Analyzing Dreams for Real
There is innately in every human being
a desire to hear stories that matter and
dreams are stories that matter.
– Clarissa Pinkola Estés
I’m one of those lucky people who dreams elaborate dreams, almost every night, and remembers them. On some mornings it feels like I’ve just seen a David Lynch film, and on others, I try my hardest to keep the little fragments that I do remember as fresh as possible, so that I can somehow put the pieces together to complete the insolvable puzzle that is my subconscious. Especially at a confusing period of my life such as the current one. But as the routine of the day carries me further and further away from my depth and up to the surface, I begin to lose the plot.
Some might consider dreams to be irrelevant but I strongly believe that dreams, contrary to their definition, show us the actual reality of our condition. They mirror images and stories about what’s really going on in our lives. They offer great insight to what is truly happening behind the theatre curtains of our perceptions, and allow our instincts to speak when they are shushed by the noise of the daylight and dismissed by our egos. We may be able to control our time during the day, but at night, our psyche displays images, themes and motives without our control, from a source we cannot pin down.
Some say that at night, the stories belong to the mystical dream maker. One of those people is the Jungian analyst and the author of the brilliant book, Women who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who writes the following about the importance of dreams:
Dreams… give information about a reality that is not normally available to our conscious minds. Dreams are more than willing to help us find our way in life. Dreams are also a source of new and fresh ideas for how to live life, for right conduct of life. And they often carry an astonishing synchronicity, meaning that they not only give information about the state of the psyche at the moment, but often times they lead us forward in certain ways that are so poignant, even miraculous sometimes, that the whole dream in on itself sometimes seem almost like an instruction from the divine. Are there messages in dreams from your own unconscious? Yes. Can a voice greater or a source greater speak to us through dreams? Yes.
These words resonated with me so deeply that as a frequent dreamer, in order to keep track of these messages from my psyche, I’ve gotten in the habit of writing them down before they turn into a familiar blur. And whether you remember them or not, it is proven that every single person dreams five to seven dreams a night. Dream memory is just like exercising a muscle. The more you pay attention and repeat the motion of remembering, the stronger your memory becomes.
But once we sincerely make the intention of remembering our dreams and make sure they’re down on a piece of paper or recorded on our phones – and do record the tiniest memory, even if it is just a cloud, don’t assume it to be insignificant – what do we do with them? How do we find their true meaning? “Dream maker does not have the censorship mechanism that the waking ego has. Therefore the dream maker will put together all manner of odd and unusual associations, linking symbols together in ways that the ego would really have hard time thinking of when it’s awake.”
The problem with the generic dream dictionaries is that they are too generalised and cannot possibly give you an accurate interpretation that is specific to you and your situation at the time. Although there are archetypal interpretations that have a universal quality in their symbology, referencing a dream dictionary is like translating a foreign language word for word; completely cut and dry, it loses all “poetic meaning.”
I find Clarissa Pinkola Estés‘ technique extremely helpful and personal. It does take some time and hard work, but when given the effort, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many a-ha! experiences you will have in the end.
Essence of the dream is where we want to focus most of our attention. We take a look at the overall motif of the dream. Is this a dream about recognition of something new? Is this a dream about losing something? Is this a dream about showing up in some mysterious place? Is this a dream about being chased? Is this a dream about finding some kind of treasure? And then extrapolating from that, “Where is there something like that happening in my life? Or ought to happen in my life? Where am I finding treasure at this time of my life? Where am I being chased by something at this time in my life? Or what do I need to lose from my life?”
So that’s the first layer of dream analysis. It’s to take the dream and analyze how does the larger motif of the dream fit for the life that I’m living right now. In that sense another benefit of recollecting one’s dreams is absolute knowledge of your own world. Not only insight into what might be going on, but absolute knowledge about what really IS going on, calling in many cases a spade a spade. In that sense dreams do a third thing by understanding them, they strengthen us. They strengthen us to resolve, to move forward.
So when you write down a dream, make it as clear as possible. Don’t get too distracted by the details. Once you have it down, make a list of nouns (person, place, thing, sometimes adjectives) and make a personal association with those nouns. What images, ideas, feelings or thoughts come to you? Write down your associations that rise up to you. Go back and read your dream aloud. Except this time, instead of the nouns, you read your association. Let me give you an example from my own personal life. A while ago, I wrote in my journal this dream:
I am amongst a group of people by the ocean. We are looking for something in the sand, but for what I do not remember. Ahead of me is a beautiful girl in a long blue dress with flowers on it. I yearn to be her. I long for that dress.
Normally I might have interpreted this dream as a sign to finally buy that dress I was gushing over online. Instead, I make a precise list of the nouns:
- group of people
What images, ideas, feelings or thoughts come to me? Here are my personal associations:
- group of people – community
- ocean – life
- sand – annoying (it gets everywhere) and pointless (you can’t get rid of it)
- girl – impossible aspiration (because I find her to be too beautiful)
- dress – myself (because I always feel most like myself when I’m in a dress)
So I replace the nouns with the associations and read it again:
I am amongst a community by life. We are looking for something, for what I do not remember. Ahead of me is an impossible aspiration. I yearn to be that impossible aspiration. I long for myself.
So what was the essence of my dream? It was about longing and searching. “Where is there something like that happening in my life? Or ought to happen in my life?” Interestingly, I had this dream about the same time I wrote the Editor’s Letter for May, Bloom (flowers on the dress) A-ha! It was a time when I was longing and struggling to get out of a shell into which I had willingly locked my true personality (dress). I was trying to break my paralyzing method of thinking, “what’s the point?” (sand) for I was barely holding on to any hope at the time to become who I wanted to become (girl). I was on a search for myself with my readers (group of people), and writing each Editor’s Letters, it eventually made me come to terms with my fears and assisted in realizing my true strength.
Dreams are like letters from home. From a deep place in the psyche that has a picture of yourself, of your life, of your psychic state of the moment that you may not be able to see just from your own ego consciousness alone. And this way, dreams save people from blindness, from blundering into walls, from failing to sense or to see something important. A dream in that sense, tells a story. A story that is not completely obvious to us in daylight but becomes very clear to us when we are asleep at night and it unravels itself all before us while we’re dreaming.
So what’s your story? Your dreams are already telling you everything. All you need is to take a little time for yourself, and a tiny bit of work to break the code.