View from the Pew
In God We Dream
A visiting author will offer a workshop on deriving truth in waking from sleep
When Herman Riffel says God talks to us in dreams, he's not talking about the kind of experience where an authoritative voice from the clouds lays it out for you in no uncertain terms.
Riffel says even the dreams that startle or scare you awake and make you vow to change your late-night eating habits, even the nightmares, are part of the Creator's wiring of the human brain.
"The dream is God's instrument to speak to the heart," said Riffel. "By day we live by the conscious, the senses. The dream speaks to the unconscious."
Riffel is in Honolulu today to conduct an all-day workshop on "Dreams and Spiritual Growth" at St. Andrew's Cathedral in downtown Honolulu. The free workshop from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. is open to the public.
The 91-year-old Maryland resident is the author of six books including "Dream Interpretation: A Biblical Understanding" and "Dreams: Giants and Geniuses in the Making." He has written and lectured for 35 years on dreams and the intersection of faith and psychology. His audiences have included priests at the Vatican and psychology students at the Jung Institute in Switzerland.
"Before we learned the rational language, we learned the language of images and symbols," Riffel said in a telephone interview. "Our education ignored that. That's why dreams seem so far out. They are marvelous pictures of what is going on in your deep unconscious soul."
People have tried to interpret dreams through the ages, from ancient shamans to psychologists and New Age gurus. Riffel advises that there is no universal translation: This particular image equals that specific situation.
"It's the dreamer who interprets the dream. The symbols are drawn from the dreamer. I grew up in California and enjoy the water so for me to dream of a river would be pleasure. To my wife, a river is death because her brother drowned."
A woman asked him to explain her dream of riding a motorcycle, cutting from one lane to another in front of traffic. When he quizzed her about her life, she was able to figure it out. "She said, 'My husband and I are very different temperaments. He is slow in making decisions and I am very quick. I am always cutting in.'"
Another example that Riffel uses in his lectures is a horrific dream, the kind that many of us would worry about or try to erase from memory. He said it stemmed from a disagreement he was having with his college-age son. "I was saying no to what he wanted and he was pressing for a yes answer. I had a dream: I was in a store at night. A policeman and policewoman drew guns. Next, in the dream, I was in our house. I pulled out a gun and shot my mother. I had a loving mother, I loved her dearly.
"What it was showing me was two images of authority figures. The dream was saying, 'If you press here, you are going to have great regrets.' It stopped me. It showed me what would happen if I went on with anger. I saw that: OK, I'm pressing too hard, I have to come to understanding. Anger cannot be stopped simply by the will. There has to be an understanding ... and that is where the dream is helpful."
A child talked to Riffel about her dream that a wolf was trying to get in her window. "We try to interpret children's dreams rationally so I asked her what she knew about wolves. She said they had been studying about wolves in school, that they go quietly through the woods." The question-and-answer routine led to the girl to get it, that going quietly is a good thing. "She told me, 'The teacher is always telling me that I am too loud, that I am wasting time in class.'"
When he dreamed about someone trying to force entrance, he analyzed it. "What it was saying to me was that there is an area in my life I have neglected. The dream was saying, 'You've got to face these issues so you can share it.' Dreams are frightening because we don't want to grow. We like to stay in our secure nest and the dream is constantly challenging that," he said.
"A lot of people are afraid to get out of their shell because once you do, you are vulnerable. They would rather stay comfortable where they are. Later they are afraid of dying."
Riffel keeps pen and notebook at his bedside and jots down his dreams and reflects on them later. "Don't try to interpret it immediately. I've learned that you have to observe things, then be quiet and listen to the unconscious. Take a walk or get away from your routine. The way to understand a dream is to be quiet, so your thoughts are quiet.
"The key to me, I'm persuaded that God is speaking to the individual to challenge them to grow." He chooses his audiences carefully and doesn't do dream interpretation as an entertainment. "I'm not appealing to curiosity seekers who say, 'Oh, that's fun.' I'm appealing to those who really want to grow in their lives and are willing to sacrifice for the development of their whole person."
Riffel's interest in dreams led him to change careers after 25 years as a Baptist minister.
"I had to sacrifice a position as pastor. Understanding dreams deepened my understanding on things such as anger and lust. The church hasn't done well with that. There was so much I knew only narrowly. What the church had wasn't bad, but it was limited," he said.
"In some sectors of the Christian church, there has been a fear, a great resistance to dreams because they don't want to include psychological aspects of understanding. That's not only in the church but the world in general. It's less than 50 years that people have come to recognize the value of dreams."