Tuesday December 6 is St. Nicholas Day, celebrating the saint who would become the inspiration for Santa Claus, who is otherwise known as St. Nicholas today. The historical St. Nicholas is said to have performed many miracles and visited Emperor Constantine in his dreams.
We all have dreams — the alternate lives we traverse when we are sleeping. Sometimes, they seem so real, that we ponder which is true — the dream or our waking lives. Just as the night sky reveals the countless stars that are invisible during the day, dreams reveal the subconscious and unconscious realms of our minds that are otherwise hidden. There are no filters and so the worlds constructed in them can be quite revealing. They often reflect more truth than the life we live in our conscious state.
These are spaces that have a tremendous influence over our daily thoughts, impulses, and behaviors. Therefore, it is critical to be able to excavate their depths. For millennia, our ancestors have been using dreams as keys to better understand both the internal and external worlds. For, dreams exist in the blurry area between these two worlds using external stimuli as props and our hidden interiority.
Dreams reveal how we can manufacture stories — creating a world that seems objectively true and independent of our participation. The truth is, the world we experience around us is actually quite subjective. It is filtered through our conditioning and our senses. Long before we were creating literature, humans were interpreting dreams. The philosophers Plato and Zeno had suggested that the quality of our dreams help us to determine the spiritual state of our souls.
All major religions view dreams with a great deal of regard and mindfulness. There are many Biblical examples of God communicating with people through dreams, often indirectly. Joseph, for instance, was highly regarded as an interpreter of dreams, and eventually became an advisor to the Egyptian Pharaoh after being sold as a slave to Egypt.
The Prophet Muhammad began having prophetic dreams in his teenage years, leading up to his first revelation. Saint Augustine, one of the most important figures in Christianity, had high regard for the value of dreams and dream interpretation. Dreams are often symbolic and contain coded information.
On the other hand, in eastern faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism dreamless sleep is actually a sign of spiritual progress. Hindus believe that life is no different than a dream — maya — and that the reality exists beyond time and space. Most of us are unconscious dreamers. Just as while dreaming, everything appears real, in our real waking lives, we rarely suspect that there is another state of being that is more “real”. As the Hindu monk Vivekananda said, “The whole life is a succession of dreams. My ambition is to be a conscious dreamer.”
If dreams manifest our unconscious desires, a desireless person — the goal of a Buddhist — would have no dreams.
Dreams are one of the most mysterious human phenomena, seemingly rich with meaning yet difficult to decipher. This is how our world is, as well as the inner world of our minds: full of mystery and illusion, but also full of secrets and insights to uncover.
“A vision appeared to Paul in the night. There was a man of Macedonia standing, begging him, and saying, ‘Come over into Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go out to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the Good News to them.”
— The New Testament (Acts 16:9–10), Christian text
“When there is a prophet among you,
I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions,
I speak to them in dreams.”
— The Hebrew Bible (Numbers 12:6), Jewish text
“Whoever sees me in a dream then he indeed has seen the truth, as Satan cannot appear in my shape.”
— The prophet Muhammad
“One of the created phenomena is the dream. Behold how many secrets are deposited therein, how many wisdoms treasured up, how many worlds concealed. Observe, how thou art asleep in a dwelling, and it’s doors are barred; on a sudden thou findest thyself in a far-off city, which thou enterest without moving thy feet or wearying thy body; without using thine eyes, thou seest; without taxing thine ears, thou hearest; without a tongue, thou speakest. And perchance when ten years are gone, thou wilt witness in the outer world the very things thou hast dreamed tonight.”
— Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i prophet
“If we ask if dreams are real, our answer must be qualified. They are real in that we have them, but most of their images do not exist in the real — i.e., waking — world. Strictly speaking, a dream is a psychological construct, a mental fabrication. The Hindus have something like this in mind when they characterize the world as maya.”
— Huston Smith, scholar of religion
“All these names and forms are illusory, like a dream. What Brahman is cannot be described.”
— Sri Ramakrishna, Hindu saint
“It is also possible within this lifetime to enhance the power of the mind, enabling one to re access memories from previous lives. Such recollection tends to be more accessible during meditative experiences in the dream state. Once one has accessed memories of previous lives in the dream state, one gradually recalls them in the waking state.”
— The Dalai Lama
“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzu? However, there must be some sort of difference between Chuang Tzu and a butterfly! We call this the transformation of things.”
— The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
Modern Philosophy and Theology
“Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche. But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind.”
— Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative mythology and religion
To learn more about other common themes across religions, visit us at uef.org/weekly-wisdom.