The Artist and the Tidal Wave
How Dreams Can Save Your Creative Life

by John D. Goldhammer, Ph.D.

"Inside you there’s an artist
you don’t know about." - Rumi

For many years the occasional dreams I remembered appeared to be either unintelligible nonsense or exhaustive dramas about frustrating work scenarios. I would wake up in a panic, relieved it was just a dream. But one December night over twenty years ago, everything changed. I dreamt that I was looking through a tiny window in a massive, ornate door, intently curious to see what was in a mysterious room. I was startled to see a huge single eye looking back at me intently. That winter night I began a remarkable journey that forever changed my life, an adventure that continues to this day.

Beginning with that dream, the floodgates opened and a torrent of dreams spilled over the walls of my well-planned and quite ordinary life. They contained thematic images, symbols, and dramas that moved through my life, leaving strange tracks, exotic fragrances, tearing down old buildings, setting fires. I was captivated. I committed myself to understanding their real meaning and gradually filled five dream journals with thousands of dreams, all the while voraciously reading everything I could find on dreams, symbols, the imagination, and theories and techniques of dream interpretation. Several years later, another unusual dream was the catalyst that inspired me to leave a lucrative business career, return to school and become a psychotherapist specializing in dreamwork.

The poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), once suggested a stunning possibility: that “Dreams … may well have an analogy with our whole life and fate.” I couldn’t agree more! After twenty-plus years of researching dreaming and techniques of dream interpretation, working with over twenty thousand individual dreams, I discovered that many of our dreams have a profound intent and purpose; they stand as guardians at the gates of the human spirit, defending us from all manner of nefarious influences. In fact, our dreams focus, with laser-like precision, on freeing us from anything that is self-negating and self-defeating. Dreams are like a master sculptor removing everything from the block of marble that is not “elephant.” This natural process slowly but surely brings one’s authentic Self and particular genius into clear definition. Like a fog lifting as the sunlight emerges, we begin to see and to know exactly what it is that we must do with our life and, often more significant, what it is that we must stop doing to ourselves.

This liberating characteristic of dreaming has tremendous implications: it means that we each have an inner, spiritual and psychological defense system designed to not only insure the survival of life as we know it but also to facilitate the evolution of the human spirit and change the world we live in. To be sure, our dreams are social activists. Dreams want the individual life to become a creative intervention in the social order.

Here’s a fascinating example that appears to be a specific memory of dying: Terri, a beautiful, exuberant eighteen-year-old rebel, had a frightening dream immediately after joining a spiritual group. She had the dream just as she was in the process of moving across the country so that she could be near the minister, a commanding, charismatic woman in her early sixties who she described as “my spiritual teacher.” Unfortunately, over time, the group evolved into a very destructive cult. Many years later, after finally leaving the group, we worked on that old dream that still puzzled her. Back then, her spiritual teacher told her the dream was from a past life in Pompeii and that was the end of that. The dream had always haunted her and was one of those dreams that would just not go away. Here’s her dream:

"I am on a beach at the ocean painting with an easel. There is a woman with me also painting. I then look out and see a gigantic tidal wave nearly on top us! Then I look back at my painting and my friend and I realize everything has been swept away and I am under the water and will drown. I repeat a prayer but I feel the water filling my lungs and I am surprised there is no pain."

Terri’s dream was to be an artist. Art was her passion in life. She told me, “I always dreamt I wanted to be a great painter.” And her dream begins with her “painting” at the ocean. She described her friend as, “someone I had known for a couple of years. She’s an eccentric genius, a writer, but also somewhat self-destructive.” Terri felt she accurately represented a part of herself—eccentric and talented as an artist but with a self-destructive side. I asked Terri to imagine being the tidal wave. “I’m going to overwhelm everything—wipe it out,” she said, adding, “I was amazed I was dying and there was no burning, no pain.”

“All the time I was in the group, my guru said art was not my right work. I accepted this without a fight, I just let go, exactly like dying in that tidal wave, without a struggle,” she explained. Now Terri realized the tidal wave was the group’s ideology that had killed her authentic life, her passion, her art; it was the artist, her creativity that drowned under that wave so long ago. Now the dream resonated powerfully; it made perfect sense. She told me, “Now after many years outside the group, I am struggling to find and uncover that artist, that painter that I let die.” Finally understanding her dream gave her the resolve and renewed determination to resurrect her art and her creative life.

Our dreams carry the awesome potential to help us to see clearly who we really are—our natural, inborn potential and unique character without anything “put on” us. When understood, they become our passport into a life that has meaning, passion, and purpose. Our dreams want our lives to make a difference. We need only remove all the isms and complex psychological systems that would like to tell us what our dreams mean and instead learn how to give our dreams the respect and the freedom to speak for themselves.

Author's Bio: 

John Goldhammer, Ph.D., is the author of three books, a psychotherapist, dream researcher, and passionate speaker. "The Artist and the Tidal Wave" is adapted from his most recent book, Radical Dreaming: Use Your Dreams to Change Your Life (Kensington Publishing / Citadel Press). He created and taught these university courses: Jung and a World In Crisis, The Psychology of Hate, Psychology of Groups.He lives in Seattle, Washington. Email:; Website: