In many (if not all) indigenous cultures, the regular practice of storytelling is considered essential to the well-being of the community as a whole, not only because of the entertaining and teaching value of shared stories, but also because they can be literally healing. And many dreams come in the form of stories, which, when shared and explored, can have this same healing power.
In studying a variety of spiritual traditions, I find again and again that stories keep cultures alive, and serve to bring people into harmony with their environment and one another. In some cases, the healing power of storytelling is explicit. For example, healing ceremonies of the Dineh (“Navajo”) recount—and in a sense re-enact—the experiences of spirit beings in the mythic past whose stories become the healing template for addressing present day problems.
In one such story, the hero twins Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water undertake a long and difficult journey in search of their father. Upon their return, they must defend their home community from the overwhelming onslaught of some terrible monsters. Their successful battle with these monsters leaves them exhausted, at the point of death. They are healed by being told their own story from the beginning… And eventually, this story itself becomes a healing gift to all people, retold in ceremonies for those who seek to be brought back into harmony with life. (I’m drawing this interpretation of the Dineh story from Joseph Campbell—and apologize if I’m misrepresenting it in any way.)
The idea that we might be healed by being told our own story has great resonance on both a psychological and a spiritual level. We require healing when we find ourselves out-of-balance (physically or otherwise), as our sense of connection to the source, context, and meaning of our lives has been impaired, injured, or even destroyed. If this damage is significant, then healing cannot be accomplished simply by curing the illness or repairing the broken place—there’s a profound need to go back to the beginning, to see the larger patterns of our lives and how those patterns fit together with the life around us. We need to hear others tell us—and to tell ourselves—who we have been, what we have done, and where be belong. In this process, our individual stories become part of a universal story, and our lives can be of service to all life. This is harmony, wholeness, healing.
My dreams are healing because they tell and re-tell my stories in new ways—and help me to recognize that these stories are not mine alone. When we do dreamwork, we engage in a healing, storytelling practice: we discover familiar patterns, familiar images, familiar emotions, familiar relationships, familiar responsibilities and challenges, familiar gifts and blessings, and we know we are part of a larger whole: we belong. But what makes this process wonderful (and truly healing) is that all of the familiar stuff is expressed in the light of individual experience, with its own color and texture, comedy and tragedy, characters and settings, surprises and satisfactions.
Life itself is engaging because it manifests in so many forms; each individual form is perfectly unique yet recognizably interconnected with all the others. The stories and dreams that arise from our lives are meant to be shared because they open up new worlds for all of us, while restoring, sustaining and enriching the world we know.