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Understanding Dreams About Animals: Following Our Instincts

The meaning of animals in dreams

"Animals in dreams are carriers of soul." ~ James Hillman

It was Sigmund Freud who introduced dreams to the Western world, calling dreams the “royal road to the unconscious.” For Freud, dreams were an expression of what the conscious mind was unable to deal with—that the unconscious mind “understood” what “we,” our conscious minds, could not. Following that logic, many dream analysts have looked to dreams to provide a deeper, albeit more hidden, perspective on and resolution to those struggles and problems we can’t easily resolve.

Both indigenous cultures and Freud considered animal dreams to be a unique and marvelous class of dreams.

James Hillman, in his seminal book Dream Animals, wrote, “Dreams recover what the world forgets.” What do our animal dreams remember that we forget? “Animals almost invariably represent instincts when we meet them in dreams,” noted Jungian analyst Barbara Hannah. The word “instinct” comes from the Latin instinctus, meaning, to be prompted from the inside. Etymologically, it means the "animal faculty of intuitive perception.”

In a world of norms, taboos, appropriateness, and behavior guided by getting along with the others and achieving our goals, often our instincts not only get left behind but are even experienced as threatening. Yet we need our instincts for their passion, power, and sensitivity, as well as their guidance in helping us to become our authentic selves. Carl Jung lauded our instincts, saying that they “are a far better protection than all the intellectual wisdom in the world.”

In short, we need our instincts, but we forget our instincts. Thus, often our innate impulses appear in dreams, symbolized as animals.

What happens when we neglect, suppress, or otherwise disavow our instincts? They either turn against us—and can be seen as pursuing us in our dreams—or we act them out unconsciously by doing what we feel is taboo—doing in dreams what we won’t allow ourselves to do in waking.

Here are three animal dreams with my commentary and suggestions to the dreamer.

Dog Dreaming

Dream: I am at the mouth of an inlet with my husband and our dog. Our dog is off-leash and runs into the water to meet another dog. She disappears behind a boulder and we run to find her and cannot. We run all around the area, calling her name, and at the end of the dream I see a dog that might be her far out in the channel and she appears to be struggling. I wake just as it seems she might be going under and drowning.

Commentary: Our dreams are often populated with animals or people who are doing something that we don’t feel free to do or capable of doing. For example, you may feel strong, but dream of people who are ill lying in bed (when we don’t allow ourselves to let go and rest); or you may dream of someone who is drunk and acting “insane” when you usually require yourself to be responsible and reasonable.

In this dream, we see the dog off-leash—meaning free to run, jump into the water, and relate to or connect with others in a way that the dreamer may not be free to do. The dream also suggests that the dreamer is not aware of this need; she can’t find this part of herself and is fearful that something bad will happen if she lets herself off the leash. It is the dreamer’s ego that has these concerns, not the dog—a symbol of a less conscious part of her. The dog has no such problems: It runs, swims, and meets others who want to connect in similar ways.

Of course, we shouldn’t try to follow or integrate every animal that appears in our dreams. That said, it is very rare that a dog in a dream is not worthy of this presumption. Marie Louise Von Franz, one of Carl Jung’s most famous students, once said that when you have Jesus and a dog in your dream, follow the dog (she was saying that the symbol of a dog is almost always a reliable one, representing loyalty, love, friendship, and instinct. I’ll leave the symbol of Jesus for another post; suffice it to say, for some this represents a spiritual high-ground in their being, but for others, it could indicate a disavowal or marginalization of their body and instincts.)

The dream suggests it may be useful for the dreamer to forge a new kind of relationship, in which she more deeply “meets” another person. There may be other areas where the dreamer keeps herself on a leash, for fear that things will not work out well. It will be helpful for her to identify those areas and challenge the assumptions and beliefs that hold her back. I encourage her to follow the flow of her river (her channel) and see what new ways and worlds open up to her.

My response to the dreamer: How and where do you hold yourself back? Apparently, some part of you is out there, beyond your conscious mind’s vision of your identity. This scares you. For now, I would join that part of you and see what she’s up to, where she’s going, what’s worth the risk, and why you may need to be a bit unconscious to go that far. (Sometimes the conscious identity stops us if it knows too much.) I suspect that you are a good “channel swimmer” and may have some fun being freer, jumping into the water, and catching the flow.

Bull Dreaming

Dream: I dreamt that some bulls came into my yard. Some children were trying to hunt them out. My little niece ran out into the yard and I smacked her for not staying in the house. I knew that I had to get them out on my own. The house felt unprotected.

Commentary: Here the animal is not something to follow, but rather an energy or way of being that the dreamer needs to access. The dream suggests that the bulls are getting closer—she can see them, they are beyond a certain boundary (they are now in the yard), but they are not yet free to be inside the house (she is not at home with her “bull”; perhaps, like the proverbial bull in the china shop, it will be too disturbing to her status quo.) The dreamer’s attitude is antagonistic towards the bulls—she is threatened by them, slaps her niece for going near them, and wants them to go away. However, not all of her feels this way, for the little niece part of her psyche has another approach and runs out to meet them. The dreamer feels unsafe around this part of herself, and she chides herself for being this way.

Some people experience one part of themselves reaching out or expressing in new ways while their more conscious identity is antagonistic towards this part. These people may find themselves pushing through barriers, being a little more powerful than usual, not backing off from what they truly want, but then having a backlash and ending up feeling guilty afterward (represented by smacking the niece).

My response to the dreamer: Something big and powerful is coming. It’s you. You can’t be topped. It’s your power, your size. What kind of power? Ambition, emotional power, intelligence, spiritual capacity. I don't know, but you know. Believe it. Notice how you hold back. Greet this part of you as a friend, an ally, an answer to some of your struggles—even though you may be a bit afraid to access or use it.

Rat Dreaming

Dream: Part of the middle segment of my index finger grows another tiny index finger, on the palm side. I pinch it off and another begins to grow, fingernail and all. I strangle it off with a black thread (the way you would an ordinary skin tag) and throw the finger against a brick garage wall. One block away, a little girl, wearing pink ribbons in her hair, shakes, shakes, shakes her index finger to get a guinea pig sized rat to release its grasp. She screams for help, but no one believes she has a problem.

Commentary: Sometimes we need to integrate the animal energies we experience in dreams, but sometimes we need to learn how to fight, stand up to, overpower, or even “kill” the animal. Here the dreamer is growing a new appendage, a new part of herself—something she can shake. Perhaps she wants to make a point, chastise others, or stand against part of herself by shaking a finger at it. Not only is she against this new growth, but a large rat won’t let it go. She has a “rat-like” attitude toward this part of herself—disavowing this quality, trying to get rid of it, or stopping herself from using it. She needs to get rid of this rat (a hypothesis confirmed in later conversations with the dreamer).

Smashing something that limits us, throwing it against the wall, is an important process in our development. In the female psyche (be that for a man or woman), this process is illuminated well in The Brothers Grimm tale of The Frog Prince. In this story, a girl loses a precious golden ball, which represents something essential about her being, her life force, her Self. She makes an agreement with a frog, who agrees to retrieve the ball if the girl lets him eat with her and lie with her at night. When the frog returns with the golden ball, the girl doesn’t want to honor the agreement, but convention says that she must keep her word.

In more recent sanitized versions of the tale, the girl kisses the frog to get it to stop disturbing her or she simply wakes up and the frog has transformed into a prince. But in the original version, she gets furious with the frog and smashes it against a wall. (With that she became bitterly angry and threw him against the wall with all her might. "Now you will have your peace, you disgusting frog!" She needs her instincts to break convention as well as her agreement, following the counsel of her anger to smash the frog. With this action, the frog is freed from a cruel spell and is released back into his original body, that of a prince, and the girl gains access to her power, her Self, and the path of her life.

My response to the dreamer: Help that little girl. Smash the rat; throw it against the wall. I am so glad that you can’t get rid of this new index finger growing on you—you need another, one that shakes at people, at systems, at things that hold you back or make you too polite. Don't choke this part of you. Shake it at everything and everyone whenever you have the impulse. Teach us, teach us all. It is something that has always been with you in a way; I think there is a pure knowing in you and a dirty rat that you’ve internalized, that’s got its teeth into you. If we could discuss this further, I would explore internalized sexism (I don’t know this for certain, it’s just a thought that flows through my dreaming mind). Who are those dirty rats anyway? Don't be confused by them—they are Dirty Rats.


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Dream Interpretation: Three Dreams and Their Interpretation

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