A joyous dream is like the precious seed of an heirloom vegetable: a potential-packed kernel of our essential, ancestral inheritance. We all come from dreamers, and we’ll all pass on our legacy to other dreamers. That legacy is not only conveyed through life lessons and practices, it is also fundamentally a transferal of inspiration, through joy. Dreams that bring joy will plant themselves in our hearts and flourish there, growing and flowering outward to bless others, providing sustainable nourishment with their colorful (though maybe oddly-shaped) fruits. Our sweet dreams can inspire us with the same joy that gave our ancestors hope in difficult times, making hard-won wisdom more palatable and easier to digest. So, even as we dig deep in our dreamwork, laboring to cultivate wisdom and skills that we can pass on to our own descendants, let us cherish and share the dream-seeds of joy.
Joyous dreams need very little working; they are immediately meaningful and only require our willingness to receive them. Each dreamer has a dream iconography for joy: images that signal the presence of hope, comfort, connection, sweetness or fun. For me, yellow birds (goldfinches, Wilson’s warblers, evening grosbeaks) come in dreams often when I’m grieving, to recall my own soul to me, bringing light in the dark. Flight and song are two qualities that make birds likely harbingers of joy in dreams. Do you dream of birds? Do you fly with them? Sing with them? Can you feel their brightness?
Music features in many of our joyous dreams, too. Sometimes, I dream of singing or playing an instrument in a public place where others join in spontaneously, so we become a “flash mob” of sheer exuberant playfulness. I sing “Oh What A Beautiful Morning!” or “Let’s Go Fly A Kite!” and the music makes me emerge from sleep “with a song in my heart.” These dreams remind me of a dream-like waking experience I had in my teens… I was riding a Boston subway at rush hour in August after a long workday, standing pressed against sweaty strangers, when I started contrarily singing “Jingle Bells” under my breath. Other passengers caught the mood and soon a dozen of us were singing Christmas carols (some could actually carry a tune). We started with the jaunty melodies, releasing our inhibitions and forgetting our weary misery with unseasonable mirth. Then something shifted; we began to harmonize, our voices softened. Eventually I stepped off that baking hot subway car on that sunny afternoon as the cool, gentle glory of “Silent Night” rose behind me. Joyous dreams can make memorable music like that, too, transcending our expectations with a paradoxical blend of merriment and holiness.
When I was younger, I felt the giddy bliss of my joyous dreams mostly in my throat, as if I had literally swallowed a song and couldn’t contain it. Such dreams were fresh winds lifting me; I woke up weightless. But these days I feel my joyous dreams deep in my chest or belly, and I dream of swimming, diving downward. I wake up trusting, supported by the liquid density of the dark, safe waters that surround me.
Swimming in the Stone Cellar: A friend takes me to a famous healing spring in the off-hours, at night, when no other swimmers are present. The spring is located in the stone-walled cellar of a ruined stone building. Perfectly clear cool water fills the cellar to the top of the steep stairs. We descend the steps, and swim down to where we can pass from room to room underwater, exploring. It is beautiful and spacious and deep—the water so pure that it is essentially invisible, like swimming in clear air.
Later, we return during the daytime, for a last swim before we will have to leave (we’re traveling together, visiting sacred sites like this one). Now there’s a line of people waiting for access, and groups of 10 or 12 at a time are admitted to swim together in the healing spring. It won’t be quite as awesome as swimming in the privacy of the night, but I’m still looking forward to the water, and to sharing this wonder with others.
I needed this dream, and I still feel the joy of it like the tingly glow of warming skin after a plunge in cold water. Health setbacks over the past year repeatedly broke my spirit, leaving me, sometimes, without strength, courage or hope. Worldwide crises—COVID, plus environmental, political, economic and social disasters—have been dreadful in ways shared by by virtually every living being, and yet perhaps the most terrible aspect of these crises is how they have cut us off from each other. Joyous dreams are holy healing springs, miraculously bubbling up in the stone ruins of our lives, and their restorative waters invite us to dive deep. As in my dream, we will find joyous restoration in the peaceful privacy of the night with those closest to us, but it is also vital that we “return later, in the daytime” to share joy with others. Overcoming our “social distancing” to recover our trust in one another, our trust in potential healing—this is the challenge we face now, and as we heal, individually and collectively, we will rely on our joyous dreams to remind us that happiness is still possible. We can help each other to remember this by sharing the joy whenever possible.
As I was working on this article, I received a couple of dreams from dreamers sharing their joy. Both dreams describe meaningful transformation. They are not just expressions of joy itself, but also convey change: an emergence into joy from something perhaps less easy to share. In one dream, there’s a movement from heavy greyness or meaninglessness into sacred space, and in the other a movement from night into morning. In both cases, the brightness of joy seems more fully felt because of the darkness that precedes it. This visceral contrast invites those with whom the dream is shared to resonate with joy: we recognize darkness or heaviness in ourselves, and then respond with relief to the bright opening that the dream represents. I’m grateful to these two dreamers for their sharing, and delighted to be passing their joy on to you. I’m also grateful to my own dreams—particularly those that have followed a similar pattern of emergence from difficulty or crisis into an unexpected joy—so I offer you one of these as well. It felt fitting to render these dream-gifts and my responses as a kind of conversation. May you en-joy all three, and dream on from there.
“I am a novice in a convent in a city that has a Mediterranean feel. I am looking at an arched stone window just before dawn. Another novice and I climb out the window and onto the red tile roof, looking across the city. As the sky lightens, the bells all over the city begin to ring, making loud booming noises I can hear through the soles of my feet, making a beautiful harmony. I begin to chant, ‘Bells, bells, bells!’ When I awake, I am still saying/singing to myself, ‘bells, bells, bells,’ and there is a feeling of euphoria at the dawn and the sounds.”
I love the embodiment that this dream expresses, as the bells are not only heard but actually felt “through the soles of my feet” and echoed in the chant of “Bells, bells, bells!” The ringing joy is a heady, euphoric experience shared with another “novice,” and also a grounding experience that reverberates through the body; the sound is in the air and in the earth itself. Climbing out through the window and seeing the city from the rooftop suggests actively coming out of a private world and into a collective one, going out to meet the day and the “bells, bells, bells” that might be an inside-out version of the words “bless, bless, bless.” This dream carries a promise of blessing and a dawning of hope. May it be so.
“…in the middle of this grey and uncomfortable landscape I had a lovely vision of a protected space, like a bower, with a nuthatch in it. It was a beautiful and sacred place graced with this lovely bird. The image stayed with me and I painted it. By the time I was done, I was very happy! I started to see nuthatches at my feeder shortly afterwards. They had not visited me before.”
This dream charmed me because nuthatches have brought me joy since I was a child. These birds have an ungainly shape, but a crazy kind of grace as they zig-zag around the trunks of trees: up, down and sideways. They sound off with a nasal “beep, beep, beep” (a comic version of the “bells, bells, bells” in the previous dream) which can be hilarious when fledglings chorus together, practicing their calls like kids talking over one other, all trying to tell some big news first. Dreaming of this bird in a sacred context, and then being visited by nuthatches in waking life invites simple delight as much as awe. The nuthatch overturns expectations, representing a humble yet powerful beauty and dignity. If we prepare sacred, protected places within ourselves and in our world to welcome these messengers of joy, they will indeed visit.
Third Dreamer (me):
I’m on a crowded bus. As we come to a narrow, winding mountain road, I see that the driver has abandoned his seat. Horrified, I take the seat and try to keep the bus in its lane, but steering is difficult and visibility is poor; I can’t control this huge vehicle so I keep swinging into the oncoming lane, narrowly avoiding accidents. I can’t keep this up for long.
Then we’re going backward. There’s a driver’s seat at the other end of the bus, so I rush back there, and find a small girl driving this big rig! I can’t imagine how she’s doing it, but she’s managing. We’re coming into the city now, approaching the terminal. We need to slow down. I tell her to put her whole weight on the brake; her legs are too short so she has to release the steering wheel and slide off the seat to get both feet onto the brake pedal, slowing us just enough. As we hit the rear wall of the garage, I throw myself over her to shield her from the impact. The windshield cracks but doesn’t shatter, and there’s only a bump.
We’re safe and everyone is cheering. I hug the girl, telling her how incredibly brave and capable she is. I’m filled with love and joy.
Joy is intergenerational: we pass it on to our children along with the burdens and responsibilities we also hand over to them. This dream has many personal associations for me, but the collective story seems more interesting: the feeling here isn’t just relief at averting catastrophe, it’s an individual triumph extended to and for everyone on the journey. The passengers all cheer as they feel what I’m feeling, what the Buddhist tradition calls sympathetic joy—delight in the happiness or success of others (which benefits us all). There’s a profound shift from the front of the bus where the adult (“I”) struggled for control, to the back of the bus where a child has assumed the driver’s seat. My joy, as the adult, comes from seeing the child succeed where I could not. My role is to encourage and protect rather than to drive, and I can throw my whole body into that role just as the child throws her whole weight onto the brake pedal to slow us down.
Sympathetic joy, shared joy, is essential to us as a species. Our survival depends on our delight in one another as we recognize that everyone on this bus is essential: some of us drive, some of us witness, all of us cheer each other on. Thank you for being essential, and thank you for your joy—wherever you find it.
[This article was originally published in two parts, in the Fall, 2021 and Winter, 2022 issues of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]