Andy Lloyd's Book Reviews
by Nimue Brown
Subtitled: "The Magic of Altered Consciousness"
Moon Books, 2015
This book about dreams takes a radical approach to the subject. Not only is the book deeply rooted within a Pagan perspective, it categorically rejects the widely held notion that a dream can be interpreted by looking up its superficial content in an index. The author puts forward a compelling case that the symbolism of dreams is as individual and personal as we are. Only we, the dreamers, can really extract meaning from our own dreams. Only we understand the back story, the context, the nuanced meanings.
Much of what we dream is brainwash. As we sleep, harmful waste chemicals in our brain are removed. Our minds relive often mundane aspects of our day's experiences, chaotically jumbled together like clothes tumbling in a washing machine. Dreams can also be triggered by the body as it sleeps - a reaction to movement, noise, inner sensations perhaps of pain or discomfort. We intuitively recognise that content for what it is. Perhaps that is why we instinctively forget much of our dream content within seconds of waking, as our rational minds reboot for the day ahead. But amongst the detritus of symbols lying on the seafloor of our unconsciousness we may occasionally discover wondrous pearls.
Sometimes we connect to something more spiritual, more numinous. Sometimes our dreams hold up a mirror to our lives that help us understand ourselves better, and thus navigate a better path. Rarely there may even be a touch of the divine, or a scintillation of magic working within our being. This book is about building a heightened awareness of those moments:
"To work with dreams is not to practice (sic) the kind of magic that leads to definite outcomes. It is not spellwork or prayer. This is an act of opening to the unpredictable, seeing what you can get and then trying to make sense of it, or not, as you prefer...The meanings we choose become real for us." (p207)
The introduction to Nimue Brown's book begins with an overview of the subject, particularly the history of dream interpretation (from Greek Oracles to Freud and Jung). The author doesn't believe that there is a universal symbolic language of dreams that can be catalogued and categorised to facilitate the unlocking of dream meanings. She rejects a reductive approach to dream interpretation. She begins to touch upon some science and injects a couple of references to back up her arguments on a more academic level. But this early approach fades as the introduction closes, leaving just these two references alone in the end notes. From there, the author's approach is more intuitive and anecdotal. That said, she writes with great wisdom. Her writing is filled with rhetorical flourishes followed by carefully considered counter-arguments. This creates a nice balance. Natural self-enquiry takes the place of academic debate (in, say, psychology, of which there is plenty here), grounding her work within a very human and personal sphere.
Sometimes that personal approach is melancholic in character. More often it strives for meaning and self-knowledge. The author's self-analysis offers a template for how to approach our own dreams. It does not attempt to appropriate them and impose external meaning upon them. While I appreciate the philosophy underlying this method, I would have personally preferred to hear more of the evidence of how how unconscious minds work. Drawing upon psychological research would have helped structure the arguments a little better - particularly in the section which dealt with types of dream. In its defence, the book clearly ventures out on a Pagan path rather than a scientific one; although there are hints that the two find much common ground:
"Many people come to Paganism because they seek a deeper and more meaningful experience of life but need that to be grounded in observable reality. There is no single right answer to how we achieve this, but watching where your dreams go, and how they reflect your days can help you spot the things that are working for you." (p57)
We can all draw upon our own anecdotal experiences of dreams to recognise our common experience of what is being discussed. We all have narrow dreams, fear dreams, anxiety dreams or uplifting dreams of love and happiness. The author delves into these with a broad-brush approach, drawing upon common sense and self-awareness.
It is when dreams repeat, she argues, that we should pay particular attention and dig a little deeper into what is going on. Often, the mundane nature of dreams reflects repetitive, banal aspects of our lives - these require neither our attention nor interpretation. When symbols appear, we should trust ourselves to recognise them: This is an internal conversation between consciousness and our unconscious using an inherently familiar language.
At the higher end of the dream spectrum are numinous dreams - those that feature the spiritual or divine. For modern pagans, the author suggests, these contain magical meaning. Their lucidity and clarity are such that they require no further interpretation:
"As a general rule, the more work you have to do on the symbolism in order to interpret it, the more suspect your conclusions probably are...Assume that if a truly magical dream came to you, then you would have the insight to recognise it as such." (pp97-8)
No priests or priestesses needed here. This inward-looking individualism is meditative and considered. It reminds me that there are many shades of Paganism - a broad movement which also includes other more ritualistic modes like Wicca. If there is a particular method to the author's approach it is to work to develop stronger awareness of one's dreams. She advocates a dream diary, for instance - helpful for reflection and picking up on repeating themes and symbols. But this is a far cry from sharing dream experience around a camp fire or, worse, through psychoanalysis. Indeed, I felt that, as a reader, I was almost intruding upon the little that the author revealed about her own dreams. The development of a path towards greater wisdom was more important than the examples of dream content being considered.
Towards the end of the book, this individualistic approach developed into a discussion of 're-wilding' dreams. Nimue Brown advocates a general re-wilding of the spiritual path: The book found its passion here, extolling a pagan path through the mysteries and an individual connection between spirit and the numinous. Dreams could be thought of as an ante-chamber to a deeper connection beyond. This mystical experience defies reductive reasoning and definition, and is the zenith of the dream-work discussed within this quiet, thoughtful book.
You can order your copy through Amazon.com here:
Pagan Dreaming by Nimue Brown
If you live in the UK, you can obtain your copy through Amazon.co.uk here:
Pagan Dreaming by Nimue Brown
Book review by Andy Lloyd, 25th April 2022
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