Dreams often feel ominous, personal and auspicious. Before we had modern understandings of the neuronal basis of mind, they were often given spiritual and religious significance1,2. But, between cultures and communities, there have been too many contradictory results for dreams to unify religion or provide a useful basis for understanding reality. Native Americans were sure of the meanings of their dreams3, and yet, the Chinese were sure of completely different meanings; likewise Christians and Hindus have dreams that affirm their own outlooks. Instead of religious interpretations, it is the biological 'random' model that has been proven to be correct. The meaning of dreams is personally and culturally subjective, without a specific applicability to religion, and without any real link to supernaturalism.
Dreams are given most attention in historical primal religions and popular religion4 but stable and established doctrinal religions come to disregard dreams because their unpredictability too often contradicts official scripture, causing unregulated outbursts of charismatic leadership and rebellion, that make religion difficult to control. Supernatural interpretations of dreams can still be embraced by smaller supernaturalist groups and new religious movements, who are more adaptable in what direction they take.
Since prehistory, dreams and visions have played an important part in beliefs and religion1,4. For example, native Americans understood various features of dreams to mean something portentous about reality. In religious writings, dreams were most often interpreted to provide guidance or predictions in a person's life4, or, are prophecies for the fate of mankind4.
The anthropologist Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917) argued that "primitive human beings... were disquieted by, and therefore needed to explain, such phenomenon as death and dreams. [E.g.] Why would [relatives who died] still appear in dreams? This led people to believe in a spirit that occupies the body during life but continues to exist after death"2.
“The Yurok, Wintu and Karok Indians pay special regard to their dreams for signs of omens, portents and psychic attack. For example, the appearance of an owl in a dream could be a sign that an evil shaman is endeavouring to cause harm. [...] Apache Indians [...] also fear owls because they believe that ghosts appear in this form.”
Nevill Drury may be kind in his description, but there are many who have despaired over the counter-productive illusions that our species have indulged in regarding dreams. Thomas Hobbes:
“From this ignorance of how to distinguish Dreams, and other strong fancies, from vision and Sense, did arise the greatest part of the Religion of the Gentiles in time past, that worshipped Satyres, Fawnes, nymphs, and the like; and nowadayes the opinion than rude people have of Fayries, Ghosts, and Goblins; and of the power of Witches.”
"Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes (1651)1
Dreams have to be interpreted subjectively. Only you know what the various scenes, signs and symbols mean. There are many books available, more or less in dictionary format, that attempt to tell you what individual elements of dreams might signify. They're useless, although by drawing upon common human experiences, they sometimes sound about right but only if you share the general culture of the author, where you might decide that certain things have agreed-upon meanings. It's still best to count them as speculative waffle, especially in any universal or absolute sense. However fascinating dreams are, they are not magically linked to some universal lexicon of specific meanings that your brain draws upon. Misunderstandings of the psychology of dreaming has led to many untrue and zany beliefs1; they also cannot predict the future: this is why no dream diary manages to contain actual specific unguessable facts that haven't yet been revealed.
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Nonsense regarding oracles and dream prophecies was also recorded, and promoted, by the Christian Bible and Jewish Scriptures, especially in the Book of Daniel. From Daniel 2:1-5 we see King Nebuchadnezzar seek interpretations of his dreams. He goes through untold numbers of diviners and magicians, all of whom fail to give satisfactory interpretations. The holy man Daniel had "understanding in all visions and dreams" (Daniel 1:17, 20, 2:18-19) and he eventually provided an acceptable commentary on the dream (Daniel 1:17, 20).
About the Book of Daniel:
“The Book of Daniel claims to be written by Daniel himself (i.e. see Daniel 9:2 in the 6th century BCE. Critical analysts of the Bible such as Thomas Paine came to consider the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel to be the first in the Bible where it's quite possible the claimed authors are genuinely the actual authors of the books5. But, full-time scholars for over a hundred years have "shown clear and compelling reasons for thinking that it was written four hundred years later, in the second century BCE, by someone falsely claiming to be Daniel"6. Daniel's Chaldean name was Bethshazzai. The first six chapters are about Daniel, but, historians consider it to be fictional. It is apparent that there are two different accounts of Daniel placed side by side, and the same stories are often told twice: this was either poor editing, or, the compiler simply didn't know which details were correct so included both. The text asserts that Daniel and his friends stayed true to Jewish culture and religion whilst in Babylon.
Daniel is described as spending time interpreting dreams, but, the examples given appear ahistorical. In the most famous incident, a phantom hand materializes and writes a message on a wall, during a grand feast to a thousand of his lords and the King then brought in astrologers, Chaldeans, soothsayers and all his wise men (Daniel 5:1-8). But, of all those powerful and influential people none of them had the event written down by their scribes. Somehow, only the author of Daniel knows what happened. The only sensible answer is that the author invented the story, or, copied a common myth into his text without knowing that it wasn't true.
The second half of the Book of Daniel are an imaginative series of prophecies about the Antichrist and the arrival of a saviour; many of these have been problematic for Christians as many of the prophecies about Jesus did not come true; hence, Christians now say the leftover prophecies will be fulfilled during a second coming of the saviour.”
Despite all that, Deuteronomy 13:1-5 contradicts the whole idea by making it so dangerous to be worth it, as, learning the wrong things from dreams will get you chastised by God itself as such things are tests from god. The wise men who in the Book of Daniel failed to give good prophecies from the king's dreams were all slain (Daniel 2:12-14). The psychological error called selection bias is playing a part here: The king merely stopped looking for answers to his dream when he found the answer he wanted and that seemed to make sense. We all do the same to our own dreams, producing many interpretations until we find one that we think fits. It is possible to do this with any dream, especially retrospectively. Once again, we know from dream diaries that predictions made in advance, about unguessable topics, are always incorrect.
Eckankar is a religion constructed purely out of positive, white-light, happy-sounding words but with very little sense. It derived largely from a Westernisation of the Punjabi Sant Mat tradition. It is a religion that tries its utmost best not to upset anyone at all. You don't even have to leave your current religion, they say, it'll help you understand it better! It was founded in the height of the hippy New Age and it accepts pretty much every New Age idea going. One estimate is that in the later 1990s there were 367 ECK centres worldwide. 164 of them in the USA and "estimates placed total membership at 50,000"7.
“The ultimate purpose of dreams is to bring the individual closer to the Light and Sound of God.”
"Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today" (1995)8
Eckankar has a few sensible stances on dreams. On p30-31 of Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today9 they warn that the images and symbols from our dreams are not universal for everyone - "You can find books in your local library telling you that water means this or that horses mean that. The dream teachings of Eckankar do not follow such a simplistic model". Although p1 says (quite correctly) that Eckankar's teachings are simple, their ideas on the subjectivity of dream symbolism is no doubt correct, and in this one area the teachings display an amount of critical thinking. They continue: "In ECK, each person is a unique individual. Therefore, the dream symbols used by each person are also unique. Swimming in a river may well have a different meaning for one person than it would for another. The key for the dreamer, then, is to go within and determine what each of these symbols mean."
Eckankar promotes the over-reading of otherwise insignificant events in dreams and in life, and their take on dream interpretation goes down the same road as Freudian analysis: piling abstract interpretations upon details of the dream in order to make it have important value. Moving into Soul Travel and Astral Plane type territory, it continues:
“There are many levels of dreaming. If the dreamer becomes aware he is in a dream, he may be able to take control of the experience. The dreamer may call upon the Mahanta and request spiritual instruction. Or the dreamer may choose to visit a Temple of Golden Wisdom on one of the other planes. In these cases, the experience can become more Soul Travel than dreaming.”
"Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today" (1995)10
It started off with a little truth. With practice, and by doing things like keeping a dream journal, people can learn to lucid dream whereby they have more conscious control over the contents of a dream. This is the "realisation that you're dreaming" part. Eckankar no doubt encourages this, and, does indeed encourage people to keep a dream diary8. A person's dreams will often feature objects of their interest. If your favourite literature is full of descriptions of experiences with blue lights and mystical goings-on, and you train your recruits to engage in lucid dreaming, the sure result is that you will sometimes lucid-dream along the lines of what you've been reading. However, as Eckankar lore emphasizes over-analysing dreams, this subjective truth will probably be generally ignored.
Although dreams are rather thoroughly understood by neurologists and cognitive psychologists, Eckankar feels dreams ought to be a little zanier:
"While the body sleeps, the consciousness of Soul is awake. The memory of this experience is often called a dream. Dreams are as real and valid as the waking state. They simply occur on a different plane of existence. The reason so many of our dreams are confusing is that our memory becomes distorted. Upon waking, the dream experience is run through the dream censor, a function of our own mind."
"Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today" (1995)11
The teachers of Eck have clearly been skipping biological psychology classes: experiments on the physical body have immediate effects on the contents of our dreams, and, biological chemistry is directly tied up with the intensity and mood of dreams. It simply can't be true that our dream-memories are formed when dreams are ran through a strange "dream censor". They also mention that the Mahanta, the inner form of the Living ECK Master, is the Dream Master12.
Dreams of Prophecy are revealed13 to be those that mystically and correctly predict the future. It gives a two-page example involving a horse losing a tooth. Psychologists who study dreams all have a similar complaint: as events occur, it is very easy to retrospectively concoct a prophecy because dreams are highly malleable in terms of meaning. As a result, declaring predictions based on dreams before the events occur is highly rare - psychologists report that statistically dreams are no more correct than chance guesses. Thankfully, the wise teachers of Eckankar offer a warning on p33: "It is best, however, to restrict your use of prophecy to your own personal life. The opportunity for misunderstanding symbols is great [and] it would probably be embarrassing" when you make wrong predictions concerning other people. The reason is that, of course, the scope for retrospective attribution of prophecy to dreams is great when it concerns personal events because you know so much about yourself that the chances of finding something that fits is very high. But try to make predictions for other people, and the magic suddenly disappears. It is these effects of subjective psychology and pareidolia which cause the failed warnings, not the "misunderstanding" of symbols".
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