A Sermon for Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
Labor Day Sunday, September 4, 2016
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
The Lord of Dreams
In the Old Testament there is a sea monster called Leviathan. In modern Hebrew, the name simply means “whale” and although some scholars think the model for Leviathan may actually have been a crocodile, it is obvious from much of the description in the Book of Job that a whale is being described.
But part of the description in the Book of Job makes it clear that the Leviathan described is not an ordinary creature, as ordinary creatures do not breath fire.
Its sneezes flash forth light, and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
From its mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap out.
Out of its nostrils comes smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals, and a flame comes out of its mouth. (Job 41:18-21)
Leviathan is a fire breathing sea dragon.
Sea serpents and dragons are common in the earliest literature of the Ancient Near East. Every divinity student will study the Babylonian creation story where Marduk, the god of order and power, defeats Tiamat, the serpent goddess whose body is used to create the heavens and the earth.
In Jewish literature, Leviathan is described as a female dragon who reigns over the sea, while Behemoth, a male counterpart, reigns over the land. Both will be slain at the end of time when the Messiah comes. This image made its way into Christianity and the art created by my Anglo-Saxon ancestors portrayed Leviathan as a Hell Mouth, into which sinners will be driven at the Last Judgement.
The great psychoanalyst Carl Jung tried to illuminate connections between modern psychology and ancient spiritual practices. Be believed that we instinctively imagine creatures like dragons because they represent the part of our mind that is immediately below our animal consciousness.
When each of us was in the womb and our spinal column is formed, we actually had a dragon-like, or serpent-like shape. At some unconscious level we rememberthat. Jung would write:
“We contain nature, are part of it; animals are not only in text books, but are living things with which we are in contact…Probably in our remote ancestry we have gone through those stages and therefore the imprints are still to be found in us.” (Zarathustra Seminar, pp. 900-902)
The image of the dragon endures—in Biblical Literature, Fairy Tales and in modern books like the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit because the image speaks to the deep part of our minds formed long before we ever saw the light of day.
Of all the dragons in literature I have always most liked Great Leviathan. The Dragon of the Abyss, the Guardian of the Waters and the Ruler of Dreams.
Leviathan is the Ruler of Dreams because Leviathan is of the sea. The sea itself has long been an image for those things in our minds that are below the surface of consciousness. The surface of the waters may seem calm, when actually much is happening in the depths. The surface of our minds likewise might conceal much activity that is happening in our unconscious minds.
And nothing tells us as more about what is happening in the deepest part of our minds than our dreams. That’s why I always ask my clients about their dreams.
Do you remember your dreams? Dreams are a procession of images, emotions, sensations and even ideas that occur in our minds involuntarily while we sleep. Sleep Lab research tells us that most people have about three to five dreams every night.
We fail to remember our dreams because we do not pay attention to them. In ancient times dreams were understood to be important, and so people remembered. In our time dreams are novelties, and mostly ignored.
However, if you decide you want to remember your dreams just decide to pay attention to them, and your recall will improve. As dreams occur at the edge of consciousness be sure to record them quickly on awakening. Most people can go from no dream awareness to comprehensive recall in about two weeks if they really try.
There is disagreement among experts about the meaning of dreams, but those of us who have explored them as a tool in spiritual healing think we have a few clues about how to proceed. I’m going to share the understand I have. As always, your mileage may vary. But in decades of practice this is how it seems to me.
Some believe that dreams are merely random brain activation that clears the electrical and biochemical debris out the nerve cells. Yet somehow I think we know they are more than that because our species has always been fascinated by dreams.
There are dreams recorded on 5000 year old clay tablets from Mesopotamia. Greek and Roman literature are full of recorded dreams, as is the Bible. Likewise Hindu literature and even the aboriginal tales of the indigenous Australians speak of them. Uncounted millions of people have found dreams meaningful, which is unlikely if dreams were only random static from the nervous system.
I do believe dreams are meaningful. They are treasures bestowed by Leviathan, bestowed by the deepest part of our human consciousness. I think there is a lot of self-knowledge to be gained by studying our dreams.
That’s why I once told Lindsay, “I intend to spend the day in self-improvement. Therefore, I’m going back to bed to take a nap.”
I was taught about the importance of dreams by Dr. Bernie Siegel, the man who first trained me about how the mind could be a tool in medical healing. Even in his first book published in 1978, Love, Medicine and Miracles, he talked about how the dreams of his patients often gave the key to unlocking how that patient could use their minds to recover from life-changing illness.
I’m just scratching the surface here. There is a well-known Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Taylor, who has written several authoritative books about dreams and is the Past President of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. He is a friend of mine and I respect him a lot. If this sermon speaks to you, check him out at www.jeremytaylor.com.
However, when Bernie Siegel trained me, he used a simple technique. There are three parts.
First, your unconscious mind is protective. It wants to help you because you are what allows it to exist. I often tell my clients “Your unconscious knows you better than I will ever know you, so let’s listen to it.” This protective power is the key to the first rule—always pay attention to the literal meaning of a dream first.
If you have a dream about the left front tire of your car falling off, it might be a symbolic dream about difficulty in moving toward some goal. On the other hand, go check that tire before you drive to work tomorrow. It could be your unconscious awareness noticed that something didn’t sound right about that tire and it is warning you of a possible dangerous situation. Consider literal meanings first.
The second rule is the interesting one. Dreams always come to tell us how we really feel.
The higher centers in your brain are capable of making up symbols, metaphors and even puns. The people you see in your dreams might stand for other people, forces of nature, institutions and so on. These things can be complicated and deceptive.
If fact, if you study some symbol, it will start to show up in your dreams.
As a martial artist I have been a swordsman for more than 30 years. Therefore, swords very frequently show up in my dreams in exacting detail. They have a meaning to me that is much deeper and more precise than to someone who has never held a sword, let alone knows how to use one.
But while the symbols in a dream can be hard to understand, the feelings of a dream are easy. Feelings arise from the Limbic System in the middle part of your brain. This part of your brain is a more primitive information system than the Cortex which organizes your higher thought. The Limbic System isn’t sophisticated enough to do symbolism or metaphor.
That means whatever emotion you experienced in the dream is the emotion your unconscious mind wanted you to have. The feelings of a dream are the key to unlocking Leviathan’s treasures.
The mind has an uncanny ability to prevent us from realizing how we really feel. If an emotion isn’t safe for us to express, we’ve evolved mechanisms to block it.
You may feel angry at your supervisor, but if you express that anger you will be fired. So you may direct that emotion toward a safer target, such as a spouse, and think you are really mad at him or her. Counselors call this “displacement” and it is a very common defense mechanism.
As a child you may have felt hurt or even rage toward an overbearing or abusive adult. But your unconscious mind knew it would not be safe to express that as the adult might abandon or hurt you. So you held that feeling inside and didn’t let yourself experience the emotion you actually contained. Counselors call this one “denial” and it’s probably the most common defense mechanism.
There is a long list of such mechanisms.
When someone is foolish enough to consider a career in Unitarian Universalist ministry, the first thing one does is to consult with an actual UU minister for an initial interview. This interview is to learn about what our process is for becoming a member of our clergy and includes discussion of such things as academic degrees, internships, clinical pastoral education, etc.
When one is conducting such an interview one of the things you are supposed to do is to get a sense of the interior life of the candidate by trying to rattle them. A lot of people think they’d like to go into ministry as a way of working out personal problems, and if so we want to identify that quickly. So you probe and see if you can shake their composure.
I’ve seen candidates become so angry they were gripping the arms of my visitor’s chair in white-knuckle rage, while simultaneously smiling and claiming they were calm. They were out of touch with what they actually felt.
No one is going to be happy if they are out of touch with how they really feel. Dreams come to help us with that.
The feelings of a dream are always the feelings of the dream. Dreams come to disclose to us how we really feel. That disclosure is the treasure.
You may believe everything is fine. But if your dream is about sadness, everything isn’t fine. Somewhere in your life there is a sadness you are blocking.
You may feel insecure and trapped. But if your dream has you on top of the world and in command, there is a self-confidence in you that you are not tapping.
You may feel unloved, misunderstood or betrayed. But if your dream is about being cared for, you are not noticing love, affection or friendship that is actually in your environment.
Dreams come to tell us what we really feel. They come to bring that information through the defense mechanisms we use. Those feelings are very important. Your deeper mind wants you to be successful. That is easier if you have better information.
At this Labor Day, when the Summer’s rest is over and we pause to reflect on our work for the coming seasons, it’s a good time to consider how we feel and what that implies we need to do in order to be happy.
To Be Happy
And that’s the third thing to consider when pondering a dream. Any theme that recurs likely is a genuine request from your unconscious to do something, usually something that will make you happier than you are. That’s why reoccurring dreams are interesting.
The Buddha taught the life is full of suffering, and perhaps it is. But he also taught there were ways to navigate that suffering in order to be content.
In my day, students at the Unitarian Universalist Seminary, Meadville/Lombard, were also full students at the University of Chicago. When I was there I was immersed in the thinking of a psychiatrist who had taught at the University in the 40s and thereafter. His name was Heinz Kohut.
Kohut believed that when we were infants one of the experiences we needed to have was to look up and see the smiling faces of our parents, beaming over us. He felt an important part of personality was formed at that time, and if we missed that experience we would never feel really adequate or happy.
Indeed, he believed that a lot of the things people do in society, striving for money, power, seeking political position, were actually attempts to compensate for that confidence we were supposed to acquire.
The themes that recur in our dreams are often hints about what we need to repair that lack and be whole. If we did not get what we needed from the adults in our infant home, our dreams can tell us how to give ourselves what we need.
The really interesting thing is that I found over the decades of my work with cancer patients is that usually the dreams do not ask one to make major changes. Instead, they can often be understood as requests to give oneself small indulgences.
Over time, these accumulate and help us feel cared for and that boosts our confidence and calm. It also enhances our physical resilience. I see that with people who are doing well with serious illness all the time.
Heck, I see this with my cats. Lindsay and I take in sick and abused cats. We’ve gotten really good at taming feral cats that could previously only be handled with gloves. The trick is to give the animal small indulgences for no particular reason—a food treat, an especially nice place to take a nap, a word of praise or a dash of catnip.
These small gestures accumulate over time in the mind of the animal and make a change in how secure the animal feels. The unsought reward establishes in the mind of the animal the conviction that it is worth receiving good things.
So too with people.
I often joke that I come from a family that is something of a train wreck. As a young adult I realized that my dreams typically contained images of unusual hand made things. When I mentioned this during training I was guided to give myself small indulgences in the form of one-of-a-kind objects that were affordable.
I carry a handmade wallet. As I am hopelessly absent minded I chain the wallet to my belt with a bronze chain, also handmade.
It’s little gifts to myself like that which I credit with undoing some of the damage of my upbringing. I’ve known others who accomplish the same by taking themselves on a nice vacation regularly, or buying a slightly more upscale car or suit of clothing. These are self-reinforcing gestures that you are worth good treatment.
Interestingly, science now agrees. If you suffer damage to your nerves from trauma, disease or stress, the nerves either die or repair themselves. You can’t grow new nerves so that the only hope of recovery is repair.
Thankfully, nerves can regenerate but to do so they require stimulation, and the stimulation that works best is gentle and repeated. Just like offering a cat small treats for no particular reason, or offering oneself pleasant indulgences from time to time, healing comes. There really neat thing is that it can come from small gifts to oneself that anyone can do.
Absolutely no one gets to adulthood without a collection of scars and a pile of baggage. But it may be that our dreams are Leviathan’s Treasures. They are gifts from the deepest and wisest part of our minds. They come to warn us, to tell us how we really feel, and to advise us on what we can do to be whole.
Perhaps that’s something to dream about as you linger in bed over this long weekend. Maybe you’ll dream about it.
And that’s my sermon.