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Essay: How To Understand Your Dreams.
I have a certain sense of foreboding about this topic. There is no complete theory of dreams. So humility is the number one rule when dealing with dream interpretations. Even Carl Jung, the great grandaddy of dreams, who has written books on dreams, analysed thousands of dreams, the number one name on the subject, began each dream analysis by whispering to himself,
“I have no idea what this dream means...”.
So, what are dreams?
Jordan Peterson says,
“The dream is the birthplace of thought, like the artist is the birthplace of culture.”
In ancient times people thought the dream was communication directly from the Gods, that history was fixed, and dreams offered a way into the divine plan, though Aristotle rejected this formulation because poor people and animals had dreams, and he didn’t believe God would speak to them (not so PC). Carl Jung does not believe that dreams have prophetic powers anymore ‘than a medical diagnosis or a weather forecast’ is prophetic and that ‘they are merely anticipatory combinations of probabilities which may coincide with the behaviour of things.’
A dream is your mind’s way of reaching out into the unknown and trying to comprehend what is not yet grasped. A dream occupies the place of uncertainty and is there to flesh out the unknown reality before getting a real grip on it. We are always a mystery to ourselves, a small conscious rider, on the back of a complex, ancient, biological system, and we take in much more information than we are aware of at anyone time. To phrase the problem another way, Jordan Peterson explains that in life, we have theories, you go out and test the theory, and when the theory doesn’t work, you throw it away. The dream starts this process of hypothesis and plays out how your current hypothetical structure is insufficient (where there are gaps in your conscious knowledge); the dream is your brain’s best guess at configuring the unknowable. This is why dreams can often seem frightening, confusing, and downright bizarre. That is because dreams are threat oriented, focusing on anything that does not fit into your current hypothetical structure and hence could be dangerous. The dream is cryptic because you are literally dreaming about what you don’t yet understand.
Jung’s metaphor is that the dream is like a text we don’t understand, given to us in a foreign language we must first learn, before we can discern the message which the images and symbols communicate. Jung believed the dream is doing its best to communicate what we simply do not understand yet. There are some theories about dreams being just white noise in the mind, some sort of random psychophysical run off and while some dreams, like anxiety ones, do fit this less meaningful criteria, most do not, and clearly have a structure and purpose.
Dreams are told in the language of stories and metaphors. Each character, detail, represents something as a symbol. The symbol is given meaning by the context in which the dream occurs i.e what is going on in your life at the time of the dream. If dreams were signs, like a ‘stop’ sign, they would have one fixed meaning, like in the view of the ancients. However, as symbols, they have multiple meanings. For instance, a black cat in my dream might mean superstition or bad luck, but in your dream, if you had a beloved black tabby cat as a child, it would represent something else entirely, like good fortune, literally the exact opposite. The particular context gives the meaning to the symbols. Jung says you must take each dream as it comes, with no particular theory and no preconceived opinions. If someone tells you a dream, you must resist the urge to automatically jump to a conclusion. Dream interpretation lies annoyingly beyond the purview of the scientific method and instead requires an entirely open mind, as Jung said,
“Do whatever you want; just don’t try and understand.”
In Jung’s view, the dream compensates for an imbalance in waking conscious life, like a psychological tail, which can steady you when you lose balance. If you were say driven by success, you might have a dream of a deplorable, poverty stricken, figure who comes knocking at your door looking for entrance because you have rejected this lower part of yourself. In this sense, the dream has the goal or purpose which is to communicate missing information to correct the imbalance in the psyche. A part of the larger purpose of continuing growth and development through life (the process of individuation) toward a state of psychic wholeness, and who wouldn’t want a bit of psychic wholeness? Doesn’t sound like the worst thing to be after.
So, how do you analyse dreams?
The biggest problem in dream analysis is to say, who’s correct? There is no objective standard, so you are instead left with competing interpretations. However, in the same way, there are good interpretations of books and bad interpretations. For instance, if I read Moby Dick and said, ‘the whale was a metaphor for getting a good deal on car insurance’, you might say, no. There is an infinite number of interpretations but a very limited number of good interpretations. How do you know your interpretation is correct? It should cause a rise or an ascension in the dreamer. If there is no ascension in the dreamer, no moment of clarity, then the interpretation is useless.
Good interpretation of dreams requires a broad body of knowledge of history, art, religion, mythology, movies, psychology, literature, and symbolism, mainly because of the communication through images. The benefits are, since dreams are the raw material of your insufficient conceptual map, you can learn things about yourself which you don’t actually know, and which nobody else knows.
The first rule of dream analysis is ‘the dream is a physiological fact.’ Like a symptom of an illness, you wouldn’t say ‘oh your arm hurts, that probably means you miss your mother’ the dream image is real and true and must be taken as is, not how one would like it to be. When the time for analysis comes, you should focus as close to the dream image as possible so not to get lost.
1). Firstly you need to explore the dream before you can interpret anything. So write the dream down, or tell someone the story. Don’t omit anything; morally, dreams are ambiguous, so don’t be ashamed. The dream is a fact and something that ‘happens’ to you. It is not of your conscious creation.
2). Then you can establish the context. This is really important - how are you feeling? How are you being challenged? What was happening with you at the time the dream occured? Situate the dream in your conscious waking life.
3). Now you go over the story again or read over what you have written, and each time you mention a detail or character, ask what that reminds you of. Some images are more vivid than others, and these ‘striking’ images are important for your associations.
Say if I dreamt of an old friend, you might want to think about what that person was like? Did you trust them? Have a good relationship with them? Describe them as if to someone who did not know them.
In addition to this, you would look at the location. Where is the dream situated? In a hotel? A cramped office? Home? School? How old are you in the dream? Is this your past or present self?
Then you search for patterns in the dream. What is the main activity? Running? Fighting? What is going on? Is there a journey taking place from A to B? What is being symbolised overall?
Finally, what is the emotion of the dream, the feeling? The dream is presenting an image or an idea associated with a network of ideas, and if you can elaborate on the network of ideas, you can expand the dream to flesh out the message.
4). Interpreting the dream. What is the dream's goal? What does the dream want you to see? You can look up symbols and stories. There are common associations with some repeatable symbols, which can be useful. Dreams about water are usually about emotions, fire is passion, dreams about snakes and reptiles are often symbols of our basic instincts, survival, reproduction, flight or flight, how we react to impulses from the ancient parts of our brain, or dangers. For a good dictionary of these more general symbols, see tonycrisp.com. Tony is a psychologist specialising in dreams and has painstakingly collected these objective associations in his practice. However, everything and must be considered within the dream context. The success or failure of the interpretation depends on finding insight, revelation and useful information, which unites things that were once previously opposites.
5). Take action. Pay homage to the dream, do something to honour the message of the dream and take action in some way based on what you have learned or what has been revealed.
This article was doomed to fail in the face of this monumental challenge, but at least, I hope I have sparked some curiosity about the subject. As human beings, we are a mystery to ourselves most of the time, and nowhere is this more evident than in the dream. The dream is the birthplace of thought and the wellspring of consciousness, so learning to understand the archaic symbols gives you an overwhelming sense of being part of something much, much larger than yourself. The reaction to this can be terror, love or indifference, but I think the experience is something everyone should have at least once. A dream journal is an excellent way to get started, and hell with this lockdown kicking off, we’ll all for sure have a bit more time on our hands going forward…
If you are interested learning more about dreams and dream interpretation: