Dream Interpretation and Meaning in Sufism
Introduction by Kabir Helminski.
When Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Human beings are asleep, and when they die they will awaken,” it was not just a poetic reminder but objective fact. His further advice, “Die before you die,” suggests the possibility of awakening from the subjective dreams of this life and entering the state we will know as death while we are still alive.
In one sense, the process of spiritual realization is the progress from subjectivity to objectivity. This progress is reflected in the quality of our dreams when they are consciously observed: gradually they change from confused, personal, subjective imagery to objective and meaningful symbology, to states revealing the structure of the nervous system, and sometimes to clear communication with sources of knowledge.
Refik says that the nature of our dreams changes when we have come into contact with an authentic source of spiritual transformation. It deserves to be clearly understood that the initiatic lines of Sufism carry the energy of an enlightened state of mind from their source in Muhammad. This state of mind is the natural (not supernatural) human state in which our intelligence (which is the intelligence lent us by Allah) is not veiled from us by desires, obsessions, or other forms of negative conditioning. One who has previously experience this “opening” can guide others toward this state and verify their attainment of it. What Refik means by a “licensed” teacher is not merely one who has the title of teacher or shaikh (because this title can also be given to one who merely serves a managerial capacity), but an enlightened authority within this chain of transmission.
It is said that when the seeker is ready, a teacher will be available. A friend of mine in central Turkey had a mother who was the leader of a women’s Sufi circle. I asked him how his mother had come to this situation. He related the following story:
“One day a man we did not know knocked at our door and asked for my mother. He told her that his shaikh, who lived several hundred kilometers away, wanted her to take responsibility for a group of women in our city. My mother had never heard of this shaikh, nor did she have any experience of Sufism, having been up to that point only an ordinary follower of the faith. She wanted to know who this shaikh was and how she would be able to assume this great responsibility, especially since she knew so little about the Sufi way. She was told to trust, and the shaikh would educate her heart, and furthermore any questions she had would be answered in her dreams.”
This was when I first began to suspect that certain Sufis had mastered the dream realm in remarkable ways.
It is contact with such an opened or transformed “mature one” that allows the purification process to proceed on the subconscious level. While the seeker has a conscious part to play in this process — in doing certain practices, in striving toward sincerity and the purification of self — it is the energy of the teacher and the lineage that does the majority of the work, and this occurs even beyond the seeker’s awareness.
The Dream of the Sleepers”
“Joseph said to his father: “Father, I dreamt that eleven stars and the sun and the moon were prostrating themselves before us.”
“My son,” he replied, “say nothing of this dream to your brothers, lest they should plot evil against you; Satan is the sworn enemy of man. You shall be chosen by your Lord. He will teach you the interpretation of events and will perfect His favor to you and to the house of Jacob, as He perfected it to your forefathers Abraham and Isaac before you. Your Lord is All-Knowing and Wise.”
Surely in the tale of Joseph and his brothers there are signs for inquiring men.
Holy Qur’an 12:4-7
Although dreams and their interpretations are not the primary focus of Sufism, they are still of vital importance. It is generally accepted that the prophets of the Old and New Testaments and the Holy Qur’an all completed the path with the help of dreams. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, taught a method by which certain information can be received through dreams. He always recommended this method as an aid to making important decisions in life.
Before we start talking about dreams, we have to remind ourselves that each traditional teaching has its own policies, etiquette, principles, puzzles and style of sharing knowledge. Muhammad also advised that one speak to others according to their capacity. Therefore what and how much can be spoken of, the quantity and the quality of information conveyed through words, is limited. And these words can only be small hints of direct experiences of one’s own in the future.
Everyone dreams, either frequently or rarely, and we are all familiar with the concept of a dream. But serious seekers have learned that what Sufi teachers mean by “dreams” is broader and more flexible than what we understand as dreams in the everyday sense. Under the category of dreams are included a complex network of experiences and various levels of dreamlike states. For this reason, according to Sufism, the help of someone who has passed through all these states and levels is absolutely necessary for the teaching and purification process.
One could say that coming to understand dreams and their interpretation is a dynamic process that parallels the seeker’s progress in general. So a certain kind of development is required of the seeker as he or she proceeds, and this involves a positive feedback mechanism with a mature guide until a certain stage is reached. At every stage, the dreams of the seeker change their symbols, color, brightness and intensity. At every stage the seeker understands something different by the word “dream.” This transformation has to be experienced and understood directly by the seeker, and his or her understanding has to be verified by the guide. The seeker has to discover his own way and verify its validity with the help of the teacher.
In Sufism, a mature teacher provides a stimulus that may come in many forms, conscious and unconscious, intellectual, emotional, psychic, and spiritual. From these stimuli something is expected to grow in the seeker, pass through certain stages, and bear its fruits. Great misunderstandings and loss of one’s way are almost inevitable if one tries to interpret the dream alone or from a book, or with someone who is not licensed within the teaching.
Classical Sufi teachers have classified dreams according to their origins: they may come from the ego, worldly influences, angels, dark forces, and so on. Other classifications proceed according to the developmental levels of the self (the seven stages between the compulsive self and the enlightened self), or according to symbols, dominating colors, and brightness. But such classifications refer to the stage of the seeker after meeting the teacher. It is generally accepted that until one reaches a true teacher, a person’s dreams are mostly related to the same dimension of the psyche that conventional psychology deals with. But after meeting the teacher and receiving the first exercises, the characteristics of one’s dreams start changing. This is due to the energy radiated by the teacher and the exercise he has given. Besides these exercises, certain precautions are also necessary for remembering the dreams after one wake up, or even for being aware of dreams during sleep.
So one may say that dreams that show up in the beginning are mostly indicators of the receptivity of the unconscious of the seeker, and they reveal the stage of the purification process. These signs are specific to each teaching method. This is very important to know because the same symbols and signs may have totally different meanings in an Eastern religion, in a different order, or even among different teachers of the same order.
This brings us face to face with a different question: Are all dream systems relativistic, or can there be a sing, absolute dream system in which no symbolism is presumed? One of the main characteristics of an operating dream system, even if it be mostly relativistic, is its accordance with the function and structure of the brain itself. Therefore, even a relativistic dream system (such as that of a particular Sufi order) sooner or later has to pass from relativistic imagery to certain points of contact with the objective world, and finally one has to end at an absolute destination which is the brain’s naked structure itself, i.e., the “hardware.” At a certain stage dreams will begin to reflect certain objective features of the nervous system. As the Turkish poet Yunus Emre said, “We found it all in the body.”
These points of contact with the objective world are closely related to the problems of objectivity, free will, and predestination, all of which deserve a deeper investigation at another time. On the other hand, although there may be an absolute dream system beyond relativistic approaches, the seeker’s own previous psychological structure translates this into his or her own relativistic system, and this goes on until the absolute and objective features begin to dominate.
Although dreams are not the only criteria, the frequency of the appearance of absolute themes (i.e., those relating to the divine) within the seeker’s dreams indicates his or her closeness to the objective world. Here is where the interval between the subjective and objective begins to diminish. At last, being freed from relativistic and personal dreams, the brain can see the outside world as it is. Then the inside and outside have become one and there is no veil of ignorance between them. From then on, as it has been traditionally expressed, “the mirror has been polished” or cleaned of dreams. In modern terms, one has reached objective consciousness. This is the state where the outside is reflected onto the inside without distortion.
Do dreams come to an end here? Is there also a symbolism, perhaps even an absolute one, for the objective world? Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi, the great Sufi teacher, says:
When it is said, “the vision He granted to His messenger,” now this vision is the dreams of lovers and true men of God, and the interpretation of that vision is revealed in the other world. When you see in a dream that you are riding a horse, you will gain your goal; yet what connection has the horse with the goal? If you dream you have been given coins of good currency, the meaning is that you will hear true and wise words spoken by a learned man; in what respect does a coin resemble a word? If you dream that you have been hanged on the gallows, you will become the leader of a people; how do the gallows resemble a position of leadership? So it is that the affairs of the world are a dream. “This world is the dream of a sleeper;” their interpretation in the other world will be quite different, not resembling this. That will be interpreted by a Divine Interpreter, for to Him all things are revealed.
On the one hand, the outward world and its events may be grossly distorted by our subjectivity. As we undergo the process of clearing the mirror of the heart, we move from subjectivity to objectivity. We free ourselves from the gross distortions of our egoism. Eventually we may begin to approach the seeing of that Divine Interpreter to whom the real meaning of all things is clear. Rumi continues:
Similarly a gardener entering the orchard looks at the trees. Without seeing the fruit on the branches, he judges this tree to be a date, that a fig, that a pomegranate, that a pear, that an apple. Since the true man of God knows the science of trees, there is no need to wait for the Resurrection for him to see the interpretations, what has happened and what was the outcome of the dream. Such a man has seen the result in advance just as a gardener knows in advance what fruit the branch will surely yield.
In our egoism and subjectivity we look to this world for our satisfaction. As Muhammad said, “The world is like a dream that a sleeping man sees.” But everything we desire in this dream and every satisfaction we have is, from the vantage point of the Divine Interpreter, like a sleeping man enjoying aperitifs and delicacies: when he wakes up, he will find that neither his hunger nor this thirst were satisfied. What we ask for in the dream may be given in the dream. but is it possible to awaken and to know we have been dreaming and to break the vicious cycle? Again Rumi says:
All things in this world, wealth, wife, and clothing, are sought after for the sake of something else, they are not sought for themselves. Do you not see that even if you had a hundred thousand dirhams and were hungry and could not find any bread, you would not be able to eat and feed yourself on those dirhams? A wife may be for the sake of children, and to satisfy passion. Clothes are to ward off the cold. In the same way, all things are concatenated with God, the most Glorious: He is sought and desired for His own sake, not for anything else. In so far as He is beyond all and better, subtler than all, how should He be desired for something less than Himself? “Unto Him is the final end.” When they have reached Him they have reached their final goal, beyond which nothing can go…
Grace and favor are given according to the demand.
Passages from Rumi are taken from Discourses of Rumi (Fihi ma Fihi), A.J. Arberry, trans. (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1972
This article first appeared in Gnosis #22 (Winter 1992).
A copy of the issue is available for $9 postpaid from Gnosis, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114.
Painting by Salvador Dali.