In my dream I am standing in a hazy, cool, featureless landscape. A movement stirs the air in the distance, comes toward me, and slowly forms in to the figure of a man. As he emerges I begin to discern some details: He is short and stocky, dressed in a dark wool suit and grey fedora. As he comes closer I recognize my grandfather - my mother's father. He stops in front of me and smiles. I am happy that he is here, and grateful for the opportunity to speak with him.
Suddenly I remember that he died many years ago. Now trembling in fear and confusion I ask,
"Aren't you dead?"
His smile softens, and he says. "I live in you."
"Where have you been?" I ask. "What have you been doing?"
He looks down at his shoes and shakes his head. The air swirls and darkens.
"I'm not permitted to tell you" he says. Then he turns and walks away.
"Wait! Come back!" I shout. "Please!"
I fall to my knees and yell, "Come back! Please come back! I need you. I can't do this!"
I am sobbing hysterically, but he does not turn, and he soon fades back in to the haze. I awake in my bed, my face pressed against my wet pillow.
My grandfather was a quiet, religious man, who died in 1978, and this dream happened twelve years ago, when I first thought of the possibility of studying to become a Rabbi (a decision that would have seemed completely absurd to me just a few years earlier). Although I saw my grandfather many times when I was a child, I didn't know him well. Then, twenty years after his death, I saw him again in this dream, which is one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
Humanity has been fascinated by the power of dreams for as long as we have written records. Where do dreams come from, we have wondered, and what, if anything, do they mean? Many ancient civilizations, such as Egypt and Sumer, saw dreams as messages from the spiritual realm, providing direction, and foretelling events. The Bible contains many stories of dreams, including Jacob's vision of a ladder stretching to heaven, filled with ascending and descending angels, as the voice of God promises him blessings and protection; and Pharaoh's two disturbing dreams of seven years of feast and famine in Egypt. The clear implication is that these dreams are visions through which God communicate important messages to humans.
Sigmund Freud brought a new approach to understanding dreams, believing that they present the fulfillment of subconscious desires that had been repressed by the ego, and then released in the sleep state. His student Carl Jung found in dreams archetypical symbols that are common to all human being, contained in our collective unconscious, directing us to areas where we need development. Today, many spiritual practices involve the examination of dreams, with the hope that correct interpretations will reveal the key to spiritual understanding and personal growth.
After over 5,000 years of analysis and practice, however, we still do not understand the phenomena of dreaming, and as much as we may want to assign comprehensible explanation for our dreams, they remain elusive. Dreams are so strange, diverse, unexpected, and obscure, that no one explanation seems to account for their existence and purpose. Are they archetypal symbols, suppressed fantasies, neural discharges, prophetic visions, messages from God, or just meaningless, irrational jumbles?
The most helpful answer may be "All of the above". Most of our dreams, it seems, are reflections of our daily struggles and desires. By bringing the unconscious in to consciousness, our typical dreams are useful in helping us to identify the forces that drive us, and the areas where we are stuck. There are other types of dreams, though, like the one of my grandfather, that seem to come from beyond ourselves and our individual psyches. These are prophetic dreams, which are rare and special. The Talmud - the compilation of Jewish legal, spiritual, and ethical debate - states:
... dreams are 1/60th of prophecy. Dreams are the bud of prophecy.
This is a statement of both caution and possibilities. In other words, although only a small percentage of dreams are prophetic, (note; in Hebrew the word for "prophecy" implies any reception of a Divine message, not only visions of the future) the dream state itself is a fertile ground. In sleep, as our analytical, controlling inner voice is quieted, we become more receptive to the subtle reality of Spirit, which manifests as dreams.
While typical dreams may be absurd, vaguely remembered, or recalled in confusion, these prophetic dreams are clear, wise, and compelling, unfolding with unexpected power that stays focused long after the dream ends. Most spiritual teachings recognize that these dreams are divine visions that come to us unbidden, when needed. These dreams are gifts of grace, given to us for a purpose, and it is our responsibility to be sensitive and to listen. Prophetic dreams can awaken us to previously hidden aspects of life and the workings of the Cosmos, and can provide glimpses of possible futures. If we are truly fortunate, we can also receive a visit from those who, though no longer in physical form, continues to care for us and love us.
After a dozen years, the dream of my grandfather remains clear and poignant, and I discover new messages whenever I recall it. I am convinced that this was a true visitation of his spirit, coming to me at a time when I most needed encouragement and strength. This dream exposed me to new realms, giving me the knowledge that our souls truly endure after leaving the body, that we are watched and directed, that there are limits to our ability to understand, and that there are places that we must face alone.
If you are so moved, I'd love to hear about your experience with prophetic dreams.