What is a dream? We need to know what that means before we can follow every elementary school hallway’s admonishment to follow them. It turns out that dreams aren’t some monolithic thing. Not all of them are good. They can come from very different places. And they can arise from wildly different sources of experience.
Starting with the consensus reality version of dreams, a dream is an idea in one’s mind that one chases after. It’s often some kind of objective state of affairs seen far off in the future that is believed to bring happiness to the pursuer or a greater good to the world. In this version, a dream is something that isn’t now but in some other place and time.
There are some problems with this version. Major problems. The first and most obvious is that this kind of dream is just a concept bouncing around in our heads. We couldn’t possibly know what the actual experience of the dream will be like. For instance, say a child says, “I want to be a scientist!” This child has no idea that this may involve pouring over vast amounts of data in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets for 60 hours per week. They will not be wearing a white coat, radiantly smiling over some glowing blue liquid, as their textbooks would have them believe. So when a dream is just an abstract concept of which we have no experience, it’s hardly something to place all our bets on, because we simply don’t know what it will be like. And it's deeply unethical that adults aren't honest about this with their children because they'll find out how things really are someday, and when they do, they'll be disappointed to the extent that they were misinformed.
Even more, this version of a “dream” is often not even ours to begin with. Tremendous social pressures encourage us to dream in ways accepted by our families or cultures while tending to push us away from other forms of dreaming that are less acceptable of financially viable. Parents pressure children to make up for their own sense of inadequacy by pushing them to do what they didn’t, especially more and more in a hyper competitive world. If you were to survey a group of children about what they “want to be when they grow up” - a completely absurd question that should not be asked of kids that should be playing instead of being drilled on math formulas - they would generally say all of the socially acceptable things like doctor or lawyer. Rare is the school that tells them other options may include activist, minimalist, itinerant traveler or community organizer. Rare, too, is the school that admits the economic reality of most children’s lives - that janitor or ant in a cubicle colony are much more likely life outcomes than the glorified images of celebrity and sports on TV. Capitalism has a vast underbelly and most people's working lives are spent in it. In short, this kind of dreaming is at best an exercise in absurdity, and at worst a way to traumatize children, the majority of whom will not even have the economic option to pursue the most socially celebrated roles (which they probably don’t want in their hearts, anyway). This kind of dreaming is that which makes obedient producers and consumers - this is not the dreaming of the human heart.
Heart dreaming generally does not get supported, let alone even recognized, in most modern family or school situations. Certainly there are exceptions - the Waldorf school or that one teacher that does it with passion and subverts all the rules - but the heart is not even a word that is used in most schools. And yet this is the source of authentic dreams. This form of dream will not be the result of an occupational test, like the ones I was forced to take many times during my childhood, which would ask me a series of ridiculous personality questions and then spit out what I might want to do with my life. I’m not kidding, one result in elementary school was something like a janitor and I remember feeling, “This can’t be right”. This kind of dream comes from a different place, an inner place. This dream arrives by feeling, not thinking. It is the result of innate knowing, not strategizing or pros and cons lists. It is the result of a calling, not a proficiency for getting high grades in a certain academic subject. It comes from the heart, something we cannot think our way into changing. None of the measures of consensus reality relate in any functional way to the kind of dreaming that matters.
We discover these dreams in a couple of key ways. The first is through experience. When I spent my school days daydreaming about bike riding, it wasn’t because I read about it in some history book or saw some sensationalized photo. It was because I did it, and the more I did it the more I loved it, and the more I loved it the more I dreamed of it. Charles Eisenstein’s book is titled, “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible”, and this captures the essence of what I’m saying here. Our hearts know because we’ve had glimpses, tastes, or if we’re really lucky, a whole run at a buffet of certain kinds of experiences. So we know what is possible and that is the fuel for going further in that direction. These dreams aren’t to impress parents or acquire socially acceptable status symbols - and often, they run against these things, as authentic experience so often falls outside of a world gone insane. These dreams come from within. They feel compelling, necessary, and often unavoidable. Words like “courage” or “sacrifice” are words applied from the outside. From the inside there was no other choice, and often there is great joy in the journey in spite of the pain that may be incurred along the way. Other words to describe this kind of dreaming are soul or calling.
The source of dreaming is the body, the heart, the unconscious, and as such nighttime dreams are a great way to connect to this same source in a version much less edited by the ego that wants to socially conform to be loved. Nighttime dreams are not literal but symbolic and feeling-focused. They need to be taken seriously, and actually much more seriously than the neurotic thinking that occupies much of our waking lives. And they need to be interpreted so that we can integrate the information into our waking loves in a practical way. Instructions about doing this simple but profound and often fun dreamwork is beyond the scope of this post but the book “Inner Work” provides a great introduction to both nighttime dreams and active imagination during waking life, which access the same underlying process.
And the nature of these dreams isn’t so clear. It’s not like, “I want to own a business selling $1M per year in brake pads". It’s more like, “I feel like I need to express myself, but I’m not sure exactly how..” Or, “I feel called to help people, but I’m not yet sure in which way..” The essence of these dreams is not a clarity of concept but a clarity and certainty of feeling. The details themselves may be very vague, and the light may only shine one step ahead of where we currently are and no further. And that’s ok. The journey unfolds and clarity comes a little more with each step. Watch any biography on great artists, scientists or change makers, and it's exceedingly rare that they had this plan from the time their 4th grade teachers asked them that dreaded, stupid question about what they want to be.
And what happens when a child does run with that concept implanted in their brains at a young age, before they got to choose? To live an entire life chasing after a seemingly clear concept like “I want to be a doctor”, only to arrive there years, even decades later and discover it’s not at all what they actually wanted? Well, that’s a tragedy because it’s not just a waste of money but a waste of life and leads to a painful reckoning known as the "midlife crisis". That's when people wake up to the nightmare reality of the dreams they didn't consciously choose to look back on a life they didn't really want to live. They followed the rules, they trusted the system, and they got burned.
Much more effective, though much more socially frowned upon, is an active, open, and patient wandering and wondering process. When college or work is foisted upon people right when they turn 18 this whole thing is short circuited. It just can’t happen. When we ask an 18 year old (let alone a 5 year old) what they want to “be” it interrupts or halts the journey that they need to go on to discover themselves. This needs space and time - at least if we are going to value individuality and self-expression as the highest values in our culture. It serves neither these students nor our society as a whole when massive amounts of money are wasted on helping young adults memorize abstract concepts that will never serve the flowering of their lives and their purpose and service in the world - concepts they'll forget a couple of weeks after the test anyway. It's totally absurd!
Room needs to be made for dreaming, and we should follow our dreams - but real dreams. And if we really allowed kids to do this our society would radically transform or fall apart. Because no kid grows up wanting to flip hamburgers, work in a cubicle farm, become a cheerleader for corporate America, or decimate the environment or people of color. In the mainstream version, "follow your dreams" is just another guise for indoctrinating social conformity by planting seeds that don't rock the boat as early as possible.
The work I do with my patients is about accessing their real dreams by accessing their real hearts, feelings and intuitions. Then they don’t have to think about things so hard anymore. They don’t have to stress about whether or not they are “doing it right”. They no longer have to worry about social status or any other external metric so much. When we are living in alignment, those things just don’t matter anymore. Because what we are really wanting in our lives isn’t an achievement that looks enviable from the outside - so many in our culture have done just this and found emptiness awaiting them on the other side! What we really want is to live the fullness of our hearts. And that is a journey. A journey that starts with tapping into our real dreaming process. And to do that we need trust that this process is real and important. And for that, we need a mentor that can show us in our direct experience that this is true. The key is to discern what is, and is not, a valid dream for us, and this is something we learn over many years with good mentorship and guidance. Then we can shed all of the inherited concepts of what we “should” be, foisted upon us by well-intentioned, but ultimately ignorant caregivers over a much-too-long period of our formative years. Then we can finally follow our dreams. Our real dreams.