York: Kensington Publishing / Citadel Press), p. 203.
*** Ibid. p. 30.
John D. Goldhammer, Ph. D. , is a psychotherapist, dream researcher, and author of three books. This article is adapted from his most recent book, Radical Dreaming: Use Your Dreams to Change Your Life (Kensington Publishing / Citadel Press). He lives in Seattle, Washington. Website: http://radicaldreaming.com/