What are your dreams telling you? How can you understand their meaning? In my years of teaching people about dreams, I have found three keys to help unlock their wisdom and counsel.
1. Remember that Dreams Are Drafted in Symbols
Understanding dreams is understanding symbols. When you dream of your mother, your father, your spouse, or your best friend, these figures should not be confused with the actual people. Even if you dream of Jesus, Buddha, or your spiritual teacher, don’t only think of these teachers as “them”; instead, think of them as qualities or ways of being that are aspects of you—aspects that you are unconscious of. And if you think of a monster, bad person, or abuser in your dream, this does not necessarily indicate something that is actually happening in your real life.
How might you interpret these symbols in your dream? Let’s say you dream that your partner is being unfaithful. This may indicate that part of you is not interested in your normal way of living, interacting, or valuing things. Some part of you wants to leave “you” (the normal/habitual you) and explore another way. Or, let’s say you dream of a monster chasing you. This could mean that you are scared of some part of yourself and are trying to get away from it. For example, some people fear their own vulnerability because they have been hurt in the past; these people might dream of their vulnerability as something scary (a monster) that they are trying to escape. Or, say that you dream of a person who is sick and throwing up. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are sick or that the other person is sick (maybe they/you are, maybe not). However, it might mean that you need to “throw up,” stop holding it in, speak truths that are not so pleasant, or stop swallowing things that you don’t want to internalize.
Caveat: This does not mean that some dreams are not psychic or prophetic. Certain dreams do tell you that a friend really is sick, to take heed of your circumstances, etc. I am focusing and highlighting the symbolic quality of dreams because our tendency to literalize the symbols in dreams can cut us off from the psychological wisdom our dreams offer.
2. Remember that You Are Not You
Just as the people who populate your dreams may not literally be themselves, you may not be you. However, most people tell their dreams, perceive their dreams, and feel their dreams as if the symbol that looks like them is really them. For example, I say “In my dream ‘I’ was driving down a one way street the wrong way; everyone else was going the right way.” I may worry that “I” am truly going the wrong way and need to make a course correction in my life. However, this dream occurs most often for people who are inclined to follow a path that is more acceptable to other people instead of going their own way, marching to their own beat, or creating their own path. I tell the dream from “my” perspective – as a person who feels he is going the wrong way as opposed to a person who is independent and courageous enough to go against the grain. Or if I have a nightmare where a dark cloud is descending upon me, “I” think that this is happening to me. In my waking life, I may feel like a dark cloud is descending up on me; perhaps I feel sad, down, or depressed. But that dark cloud is actually also me, descending on another part of myself. In this case, while “I” feel victim to the dark cloud, the dark cloud may be suggesting that this is a time when I need to be sheltered from the day-to-day world, and instead turn inward, away from the light, to the realms of emotion and dreaming (which is the symbolic meaning of going into the dark cloud). Or let’s say “I” am being criticized by someone in a dream; I am not only the one criticized or hurt, I am also the one who is being critical. Maybe I need to be less judgmental of others or myself, or perhaps the dream is advising me to be more consciously critical of ideas and people I accept.
The Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote, “I am not I. I am this one walking beside me whom I do not see.” This is useful counsel in working with your dreams.
3. Remember that Dreams Resolve Problems in Unusual Ways
Do dreams help us to fix problems in our lives? The short answer is yes, but they don’t always resolve them in a linear manner. For example, let’s say you have a relationship problem that you try to address by listening better and trying to be more understanding. Your dreams may suggest that you stop listening and instead start talking, asserting, even shouting. Or, you may find yourself struggling with fatigue and a lack of energy. In response, you may be trying to eat differently, exercise more, or change your sleeping habits in order to feel more energy during the day. However, your dreams may suggest that you let go, drop down, and stop trying so hard do accomplish something that is not deeply important to you. Or perhaps you have low self-esteem and have been told to be more affirming of yourself as you are; meanwhile, your dreams are telling you to begin playing a musical instrument, complete a degree, or spend more time in nature.
Occasionally our dreams do have linear or direct answers to our struggles, but more often, they offer a new perspective on our problems—a perspective that opens the door to answers you may never have considered. Einstein said that we can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created. Dreams follow this wisdom by not only commenting on our problems but also on the way we look at our problems. Further, they shift our point of view to the mythical and symbolic realms, thus broadening the context in which we evaluate our problems and seek to solve them. This is particularly useful for issues that stubbornly resist our best intentions and efforts to change them. Our problems are often a manifestation of who we are and it is not the problem that needs to change, but rather ourselves.
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I am the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Signed copies of the book are for sale on my website: www.talkingbacktodrphil.com.
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