The curious power of healing dreams
Author and psychologist Marc Ian Barasch studied dreams for fifteen years before he wrote Healing Dreams: Exploring the Dreams That Can Transform Your Life. We can deduce the breadth of his research from the insights in an excerpt which asks the question: “What is a Healing Dream?” Many of these traits of healing dreams occur in a memorable apocalyptic dream I once had… Barasch describes five distinct “principles and perspectives” (82) usually present in healing dreams: nonself, nonsense, balance, reversal of value, and wholeness.
In his exploration of powerful dreams and their impacts, Barasch reveals that most of us have at least one dream in our lives that stands out and “stops us in our tracks” (80). He calls these healing dreams, while listing many other ways people refer to the experiences in their own “self devised lexicon” including Jung’s favorite: “big dream” (Barasch 80). To illustrate how universal this phenomenon is, he uses examples from many cultures to describe vivid dreams that fill us with intense emotions and convey a “singular intensity of purpose: to lead us to embrace … contradictions … in the name of wholeness” (80). He describes telltale features of healing dreams. They’re associated with significant life events, important issues or choices, and shifts in our spiritual lives. They feel incredibly real, and provoke profound emotions, whether positive or not. Some put us through cathartic situations and even cause a shift in perspective or “change of heart” (81), either immediately or on later reflection. These dreams differ from the usual because they have more cinematic flair, with coherent story arcs that can present surprise endings or flashbacks and even satisfying endings. This contrasts with the incomprehensible ramblings of everynight dreams. As Barasch describes them, healing dreams often include supernatural aspects enriched with multilayered symbolism, strong visual imagery or musical elements, and “transcend the dreamer’s personal concerns” (81) to encompass the broader welfare of the community. Many of these traits of healing dreams occur in a memorable apocalyptic dream I once had.
In my most evocative dream, I’m crossing a vast flat desert of dust to reach a distant goal. My eclectic assortment of party members are, like me, rejects and freaks. We’re trying to save the world from destruction, and we’re up against tremendous odds with almost nothing going for us. We have traveled far and suffered sacrifices, yet persisted. Finally we reach a featureless, impregnable wall stretching as far as we can see in both directions. We struggle over what to do next until we’re almost broken as a group. Then I look back the way we came and notice indistinct hummocks far away that were not there the day before. The masses are positioned along our backtrail and I can tell they’re larger farther away, despite the distortions of distance and atmospheric perspective. We discover that the wasteland behind us has burst into life on the path we walked. Every drop of moisture left behind had nurtured seeds lying dormant in the dust. In a land known as barren and utterly lifeless throughout recorded history, these eager remnants of long dead forests had grown into a hedgerow in two days. It was clear this was our way in, and we resolved to deposit every possible drop of liquid in the same place next to one massive footing. A smell of damp soil and hope arose as we made camp at the base of the wall. We danced, sang, talked, ate, drank, and rested. Each morning we awoke to find a thriving grove scrambling higher up the sheer face. After three days and nights, our eager botanical ladder had grown to the top, and we could climb the branches to begin the next phase of our quest.
I had this dream during a time of upheaval when I was sixteen years old, and I derive new lessons each time I reflect on it over the years. It’s impossible to predict the path or outcome of a complex endeavor; nevertheless, we must persist. When we are at our most discouraged, we are closest to our breakthrough. It takes diverse talents to address pervasive systemic threats. Nature will rise to the occasion at every chance to do so. An innovative approach with crude materials can be surprisingly effective. Persistence can overcome powerful odds.
These are useful aphorisms, but beyond these insights and the general traits discussed, Barasch describes five distinct “principles and perspectives” (82) usually present in healing dreams: nonself, nonsense, balance, reversal of value, and wholeness. We can look for these features in some combination to identify healing dreams. For example, his nonself principle is detectable in my dream because I do not inhabit the body I have in real life, my self-concept is vague, and who I am seems unimportant to the story.
The principle of balance is present, but it’s subtle. I get the sense in the dream that the forces we’re striving against would be acceptable if they were in balance with the rest of the stakeholders. Our party succeeds by virtue of unity from diversity, and these properties balance the power, privilege, and selfishness we face.
We can see the nonsense principle at work, because clearly prehistoric seeds will not germinate and thrive in droplets of sweat and a little urine. If they do, they won’t grow into a forest and climb up a wall in a few days. The wall and plain themselves are surreal, because they compose an impossibly flat, utterly empty landscape extending over hundreds of miles, bisected by a massive endless wall with no visible way through.
Wholeness shows up when I step away from our party’s conflict to take in the wide view. I look back and notice what the unsuspected seeds have done with the gift of our discarded water. It’s also in the way our solution is connected directly to the unknown history of the site. Our party could never have guessed we would solve a major problem by aid of unseen embryos left behind generations ago, combined with our humble leavings and made whole. The seeds point to our connection to our past and the benefits of harmonizing it with the present.
Reversal of value is a strong part of the narrative, and is perhaps the most important message from the dream. We approach the wall with the assumption that we must go through it and use strongman tactics to do so: power, destructive capacity, and single minded purpose. But these tools are favored by the opponent, so it’s not until we widen our focus and embrace the creativity of the life force that we overcome the obstacle. The corrective action we take is to stop, rest, and take time for self care and a bit of fun while strategically applying our energy – symbolized by water. We progress not by destroying the wall, but by engaging it in a unique way.
As I examine this dream again, the desert now represents our planet degraded, and the dust a malignant ingredient in the stew of input to our over-communicated minds, which can blind us to our true nature and bury our potential. The flatness of the landscape reflects our vital individuality smoothed down and smothered over by the weathering grit of mainstream expectations and powerless despair. The monolithic wall illustrates the uniform interlocking forces of dominance, exclusion, and short sighted extraction at all costs.
The seeds are an important symbol in the dream, with multiple meanings. They portray the unstoppable healing abundance of the life force, while their dormancy signifies stagnation and despondence. They embody the neglected reservoir of collective human potential from which can we can cultivate our hopes for a better future, and their resurrection by wastewater demonstrates how humble people and parts combined can solve serious problems.
Jungian and depth psychologist Paco Mitchell writes of apocalyptic dreams in his essay “The Role and Value of Dreams in a Post-Apocalyptic Future”, in which he notes “we are living in an age widely regarded as “apocalyptic,” though many of us steadfastly try to keep the lid on our share of apocalyptic awareness.” (1) He asserts we’re better off facing the truth; the “apocalypse” of our nightmares is already in progress. It’s impacting us, we’re feeling the pain in the collective unconscious, and our dreams are sounding the alarm.
Although most of us have dreams of lingering significance, Barasch says many people are reluctant to share these deeply felt experiences or their effects (80). For some, these extraordinary dreams shift perspectives and influence relationships, careers, or spiritual paths. Some report healing dreams that recur, while for others, deep dreams may happen only once, yet provoke further interpretation as we ponder them. Whatever their frequency, Barasch believes they “tell us that we live on the merest outer shell of our potential, and that the light we seek can be found in the darkness of a yet-unknown portion of our being (80).”
Healing dreams require us to confront ourselves, question assumptions, and become familiar with an uncomfortable reality; there are mysteries we will never solve. They can be a force for healing and wholeness, because they let us access unknown aspects of ourselves. Healing dreams open us to new perspectives, and if we pay attention, they may expand our awareness of our unique gifts so we can use them to improve ourselves and our communities.
Barasch, Marc Ian. “What is a Healing Dream?” 2000. English 1A Course Reader:
Dreams and Inward Journeys, edited by Terry Ehret, LAD Custom Publishing,
2017, pp. 80-83.
Mitchell, Paco. “The Role and Value of Dreams in a Post-Apocalyptic Future.”
Depth Insights: Seeing the World With Soul, Depth Psychology Alliance,
2013. Accessed 3 Apr. 2018.