There is something deeply delightful to me about dreams. For many of us, these sleepy visions feel like portals to a remote and inner world, a world where we get to experience and explore the mythic and archetypal dimensions of our daily experiences and struggles. There, magic and mystery mix with the mundane. We come face to face with triumph and tragedy. We defy death, or it defies us. All the makings of myth—at no charge, and we don’t even need to get out of bed!
Carl Jung theorized that dreams do the work of bridging our unconscious life to our conscious life. It is through making the unconscious life conscious, a process which Jung called individuation, that we can find a greater sense of wholeness, self-awareness and ultimately wisdom and life satisfaction. Both in my practice as a psychotherapist and in my own life and relationships, I’ve seen again and again how attending to dream life can support the process.
What do I mean when I talk about attending to our dreams? By “attending,” I’m referring to how we feel into the experience of a dream, how we make meaning of its symbolism, and how we start to glean the lesson of the dream, applying it in our every day life.
Yes. I am going to give you a step-by-step approach to attending to dreams. But first, a few disclaimers.
Number One: Not everyone dreams vividly or in ways that they can remember. In fact, lots of people don’t. If you are one of those people, rest assured (pun intended) that there are ways to cultivate your dreamlife. Set an intention to build your capacity to remember your dreams, for starters. And maybe then check out this this New York Times article offering dream recall tips from a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist.
Second, sometimes dreams come as nightmares. Nightmares feel somewhat traumatizing. They provoke terror or horror or stunned powerlessness in ways that do not resolve. Nightmares can show up for many reasons but they often emerge in response to past or recent trauma. If you are having these kinds of dreams—especially if they occur frequently—feel disturbing to you, or leave you worried about falling asleep, I strongly recommend working with a psychotherapist to explore them. Even if you aren’t having full-blown nightmares, but are having dreams that just don’t feel good, please consider finding a professional who can help you with them. There is just no reason to try to face this stuff alone, people!
Finally I just want to make clear that I’m not one of those psychotherapists who thinks that every dream, or every thought, or every feeling, or every memory—or every everything!—needs analyzing. We don’t need to ferret out the meaning of every dream we have. It can feel complete to receive the experience of a dream with out having to take it any further than that—kinda like it’s fun to just enjoy looking at a beautiful sunset without trying to wax poetic about what the sunset might mean. It’s just something cool that is happening. And that’s enough.
In a similar vein, some dreams need to be felt more than they need to be understood. These dreams put us deeply in touch with a feeling that is needing some attention. The feeling might be fear, awe, confusion, joy—any feeling really. Very often it’s a feeling that we’ve pushed out of our conscious awareness for some reason or another. Fortunately our dreamlife dutifully returns it to our conscious mind. If we were to try to make greater meaning of a dream like that, we might skip over the feeling and miss the point entirely.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to resist analyzing a dream when it shows up dressed in rich symbolism. Sometimes these dreams have a particularly poignant or sparkling quality, as if your unconscious mind is saying, “Psst.. Hey! Pay attention to this one!”
A friend of mine shared a very sparkly dream with me when I met her for coffee a few days ago. It was a total ringer for dream analysis, so I asked her permission to share it here:
I’m in a cobalt blue room with very small door and the furniture is made of dark brown wood. There is a very small man there and he is eating slices of apple. He offers me a slice and I feel I can’t refuse. I bring it it to my mouth, but I stop when it touches my lips, suddenly aware that the apple is poisoned. If I eat it I will loose my memory of being in the room. I look back at the man, who now wears a menacing expression. I attempt to exit through the tiny door by crouching down and crawling through. My shoulder becomes stuck under the doorway. Panicking I stand up and as I straighten my legs to my surprise I lift the entire room off of the ground. I am free and no longer in danger. The sun is bright. The sky is cobalt blue now, almost the same color as the walls. I feel triumphant somehow, like my head reaches to the sky and I am very large and powerful.
Of course, this dream is chock full of this kind of sparkling symbolism that calls to our conscious mind, and my friend was curious about what it all meant. Knowing my interest in dreams, she was hoping I carried around some encyclopedia of dream images and interpretations so we could look up “blue room” or “poison apple” while we sipped coffee. I do know such dream manuals exist, but I tend not to find the dream encyclopedia approach very helpful or resonant with most of my own dreams, nor those of my clients or friends.
Several years ago, I came across Junginan analyst Robert Johnson’s Inner Work (1986), which offers a concise strategies for reflecting on dream meanings without resorting to cookie-cutter interpretations. Since then I’ve come to rely on it to help me gather insight and inspiration from the dream world. I’ve adapted it a tiny bit over time, but I tend to stay quite true to Johnson’s proscription. I walked through these steps with my friend and we came to some pretty cool interpretations. Here is the process, and I’ll include samples from my friend’s dream at each step.
Step 1: Write down the dream. Try to include as many details as you can remember. I did this above when I introduced the narrative of the dream.
Step 2: Make associations. Go through and list the major images and symbols from the dream. hen write down any words, feelings, thoughts, sensations, mental images, or memories that come to mind when you think of each of the symbols. Some associations may not seem relevant. Go ahead and include them for now.
The list of symbols from my friend’s dream include small blue room, dark furniture, small man, poisoned apple, tiny door, successful escape, bright sun, very tall. There are probably others. Any and all symbols are welcome!
Here are some associations my friend made to her dream as she considered each symbol:
~Blue room – Feels magical and mystical. Frida Kahol’s Casa Azul. Color of scarf I bought in Mexico. I love this color. But the room is claustrophobically small. Tightness in chest. Not enough air in there.
~Dark wood furniture – European Old World, antique. Traditional. Not terribly comfortable for me. But valuable. Not chosen but passed down. Dusty. I want to sneeze. Not my style though I can appreciate it. I somehow feel angry or constrained thinking about it.
And so on….
As you go through the process of making associations notice if any seem to feel “just right.” Often one or two will come with a “click” or a surge of energy that tells you you are on to something. Pay attention for these intuitive indicators.
3. Connect the dream to inner “parts.” Try thinking of each image or figure in the dream as a part of your inner self, representative of an aspect of you. This part could also be a younger you or an internalized sense of and now hold as part of yourself (such as an inner child, parent, coach, or judge). Jot down any thoughts, again noticing what “clicks.”
~The Blue room – This may represent the part of me that feels “magical,” or mystical and spiritual. It is a small room—too small! I want it to be bigger. I would like to develop this aspect of myself, but it feels dangerous as if I cannot trust what, or who, I will find there.
~The Small Man- This character is untrustworthy and dangerous. He is trying to make me forget about coming to the room. Maybe this is the part of me that tries to “protect” me from developing my spiritual side because I fear breaking with tradition to practice the way I want.
And so on….
4. Interpret – Ask yourself what this dream means to you right now based on your responses to step one and two. Reflect on why you may have had this dream at this particular time and how it may be guiding you.
I have felt cut off from my spiritual life and practices lately. I tend not to make them a priority even though they put me in touch with something inside that feels magical. Life has lost its “magic.” But my spirituality is always with me. The “blue room” is always there. Part of me defends against my developing my spiritual side and making the room bigger because it may mean some break with tradition. But I want and need an active spiritual life. Ultimately I want to “get out of the box” and would like to take more steps to connect to my own spirituality.
5. Ritualize what you have learned from the dream. This means taking some action, however small or symbolic, to set in motion the “lesson” of your dream. You may choose to enact certain aspects of the dream, if possible, or find or make objects that remind you of symbols from the dream that you want to hold in your conscious awareness.
My friend decided to paint a wall in her home cobalt blue to remind her of her intention to incorporate spirituality into her daily life. She also thought she might string a necklace of blue prayer beads that she could use for meditation or prayerful reflection to remind her of this important aspect of herself and her life. Any or all of these options may help her recall and solidify the message of the dream.
Not every dream lends itself to interpretation this easily, of course, but I’ve found that it’s often rewarding—and always entertaining!—to consider a dream’s meaning in this way. As you relate more and more to your dream life, you may find you have even greater access to dream imagery that emerges in your waking life. Yes! You read that correctly. We humans dream even while awake. Even the most focused of us spend a certain amount of time daydreaming, whether we are conscious of it or not. The emotional tone, imagery and symbolism of our daytime reveries—just like our sleeping dreams—can be harnessed and experienced more fully to bring about a richer, more satisfying, more connected, more conscious life.