Let’s consider how God might move us through a dream. Last night I talked a lot about dreaming in honor of Peter’s great outburst of enthusiasm as he quoted the prophet Joel to explain what the Holy Spirit of God had done in the gathered disciples on Pentecost.
No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.’ Acts 2:16-17 (from Joel 2:28)
Prophecy, visions and dreams are being poured out “upon all flesh” as God calls us back into the spiritual intimacy we were created to enjoy.
Scientists measure dreams
This reality is a bit off the grid for many of us. We have been trained to think our dreams, in particular, are a matter of predictable, physical processes we can measure — and it is true, researchers have been watching our dreams for a long time. The invention of the electroencephalograph allowed scientists to study sleep in ways that were not previously possible.
During the 1950s, a graduate student named Eugene Aserinsky (along with others, but long live graduate students!) used this tool to discover what is known today as REM sleep. Further studies demonstrated how sleep progresses through a series of stages in which different brain wave patterns are displayed. We mainly dream during stage four when we experience Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep (also known as active sleep or paradoxical sleep).
During the earliest phases of sleep, we are still relatively awake and alert. The brain produces what are called beta waves, which are small and fast. As the brain begins to relax and slow down, slower waves known as alpha waves are produced. During this time when we are not “fully” asleep, we may experience vivid sensations known as hypnagogic hallucinations. Common examples are feeling like you are falling or hearing someone call your name. Another common event during this period is the myoclonic jerk; your body reacts as if startled.
Fairly recently, experts have named four stages sleep. By stage three, deep, slow brain waves known as delta waves begin to emerge. During this stage, people become less responsive to noises and activity in the environment. It is a transitional period between light sleep and a very deep sleep. Bed-wetting and sleepwalking are most likely to occur at the end of this stage of sleep.
Most dreaming occurs during the fourth stage of sleep, known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is characterized by eye movement under our lids, increased respiration rate and increased brain activity. REM sleep is also referred to as paradoxical sleep because while the brain and other body systems become more active, muscles become more relaxed. When our voluntary muscles go off line our brains enjoy a time to be active.
Sleep moves through these four stages four or five times a night. On average, we enter the REM stage approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first cycle of REM sleep might last only a short amount of time, but each cycle becomes longer. REM sleep can last up to an hour as sleep progresses.
God uses dreams
Understanding how we sleep and sleeping well is a good spiritual discipline. Working with the different levels of how we dream is what deeply spiritual people do. Recalling and pondering what your brain was doing when your muscles were relatively paralyzed during stage four sleep can be very interesting. It tells us a lot about how the automatic scripts of our unconscious act and may give us a lot of information about what we desire and fear, as well as about what we just can’t see in ourselves in the light of day. Keep a pad and pencil by your bed. Talking about our dreams with trusted friends or our therapists and spiritual directors is a good ways to mentalize and become deeper.
When Peter was telling the crowd gathered in Jerusalem about the movement of God’s Spirit in the followers of Jesus, the dreams he predicted were not merely the movement in our brains or the desires of our hearts. He was talking about revelations from God coming from the same places we normally consider unknowable. From out of the dark, God speaks. When our normal muscle control systems are out of the way, we can hear in ways we otherwise can’t. We meditate and pray in various ways so we can put ourselves in a condition in which we are more receptive to connecting with the Holy Spirit. Like the disciples were waiting in Jerusalem for the communion with God Jesus had promised, so we wait. The Lord has provided the forgiveness we need and defeated the powers that want to keep us locked up as their slaves. A new reality (to us, at least) is open for exploration.
The dreams of stage four sleep are often mysterious and downright comical. What we name “dreams” from God, since they arise in the same territory of our brains an electroencephalograph might measure, are much more clear. They resemble what others have experienced, often recorded in the Bible. They often reconfirm things our logic and conviction have led us to believe. They usually lead us to some specific action we can accomplish in the cause of redemption. They give us the pleasure of reassurance that God is with us and we are able to know the Lord. We are not lost in the dark, nor is the darkness full of unknown terrors, nor is our darkness only explored with some machine we invent. God is light in our dark and the future is full of the pleasure of God’s company.