I often write about my fascination with the power and beauty of dreams as they gift us with guidance, healing, and creative inspiration. However the fact is that most of us were never taught how to understand our dreams, while the rest of us were turned off or scared away by Freud's sad view of dreams as a gateway to our own personal garbage dump.
So for all of you who have wanted to know everything there is to know about dreams, but were afraid to ask, here's a quick and easy, Dreams 101 primer. Then again for those of you who want an easy read about anything and everything related to dreams, pick up Bob Van de Castle's very cool Our Dreaming Mind or Jeremy Taylor's wonderful intro to dreams--Dreamwork: The Creative Power of Dreams.
To understand how dreams work we need to know three things--the language our dreams speak, the purpose of dreams and how they benefit us.
The Language of Dreams
Dreams speak the language of metaphor just like we do in our everyday life. For example, I overheard the following conversation -- or was it a dream? Listen for the metaphors…
" I'm really through with this relationship. I'm shutting the door behind me! You ask me what will I do now that there's no one to love me? Well, I'll cross that bridge when I get to it. I don't want to miss the bus in my life and never have the relationship I've always hoped for. But I'll tell you I'm sick of giving him second chances and if he calls again I'll go right through the roof!"
Now you don't need to go to a dream dictionary to understand what that woman is saying. On the other hand if you dreamed the same thing you'd probably be scratching your head.
Here's the dream version of the above discussion:
I am running out of this house and the door slams shut and locks behind me. Then I am walking over this bridge and I feel like I'm late in getting where I want to go. The bus I'm looking for pulls up and I worry that I'm going to miss it unless I run to catch it. I get on and find a seat, but I'm upset because someone that looks like my old boyfriend insists on sitting next to me. Suddenly, I fly right through the roof of the bus. Now tell me if dreams aren't stupid!
Actually it's easy to see how the above "conversation" and this dream are virtually the same. However, one reason the meaning of our dreams isn't always easy to grasp is that we haven't been mindful of the context that served as the basis of our dream and we've forgotten the original " conversation" as it were, that generated the dream metaphors. The events of the day are often embedded in our nightly dreams. This is why I urge people to write a few sentences in their dream journal each night about the mood of the day and the emotional issue that feels most pressing as they go off to sleep. This simple little exercise gives us a head start in understanding the dream with which we awaken the next morning.
I discourage people from using dream dictionaries. As the example above illustrates, we need to understand dream metaphors as related to our own life experiences. For someone who almost drowned as a child, a dream of swimming at the beach is not necessarily about a much-needed vacation. Dream dictionaries discourage us from exploring our own associations to the metaphors in our dreams. For you, "in the swim" may mean " at the brink".
The Purpose and Benefit of Dreams
Of course, the noted Swiss analyst Carl Jung did not view dreams as simply describing what we did the previous day. Rather, he understood dream images and characters, and indeed the entire dream landscape as energetically alive within us. In fact, much of what Jung taught about our "dream psyche" was the importance of embracing and aligning ourselves correctly with it's medicinal energies.
The energetic cause of physical and emotional disorders is at the core of Jungian as well as most non-western and indigenous healing methods. Most of us are familiar with the premise of acupuncture as a technique for curing illness by restoring the flow of vital chi energy. Similarly, the shamanic healing methods often refer to the absence of such life energy as "soul loss" and the shaman will employ various methods for retrieving that part of the soul that has been lost due to various kinds of trauma.
While the shaman will rely on dreams in a different way than a westerner trained in dreamwork, it was Jung's genius that he viewed the dream --much like a shaman --energetically. Jung saw dream images as carriers of profound healing energy. In modern parlance, we might call this dream energy a "growth factor" as powerful as any hormone our body produces. Doubters need only ask any one who has successfully worked with a dream about the surge of energy and sense of having released a major block when the meaning of their dream unfolds.
For this reason it is a central tenet of dreamwork that we view each dream character -- no matter how repulsive or threatening -- as the bearer of a profound gift which we are invited to experience on a visceral level. This means that the guy who keeps chasing you in that recurrent dream wants your attention and has something to offer you so important that he simply won't quit trying.
Therefore, when a dream figure at first feels too repulsive to think about, ask yourself, " If I had to say --upon pain of death-- what good this disgusting, frightening character embodies, what would it be?" Or ask, "In moderation what good might there be in being a little like this character?"
For example, a friend of mine whose life felt suffocating due to all the rules laid down by his authoritarian father, dreamed repeatedly of being chased by a psychopath whom he was sure was going to kill him. When he asked himself what the good part of being a psychopath might be (in moderation) the answer was, "He gets to do whatever he wants to do without feeling guilty." Aha! The figure pursuing him embodied the solution --and the energy needed--to get out from under the suffocating, oppressive rules that governed his every action in life -- to do more of what he wanted to do without disabling guilt. The dream figure appeared psychopathic and murderous only because the dreamer's waking life perspective was that to act against the wishes of his father was to be someone profoundy hurtful as if without any conscience whatsoever.
My friend then used Jung's method of Active Imagination to befriend and give a voice to that character ( I call them Mentors) by writing a question to him in his journal:" Why are you treating me this way?" (An even better question is: What have you come to teach me?") In this method after asking your question, write down the dream figure's response without editing or judging what you are hearing the character say. Then ask another question and proceed with a dialogue.)
My friend heard the "psychopath" say, " Find joy and pleasure right now …don't waste a beautiful life in a guilt-ridden prison with your father…". Now my friend began to take in and receive the visceral life giving energy and perspective of his dream--and in so doing, began to recover his soul, as a shaman prefers to say.
Our psyche is a master artist constantly offering a different and more enriched view of our calling in the world--one that we are free to paint on the canvas of our life--or to ignore. If we are wise, we will learn the language with which our dreams speak, and open to their purpose--the new, more complete perspective they offer. When we truly embrace that new perspective and its life- giving energy, we move closer to the experience of wholeness and authenticity--the benefit of listening to our dreams.
It's not enough to understand intellectually what our dream is telling us.The key is in our willingness to embrace and literally embody our dream's energetic gift and the courage to live out in everyday life its new energy and perspective.
Dreams call us to live our lives differently--to risk change and growth. In this way we become our own hero and heroine and return to waking life with the Grail cup of renewal.