Do I really believe that dreams are meaningful, and that they are always (at least potentially) healing and helpful? Well, yes and no. I believe that my beliefs are beside the point.

Like everything else that we experience, dreams offer us opportunities to relate and respond to events, relationship dynamics, and our own emotions. Regardless of whether or not we believe that our existence has a larger spiritual “meaning,” our life experiences (including our dreams) are truly meaningful when we treat them as if they were meaningful. Experiences may be wonderful, terrible, ridiculous or confusing—it doesn’t really matter what we believe about them, or even how we feel about them—if we seek guidance, growth, creativity and connection through those experiences, then they can become healing and helpful. I don’t actually have to “believe” in the intrinsic goodness or wisdom of something in order to experience it fully and find it valuable.

On a daily basis, I find myself investing deeply in my beliefs about the nature of my life experiences. I hear a news story about environmental devastation or social injustice and I believe that I’m trapped in a nightmare where I absolutely must take action but really can’t influence the situation no matter what I do. Or, I take a long walk in the park on a sunny, breezy day, greeting my neighbors (and their dogs) and believe that it’s easy to appreciate every moment. Or, I talk to a friend who has just suffered a terrible loss, and I believe that she is going to be okay, or that losses are inevitable, or that I don’t know how to respond, or…

All of these beliefs are “true,” in a way—but not particularly useful. As soon as I hold a belief about something, it limits me. If I’ve decided that this is the way things are, then that belief sets me up to see everything in a certain light. Beliefs lead to more beliefs. Some are just passing thoughts, but others get bolstered by an array of arguments, which interlock neatly to form an entire system of thought. Beliefs may contradict each other, but then I can somehow manage to find arguments to make them fit.

Even now, I’m writing this article about my belief that believing isn’t a good idea. Darn it.

This is where dreams make a difference. Dreams demonstrate that “believing” is a moving target. What am I seeing? How did this happen? Where is it going? Why did he do that? In dream-sharing groups, when we first hear a dream, our impulse is to figure it out and believe something about it. As soon as someone suggests a meaning that seems to make sense, we all tend to create variations on that theme. It all fits together… doesn’t it? But why is there an octopus and not a giraffe? Why does one of the table legs have stripes? Why are we eating oatmeal when we’re supposed to be at a funeral? What is that peculiar green mark on her forehead? There are always elements that don’t quite fit.

The trouble is that believing in the dream as a phenomenon that has a purpose or a message can diminish the actual experience of the dream’s meaningfulness, the dream’s potential and the dream’s communication. We believe in things (ideas, opinions, facts), but we experience processes and patterns. People often want to believe something. We want to establish that there is something to believe, something to have an opinion about. So we might ask: What is this dream trying to say? As if there is something behind the dream, something that could have been better expressed.

Instead of developing beliefs about dreams, what if we just practiced believing the experience of the dream itself? What if we respond to the dream as if it is a multi-faceted and utterly unique adventure, with infinite potential for insights, openings, and transformative discovery?

Here’s one of my recent dreams:

Animals Comforting a Dead Horse: In a wooded area near the road, some goats, sheep and small cows gather around a larger animal they seem to be eating. We pull over and get out of the car to see. It’s a large cow, lying on the ground, but still moving. Can they really be eating her alive? Not wanting to see such an awful thing, we nevertheless look closer. Actually, the animals are just cuddling around the dying creature—offering, or receiving, comfort. Now, it’s not a cow but a very large dead horse, lying on the slope with her big, beautiful head hanging down into the icy water of a pond. We see her head and flowing mane underwater as if through a wall of glass.

In the course of this dream, emotional responses shift and change—curiosity, horror, tenderness, sadness, just witnessing. Perceptions adjust themselves—it’s a cow, a horse… alive, dying, dead. Why do we approach what we don’t want to see? Who is comforting whom? All kinds of memories and associations are evoked. So much is uncertain or indescribable. Isn’t life itself just like that? Whether we believe it or not, our dreams bring us closer to the mystery of our very existence. We may not like what we see at first, but the closer we get and the more open we are, the more surprised and moved we will be by what we find.