Creative Process: How Night Dreams Help

Dreams can help point the way in the process of creating art. Consider this example:

Susan is dining in an airport cafĂ©. A loud speaker suddenly blasts a warning that a harsh military regime is due to arrive momentarily. Frantic, Susan jumps up and begins to bury her food under the dirt floor, determined to cover her tracks. Doing so, however, it dawns on her that the food’s smell is a dead giveaway, and to bury it is “an exercise in futility.”

It was “only” a dream?

Whether layered and profound, or simple fragmentary flashes, night dreams often exhort us to develop our creativity in the practical world. In helping artists, dreams are one of my favorite tools. They hold power to reflect, forecast, indicate new personal growth, and strengthen career resolve. They never give answers, but they often point. Across a dream’s broad spiritual terrain, clues dwell, and once perceived, they act like compasses giving direction. The true creative voice, if lost in the woods, always wants out. The actual dreams profiled here will help artists to explore their dreams for guidance.

When Susan sought help in developing creativity, her goal was to re-activate artistic gifts she had lost touch with. A career in child development engaged her creatively, but that was not enough. She craved personal expression, but fear was stopping her.

Pondering the dream, a single implication began to take full shape among murkier prospects; Susan feared exposure and judgment, but she could no longer deny the existence of her deeper gifts. Despite her efforts to bury them (the food), hiding the evidence was “futile.” Her gifts exist unceasingly, as vital animating forces that fuel her “travels,” or life path. For Susan, this news was bittersweet. Her wide-eyed excitement was laced with apprehension. For most of us, undertaking change and seeking help isn’t purely a picnic. But it’s worth it. When we’re ready, it’s time for action. In our coaching process, we kept exploring the delicate braid of her creative process, striving for clarity and setting moderate goals during her transition.

In a later dream, a dog approaches Susan in a field. Indistinct people command her to bury the dog alive. Aghast, she replies with an unqualified “No!” and remains solid in her refusal. Susan’s willingness to resuscitate her personal creativity, and to protect it, was growing. This dream was a friendly mirror saying, “Well done, look at the progress you are making!” Susan’s dreams were often potent guides, easing her transitional anxieties, and helping her to unleash enormous amounts of artistic energy and creativity in drawing and music.

Everyone has night dreams, remembered or not, as a part of REM sleep. Sigmund Freud’s sexual theory insisted that dreams protect us from voracious instincts boiling up from the oily basement of the power-hungry ID. Composed of symbolic clues to self-knowledge, the dream, said Freud, is a “royal road to the unconscious.” Carl Gustav Jung later broke with Freud’s concept of the unconscious, conceiving it as more a repository of wisdom than a storm-filled dungeon of wishes and fears. For Dr. Jung, dreams were less concealers, and more revealers, of truth. Our dreams come packaged in various forms; ephemeral flashes, jolting realism, subtle wisps, or even a confluence of seeming nonsense. They range from abstraction to confused or coherent narratives. Their imagery can carry innocuous, inspirational, or traumatic impact. No matter how clarified, puzzling or outlandish their language may be, our dreams are trying to tell us something. They often require us to dwell for a time within ambiguities, to bathe in cool pools of uncertainty, before we profess to know what they have in mind.

From what deep strata of consciousness do these “shepherds of the night” emerge? Jung’s theory suggests that our psyches are born connected to a deeper collective “ocean” of awareness from which our personal dreams flow. Like tributaries, dreams deliver ancient motifs that play a mysterious role in humanity’s evolution of consciousness. Jung interfaced with multiple traditions and tribes, gleaning rich source material on the nature of dreams. For ancient cultures across the world, dreams held more than mere fascination. Indian tribes such as the Lakota Sioux, Salish, Hopi, Iroquois, and Maya are well known for sharing their dreams openly, and initiating interpreters to plum their depths for vital clues to social, political and spiritual problem solving.

James, a client aspiring to become a novelist, had an inner critic slowing his projects down. His dreams were powerful. In one, he arrives in front of a church. Angelic melodies sung by feminine voices ring out from behind it. Enchanted, James follows them to a courtyard outside the sanctuary. There he sees a choir of beautiful women shrouded in gauzy white sheets. He is emotionally moved. He enters the church through a back door, where a curator stands accompanied by piles of art proofs. He contends, fastidiously, that James must have a ticket for entry. Producing one from his pocket, James is led by the curator down a curving, stair-like contraption to a basement level under the sanctuary. There is yet another level below this one, but no stairway leading down to it. There hangs an alluring painting of a magnificent unicorn. The curator jumps blithely down the stairless “cliff” and lands near to the painting. James, still perched on the level above and watching him, is tempted to follow suit but unable to gather his nerve to jump. The curator looks up and scoffs at him for playing it safe.

This relatively complex dream exemplifies the need for incremental inspection. A slow pace brings richer rewards, like a savory long-cooked stew. The avant garde elements of the church (an outdoor choir and subterranean art gallery) signify a spiritual context, one that defies traditional norms. James is “called” by an unorthodox, near-angelic choir. He enters the church through the “back door.” This imagery invited James to apprehend his creativity as a profound mystery, issuing from both within and beyond the confines of church authority. The only authority here is a curator, an art “editor” of sorts, who makes demands but also guides James to the inner depths.

Tending to the images one-by-one, we discovered an over-riding insight. The dream curator mirrored for James what his inner critic, once transformed, might look like: an “usher” leading him to embrace and develop the hallowed uniqueness of his creativity and his being (the unicorn.) We must aim not to eliminate, but to soften and guide the critic back into its proper role. Under the disguise of a Destroyer lies an Ally–a helpful “editor” who serves the Creative Voice on its mission toward actualizing itself in the world. Far from stopping him, the transformed critic would empower James to view his writing with an objective eye–to evaluate, improve upon–to uphold the standards of his initial inspiration. James’ As our artist coaching sessions proceeded, the Creative Voice took the lead, and momentum on his novel grew steadily. This dream was a springboard. It grew more intelligible over time, like an old book of spiritual wisdom, revealing more upon each reading.

Far less enigmatic dreams are no less important. James later dreamed he was driving a new car, feeling at ease, mastering its controls. This fragment echoed the qualities of trust and reliance developing in his relationship with creativity. Kristin, a real estate agent embarking upon a singing career, dreamed she was flying in a helicopter. Her father was “driving” incompetently, putting them in danger. The onus fell on Kristin to “take the controls” away from him. This punctuated dream urged Kristin to stop letting her artist father’s negative judgments choke her creative flow. In the same vein, Robin, a writer and musician, dreamed that one of her artist friends could not see her, though they occupied the same room. Through the artist coaching process, we discovered Robin was feeling unacknowledged as the talented artist she is.

Some dreams shed light on our present or past. Others cast their rays into the future. In one of my dreams, I am in a forest at the top of a huge hill. I am being carried away by flood waters swallowing the earth and trees. Feeling “uprooted” and out of control, I finally drift to an enormous rock jutting above the ominous water. I grab hold and climb on top to rest. Etched into the rock’s surface is an ancient inscription, awesomely powerful but inscrutable. I nonetheless feel wholly reassured by it. When the rising water level is about to submerge the rock, I am forced to get back in and swim. Now fortified, I instinctively know what direction will lead toward safety. Soon, in the distance, I see the top of an unthinkably tall ladder leading down to dry land. I swim toward it, relieved, but knowing that heavy days are awaiting me. Shortly after this dream, a multiplex web of transitional challenges arose in my life at once, in the forms of death, career and personal life. I think the dream was a talisman to hold onto when events began to “uproot” me and threaten my faith. It struck me first as a mysterious and spiritual poem about staying grounded. It matured to become, in retrospect, a personal symbol of hope.

These are called “precognitive” dreams. They forecast coming events, sometimes with uncanny accuracy. Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his own assassination. The tutor for Austria’s Archbishop Franz Ferdinand dreamed his pupil would be assassinated at Sarajevo, the event that precipitated World War 1. These dreams have enduring ripple affects, viewed from new perspectives with time. They call into question spiritual aspects of our lives, and the progression of time itself. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions are full dream life, viewed as emanations from a realm mystics call “Timeless.” The biblical prophet Daniel, for example, interpreted the dreams of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel himself experienced “night visions” thought to symbolize future power struggles between the earthly kingdoms (or nations) of the world. Jung wrote of “an existence outside time which runs parallel with existence inside time.” Dreams may be a sort of universal gateway to this “Timeless” realm, one that quantum physics might describe as the “non-material sphere of awareness.” A Christian may call it “God,” a Buddhist, “Enlightenment.”

Another artist, Claudia, dreamed of a gypsy woman: Four men lift a square table by its four corners and carry it into her house. As a result, the room becomes more spacious and open. The majestic interior is full of intriguing artifacts and exotica. The gypsy is well pleased. In this dream, the gypsy represented a fey, spontaneous side of Claudia that needed “more room.” The image inspired Claudia to breathe new life into her creativity and her projects. It’s a rare four-cornered table that requires four men to move it. Four is sometimes perceived as a symbol for transcendence, or the “fourth dimension,” Great literature such as the Parsifal myth and Goethe’s Faust use “four” as a device to represent this realm. It seemed the gypsy image was symbolizing Claudia’s passageway. One’s personal history holds the vital keys to meaning, but inherited symbols from the deeper collective past, enlarge it.

We have multiple names; the Transcendent, God, Enlightenment, Fourth Dimension, and many others. Whatever we choose to call it, the Creative Voice is experienced as inextricably linked to it. Even the most brilliant and accomplished creators have had times of struggle, even grave doubts. When the light is blocked, there are ways to ease the shades off. Dreams may console, challenge, or plain baffle us. But one thing is certain; they will always push at the seams of our conscious limitations, coaxing a tear that would open us to developing greater creativity, greater goals and a larger, more spiritual self.

Cultivate Your Dreams

– When you lie down to sleep, give yourself the gentle suggestion, “I’d like to remember my dreams.” Then, the moment you open your eyes in the morning, think, “What was I just dreaming?” Close your eyes again, and allow the memory of the dream to emerge in your mind.

– When reviewing dream content, take your time. Savor the images, ponder their meanings. Notice how your body responds to various interpretations. Your intuition will tell you when the meaning “fits.”

– Are there animals, other humans, other beings, elements, objects? What environment does your dream take place in? This suggests the area of your life it is referring to. For example, a living room could be about your family relationships or something else you associate with that space. Taking it a step further, you might ask if it’s addressing the level of “aliveness” in your life.

– Notice how each symbol of your dream relates to every other symbol, like a holograph.

– Strikingly bold images mean that your dream is really trying to get your attention. It might be trying to “wake you up” to something. Repeating symbols are important, too. Do you need more of the qualities of that symbol in your life? For example, if you repeatedly dream about water, perhaps you need more of it in your life, internally or externally. Water can symbolize consciousness itself.

– Keep a journal or recorder near your bedside. The act of writing or speaking the
dream often behaves in magical ways. It will expand and enrich your insights and personal growth. If you’re in a hurry, jot down the key notes about your dream so you may recall it fully for later recording.

– Avoid symbols dictionaries. Your own life experience informs your dreams. You and
your intuition are the best resources. Share your dreams with a trusted friend or group. They may help with additional questions that lead to more insight. Still, your own “felt sense” has the final say.

– Avoid mincing and parsing your dream images to death. Allow them to breathe and
show you the gifts they bear.

– Dreams are one of the great free wonders of life; so have fun!

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*Essay by Barbara Bowen of - the definitive source for artists and creative careers in transition. Contact Barbara to empower your creative process and for help with your career goals. She would love to hear from you.*