This is the first of a two-part article on how to work with dreams. Tongue-in-cheek, I explore different aspects of dreamwork using the metaphor of fish and fishing. In this section, I deal with how we catch, hold on to and recognize different kinds of dreams. A second article will address how to prepare, cook and digest these strange creatures of the unconscious.
Dreams are slippery fish—hard to catch and difficult to hold. They don’t give up their nourishment without a bit of a struggle and some resolute cooking. Even after working with dreams for so many years, I have a tough time unlocking my own night images. Most of my dreams come with a kind of invisible force field that pushes away my conscious attention. So to make sense of these fleeting inner experiences, I have to hold a strong intention and pay close attention to those denizens of the deep.
Bait the hook and cast the fishing line into the depths of the water
After a week of dreamless sleep, I start to feel flat and cheated. My inner life is undernourished, my nights boringly under-populated. So I ask for a dream by making an intention—or actually demanding a dream: Hey unconscious, this is not good enough: give me a dream!
This does not always work, but most often a dream pops in the next few nights. The key element is the force of my request—the amount of intention and energy I put into it. If you are not serious about your night fishing, if you are half-hearted with bait and line, why would a dream bite? There are millions of fishes below the surface; if you ignore them, they ignore you.
Set the hook and keep the fish firmly on the line
How can we capture and hold those slippery images and bizarre stories in our conscious minds? Again, it depends on how much you show willing. If you are interested, the dreamer within helps you remember your dreams. With consistent curiosity, they become vivid, insistent and virtually unforgettable.
If I wake in the night with an interesting dream, I run the images through my mind a few times before I fall back asleep. I find a name for the dream and use the tag as a memory aid. Awakening in the morning, I mentally go over the dream before I shift too much. There is always a pencil and paper at my bedside so I can write down the dream as soon as possible. Some people use the memo app on their phone but most need to write it out later.
Watch out for dream slither: if you get complacent or think about other things, the dream goes slip-sliding way! We fool ourselves into believing we will remember—not so! One lapse of attention and the images vanish: a wave of the unconscious sucks the fish back into the ocean. If that happens, best let it go: there are always more fish in the sea.
Not all fish are equal: some are little sprats, some are a good size and some are big fish!
The Little Sprats—Many of our dreams are small and somewhat devoid of nourishment. I call these fleeting, disjointed images that reflect waking experience, surface dreams. After an exciting action movie, my dreaming brain replays some of the scenes as if cannot let go of the story. If I am upset or distracted, my sleep is superficial and my mind filled with transient images.
When confronted with unfamiliar and emotionally charged events—a new job, a conflict with a loved one, a big decision—we get caught in a surface dream that repeats and repeats. If that happens, I wake myself up and sit quietly; my dream tends to shift to a deeper, more soothing pattern. My unconscious had got stuck and needed me to consciously ‘reset’ my mind. Toss those little sprats back into the water and get ready for a better catch!
Good-sized Fish—these dreams have flesh on their bones and make a good inner meal! We recognize these personal dreams by their vivid images, odd juxtapositions of people and things, and storylines that wander around in time and space. While dreaming, we are captivated and immersed in the action—but as soon as we start to wake the dream begins to fade. Our conscious mind struggles to hold on to the amorphous and nonsensical scenarios; it wants to dismiss the swirling images and feelings and get back to ‘real’ reality.
Think of personal dreams as impressionistic videos of our inner worlds. Every aspect is chosen according to the artistic intentions of our unconscious; every detail illustrates some specific aspect of our subjective inner world. They metaphorically and symbolically reflect our lives and deeper concerns.
I am fascinated, mystified and enlightened by my personal dreams. Every night, my unconscious takes me on a journey, shows me spectacles, situations and icons that have no counterpart in my waking world. Images and events are chosen from every aspect and period of my life—past, present and even the future. Like an inspired artist in a creative frenzy, the unconscious uses anything and everything to construct a dream. How could I not be grateful for this bounty from the depths?
Big Fish—these dreams have impact! In contrast to personal dreams, big dreams are archetypal: they evoke the mysterious, numinous and universal experiences of humankind. We recognize them by their compelling energy and symbols that resonate deep inside.
I recall only a handful of my own archetypal dreams. They are not frequent but their presence stays with me over a lifetime. My earliest big dreams were impressions of geometrical shapes floating in space; they embodied a certain peculiar and inexplicable feeling. A powerful one involved me in a magical ceremony conducted in a place I knew nothing of until I visited it many years later.
Archetypal dreams do not give up their gifts easily or quickly. They need to be appreciated and cherished rather than wrung out to find a particular meaning. Sometimes, they accomplish their purpose by simply being; we approach them with respect and allow ourselves to simply wonder.
The fish is out of the water and it dies!
A living dream swims happily in the waters of the unconscious. You wake and immediately the dream-fish starts gasping, beginning to expire. Consciousness for a dream is air for a fish. The actual dream experience slips away and transforms into a dream-memory. Just as we only eat the flesh of dead fish, we only work consciously with the spirit or memory of a living dream.
Have you noticed how an intense night experience feels flat and uninteresting on waking? The expired dream-fish lies there staring up at you with blank eyes and you don’t know what to do with it. My first waking reaction is often, This dream is lifeless; I should toss it back! I’ve learned to take a moment before deciding what to do next. If a dream is mundane or indigestible, I let it go. But I am careful not to reject it too quickly—most dreams have a valuable pearl hidden inside.
Are you ready to prepare the fish for cooking?
There is quite bit of labor involved getting a raw fish ready to cook. It has to be gutted, cleaned, scaled and oft times filleted. In the next section of this article, I assume you have captured a dream-memory and are ready to lay it out on a platter. Your first task is to write down the dream with all the details you can remember. Read more…