Great question, ST!
There’s a world of difference between the Christian understanding of dreams and that of New Age enthusiasts.
As ST points out, there are many occasions in Scripture when both Old and New Testament figures experienced prophetic dreams, such as Abimelech (Genesis 20:3); Jacob (Genesis 28:12; 31:10); Solomon (3 Kings 3:5-15); Nebuchodonosor (Daniel 2:19); Daniel (Daniel 7:1); Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 3:13) and St. Paul (Acts 23:11; 27:23).
Although God certainly can and has used dreams as a means of manifesting His will to man, there is a stark difference between Biblical dream experiences and those recounted by pagan civilizations and today’s New Age enthusiasts; namely, none of the dreams recorded in Scripture were sought.
In fact, Scripture contains many warnings against deliberately seeking omens or other sorts of supernatural dreams. A prohibition to “observe dreams” can be found in Leviticus (19:26) and Deuteronomy (18:10).
Prophets such as Jeremiah repeatedly warned people against giving heed to dreams. “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream! How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name, just as their fathers forgot my name through Baal worship. Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. . . .” (Jeremiah 23:25-29)
Contrast this with the kind of dreamwork promoted by the New Age. The New Age Dictionary tells us that dreams fit into two categories, “those that are generated from within your physical body and mind and those that come from your spirit guides or tutors.”
Dreams that originate with the physical body are for function and survival in the physical world, it says. Those that come from the spiritual world are special visits from spiritual beings such as your “Higher Self,” Guardian Angel, or deceased loved ones, who give instructions, lessons and guidance.
The trick is to understand how to interpret these messages or the symbols in a dream to not only make life better for oneself but to be able to influence the affairs of others. One can actually employ a little “dream magic” to achieve these ends, which is as simple as thinking about your heart’s desire before falling asleep, then turning it over to higher beings.
The New Age version of dreamwork, while combining pagan and paranormal beliefs, also relies heavily on the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961), the first person to use the term “New Age.” Jung emphasized understanding the psyche by exploring the worlds of dreams, religion, art and mythology. Although he was a theoretical psychologist and practicing clinician, much of his life’s work was spent exploring other realms including Eastern and Western philosophy, alchemy, astrology and sociology.
“According to Jung, dreams are the method of communication between the unconscious and conscious mind,” writes Johnnette Williams in her book The New Age Counterfeit. “The key to understanding the unconscious and our negative tendencies lay in our dreams. Since the unconscious mind speaks in symbols (intuitive ideas to Jung), dream work is difficult and demands much time, effort, and introspection.”
Jung’s ideas have become quite popular in Catholic retreat centers. Sister Pat Brockman, O.S.U., who describes herself as a Jungian “community psychologist” is a sought after speaker on the Catholic retreat circuit and says our dreams “are our personal Scriptures.”
In an article appearing in St. Catherine Review, author Michael Rose says Brockman considers her technique, which she calls “dream play,” to be a modern form of prayer. For instance, instead of the traditional examination of conscience that should take place at night before sleep, Rose says Brockman recommends we spend that time preparing our consciousness for dreaming and remembering our dreams.
“Prepare yourself for the dream experience,” she teaches. “You might decorate your pillow so as to awaken your unconscious, then ask yourself, what do I want birthed by me? Where in your life would you like to be bettered? Then ask for a message, ask for an angel.”
But the angel she’s invoking is not the kind we Catholics know. One of the steps in her dream ritual involves dialoguing with this “angel” who she calls a “dream figure” in a way very similar to channeling. In this dialogue, the dreamer is to ask questions of this figure, such as why it appeared in a dream or what the dream meant. Brockman suggests that a person recreate the dream scene in their imagination until the “dream figure” comes alive again. At this point, they are instructed to begin the dialogue in order to “get a relationship started.” They are to ask questions of this “dream figure” and write down its answers, continuing the dialogue until one feels “something has been changed or resolved,” Brockman recommends.
That we are dialoguing with what is probably our own imagination or, worse, an unknown spiritual entity, is problematic at its core.
Nevertheless, Jungian dreamwork is becoming increasingly popular in the Church, and has become an enormous money-making business, Rose writes. “These practices are ways, according to Jung’s methods, to tap into one’s subconscious to retrieve ‘hidden knowledge.’ Instead of calling it the Occult, it is referred to as ‘Jungian.’”
From a scientific point of view, there has been quite a bit of study of dreams. Experts define dreams as a mental activity that involves thoughts, images and emotions. Most dreams are said to occur in conjunction with rapid eye movements (REM), which occur during what is known as REM-sleep, a period that takes up about 20-25 percent of our total sleep time.
REM-sleep was discovered by scientists at the University of Chicago in 1953 who learned that it occurs in approximately 90 minute cycles throughout the night. The REM dream state is a neurologically and physiologically active state, meaning that while people who are in a deep sleep do not dream at all, once they enter REM sleep their blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing change dramatically.
Some claim that the distinct brain wave activity that occurs during sleep is evidence that the dream state is a gateway to another world. They believe brain waves represent states of consciousness and that sleep is an altered state of consciousness.
But this belief is not at all shared by experts in dream research who say sleep is not a state of consciousness but of unconsciousness and that brain waves represent nothing more than electrical activity in the brain.