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Dreaming of Water

Exploring the symbolic meanings and future anticipations of water dreams.

Key points

  • Water is the most common element in dreams.
  • Water can take many forms in dreams, with symbolic meanings that revolve around themes of birth, vitality, emotions, and the unconscious.
  • Climate change is likely to stimulate more anxious dreams about water in the future.
Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

Of the four classical elements—fire, air, water, and earth—water tends to be the one that appears most frequently in people’s dreams. Some of this is due to the importance of water in our daily existence, and in the existence of all of Earth’s creatures. Some of it is also due to the psychological potency of water as a symbol of life, birth, emotions, fluidity, the feminine, the unconscious, and several other meanings that vary by culture and historical era. If you reflect on your own dreams and follow their development over time, you will likely notice the appearance of water in multiple forms. Here are some questions to keep in mind as you reflect on the presence of water in one of your dreams.

First, what kind of water appears in the dream? Is it a massive body of water like an ocean or lake? Is it a fast-moving river or stream? Is it falling from the sky as rain, or frozen on the ground as ice? Is it water in a domestic setting like a swimming pool, a bathtub, or a boiling kettle? This is one of the reasons that water is so common in dreams—it can take so many different forms and appear in our lives in so many different settings. The tremendous variability of water makes it especially important to look closely at the exact details whenever water appears in a particular dream. Of all the possible forms that water can take, in your dream it took this specific form—when you think of the distinctive qualities of this type of water, what comes to your mind? Who or what in your life has these qualities, too?

Second, how do you interact with the water in your dream? Are you observing it from a distance, or are you immersed in it? Is it peaceful or dangerous, a gentle pond or a bursting dam? Are you swimming, floating, paddling, or sinking in it? Are you using water for bathing, drinking, washing, or cooking? These questions lead quickly to perennial concerns of human life. Civilizations have risen and fallen according to how well people have managed to use water for beneficial purposes while avoiding the destructive threats of water. As you reflect on your interactions with water in your dreams, you might think of it as you would a relationship with a human character. How are you getting along with water in your dreams? Is your relationship friendly and comforting, or tense and frightening, or something else? This might sound strange, but does the water in your dreams seem to want anything from you? Maybe not, but it’s worth at least considering the possibility that vivid dreams of water are calling you to pay attention to emotional realities outside your normal range of conscious awareness, to feelings that are vitally important yet hard to grasp or pin down.

Third, what might the water in your dream symbolize? With many dreams, it is easy to trace images from the dream to a recent experience or perception in waking life, what Sigmund Freud called “the day residue.” However, even if you identify the literal source of an image, the water in the dream might still have symbolic meanings, too. For instance, water can symbolize emotions in its power and fluidity. It can symbolize the unconscious and everything that is submerged within the hidden depths of the psyche. It can symbolize the source of all life, the maternal matrix of uterine development, the wellspring of growth and vitality. The range of possible meanings can vary in different cultures and periods of history, so there is no one universal way of interpreting dreams of water. However, the essential importance of water in human life allows us to say with some confidence that water is a universal dream symbol of forces of nature that are both positive and negative, that we both can and cannot control, and that vitally connect us with vast energies, primal rhythms, and non-human forms of life. This is especially true for dreams that have extremely intense and unusual contents without any recent personal connections, what C.G. Jung called “big dreams.” The appearance of water in highly memorable big dreams can take strange forms—magical tidal waves, eerie undersea cities, apocalyptic storms, heavenly rainbows—in which the symbolism of dreaming merges with the symbolism of myths, fairy tales, and sacred narratives.

A final thought about water and dreams concerns the possible future impact of climate change. As the global climate rapidly changes in ways that are disrupting customary weather patterns, how will this impact people’s dreams? How will water themes in dreams change in a world in which some places have drastically less water and other places have drastically more? It seems likely that dreams will accurately reflect people’s rising anxieties in both directions, from too little and too much water: from long-term drought, water scarcity, and extreme conservation requirements, and also from sudden catastrophic floods, hurricanes, rainstorms, hailstorms, and blizzards. If Jung is right that dreams have an anticipatory function of looking ahead and preparing us for possible dangers and challenges in the future, then a new era of climate-stressed water dreams may already have begun.

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