“I dream my paintings, and then I paint my dreams.”
Vincent Van Gogh
I had been thinking about the importance of color in dreams for a while. However, when every dream that I recalled for the last two weeks had a significant spot of color, I knew that was a sign- fingers to the keyboard! We don’t always notice whether or not we dream in color, unless something jumps out at us as we are writing or remembering the dream. As we recall the dream, we may suddenly be struck by, (as I was last night) a very bright blue necklace. This symbol has been gracing my dreams off and on for years, and I am still discovering it’s many layers of meaning. Uncovering the significance of the colors in your dreams can add an important layer of emotional resonance that may otherwise be missed, or misinterpreted.
Take a moment; close your eyes, and see this: The feathery chartreuse yellow/green of new meadow grass tinged with whispy pink blossoms; like an Ansel Adams photograph, in soft focus.
See this: The brilliant blue stone about two inches long; a cross between a lapis and a turquoise, shimmering with the colors of both the Caribbean and the cobalt blue Adriatic seas, set in finely wrought silver filigree.
See this: The silver bullet of a plane, hard and metallic, leaving a trail of white herringbone streaks across the sky.
See this: The peering yellow eyes that pop out of the darkness; just the eyes, just the yellow, surrounding you, as you sit at your campfire in the dark forest.
The colors in our dreams add a dimension of emotional resonance, a layer of the creative muse, a focal point calling our attention: “Look at this! Don’t miss this!” When an otherwise nondescript color scheme in a dream suddenly pops with a notable splash of color, this splash is often pointing our attention to a central image in the dream.
Our brains are hard-wired to resonate emotionally with different colors. The color red, which excites our autonomic nervous system, can fire us up with associations to danger, excitement, and/or passion. The color blue calms the autonomic nervous system, and is associated with serenity, calm, peacefulness. Robert Hoss, in his book Dream Language, points out that this all happens below the threshold of our awareness, yet has a profound affect on our emotional state. In addition to some universal or instinctive responses to colors, we also have ingrained in our subconscious a whole set of cultural and personal associations to colors. These come from our myths, our literature, our families, our language, our personal histories, our cultures.
Therefore, paying attention to the colors in our dreams can not only add emotional richness to our understanding, but also significantly alter the meaning we make out of the dream.
It can be fun and informative to make a color wheel of your personal color connections when you have color in your dream. Write the color in the middle of a page, draw a circle around it, and then make spokes out from it like a child’s drawing of a sun. Then, without censoring, or even thinking about your actual dream image, just write down your associations to the color itself. For example, when I think of yellow, I make my circle and write the words canary, yellow-bellied (cowardice), cheerful, sunshine, the yellow brick road, bright, jaundiced. I then go back to the image in the dream, and circle the ones that somehow seem related to this dream. You can see how dreaming of a yellow sweater would have a very different significance if my associations were cheerful and bright, as opposed to cowardly or sickly.
What follows is an abridged version of the Luscher Color Association chart (a psychological profiling tool) and some common emotional responses (thanks again to Bob Hoss). This is not meant to be a complete list; you can add your own associations.
Gold/Silver: the sun and the moon, value, psychological integration, wealth
Back to that blue stone: That stone has been following me around in my dreams for years, and it has become a touchstone (yes, pun intended); a mythic sorcerers stone; a connection to the breastplate of Aaron the high priest (Moses’ brother), with it’s 12 gemstones, that could be used to foretell the signs, and finally; to deep seas and deep emotions. My “dream action” (from the blog of 10/1/12, the final step in Robert Moss’s Lighting Dream Work) lead me on a search for this stone. I finally found it years after the original dream in the shuk in Jerusalem. This was my first trip back in 27 years, after having lived there for 5 years in the late 70’s. With both the visit and finding the stone, I reclaimed a missing piece of myself. So, color me blue: the “true blue” of unification of pieces of my life that had become separated.
“I’ve had dreams, and I’ve had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because of my dreams.” Jonas Salk
Nightmares. There seem to be two main categories of adult nightmares. There is the uncomfortable or upsetting dream, and then there is the heart-pounding panic-stricken terrifying one. Some nightmares are so vivid that they seem real- we wake sweating, or screaming, or our partner wakes us up asking, “What were you yelling about in your sleep?” Perhaps especially with upsetting dreams, we need work with them, figure them out, and resolve what triggered them in order to have them transform and/or disappear. (Really. I’ll give you some examples over the next few blogs.)
Believe it or not, nightmares come to us bearing gifts- even the really scary ones. We may not have been particularly desirous of this kind of a gift- and would just as soon “re-gift” it as soon as possible. However, if we’ve dreamed the dream, it means that some part of us is ready to receive these gifts: the gifts of information, of insight, of potential, and of direction that we may need in order to move forward in our lives.
This is part of what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls our “Hero’s Journey”. Part of the journey of every hero and heroine is to encounter obstacles, face seemingly impossible tasks, and then to figure out how to resolve and overcome them. Sometimes the task is to face up to and then overcome something: (i.e. Perseas and Medusa, where our hero Perseus has to cut off the Gorgon Medusa’s head, but since looking directly at her would turn him to stone; he figures out how to see her indirectly reflected in his shield and thus be able to slay her). Sometimes the work is to complete a seemingly impossible task (i.e. Hercules 7 labors; one of which included cleaning out the Elysian stables of the gods-and that’s a lot of horse-sh*t to have to clean up!). Sometimes the task is to journey to dark forbidding places for the purpose of redemption ( i.e. Orpheus and Eurydice where our hero Orpheus actually journeys to hell and back to reclaim his bride). All contain allegories for our lives, and our nightmares often include being threatened by something monstrous, an impossible task or dilemma, or dark forbidding landscapes.
Since we know that the language of dreams is usually through symbols, we have to figure out what these messages mean for us, and then what we need to do with the information we uncover. The final stage of dream work is the action stage- taking the dream information and connections into some form of action in our life. This is the part that is often neglected, which is why the nightmares may continue. Jeremy Taylor says that dreams come to us in the service of health and healing, but as Robert Moss points out on his website, we have to actually DO something differently in our lives to get us there. “…Dreams require action! If we do not do something with our dreams in waking life, we miss out on the magic…we (have to) take the necessary action to bring the magic through.” (Moss)
Moss calls his quick method of working with dreams “Lightning Dream Work”; it is one way to work with the milder form of the nightmares.
1. Title your dream: As mentioned in a previous blog, giving the dream a title can often allow the core message of the dream to “pop” in high relief. Don’t think – just go with your first gut response.
2. Describe the feeling narrative: Have the dreamer describe the various emotions that accompanied each part of the dream story.
3. Bridge to life:This is the reality check part. We ask the dreamer where in waking life this might be true? Do we recognize any of the people or places or events? Are any of them real now, or in the past, or potentially in the future? We may need to ask several questions here to tease out possible connections. Once you have the “aha” connection- what then is the message of the dream for you?
4. Bumper sticker:If you were to make a slogan, a pithy statement, a “bumper sticker” one liner out of the message your nightmare was bringing to you- what would it be? Again- go with your gut on this. What does your bumper sticker then mean to you?
5. Action plan to honor the dream:To change the dream, or your life, or keep it from becoming repetitive, you need to do something concrete in the world. Your action plan may also be to incubate another dream on what to do next, or to perform some small symbolic act.
Example: One client’s nightmare was “I stopped on the way home from work to buy a loaf of bread and when I got home I discovered that it was stale and crawling with bugs that I tried to pick out, but they were too numerous”. She titled it “Buggy Bread”. She had been having some version of this dream (sometimes sour milk, sometimes spoiled meat, sometimes in her office, sometimes on the way home) for several months. They were profoundly distressing and wouldn’t seem to dissipate.
The feeling narrative accompanying the dream story was “first calm, then tired from work, then I started to feel anxious, nervous, and when I unwrapped the bread I felt disgusted, sickened and upset.”
We played with possible bridges to life: Have you bought bread recently? Anything significant about the buying of it or having it be spoiled in some way when you got it home? How about the way home from work- how do you usually feel then? Are you feeling sick or disgusted or “bugged” anywhere in your life recently? Then, you might ask about the significance of bread- Sustenance? Staff of life? Money? Are you feeling “stale” or “bugged” or “disgusted” at work, at the place from where you are to “bring home the bread”? This last one resonated fully.
Possible bumper stickers she explored were: “Man does not live by bread alone”, “Call the exterminator” , “Change bakeries!” , “Time to go gluten free”. The bumper sticker she chose read “Change Bakeries”, and in doing so she realized that it might time to leave her current job, that the “bugs” in this one were too numerous to continue or risk getting “sickened”. The bumper sticker feeds the action plan. Her small symbolic act was to wash her hands before leaving work to (wash the office off) and then to start to send out resumes. Once she updated her resume and began sending them out she had this dream: “ I am making a cake, and I realize in the middle of it that I don’t have all the ingredients I need. I worry that it is too late to go to the store, but when I get there it is still open and I can get the rest of what I need for this project.” No more bugs, and it’s not too late! Although she’s not completely out of the woods yet (neither was Dorothy when she met the Lion), it’s clearly not a nightmare anymore.
Additionally, don’t forget that adult versions of some of the kid techniques in the last blog work as well. Next time I’ll address in detail the “Capital N” nightmares that may require other methods to stay grounded as you work on them, and introduce the GAIA* Method: “Guided Active Imagination Approach” for Nightmares and Trauma Dreams.
In two days I am off to the annual conference of the International Association for The Study of Dreams (www.IASD.org) in Berkeley, CA. I will be presenting about the GAIA method of dreamwork (Guided Active Imagination Approach*) that I developed to use with scary dreams, nightmeres, and trauma. I’ll post more details about this method later this summer. If you are interested before that, I have wrtiten an article published in January 2012 by “Dreamtime Magazine”, the journal of the IASD. I’m sure to come back from the conference with lots of excting new dream ideas from my colleagues! This post though, offers several ways of working with dreams, appropo of the concept of change in our psyches after doing “dreamwork”, discussed last time in the post on dreams being like EMDR.
Dreams come to us in the service of health and healing, says Dr. Jeremy Taylor. Depending on your source, there are two essential questions dreams ask of us. According to SigmundFreud, the main question is “What are your dreams about?” According to the other granddaddy of dreams, Carl Jung, the main question is “Why? Why is this dream message here?—and why now?” Freud and Jung are two of our sages of dream life–they originally recognized the importance of paying attention to our unconscious. Freud, the founder of the discipline of psychoanalysis, called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” Jung was a student of his, and further developed analytic psychology. Their rift occurred as Jung moved more and more into the psycho-spiritual and mystical realms. The recent film “A Dangerous Method” compares and contrasts their works and looks at the importance of one of their most famous patients, Sabina Spielrein, who was a gifted analyst in her own right. Although the film is pretty sensationalized and sexualized (from my point of view, anyhow), it still provides an interesting and entertaining look at the difference between their two styles.
Both Freud and Jung, practicing in the 1900’s, followed the historical precedence of the shaman or analyst as the expert. Since ancient times, shamans in indigenous cultures were revered for their ability to interpret dreams. Much of their power lay in their skills of dreamwork and their ability to read the signs to foretell the future. (In Judeo-Christian tradition, Joseph was a kind of shaman: His skills at interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams of the seven fat and seven lean sheep lead to stockpiling grain so as to prevent famine during the “lean sheep” years). Connection with the spiritual realm, whether you call it God, Nature, Gaia, The Universe, Higher Power or The Force is one powerful aspect of dreamwork.
Some call dreams the night language of the soul.
Inside or Out?
Shamans practiced dream re-entry (journeying into the dreamworld itself to gain information or effect change) and what is called soul retrieval (entering into the spirit or dream worlds to retrieve lost parts of the soul of their patient.) Their interpretations carried the weight of religious canon, and the supplicants were expected to follow their advice without argument. Some dream practitioners today, particularly those who have a Jungian bent, use the techniques of dream re-entry to help the dreamer to work inside the dream, to make more sense of it, or even to make changes in the dream and bring the dream to a better resolution. Since we are the authors of our dreams, at least on some level of our psyche, we all have the ability and the right to “go back inside” to figure things out or make changes to secure a more fortuitous outcome. Often this is best accomplished with the assistance an experienced dream worker who can function as a guide. But even on your own, if a dream ended on a distressing or unsatisfying note, you can ask yourself “What other ending can I create to better resolve this dream issue or dilemma? Who or what can I introduce into my dreamscape to change the outcome”—and then do it as a conscious exercise.
Fritz Perls originated a system of work called “Gestalt”. In this experiential way of working with dream material, every person, and even every object in the dream is representative of a part of yourself. To use this style of dreamwork, you start by telling the dream in the first person. You notice what stands out, then “become” that part of the dream and speak from the first person as if you were that person or object. You can then have a dialogue between the parts, or between yourself and the parts, and go back and forth between the part and your waking realities and dilemmas. Let’s say, for example, you had a dream about a leprechaun who stole a pot of gold and secreted it away in a cave. The gestalt perspective would invite you to ask, “What is the leprechaun part of me? What is the gold part of me? And what is the hidden cave part of me?”
Your responses may vary, but perhaps they may be: the trickster part of yourself, or the Irish heritage part, or the entertaining part, depending on your view of leprechauns. The pot of gold may be your inner gifts, your own inner value, something shiny and precious, or trouble with finances or lack of abundance, since the dream goes on to say it was stolen and secreted in a cave. What then would be the cave part of you? Is there a part of you that feels it needs to be hidden? Or protected? What are you keeping hidden? What precious part of you feels stolen or hidden away? And, how can you reclaim this treasure? What are the conditions needed in your life in order to safely retrieve it from the cave? Obviously, this line of questioning can go on for quite some time– until you can actually answer the questions you or your dream buddy are raising, and feel that “aha” of “I’ve got it” in your bones. This can bring a whole additional perspective to that “butterfly dreaming” quote at the beginning of today’s blog!
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?