Dream Journaling as a Contemplative Practice

Most people who keep a dream journal are initially motivated by simple curiosity and the hope they will gain insights into their waking lives. But as they continue with the journaling and track the emerging patterns of their dreams over time, they often find the process becomes something more than that, something that develops a life of its own and opens into a new relationship with the unconscious realms of their minds.

Recently I was talking with Ryan Hurd, who manages the site dreamstudies.org, about the experience of keeping a dream journal, and he mentioned the idea that dream journaling can be thought of as a kind of contemplative practice, similar in many ways to meditation and prayer. This idea immediately resonated with my own feelings about the impact of dream journaling, and as we talked further it seemed worthwhile to share this line of thinking with others who might find it helpful.

At first sight, of course, this might seem like an implausible comparison. Dream journaling is not addressed to a deity like prayer, nor does it involve emptying the mind of all contents like some forms of meditation. There are no formal traditions or established schools of dream journaling, comparable to the ancient teachings about prayer in Christianity or meditation in Buddhism.

All of this is true, and yet the similarities remain striking. Consider the following features that characterize the long-term practice of dream journaling:

  • It cultivates a capacity for sustained, focused self-reflection.
  • It cultivates an ability to suspend your ego and listen to your inner voice of intuition, your true self.
  • It brings forth a more honest awareness of your greatest challenges, conflicts, and vulnerabilities.
  • It increases your sensitivity to the symbolic potentials of waking experience.
  • It will surprise you with sudden discoveries and realizations.
  • It is enjoyable and mentally transformative no matter what actual insights may come.

These core features of the practice of dream-journaling also characterize many forms of meditation and prayer. This was pragmatic gist of my conversation with Ryan. In our lives, at least, keeping a dream journal plays a role very similar to the one that meditation and prayer seems to play in other people’s lives. As much as we value the insights we learn from particular dreams, we are most drawn to dream journaling as a practice, as an ongoing dialogue with the transcendent powers of the psyche.

Setting aside time each day to record your dreams, reflect on their images and feelings, sort and categorize their contents, analyze them for their broad patterns and odd singularities—these activities generate a contemplative flow in themselves, a flow that when experienced on a regular basis becomes a powerful resource for creativity in all aspects of life. Although much less studied than meditation and prayer, keeping a dream journal is a kindred practice of deep, long-term psychological and spiritual growth.


(This post was first published on the website of Psychology Today, March 2, 2023.)


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