As we approach our own dreams, even with all the book learning in the world, we are often mystified. Dreams are somewhat opaque; they do not give up their meaning easily. Possibly our conscious mind is not ready to remember the dream, or maybe it discounts the dream as meaningless. Even when we can hold onto the images and story, it often resists our attempts at understanding.
A dream is a gift from the unconscious. However the unconscious is not like our outer self; it acts more like a brilliant child than an adult. If it does not receive the attention or respect it deserves, then it won’t play. Our deeper self can snatch back a dream into the underworld in a fraction of a second. One moment it is there in our mind, crystal clear – the next it is gone forever.
The path to understanding dreams is one of appreciation and valuing. Approach a dream like a work of art, an interesting creation. Consider the amount of trouble the unconscious has taken. It has pieced together a mosaic out of experiential fragments and woven them into a strange story that contains some deep intention. Then it has allowed you to experience and remember the dream, pushing it from the depths out into consciousness. If you are unwilling to at least pay attention, the dream will return unanswered to its realm.
Learning to appreciate and pay attention to dreams is a process of constant reminders. My own introduction to dreamwork was through a dream group led by Winifred Rushforth in Edinburgh, Scotland. Winifred was 95 at the time and lead a dream group of 8 – 10 participants every night of the week. She approached each dream with a wealth of wisdom and spiritual understanding earned through 50 years practice as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist.
She gathered us in her living room each week with a warm and personal welcome, an invitation to be present and alive. Winfred would remain quietly presence while the group worked on each other’s dreams. Her comments were invariably appreciative and intensely curious about the members dream experience. If pushed to comment on the dream, she would make a statement about some aspect of the inner life of that person that struck straight to the.
Once a spinsterish librarian in her late forties was struggling to tell the group of a disturbing dream event. Hesitatingly she explained that she was with the devil and that they were having intercourse. Winifred looked over her glasses, her benign softly wrinkled face framed in a pure white wispy halo of hair. With a twinkle in her eye she leaned towards the poor embarrassed lady and said questioningly, “He fucked you?”
At other times, a dream image would catch her attention and she would tell a long rambling story connecting many differing aspects of her life experience in synchronistic ways. Then I would begin to doubt her mental abilities. Was she getting senile? Yet the story would loop back on itself to create a sense of the meaningfulness and connectivity of life, the sacredness of relationship and meeting. Every thing was an indicator that “Something ” was happening.
It was many years and many dreams later that I realized what I had assimilated from that dream group. Many of my dreams still seem opaque to my understanding. But I have learned to appreciate the texture and creativity and individuality of my own and my clients dreams. I know to stay with them and allow the dream to open up to exploration and questioning. Winifred remains as a figure in my inner world that helps me remain engaged with dreams. Her patient and loving attention to the productions of the dreamer within us remain embedded in my unconscious.
So a first suggestion to working with dreams is to dream and collect dreams. It is not a matter of importance if we understand them or can interpret their meanings. Pay attention and show the dreamer that you are interested. That is the part of us that acts as a channel between the deeper and unfathomable unconscious processes and the conscious mind. It constructs the dreams and can also allow their energy and meanings to open up to our awareness. We must accept that without this inner help the dream will remain inaccessible to understanding.
However, because we do not understand, it does not mean that the dream is not working. Many dreams are not for conscious attention. Their function is completed by the process of dreaming. The dreaming itself accomplishes what is required within the unconscious processes. It does not need to rise to the realms of consciousness; it is complete in and of itself. Dreams that come to awareness and remain in consciousness are requests for something different to happen. A dream remembered is a communication from the inner to the outer worlds. It may be an important message or just keeping the channel open. It requires at least a little attention.
When approaching a dream we need to make a distinction between the dreaming process itself and the remembered dream. Dreaming is to be engaged in the world of unconscious experiencing. It is a process of immersion in that experiencing that is purposeful and provides an important function for the whole of our self. You may say that dreaming promotes and maintains the integrative functions of the self. It is the glue that binds us together.
Remembering a dream is a conscious process of recollection. Our unconscious has allowed that dream to remain alive in awareness long enough for us to piece it together. So remembered dreams are somewhat like any memory, a personal construction that makes the best gestalt or whole out of what we have collected. We only know the dream as an object seen through the prism of conscious remembering. The process of recall is itself distorting and our conscious mind has difficulty holding the contradictory thoughts and images that are natural to the unconscious. There is always censorship and deletions.
Dreams are not one-dimensional; they come from many differing levels inside us. It is as if the unconscious is layered and functions differently within these different layers. These levels reflect differing processes that are necessary for our well-being. Something inside chooses how and what we dream. This choice depends on the needs and requirements of our selves, our lives and the growing potentials that are outside of awareness. As we notice these levels, it becomes easier to access the meanings and energy that the dream expresses.
The meaning of a dream cannot be restricted to one level of information. It usually encompasses many different facets of meanings. Every dream is crammed with useful and important information; it is like a compressed picture of the important issues that are of concern to the unconscious at this particular time. However, some meanings are not available to our conscious mind; we cannot connect to them yet or even remember the dream. Other meanings are personally relevant and can impact our conscious life; we can accept and make sense of them. As we pay attention to our dreams and those of others, we can begin to gain an intuitive sense of the depth, meaning and significance of each dream.
One way of approaching the complexity of a dream is to decide at which level that particular dream carries the most energy and meaning; where it is most available. We can determine, intuitively, how the dream wishes us to approach it. We can relate the levels of dreaming to the differing processes of experience. The demands of the world, when they impinge on our dream life tend to create a certain type of dream; a surface dream that reflects our most obvious outer processes. When our life experience need reworking and processing this creates a personal dream; this is a reflection of our inner process. Intrapersonal dreams occur when we need to pay attention to the way in which parts of the self are related to each other and are in need of restructuring. This is a function of deeper processes. Finally, when there are shifts and changes in our spirituality and way of being, then we may have an archetypal dream. These dreams move beyond the personal to the transpersonal or numinous experiences of the greater process.
As the level of the dream deepens, there is a tendency for the content to become more symbolic and difficult to decipher. The further away from conscious process the dream is, the more it speaks a different language that seems foreign to our waking awareness. The levels are as follows:
The dream content is a reflection of the processing and organizing of life information that is new, overwhelming or unusual. This level is characteristic of dreams that occur after unfamiliar activities such as the first day of a new job or class. Similarly, an unsettling event that is emotionally charged will often create a pattern of dreaming that is repetitive, circular and tiring. There is a sense of not being properly asleep and the dream seems to have difficulty reaching resolution. These dreams often need us to wake up before they will shift.
It seems the dream is trying to integrate and process information that does not yet have a ‘file’. There is a need to rework and rearrange experience until it can be assimilated. It is easy to dismiss these dreams as ‘nothing but’ stuff left over from the day. However there is often a connection to deeper material that can be neglected. At the very least, these dreams tell we are having difficulty digesting recent experiences and we may need to look at that.
In relation to our outer life the dream may give hints and clues as to the manner in which we are approach those kinds of experiences.
These dreams reflect the important events and relationships that are happening in our lives and how we relate to them at an inner level. There may be a hints about the way we are dealing with experiences and how this is connected to patterns and feelings from earlier times. The dreams are metaphors for our way of being in our lives: our relationships, anxieties, interests and enthusiasms. Often, how we are in the dream, in terms of our involvement, influence, energy, role, etc., reflects how we are in our lives. Do we stand by as an observer, or are we actively involved and feeling and thinking?
Dreams are not obscure on purpose, but we can be misled because one person or object may stand in for another. The dream may contain practical messages about our attitudes, actions and motives that are just reaching awareness. Common examples are journey dreams in which the mode of transport stands in for the manner in which the person ‘travels’ through their life, or school dreams in which the person is unprepared for an examination or misses a class. If we cannot listen to the message of the dream there is a tendency for it to become stuck and recurring.
Dreams in therapy often describe the clients growing relationship with the therapist and the issues that need to be resolved in the therapy. These ‘transference’ dreams are extremely important and it is essential that the therapist works to understand what the client’s unconscious is trying to say, and acts on it. The therapist may appear in the dream as him/herself but is more likely to be symbolized by some other person of authority.
These dreams reflect processes that are happening deeper the person. The players in the dream symbolize differing parts of the self and the way these parts, complexes or aspects are organized and interact with each other. Often the content is strange, with people and objects involved in a story or drama that is disjointed, irrational and hard to grasp consciously. The dreamer may be involved dramatically or be an observer. This position reflects the ego’s stance in relation to other aspects of the inner world that are somewhat separate or split off from the conscious self. Examples might be an anxiety dream where the person is running away from threatening others or a growth dream where the person finds an extra unexpected room in a house.
In therapy, these dreams are clues to what needs to be connected and integrated. They can be used to assess whether the therapy is progressing, regardless of the person’s conscious experience. Often they call into questions the person’s conscious attitude and how that is blocking or slowing down progress. They also vividly highlight those aspects of the self that are experienced as a threat, and the conflict that results. In general, if an object or person is particularly noticeable or bizarre, it can be taken as a message to pay particular attention to that aspect; it carries a high energetic charge and may be seeking conscious attention.
These are the ‘big’ dreams. They have a quality and feeling that is wider and deeper than the normal concerns of that individual. Dream actors and events are more than personal symbols; they connect to the universal experiences of mankind. We feel these as magical or “numinous” dreams that are not easily forgotten; they may stay in our minds over many years. They have powerful and often vivid symbols which evoke a resonating response in others. Example might be dreams of the ocean, light and darkness, male/female energies, natural forces, magical powers, Death, God etc.; there is a sense of power, transformation and dramatic change.
It is the unknown or mysterious other that most often symbolizes that aspect of the unconscious that needs to integrate. Animus/Anima figures, in their purest form, are experienced as powerful and fascinating figures that demand relationship, from the most passionate sexual intercourse to the most sublime spiritual contact. The unconscious is not ‘shy’, and connection with archetypal energies is often shocking and disturbing to the conscious mind. In fact, premature joining with an archetype can create a powerful, physical energetic charge throughout the body.
The archetype of light and darkness, of Shadow and Persona, may appear in many forms from the most subtle to the most obvious. All experience of light presuppose the darkness of the shadow; day opposes night; good reflects bad; yes requires no. Those images that are most terrifying or shocking, that partake of darkness and the forbidden, may be requesting attention and integration. The Shadow contains locked up life energy that facilitates inner transformation.
When the unconscious tries to describe the greater Self, it tends to rely on universal forms and shapes. These Mandalas are often not obvious unless we take a different viewpoint. The house full of square rooms, the spiral staircase, the bowl on a rectangular table, the faceted gem may each be representations of the Self in Mandala form. When these occur in therapy, we know that the unconscious is trying to facilitate a deeper transformation of Self. In general, archetypal dreams require that we appreciate and remember them rather than try to wring out the meaning through interpretation. They accomplish their purpose by simply being; we need to treat them with respect and allow space to wonder.
Approaching a Dream
There are as many ways to approach a dream as there are dreamers. However, some basic guidelines help us connect to the meanings and purpose of the dream. Dreams are unlike our conscious thoughts in that they are complex symbolic processes; they do not translate or interpret on a one to one basis with our rational understandings. Rather, they are more like pictures or poetry that seeks to capture essential qualities of our feelings or life experience. We have to approach them as metaphoric descriptions of multi-layered processes that can have endless meanings. Dreaming is experiencing; a dream is an experience remembered. We have no access to the actual dreaming itself. We can never know them totally from a conscious standpoint.
Our conscious mind will often try to ‘colonize’ a dream by offering a quick and obvious interpretation that fits, but only addresses one aspect of the dream. Clever interpretations and “off the peg” translations (as in most dream dictionaries) are of little benefit. The meaning and relevance of a dream must resonate at a deeper level of the person to have any effect. Each dream has its protective cloak (some call it resistance) that will not reveal the inner essence of the dream unless it is treated with respect; it must be unwrapped with care to make sense.
Because dreams reflect different levels of process they can give a clue as to what is stuck or blocked. In general, if we focus on what needs to happen to achieve a positive outcome, we can have a good idea as to where the dream is leading us. Anything repetitive, circular or constricted is evidence of a process disturbance. Running without getting anywhere, being lost or out of control, suggest that certain processes need attention.
Below are a series of questions that may be helpful. They are organized according to the levels of dreaming but can be used to approach any kind of dream.
SURFACE How is this dream related to my outer experience?
* How does it reflect those experiences and the way I feel about them?
* Does it have a main image or theme that stands out – is it reflecting something about my physical or psychological state?
* Do I need to do something to change or influence this particular life situation?
* Is it stuck, and what do I need to get unstuck? How would I like it to finish?
* What kind of roles and relationships do I have in the dream – are these like or unlike how I am in my outer life?
PERSONAL How does this dream reflect how I am in my self?
* How active or passive am I in the dream – am I really involved or not?
* How expressive and communicative am I in my dream and in my life?
* What are the main emotions and sensations in the dream – how intense are they – how alive am I?
* How clear is the dream? How vivid is the color and imagery and story? How clear am I about myself and my life?
* What is the message or question posed by this dream? What am I not seeing or facing in my life? What would I need to do to change the dream and my life?
INTRAPERSONAL What aspects or parts of myself are symbolized by the dream and how do they relate to each other?
* Who or what am I, how old am I and where am I in the dream?
* Who or what are the other main actors or objects in the dream? What is strange or missing?
* What is the quality of the relationships between the main parts in the dream – and how do these relationships change in the story? How do I relate to others in the dream?
* What aspects are threatening, conflict, or are undeveloped?
* What are the helpful, strong and supportive aspects?
* How does the dream progress – is there a process or story that is developed or unfinished?
* What would need to be different for the outcome to be more satisfactory?
* How do the main themes and stories relate to my inner life: attitudes, wishes, desires, hopes and fears? What do I need to transform in myself in order to grow?
ARCHETYPAL Does the dream have a fascinating or powerful quality with unusual objects, events, figures and action?
* Who are the powerful actors? What is strange or unusual about them? Do they carry a message or gift or threat?
* How do the opposite sex figures relate to me? What is the quality of that relationship? How does it need to develop?
* How is light and darkness represented? Are there any dark or black or shadowy figures in the dream?
* What are the objects in the dream? Do any have a transformative or ‘magical’ quality? Are any menacing or dark?
* Are there activities symbolic of transformation and connection: birth, death, sex, growth, creation, ingestion, expulsion? How are the elements of earth, air, water and fire represented and connected?
* Are there geometric shapes (circles, squares, triangles, flower shapes, spirals) evident or hidden in the dream? How are they connected? Are there references to numbers, particularly one, two, three and four?
* What does the dream require of me? Do I need to do something, create a ritual or find anything? What may be trying to come alive in me that I am not yet aware of?
Dreamwork Rules of Thumb
* Regularly request dreams and expect to remember them.
* Try to decide how much energy and importance the dream holds and which levels of dreaming it relates to most.
* Listen to the dream with your whole self, and allow images and associations and feelings to be evoked in you by the dream. Be curious and interested and notice which aspects seem fascinating or energetically charged.
* Approach dreamwork with an attitude of exploration and experimentation. If one approach does not work, move naturally to something else that may be more successful.
* Pay attention to any oddities and places in the dream where the action or energy gets stuck or confused. Imagine what could or might happen instead.
* Start with conscious processing and gradually move into deeper work, looking to see which approaches suit you and the dream. Be creative!
* Often all that is necessary is to hear and validate the dream.