A dream is a microscope through which we look at the hidden occurrences in our soul.
When we have a strange or wonderful dream, we want to know “what does it mean?” when we awaken. Sometimes our dreams are bizarre, “hallucinations without drugs” types, and sometimes they are full of everyday things put together in strange or unusual combinations. Many people have the urge to grab the nearest dream dictionary off the shelf and look up what it means to dream about horses, or lemons, or typhoons. This is perhaps the most frequently asked question–What are my dreams trying to tell me? This is a topic of almost endless inquiry.
Dreams are very personal—they are idiosyncratic to the dreamer. What does this statement mean? We all dream in our own lexicon of symbols and images. In other words, the meaning of each character, landscape, and object in our dreams has it’s own meaning to us, our own set of associations. An image that means one thing to me in a dream might mean something very different to you. For me; dreaming about a bird might have to do with flight, or soaring; but for you it might have to do with nesting, or even panic (think Hitchcock’s “The Birds”). That being said, there are some common associations that we may share, since we belong to the same culture and therefore have a similar cultural context. These over-arching images are part of our collective unconscious (a term coined by Carl Jung implying a universal “group mind”). We share in this dream-weave of thought and spirit, and so share in some of this universal symbolism.
However just because a dream dictionary may tell you that X means Y, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily true for you. The most important indicator of the “right” meaning of a dream or symbol is the one that resonates as “right” with the dreamer. Only when you get the “aha” is the interpretation true for you. Pay attention to not only your thoughts, but to your body sensations as well. Did you get what can be called a “bone knowing”- a tingle; a pop; a shiver of recognition? Pay attention to these subtle signs that indicate that you are on the right track. Eugene Gendlin calls this uncanny bone knowing our “felt sense”. Dreamwork is not about a “top-down” expert telling you what it true; rather the friends, relatives, or therapists you work with on your dreams should serve as guides asking good questions, perhaps offering options or pointing things out that they may have noticed, but not telling what your own truth in dreaming is. That’s your job.
To help you find the meanings of your own dreams, pay attention to emotion and context. Ask yourself- “What was I feeling in this dream, or this part of the dream?” The emotional tone will give you the best clue as to the meaning of the symbol for you. Back to those birds, if I felt elated or light-hearted (pun intended) when I dreamed of them, that points me in one direction (where/how am I “soaring” in my life?). If I felt cozy, comforted, warm, that points me in another direction (am I “nesting”, settling into a home, caring for my young?) and if I felt scared, or a sense of impending doom; that points me in yet another (where am I overwhelmed, or feeling out of control, or feel like things are “flying at me”)? The type of bird may also have significance- here’s where you might want to look up the meaning of a gull, a puffin, a loon, an owl either in a dream dictionery, or a shamanic guide. My personal favorite is Ted Andrews text Animal Speaks.
Context refers to what was going on in the dream—and in your life when you had the dream. Those birds—were they in flight, pecking for worms, or huddled up with their heads under their wing asleep? All different potential meanings. Had you seen a particular bird, maybe a bright cardinal or a long legged blue heron that caught your attention recently in your waking life? Does your child have “Big Bird” on his bed sheets? Did one let loose on your car window yesterday? Again- all different contexts, this time in waking life, that may have infiltrated into your dreamtime. As you work with your dreams over time, you may develop a lexicon of familiar and common themes that can short cut some the process of decoding, your own personal Rosetta Stone.
So, my suggestion in regards to dream dictionaries is to proceed with caution. Don’t accept some one else’s idea of what your symbol may mean unless it really feels true to you as well. Take the dictionary suggestions with a grain of salt- and then see just what kind of salt is flavoring your dream: Is it just a pinch, or is it making you thirsty (too much), or tasteless (not enough)? Did you associate to Lot’s family who turned to pillars of salt when they looked back on Sodom? Or the Dead Sea (called in Hebrew Yam Ha-Melach; literally the Salt Sea), salty tears, salt of the earth, salt in your wounds, blessings to your home (bringing bread and salt), or that salt brings out the flavor?
May your dreamings be flavored just right!