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!
The Temple of Asclepius
“Dreams are answers to questions we haven’t yet figured out how to ask.” ~X-Files
The Ancient Practice of Dream Incubation:
In ancient Greece, the Dream was honored as a resource and physician’s guide for healing all manner of illness, both physical and spiritual. The Greek god of medicine and healing, Asclepius, would oft-times give a “prescription” for his patients to go to sleep in the sacred dream temples in order to have a healing dream. When they got there, the patients would ritually cleanse and purify themselves, set a healing intention about which they would like to receive the dream wisdom, and then sleep the night there, often in the company of many others who were also seeking a healing. Then at night, the temple priest or priestess would set loose small non-venomous snakes among the supplicants, which then would slither about and were thought to whisper the healing dreams into the ear of the sleepers. In the morning, if the supplicant had a dream, the priestess would help the to interpret it.
Nowadays, snakes are generally no longer part of the prescription (lucky for us!). But the rest of the ritual can be easily adapted in the privacy of your own bedroom. The core of the practice is to spend a few quiet moments before going to sleep to write down the question, the dilemma, or the issue that you would like some guidance on. You can have your own personal “Q and A” with your dream guides. Spend a few minutes, or more; but try to end with as specific a question as possible. The more specific your question, the easier it will be to see how it is answered in the dream. If you want, you can also spend a little time cleansing yourself or your room to prepare a sacred space. A salt water bath, or lighting a candle or incense can help to clear the psychic space for answers to come through. If all goes as planned, you get free dream therapy every night! You can get your dreams to work for you with these simple steps. Then, when you awake, write down the dream on the same page as your question, so even if it is not clear to you right away how your question is answered in the dream, you can easily go back and remember what you were asking.
My most powerful experience with incubating a dream was when we were getting ready to adopt our daughter from China. When we originally got the referral (that’s adoption language for “your baby is waiting”) she was about nine months old. We had thought that the baby would be somewhat younger. The head of the agency said to us “If this isn’t the right baby for you, we can give you a different referral.” What a decision to have to make! After looking at my husband, I said “Can I go home and dream on it?” The director agreed, and that night I went home and wrote in my dream journal that I needed an answer to come through clearly and unambiguously, and right now! (You know how dreams can be– I didn’t want to have to decode too much symbolism to figure this one out.) I was very bossy with my dream guide, since there was so much at stake. I woke once or twice in the night– no dream yet. But in the morning I had my answer.
So – before sharing the dream I received, here is the background material the dream is referencing that you need to know in order to “get” what I immediately knew on waking. For our anniversary that year my mother-in-law had given us a garden shed to store our tools in, and the labor of the guy to build it. The spot for it was under our deck (our house is on a hill, so the yard slopes and our deck is high up.) As he began to put it in, he discovered that it wouldn’t fit under the deck. But he told us “No problem, I can dig down, and put a foundation in and it will fit just fine”, which is what happened.
OK—So here is the dream I received:
We were putting in a tool shed, and it was bigger than we expected, but it was just right and fit just fine.
Couldn’t get clearer than that! Our “just a little bigger than expected” baby is now almost 15 years old. We dug down and put in a great foundation.
Let me know your experiences with incubating dreams.
It is on the whole probable that we continually dream, but that consciousness makes such a noise that we do not hear it.” Carl Jung
Last time we discussed a few techniques to help you remember your dreams. Developing a practice of dream recall is like any other practice–it gets better with practice! So don’t be discouraged if it takes a while before you remember them on any regular basis. Also, it is perfectly normal to have periods of time where you remember many dreams, and dry periods where you can’t capture a thing. It could be that your daily life is so full at the moment that there is no room in your psyche for more information to come through. Or you may already be working deeply in your waking life (in therapy, in journaling, in deep conversations, for example), so that your dream muse feels that your inner life is being covered for now! In any case, here is a handy list that may help you to “prime the pump” of your dream life.
TIPS FOR REMEMBERING DREAMS
1. Be prepared, or, you can’t fool your unconscious. Have dream recording materials right by your bed so your dreaming self knows you are serious.
2. Accept and value every dream or dream fragment; don’t dismiss anything as too trivial or too small. Write down even a word or phrase if that’s all that comes through- you will be amazed at how much information you can get out of just one word once we get into understanding the dream material.
3 Pick an unpressured period of time to try to remember (like a vacation or weekend) if there has been a long period of non-remembering.
4. Allow yourself to waken spontaneously without an alarm clock. One friend of mine calls her alarm clock her “dream eraser”!
5. On waking, lie still and review the dream in your mind before moving. Allow the lingering images of the last scenes to act as a hook to help you recall earlier portions.
6. Record your dream before doing anything else – even before sitting up if possible. Of course, if you remember it later in the day, it’s never too late to write it down. I seem to have a penchant for remembering in the shower – so I just keep repeating it to myself until I am dry enough to write it down.
7. If you know that you had a dream but can’t remember even a bit of it, write the date and the word “dream” in your dream journal, thus honoring the process and prompting future remembering.
8. Share the dream out loud with another to set it orally as well as in writing.
9. Lie down and bring your body back to the same position that you slept in to stimulate positional recall. I love this one- if I lay down on my side and curl up, even later in the day, I can often recapture the felt sense of the dream, and then the rest of it rolls in.
10. Use the image of wrapping yourself in the dream as you would a shawl –- taking the edges of the dream and wrapping them around you to envelope you back inside the dream. Feel with your body the sensations of being wrapped up in a cozy shawl of dreams.
11. Write down your immediate thoughts and/or feelings as you awaken, even if you don’t think they came from the dream. They may have emerged from the “hypnopompic or hypnogogic zones”, the in-between states between waking and sleeping.
12. Sketch out, or draw your dream. A picture can be worth a thousand words- sometimes we get insight when we can see the dimensions and colors and shapes of our dream images that words alone cant do justice to.
13. Practice dream incubation before going to sleep at night. In brief, this means spending a few minutes before going to sleep writing down the question you want answered; and then writing the dream down on the same page, so that you can see the connections between your question and the answer; which may be in dream code and then figured out in relation to the question. Next time- more on this…
May your dreams be abundant! Let me know how it goes…