Sufi Dreamwork

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

The dream is a little hidden door
 in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul....

– C. G. Jung

Guidance on the Path
The interpretation of dreams has always been an important part of the Sufi tradition. Early Sufi manuals have sections on dreams, which offer differentiation between “true” and “false” dreams, the latter being dreams without psychological or spiritual value. “True dreams” are those which offer guidance. Traditionally, dreams are interpreted by the sheikh or the representative of the sheikh. The twelfth-century Sufi, Najm ad-dîn Kubra, stressed the importance of dreams and their interpretation, including in the rules of the path, along with “constant silence, constant retreat and constant recollection of God,” “constant direction of a sheikh who explains the meaning of one’s dreams and visions.”

In the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition dreamwork has always been important. Bahâ ad-dîn Naqshband, the founder of the order, was renowned as an interpreter of dreams, and apparently wouldn’t actually take somebody as a disciple until they’d had a dream that confirmed that. He also stressed the value of group discussion. “Ours is the way of group discussion,” he would say. As this path has evolved in the West, these two aspects of the Naqshbandi path have come together in the form of group dreamwork. At our meetings we meditate—practicing the silent meditation of the heart—have time for tea and talking together, and then we share and discuss dreams.

Through sharing our dreams and listening to those of others we also learn to value the uniqueness of our own path, of our own way of journeying Home. We are each taken to God in our own way, according to the uniqueness of our individual nature, for “every being has its own appropriate mode of prayer and glorification” (Qur’an 2:186). It is so easy to try to identify with others, to walk the path we see being lived by others. Others can inspire us, but we can only walk our own path, follow our own dream, live our own destiny. Our dreams tell our story, how the path unfolds within us. When we share a dream, the uniqueness of our own path is given attention. And through hearing the dreams of others we can see how for each us the journey of the soul is different, demands different qualities.

Working with dreams, we learn to read the signposts on the way, to listen with an ear attuned to the music of the path, to the frequency of the soul. We uncover what we need to know, read the next step that we need to take. Our dreams describe the inner processes of the path, the spiritual and psychological work that is unfolding. The Naqshbandi path has always had a strong psychological element. Much of the work of purification is psychological, involving the confrontation with the shadow as well as other psychological processes. Often in the first years on the path the focus will be on this psychological inner work, the alchemical transformation of the nigredo, our shadow, the rejected and unacknowledged aspects of ourselves. We will have dreams of our own darkness and fears, frightening figures chasing us down night-time streets, monsters hidden in basements. Working with these dreams we learn how to accept and love our darkness. Our dreams reveal what is hidden within us, the beauty and the terror. And within the darkness of our shadow we slowly come to see the light of the Self, the pearl of great price hidden in the depths.

Deeper than the psychological are the spiritual dreams that speak to us with the ancient images of the path, the bunches of grapes that represent esoteric teaching, the wine of the Beloved that intoxicates the Sufi. Or as in the dream of a room full of old men carding wool, the dreamer is told of the process that says you are a Sufi when your heart is as soft and as warm as wool. The depths of the soul knows these symbols, even if they are unfamiliar to our contemporary minds, and they remind us of the ancient road we are traveling.
But dreamwork is not just about interpretation, about finding out what the dream means. Dreamwork is a dialogue, a conversation between the dreamer and the world of the dream. Through this dialogue we make a connection to a part of ourselves that the outer world often dismisses and invalidates. We reconnect with our dreaming, with the soul as it speaks to us in this ancient language of images and symbols. And when we share dreams in a meditation group this dialogue is heard by other people’s hearts and validated within a sacred space. This is an important affirmation of the dream, and of the soul that speaks to us through our dreams.

If you believe in your dream it will attract the interpretation, the response it needs. The Jungian Werner Engel said “the dream will always make itself known.” A dream is a living, dynamic reality that attracts the attention it needs. The interpretation may not be perfect; it may even be wrong. You may not discover the real meaning of a dream until weeks or even years later. Dreamwork is not about right or wrong, but a process through which we work with the world of the psyche, we reconnect with the soul. Through dreamwork the energy of the inner world is made accessible to us. Through trying to understand our dream we participate with the inner world, and its energy can come into consciousness, come into our waking life. We are nourished by our dreams more than we know, and dreamwork helps us to access this nourishment, be fed by the manna of our dreamworld.

Catching the Divine Hint
Working with dreams, we gradually become familiar with a reality that is not fixed or static. Dreams are amorphous and changing, and their meaning is neither logical nor pre-determined. Responding to a dream, we have to catch its meaning as it belongs to the moment, a moment that is outside of time and outside of the defined parameters of our rational mind. Dreamwork thus helps us to listen and be responsive to a different, more fluid dimension, and can prepare us for the difficult work of catching the Divine hint.
The aim of spiritual training is to lead a guided life, guided by that within which is eternal. The Divine often guides us through hints, which we have to catch and respond to without rational understanding. This is the way of Khidr, the Sufi archetypal figure of direct revelation, a direct and unconditional inner connection with the Divine. In the Qur’an’s story of Khidr, Moses, who represents the established law, wants to follow Khidr and be guided by him. But Khidr tells him, “You will not be able to bear with me. For how can you bear with that which is beyond your knowledge?” (Qur’an 18:61-62).

Walking the mystical path of love, we are taken into a reality we cannot understand, which is beyond our preconditioned knowledge. We must learn to listen and respond from a place of unknowing—to be an empty cup. This is a very different attitude from that demanded by the outer world, which requires that we act from a place of knowing and understanding. Dreamwork can help to awaken the part of our brain that can respond without preconceptions.

In dreamwork we interact with a reality that is less fixed and more dynamic than the outer world or our rational mind. Listening to dreams, we attune ourselves to this fluid inner world in which things are rarely as they appear. As images shift and change, so their meaning evolves; so hidden parts of the dreamer become known. Gradually our consciousness becomes adapted to functioning in this non-linear, more dynamic mode.

Working with dreams, we leave behind the fixed world, which is familiar to the rational mind, and to which we have become conditioned through our education and upbringing. Instead we consciously participate in a constantly changing reality, which we cannot rationally understand. Dreamwork trains the mind not to be caught in any fixed image or idea, and not to judge or have any preconditioned response. There is also a humor in dreams that laughs at our preconceptions or dissolves our established sense of self. Dreamwork frees our consciousness from the rigidity of any imposed pattern, and can awaken us to the laughter and freedom of our true self. It can prepare our consciousness for the work of catching the Divine hint.

The Divine hint is “quicker than lightning” and if we interfere, through any judgment or censorship, the hint is lost. If we respond, “What if . . . ,” or “But . . . ,” or “I am not sure . . . ,” or with any of the mind’s conditioned responses, then the hint is lost, the opportunity gone. A Divine hint requires that we listen and act accordingly. Nor will a Divine hint always be about an action. Sometimes it is something we need to know, a quality we need to develop, an attitude we need to change. What matters is that we are always attentive and respond in the moment. We do not weigh up the consequences or consider our actions. We listen and act. But in order to listen and respond unconditionally, the mind has to become free of many patterns of conditioning. We have to leave behind our normal desire to understand, to know what we are doing. Dreamwork can help to free our mind, to enable it to work at this higher, faster level.

Dreamwork is a stepping stone to catching the Divine hint. But it is not the same as catching the hint. Dreamwork is a process through which we uncover the meaning of a dream. The hint is just given, and the only participation of the wayfarer is to listen and then respond. The hint works at a much higher vibration than dreamwork. But through dreamwork we can realign our consciousness and work with our mind in a different, non-linear way. Individually and as a group we work at the threshold of consciousness, at the borders of the unknown. We tune into what has not yet taken form, rather than what is already fixed and defined. Dreamwork trains us to listen to the voice of our Beloved, to be attentive to That.

The Golden Thread
Spiritual dreams are those that come from the soul. They teach us about symbols and the meaning that is hidden under the surface. They guide us through the labyrinth of our psyche and tell us about our real destiny. These dreams help us to uncover the real nature of our being, to recognize its quality and bring it into our everyday life. They have within them a “golden thread” that is the destiny of the soul, our own direct connection to God.

Spiritual dreams are an elaboration of this “golden thread,” giving it the coloring and texture of the moment, of the time and the place and the people. Working with these dreams, we align ourselves with this innermost quality, this sense of Self. We become alive to this ancient and eternal part of our being. Through dreamwork we become nourished by the numinous and by our own connection to what is sacred and eternal. First we glimpse this thread, and then learn to recognize it. Gradually it becomes the path that we follow, the guidance we need. We learn to know this thread as the unique nature of our spiritual life, of our whole life.

This golden thread cannot be recognized with our rational mind, but our symbolic consciousness sees it, and the consciousness of the heart knows its purpose. Through working with this thread, seeing how it is woven into our dreams and hidden within our daily life, we discover that it belongs to the foundation of both our inner and outer life. This thread is our deeper self living within us, giving color and substance to the images of our psyche and also the texture of our days.

Unconditioned Freedom
The practice of dreamwork in a spiritual group makes us aware of how this thread is present in the dreams and lives of others. We see how easy it is to overlook, and how it often appears in a form we do not think of as spiritual, even overlook as insignificant. Many times it is present as an image or event in a dream that seems to be out of place with the rest of the dream. Because the destiny of the soul is so different from the agenda of our ego-self, even our “spiritual” ego-self, this thread will be found where we least expect it. Our “golden thread” is always leading us beyond our preconceptions, into a state of unconditioned freedom.

Through hearing and discussing the dreams of others, as well as our own dreamwork, we discover this thread and see how it affects our outer life. We learn to see how this deeper destiny is woven into our everyday life, how outer situations and events have this hidden essence. We learn to recognize this quality of the Divine not just in meditation or moments of ecstasy, but in the midst of life. And as we see it within our own self and within our life, we carry this consciousness for the whole. Both individually and as a group we support what is essential to life, and to life’s making its deeper meaning known. In this way we validate what the world does not validate, we affirm what the world has forgotten.

Dreamwork is an ancient spiritual practice that the Naqshbandi path has adapted to the needs of the present moment. Combining a traditional understanding of dreams and their symbols with the insights of modern psychology, dreamwork helps to guide us on the inner journey and be nourished by the symbolic world that our culture has rejected. Dreamwork helps to open the door to our soul, to that quality of ourselves that is eternal. We learn to listen and attune ourselves to this deeper dimension of our own being, so that we can participate more fully in the real wonder of what it means to be alive.

And dreams also point beyond our own individual self, our own individual journey, to the greater whole of which we are a part. Sometimes our dreams are not just an expression of our own soul, but of the soul of the world, the anima mundi. Through these dreams we can experience a vaster horizon than our self, and maybe awaken to the transformation that is happening within the whole world. For just as we change and transform, so does the world of which we are a part. Dreamwork can connect us to this greater unfolding, to the primal changes that are happening to life itself. And then we can play our part more fully, be a part of the golden thread hidden within the world. We can realize and live the primal connection between our soul and the soul of the world, and be what is awakening.


Working With Oneness is one of Vaughan-Lee’s inspiring projects: “Oneness is very simple: everything is included and allowed to live according to its true nature. This is the secret that is being revealed, the opportunity that is offered. How we make use of this opportunity depends upon the degree of our participation, how much we are prepared to give ourselves to the work that needs to be done, to the freedom that needs to be lived.”

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D. is a Sufi teacher and author. In recent years the focus of his work has been on Spiritual Responsibility at a time of Global Crisis, and the emerging subject of Spiritual Ecology. His most recent books are Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Darkening the Light, Witnessing the End of an Era, and For Love of the Real, The Story of Life’s Mystical Secret. See his work at, and

Read more about Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

30 October 2008

Tagged Under
mysticism, psychology, dreamwork, Sufi dream, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Naqshbandi,
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