Are dreams just wish fulfillment?

Question: A Course in Miracles seems to suggest that dreams are just wish fulfillment, as Freud said. But I think that dreams are, in large part, a way for the subconscious, superconscious, or spirit to communicate constructively with the waking self. How do you reconcile this with that the Course says?

Answer: My short answer is that the Course does suggest that dreams are wish fulfillment, but I think the full picture of dreams that it presents can accommodate the idea that spirit can use dreams constructively as well.

There are many theories of dreams out there. Some psychologists say that dreams are just the mind's attempt to make sense of random activity in the brain during REM sleep. Other say that dreams are a way for the unconscious to work out problems that arise during waking life. And, as you mention, there is the wish fulfillment theory associated with Sigmund Freud, in which dreams are seen as a way to satisfy unconscious desires that are too upsetting or socially unacceptable to live out in the waking world.

While the Course presents a version of the wish-fulfillment theory, I don't think it's saying that all dreams are wish fulfillment in the shallow sense that we normally think of it. When we hear about the idea of dreams as wish fulfillment, we often think of examples like someone who has sexual feelings about an unattainable person (say, his best friend's wife) having a sexual dream about that person. But while some dreams undoubtedly fit this description, the main "wish" the Course is talking about is much broader. The wish behind dreams is "the wish to make another world that is not real" (T-18.II.5:10). We have within us a strong drive to make a fantasy world in our own minds as a "protest against reality" (T-18.II.5:15), and in dreams we do just that.

Moreover, the extent of the dreams this drive produces is far greater than we realize. We think that when we wake up in the morning our dreams end, at least for the moment. However, the Course tells us that our "wish to make another world that is not real remains" (T-18.II.5:10), so the "waking" world is really no different than the worlds we dreamt up when we slept: "And what you seem to waken to is but another form of this same world you see in dreams. All your time is spent in dreaming. Your sleeping and your waking dreams have different forms, and that is all" (T-18.II.5:11-13). In other words, the entire physical world is a huge, collective wish-fulfillment dream, a manifestation of our wish to replace reality with a world of our own making. The Course's discussions of dreams as wish fulfillment make the point that our sleeping dreams are everyday examples of that same wish to make a world that is not real, evidence that this wish exists in us.

I think this broader view of dreams as wish fulfillment can actually subsume a lot of the other theories of dreams within it. For example, the problem-solving theory (that dreams are a way for the unconscious to work out problems that arise in waking life) can easily be incorporated: This activity of solving problems generated within this illusory world could be an expression of the wish to make such an illusory world in the first place. This, in fact, is how the Course sees all of our self-initiated problem solving in this world: Our problems as we've set them up are a "choice between illusions" (T-23.I.9:3), which reinforces the apparent reality of the illusory world we've made. So, the Course's wish-fulfillment theory could account for a lot of the other features of dreams, including their problem-solving capacity.

This theory can even explain nightmares. One of the criticisms of Freud's wish-fulfillment theory is that it doesn't seem to account for bad dreams. If dreams are about fulfilling our secret wishes, then why would we dream about things we don't like? The Course explains that our wish to make an unreal world is what generates nightmares. We hope to satisfy ourselves through making a fantasy world, but eventually "the illusion of satisfaction is invaded by the illusion of terror. For the dream of your ability to control reality by substituting a world that you prefer is terrifying" (T-18.II.4:4-5). The "illusion of terror" is, of course, a nightmare. And ironically, even a nightmare, unpleasant as it is, actually ends up perversely satisfying our wish to make an unreal world. From the ego's standpoint, a terrifying dream is much more preferable than reality, which the ego fears.

The one thing the wish-fulfillment theory doesn't account for is the idea of "spirit" being the source of at least some dreams. Yet I don't think that idea is excluded from the Course material. The discussions that portray our dreams as wish fulfillment are clearly about dreams that are generated by our own minds alone. Yet the Course speaks elsewhere about the Holy Spirit using dreams for His healing purposes: "Yet the Holy Spirit, too, has use for sleep, and can use dreams on behalf of waking if you will let Him" (T-8.IX.3:8). And when you read Helen's story, she clearly had some dreams that were inspired by the spirit. For instance, there was her dream about the recorder (Absence from Felicity, 2nd ed., by Ken Wapnick, pp. 69-73), which Jesus said "was remarkably accurate in some ways because it came partly from ego-repressed knowledge" (Urtext). And there was her blue-gray bird dream (Absence, pp. 20-22), which Jesus alludes to in T-23.III.6.

Therefore, I don't think the Course's complete theory of dreams is that they are just wish fulfillment. Yes, the dreams we generate on our own, sleeping and waking, do stem from our wish to make a world that is not real. Yet the Holy Spirit has the power to use our dreams to "communicate constructively" with us if we will let Him. The Course actually recommends the practice of giving physical sleep to Him (see T-8.IX.4), just as we give the spiritual sleep of our "waking" life to Him. "The Holy Spirit, ever practical in His wisdom, accepts your dreams and uses them as means for waking" (T-18.II.6:1). Let's give Him the opportunity to do just that.

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