Waking Up to Our Dreams
An interview with author, workshop leader and dream mentor Joyce Rockwood Hudson on why inner work is crucial to becoming truly whole
JOYCE ROCKWOOD HUDSON: “Natural
Spirituality” is a term I coined in 1991 to refer to inner work in a Christian
context. I was offering a class on this subject at my church and had to pick a
name for it. I had come to know through my own experience that God keeps up a
constant dialogue with us through naturally occurring events in our daily lives,
mainly dreams and synchronicity - or meaningful coincidence, but also through
other ways of inner knowing. This is not something new. You find it throughout
the Bible. But in the last few centuries we’ve lost sight of it. That first
Natural Spirituality class was a great success. It spawned a parish program
that’s still going strong. In recent years our program has become a model for
other churches, and the name has stuck, too.
Natural Spirituality uses Carl Jung’s understanding of consciousness and the unconscious as its primary intellectual framework. The key to inner work is the ongoing dialogue between these two—between consciousness and the unconscious. Natural Spirituality is about tuning into that dialogue.
same time, it‘s also about maintaining a firm stand within the Christian
framework while we do this inner work. That helps keep the dialogue God-oriented
rather than ego-oriented, which helps it stay healthy and on track. This is what
distinguishes Natural Spirituality from other more purely Jungian activities. It
is church-based. In general, Natural Spirituality programs in churches are
comprised of one or more dream groups, with introductory classes that are
offered once or twice a year to prepare people to enter the dream groups. Often
there’s also a special library of Jungian books. Programs vary. There is no
But “natural spirituality” doesn’t only refer to a church program. It can be used without capital letters simply to refer to the natural—and I might add, feminine—side of the divine.
EXPLOREFAITH: In the first chapter of your book, you relate an experience of a friend’s death that changed your life forever. What was it about this experience that had such a forceful impact?
JOYCE ROCKWOOD HUDSON: This was in 1984. Susan was 37 years old. She was an actress with a national reputation in the theater world, and she was married and had two children. I was 36 at the time, which I mention because it‘s such a prime age for an awareness of the unconscious to break through.
what happened. Susan and her children came and spent the night with us on their
way home to Kentucky from a visit to her parents in Florida. We live in Georgia,
so this was a good half-way stop for them. At dinner that night, Susan told us
about an especially wonderful experience she had with her mother on her last day
in Florida. The two of them went to see Terms of Endearment, the movie
with Shirley McLaine and Debra Winger about the relationship between a young
mother and her mother as the younger woman dies of cancer leaving behind a
husband and two young children. The relationship between Susan and her mother
had been strained for years. All her adult life, really. Susan’s mother was from
a rural, conservative background and was rather disapproving of Susan’s life as
an actress. But in the wake of that movie, there was a really sweet exchange of
love and affirmation between them. Susan’s mother more or less pronounced a
blessing on her life, and she did it in a deep, heartfelt way. Susan was simply
amazed that this had happened. She couldn’t stop talking about it. It made her
The next morning they left our house, and only ten miles down the road they were in a wreck and Susan was killed. The children were not injured, thank God. But Susan was gone, and just like in the movie, she left behind two young children, a husband, and a mother. My grief at her death was disorienting enough, but I was even further knocked off my bearings by the realization that her last day with her mother had been so perfectly scripted, even though neither of them had the least idea that she was about to die.
realization messed with my mind, big time! It
told me that there is something in charge of our lives—not only in charge, but
orchestrating our lives—that is completely beyond our control and understanding
and, most of the time, beyond our awareness. Never mind that we
always hear in church that God is in control. Very few of us actually believe it
deep down, unless we take it on our own terms. We’re willing to say that God is
in control, but deep down we feel we can control God with our prayers. And as
for whether or not we go to the movies with our mother, well, that‘s our
decision, made for our own conscious purposes. How, in this rational world of
ours, could it be otherwise? Most church people would say that God is not
involved in every little thing that happens. I myself am a lifelong church
person. My father was an Episcopal priest. But still, this meaningful
coincidence, this synchronicity, broke open a new world for me. And it was a
world in which I found very few companions. Whether in the church or out of the
church, not many people give any real credence to synchronicity. It is not part
of our collective world view.
Susan’s death caused a radical shift in my world view. It set me on an entirely new course. I felt I had to understand how the world really worked, since I now realized it didn’t work the way I thought it did. I knew without a doubt that God was behind the whole business—and that God meant business! From that day on, my daily life with God was front and center in my attention. I began to see synchronicity as a regular, everyday occurrence. Before long I discovered the writings of Carl Jung and learned that he, too, knew about synchronicity—in fact, he’s the one who gave it that name. And I also learned from Jung how to analyze my dreams. So there I was, with synchronicity in the daytime and dreams at night. God’s dialogue with us never stops. Susan’s death opened that up for me.
EXPLOREFAITH: Please comment on your statement that our physical lives are more than cause and effect, that they are woven throughout with meaning. Do you feel that God’s presence permeates everything that happens in our lives?
JOYCE ROCKWOOD HUDSON: Yes, I
feel that life is shot through with God. St. Paul talked about it. He said,
“Christ fills the whole creation.” And he also said, “The Spirit reaches the
depths of everything.” I think life itself is the process of God. God unfolding,
you might say. I do, however, believe in physical cause and effect. I’ve never seen any meaningful event in outer life
that has not also had physical cause and effect behind it. The meaning doesn’t
come from a miraculous production of something out of nothing. It comes from the
timing and the arrangement of things.
This is what synchronicity is all about. If a bird comes and perches on the sill outside my window—and by this I mean an unusual event, not a window with a birdfeeder or something like that—if this happens, I pause and consider it. I take stock of things. I ask myself, what was I saying when this happened? Or, what was I thinking about, or reading about? Or, what is going on in my life right now that this might have to do with? A bird on a windowsill isn’t a great synchronistic event, just a small comment by the spirit of life, by God. To get its message, I have to notice it and ponder it. But on the other hand, I do not believe that the bird is doing anything except going about its own bird business. The meaning comes from the unseen orchestrator behind both me and the bird, from the meaning maker that’s at work behind everything.
This view, by the way, is not at odds with modern physics. We know that everything is a connected web of energy. Physics doesn’t take the metaphysical step of postulating a meaning maker that’s somehow in or behind the web, but it does tell us about the web of connection and it admits that it doesn’t understand what lies at the very core of things.
I’m not saying, though, that we should notice everything that happens, even if all of life is the process of God. We are not as complex as God is. We can’t handle unlimited meaning. We can each take in only as much as our own consciousness can absorb. To go beyond that would give too much weight to the unconscious, and the far end of that would be insanity. So we have to strike a balance. In general, it’s the unusual events that are worth pondering. And whenever we’re in a quandary, we should keep our eyes open. The world is always talking to us, and there are times when it’s wise to tune in.
EXPLOREFAITH: You have stated that the Spirit of God flows into you through dreams, intuition and ordinary events. How do you stay alert to this communication and communion with the Holy?
JOYCE ROCKWOOD HUDSON: First of
all, like Peter Pan said, and like Jesus said, “You must believe.” If you don’t
believe the world is talking to you, you won’t notice a thing. And if you don’t
believe that your dreams have something to say to you, you won’t bother to try
to remember them, much less analyze them. For most people this is the biggest
stumbling block. And it’s not an easy one to get around. Just hearing that you
should pay attention to dreams and synchronicity is not enough. You have to
actually experience that they are meaningful before you can know for yourself
that the unconscious is really and truly seeking dialogue with you, and that God
is behind the dialogue.
But let’s say that you do start to tune in. The basic approach is to look for themes and patterns, and to think metaphorically. Jesus actually made this a large part of his teaching. He put a great emphasis on parables, which carry the spiritual principle of looking at things metaphorically. That’s how we find the meaning in our dreams—we look for the metaphors. And that’s how we read synchronicity. The bird on the windowsill says, metaphorically, “The Spirit is especially here right now.” Birds are symbolic of spirit. And in fact, you can take any part of your life—a small part of a day, or a larger span of months or years, or your life as a whole—and look at it metaphorically, as if it were a parable. When you do that you’ll see that there’s deeper meaning in it than what you’ve experienced on the surface.
But again, I would caution that this kind of looking has to be done in a balanced way. Too much reading of the depths isn’t healthy. There needs to be a balance between consciousness and the unconscious. Note that this also means that if we pay no attention to the depths, if we only live on the surface and never look at life as a parable, then that, too, is unhealthy. It tilts the balance too far toward consciousness, toward what we already know. It makes for rigidity, and it stifles the unfolding of new life. It puts the spirit of God in a box—or it tries to, but God won’t stay in a box.
EXPLOREFAITH: How can we differentiate the voice of God in our dreams and intuitions from the voice of our own Egos?
JOYCE ROCKWOOD HUDSON: The
ego’s voice is never in the dream. I don’t mean that the ego doesn’t appear in
dreams as one of the cast of characters. All the parts of ourselves show up in
our dreams. But the ego is not making the dream. It’s not trying to use it as a
voice for its own shadowy purpose. Where the ego’s voice comes in is in the
interpretation of the dream. And let me point out that what we are talking about
here is our ego’s shadow, its unconscious part, not its light, conscious side.
Our ego is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t overextend its reach. Without an
ego, we couldn’t function. But the ego does have a shadow, and that’s the
problem we are addressing here.
The dream always speaks truly, but that doesn’t mean that we always understand what it’s saying, especially if our ego is not ready to submit to a new way of understanding the problem or the development that the dream is addressing. Every change in consciousness is experienced by the ego as a little death, and so the ego is understandably resistant. You’re always going to get resurrection on the other side of that death, but the ego can never see that. Well, it can if you sit it down and have a good talk with it, but if it is just going along its merry way without you being conscious of what it’s doing, it’s going to hold on to its present reality for as long as it can, and keep you fooled in the process. So every interpretation of our dreams is going to be at least a little bit distorted by our ego’s agenda. But remember that this is true of the way we take in outer life, too.
Actually, the stronger our ego is, the better it can handle a dialogue with the unconscious. A weak, fearful ego is much more likely to hold on to its present standpoint and not give an inch. Which means it won’t be able to gain very much from dreams. So until our ego is strong enough, we do best to stick mainly with traditional religious practice. By this I mean regular church-going, hymn singing, Bible study, prayer, that kind of thing. That gives us some contact with the unconscious, but it’s mediated and safe. It’s collective rather than individual. And if things go well, if there’s enough love and wisdom around us to support us through some ego deaths and resurrections, we’ll eventually become strong enough for inner work.
Interestingly, it’s only by engaging in inner work that we can actually move, at a deep level, from being centered around our ego to being centered around God-within. Traditional religious practice aims at this shift, but it can only prepare the ground for it. It gives us the idea that this would be a good thing and tells us about the fruitful results of it. We need this overview from the wisdom of the ages to keep us pointed in the right direction. But the shift itself can’t be achieved by simply taking in the teachings that we hear in church. It takes more than that. It takes a direct, personal experience with the unconscious. It takes individually-tooled teaching and healing from within.
As the shift is made from the ego being on the throne at the center of our personality to God-within being on that throne, the result is quite amazing. There’s a notable blossoming of life that follows, though it happens slowly over time, and if you don’t know that the person is doing inner work, it’s not obvious where the change is coming from. It just seems like good development, pure and simple. This blossoming process is what Jung called individuation. Jesus called it being in the kingdom of God.
But let me make it clear that even the most individuated person still has an ego, and that ego has a shadow. So no matter how far we progress, our interpretation of our dreams is always going to be imperfect. That’s just the way it is. You learn to live with it. Later dreams come along and straighten out the parts we get wrong. It does help to have a dream group to point out your blind spots. And it’s hugely important to stay connected to traditional Christianity. Traditional Christian practice emphasizes the upper spirit—the heavenly spirit—and when you put that together with the natural spirit that is producing the inner work, you get spiritual wholeness.
That’s the reality of Christ, if you think about it. The upper, heavenly spirit—the Father—unites with the natural process of life—Mary, the human being—and that brings forth the Christ, the healing and teaching spirit of God. That’s why Paul said that the Christ is a greater spiritual principle than the powers of heaven. The wholeness of the divine is more effective than any of its parts alone. So joining the heavenly spirit with the natural spirit is the primary key for keeping dreamwork on a good track.
EXPLOREFAITH: How does dreamwork affect those who practice it, both on a personal and community level?
JOYCE ROCKWOOD HUDSON: First of
all, it depends, again, on whether we’re talking about dreamwork done in the
context of traditional religion or dreamwork as an isolated spiritual practice.
I’ve met a number of people who have done dreamwork for years as an alternative
to traditional religion rather than as a complement to it. It seems to me that
they usually carry around just about as much unconscious shadow as do people who
engage only in traditional religion without doing inner work. Both sides of
spirituality do have a certain amount of good to impart all by themselves, but
there’s going to be more shadow there if they haven’t been joined together. I
would say that the integration of the shadow is the first and most notable
effect of doing dreamwork in the context of traditional religion.
In Natural Spirituality we talk a lot about the shadow. The shadow is that part of us that’s working for its own agenda without our being conscious of it. Other people are usually a lot more conscious of our shadow than we are. It’s the same thing as not being able to turn around and look at your own back. Just try that. Turn your head around and try to see your back. You can’t. To see your back, you need a mirror.
That’s what inner work gives you.Dreams hold up a mirror so that you can see things about yourself that you would not otherwise be able to see. You have a dream, and you wake up and say, “Who was that unpleasant person in my dream?” Well, if you’re doing dreamwork in a healthy context, you will know that everything in the dream belongs to the dreamer. That unpleasant person is a part of you. And you need to claim it and take responsibility for it. You need to look for it in your waking life, and when you see it starting to come into play, then you say, “Ah, here it is, my shadow. I’ll keep my eye on it.” And with that awareness, the shadow gradually gets integrated into your conscious personality. And that redeems it. Every shadow part always has a little gold in it, and once we become aware of a shadow part and integrate it, it actually improves us. It makes us more fully human, more rounded.
Say, for instance, I’m a person who puts a high value on being nice all the time. I want to be loving. I want to be sweet. Well, where is my mean self? I don’t own her as a part of who I am, and so she becomes a part of my shadow and I lose sight of her. She’s still there. She’s still operating. But I don’t have any idea what she’s doing. Other people know her better than I do. I don’t realize how much I complain, or how often I make cutting remarks.
Then I join a dream group at my church and start learning about myself from my dreams. I learn that I have a mean self and that she’s behaving inappropriately and undermining my relationships. I wouldn’t be able to hear this from someone else. It would make me mad and hurt and I would feel misunderstood. But when my dreams tell me what’s wrong with me, I can hear it. After all, it comes from inside me and speaks to me in my own personal language, in images that really mean something to me. And I know that my dreams always tell the truth and that they’re coming to me from God to help me live my life as well as I can. And so I listen. And I claim my mean self. I stop thinking of myself as a really nice person. I’m not a really mean person, but I’m not a really nice person, either. I’m just a person, a whole human being. And here’s the amazing thing: people like me better this way and they start taking me more seriously.
Here we find the value that was in the shadow. I was too nice before. Now I’m more authentic. I have a little bit of an edge, a little toughness. I don’t mind ruffling a few feathers if the situation calls for it. But I hardly ever say cutting things like I used to. And I’m not always complaining about everybody and everything. Now and then I do fall back a little bit into my old self, but I notice it very quickly and say to myself, “Oops, I’m getting shadowy.” And that awareness brings me back to my more conscious self.
Now, just imagine that kind of development taking place in one part of your personality after another, for years on end. The main quality of someone who is doing good dreamwork is that they are not very shadowy. They’re not prickly and argumentative. They’re not needy. They’re not gossipy and backstabbing. Because they’re owning their shadows, they’re not projecting their shadows onto others. People who are not very shadowy are good people to have around. Churches everywhere could use a lot more of them!
So that’s the first way that the community benefits from a culture of dreamwork. The second most important benefit is that people who are engaged in a healthy dialogue with the unconscious tend to be more centered and more creative than people who are not. They know that life itself is the process of God, and so they face difficult situations with less fear. They know how to read life to find the answers to life. They are good problem-solvers and good counselors. The environments in which they operate benefit from this. And they have a ripple effect. They pass along to others what they have learned about inner work, and some of those other people take it up for themselves. The benefit of authentic inner work always spreads out to others.
EXPLOREFAITH: Are there times in our lives when we are better able to access the messages of God that come through our unconscious?
JOYCE ROCKWOOD HUDSON: Inner
work is an adult activity. The task of childhood is to build up enough
consciousness to push the unconscious into the background so that the child can
emerge from it with a viable ego. Only after we’ve separated from the
unconscious are we ready to turn around and start having a conscious dialogue
with it. In young adulthood, the ego is tentatively established, but it’s still
building up its strength. So, generally speaking, concentrated inner work is not
appropriate at this stage of life, though a little bit of attention to dreams
and synchronicity is a good thing. But by and large, young adults need to keep
most of their energy focused on the challenges of the outer world, not the inner
Let me say, however, that I have known several young adults who absolutely needed inner work to get themselves on track in outer life. It’s an exception to the rule, but it’s an important exception. Some people do need to get into fairly concentrated inner work in their twenties. But most people don’t need it until midlife.
At midlife the ego hits its peak as the God-ordained ruler of the universe. You can map this stage in people’s lives just like you can map the terrible twos. For women it usually comes in their thirties, and for men, in their forties. That’s not to put too fine a point on it. It varies from person to person. But in general, what happens at about this time is that things start to unravel for the ego. Its game plan develops some serious holes and its assumptions begin to erode. It starts to get shaky and crumble around the edges, and pretty soon there’s enough of a breach for the unconscious to get its foot in the door and start making itself known. Now, what’s going to happen next? Is ego consciousness going to take up a dialogue with the unconscious, or is it going to find a way to slam the door and keep it closed with alcohol or antidepressants or a new spouse or a new job?
For the person whose ego is basically well-developed, even if a bit knocked back and frayed, midlife is by far the most productive time for paying close attention to the unconscious. In our thirties and forties, we have more energy and more possibility for course-corrections than we do when we are older. So this is the best time to get into inner work. Much transformation is possible, especially in our forties. However, it is by no means too late to start in our fifties, or later.
Many people come to inner work in their fifties, and for them the time of greatest transformation is in their fifties and sixties. My father, who died at eighty-one, came to it in the last year of his life. That was when my Natural Spirituality book was published. He read it just in time to help him process the hallucinations he was beginning to have. Not that he had a whole lot of hallucinations. I’m not sure anyone could integrate a whole lot. But he did have some, and because he had learned about the dialogue between consciousness and the unconscious, we could talk together about what the images meant, instead of me saying, “Now, Dad, that’s not really there.” So it was more like the hallucinations gave him extra sight, and he was able to fold that into his experience of that last stage of his life in a way that actually enriched it.
EXPLOREFAITH: What would Christianity look like if we honored the unconscious in more intentional and abundant ways?
JOYCE ROCKWOOD HUDSON: I try to
imagine it sometimes. How would I set it up if I could? First of all, I would
add biblical passages about Wisdom into the Sunday liturgies. Canticles and
hymns of praise. Things like, “Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion, so
pure she pervades and permeates all things.” And, “Although alone, she can do
all, herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation she passes
into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets. For God loves none
so much as those who live with Wisdom.” Imagine growing up hearing that in
church every week. Imagine hearing it as an adult. Wouldn’t it make you wonder
what it meant? And wouldn’t it set the clergy to work explaining what it meant?
Of course, they would have to know about inner work in order to explain it.
Which means that the seminaries would have to have a clue. We do have a long way
to go in this. But I’m hopeful.
In my ideal church we would keep the masculine language for God and balance it by adding in explicit references to feminine Wisdom. We need the heavenly spirit, God the Father. That part of the divine has a very important role to play, and we would be foolish to push it into shadow as we bring in the feminine, natural side of the divine. In my opinion, it’s not going to work in the long run to take out all reference to gender, including all the pronouns, and just say “God, God, God.” That deprives us of the ability to discern and relate to the distinct qualities of God, masculine and feminine. Instead we need to keep both sides of God before us and join them together in our consciousness. There’s plenty of biblical material to use for this. We don’t have to start over and create a whole new language of holiness.
As for church services per se, I think they will probably have to remain centered primarily around God’s masculine qualities. The masculine spirit is the collective side of spirituality, the activity that the whole community can do together. But let me say again that there should also be references to Wisdom, to “She.” And in sermons and prayers there should be references to inner work. It should be made clear to all who come to church on Sunday that inner work is an integral part of Christian life, and that if they are not doing it yet, they should be working toward it. And then, of course, there should be institutional support for inner work. There should be highly visible classes for instruction in it and small groups for weekly support of people in their individual practice of it.
I feel very strongly that inner work would add a much needed layer of complexity to the collective discourse in our churches. It would give people with well-developed egos a reason to stay with the Church rather than giving up on it out of boredom, and trading it in for the New York Times and the local yoga center.
My favorite fantasy for a typical Sunday in the Church of the future goes like this. The morning would be as it’s always been, traditional Sunday school, followed by a worship service. Then, a shared congregational lunch in the social hall at noon. And after that, small groups from 1:00 to 3:00. These would be dream groups, yoga groups, Centering Prayer groups, Bible study groups, basketball groups, young mother groups, knitting groups, drumming groups, whatever kind of group wants to form itself. And then at 3:00, another church service.
This would take care of everybody. People who want church the way it has always been could still have it that way. They could come to Sunday school and to the morning service and then go home. Or, they could stay for lunch and then go home. Other, less tradition-bound people—younger people, I’m thinking, 21st century people—could have their Sunday morning at home and not come to church until lunchtime. Or until their small group meets at 1:00. And after their small group, they could go to the afternoon worship service. Or people could come to the morning service and to lunch and then to a small group.
There are a lot of possible combinations. We already do a little of this in our church. Our dream group meets right after the morning service. We eat lunch together and work on dreams until 3:00 or so. Some of us would love it if we could stay home all morning and do church after our dream group in the afternoon.
I feel certain that if Christianity were to begin to intentionally honor the unconscious and encourage people toward dialogue with it, we would see a renaissance in Christianity. It would awaken to itself in a whole new way and become more true to the spirit of Christ than it has ever been before.
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