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The saying goes that “eyes are the window to the soul.” The same thing can be said of dreams. Dreams reveal to us the state of our soul; they mirror our feelings and preoccupations by painting a cinematic picture of how we are experiencing life at that moment. Dreams don’t lie. They are not concerned with pulling the wool over our eyes and going along with our preferred version of the truth. Dreams are honest mirrors. We just need to work out what they are reflecting.
An ancient Jewish proverb says, “An unexamined dream is like an unopened letter.” Although our emotional response to a dream may be immediate and obvious, until we work with a dream and unravel its symbolic imagery, its deeper message may be lost to us. Dreams speak in a fabulous mixture of images, metaphors, and emotions that can be felt in the body. Have you ever woken up in the morning feeling sad, anxious, or insecure? Chances are you had a bad dream. And maybe you sometimes wake up laughing, or feeling unimaginably good? Dreams can powerfully influence our waking moods.
There is only one universal language in the world, and that’s the language of dreams. When we understand dream symbolism, we open the door to our inner life. All over the world, dreams express themselves in rich, emotional imagery. This imagery may differ due to cultural context, but the symbolic meaning is conveyed in the same way.
A child from a remote village in India might dream that mangoes rain down from heaven. While an American child’s dream might replace the heaven-sent mangoes with pizza slices, the same sense would remain: that of gifts raining down from an abundant universe. This dream link we have with every other human being on the planet is a truly beautiful thing.
The universal language of dreams transcends all of the barriers we erect between ourselves and others. No matter our religious beliefs, cultural heritage, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, age, or mother tongue, we all dream every single night. Dreams around the globe reflect universal themes, joys, and sorrows. If we learn just one other language in our lifetime, let it be the language of dreams!
Cracking The Code: How To Understand The Symbolic Language Of Dreams
We use metaphoric, symbolic language all the time in daily life. Every culture has its own collection of wise sayings, or idioms, which paint a picture of a situation: she has too many eggs in one basket; he let the cat out of the bag; every cloud has a silver lining; she got a taste of her own medicine; he’s missed the boat; we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Dreams love this picture-language and it is one of their preferred ways of communicating with us.
But when we first look at a dream, it can seem completely mystifying. It’s actually good to approach the dream from a standpoint of not-knowing. This keeps us on our toes. It helps us to be flexible and open to the dream’s possible meaning. When we slap an instant interpretation onto a dream and cling stubbornly to this interpretation, we risk suffocating the dream.
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Dreams need to breathe, just as we do. This is why dreamwork is a process: there are often questions to be asked; associations to be made. The dream can be unwrapped, revealing its heart as we peel back the layers.
If you’re tempted to rush out and buy a dream dictionary, remember that although they can offer interesting perspectives, many give a simplistic, blanket meaning for each image. Yet every dream image will have different associations for different dreamers, and it’s vital to remain open to possible meanings. A cow will have a hugely different personal meaning for a butcher than for a Hindu, for whom cows are sacred animals. A broken kite will have a different association for someone whose daughter’s kite broke the day before, than for someone who has just been sacked from a high-flying job. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend relying on a dream dictionary too heavily for this process. Instead, I’ll show you how to unlock the symbolic meaning of your own dreams in such a way that you gain insight into your specific life situation and your inner self.
To understand our dreams, we need to speak their dense symbolic language. How do we learn it?
In dream language, a tidal wave often relates to feelings of being overwhelmed, and a dream of taking an exam with no idea of the answers often connects to feeling unprepared in a waking life situation. A dream of being naked in public may relate to having revealed too much of ourselves. Only the dreamer can know the true meaning of their own dream, as associations are so personal, but familiarity with the language of dreams is key to understanding their possible meaning. The good news is that learning the language of dreams is much easier than you may think, and you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
Some examples of dream interpretation
The following are simplified examples of dream interpretation, to give you an idea of the way that dreams can communicate, and the importance of context and analysis in understanding them. Only the dreamer can truly know what his dream is about, and it’s important to be respectful of this at all times: never impose your interpretation of somebody’s dream onto them. The dream belongs to the dreamer!
The radiator cap explodes off my car.
Could this mean that the dreamer will have car trouble this week? Does it indicate that something is wrong in his body? This dream is a riddle until the dreamer tells us that he lost his temper badly the day before. Now it makes much more sense! We even have an idiom very close to this that expresses someone losing their temper, “He blew a gasket.” This dream is likely to reflect processing out-of-control behaviour from the previous day.
I have to cross to the other side of the street.
What an everyday dream this is, you might think. How mundane—he has to cross the street. Some people might say this is typical of the meaningless nonsense that dreams chuck at us in the night. But what if I were to tell you that the dreamer is a man who is dying of AIDS? There’s an expression commonly used in the US: “He crossed over to the other side.” Now we see that there is nothing boring or everyday about the dream: this man is preparing himself for the ultimate journey we’ll all take one day—the journey into death.
A floating pair of magician’s gloves dance in the air. Then they come close and start choking me.
This dream has very unusual imagery: what on earth might it be about? Did the dreamer watch a horror film before bed? This dream is only understood when we learn that the dreamer is a little girl who has this dream whenever she becomes asthmatic. Her physical symptoms of not being able to breathe are translated by her dreaming mind into imagery of being choked.
A dying dolphin is out of the water and is completely drying up. Why would anyone dream of a dying, drying-up dolphin? To discover more about the dream, we need to find out the dreamer’s associations, life situation, and insights. This is why “the dream belongs to the dreamer”: only the dreamer can really know what the dream is about. This dreamer was a blocked artist who felt that his creative inspiration (aka the dolphin) was completely drying up.
Dreams are deep, but they’re indirect. This indirectness is exactly what can make them so opaque sometimes, even to their cocreator, the dreamer. Each of the dreams we’ve just looked at addresses deep issues and concerns, holding up a mirror to show the dreamer how he or she experiences life events. Yet none of these dreams is direct. All of them speak in metaphor.
Were you able to see the symbolic ways in which these dreams communicate the truth of each situation? If so, you’ll soon be conversing fluently with your unconscious.
Welcome to the symbolic, emotional language of dreams!
How to unwrap a dream: core techniques
Dreams are like onions; their heart is hidden under many layers. Some dreams can be unwrapped over weeks, months, or even years, continuing to reveal rich new layers of meaning. Here are some quick and easy ways of reaching the heart of a dream.
RE-ENTER THE DREAM
This basic technique is an excellent way of beginning to work with a dream. Carl Jung developed a technique called “active imagination” to focus on any inner imagery, such as memories or daydreams, or even a mood or emotion, in order to discover more about it. In terms of dreams, active imagination means that a dreamer imaginatively re-enters a dream while awake.
- Find a quiet space where you can relax and close your eyes.
- Bring the memory of your dream vividly into your mind. See the colors, feel the emotions again, notice the details. Take a moment to conjure up the dream scene and relive it.
- Now you are ready to engage with your dream; for example, by focusing on the imagery and watching it move and transform, or by trying any of the following practices.
MAKE A BRIDGE TO YOUR WAKING LIFE
- Re-enter your dream as in the above practice. Then identify the strongest emotion in your dream. Is it determination, joy, panic, sorrow, disgust?
- Ask yourself: is there any time in my life when I have felt the same emotion as in this dream? Each of the above examples of dream symbolism shows how closely dreams are tied to the dreamer’s life. Context is important!
- This practice can be great for cracking the code of a dream, as it connects the dream with a waking life situation or past event. If the situation is in the past, the dream may be pointing out that you still have strong feelings around it. If the dream is connected with a current situation, it will be useful to do further work on the dream to move it through any negative emotions and into possible solutions that you can then apply to your waking life.
For example, a woman who dreamed she was trapped in a cardboard-box labyrinth made a bridge to her waking life and found that she felt the same sensation of panic when she thought about being stuck in her dead-end job. In the dream, she had been scuttling through the labyrinth on all fours like a mouse. As we worked on her dream together, she realized that all she needed to do to find a way out of her dream labyrinth was to stand up so that she could see the way out! This helped her to understand that she needed to view her current job from a different perspective and that she would then see a way out of what had become an unbearable situation.
THE “ALIEN FROM ANOTHER PLANET” TECHNIQUE
This technique can be done alone, in your imagination, or with a friend who is happy to help you out by pretending to be an alien (what are friends for?).
- Retell your dream but pretend you are telling it to an alien from another planet.
- The alien doesn’t know what a window is, or what stealing is, or what chocolate tastes like. As you tell your dream, pause to explain the key images and actions. Doing this will reveal your personal understanding of the images and can prompt surprising insights.
- Don’t give your explanations much thought—it’s better to say the very first thing that comes into your head when you think of the particular image you saw in your dream. Let’s take the example of a door. One dreamer might say, “A door is something you can go through to get to somewhere new.” A different dreamer might say, “A door is something that traps you inside when it’s locked.” Each description gives us insight into the dream image of the door and brings us closer to the symbolic meaning of the imagery.
- Your explanations of the dream images may provoke a spontaneous connection to a waking life situation: “I’m feeling trapped in my relationship right now, as if I’m locked in!”
TEN KEY QUESTIONS FOR UNWRAPPING A DREAM
- Who are you in this dream? (A younger self, an observer, an animal, a different person, or yourself as you are today?)
- How do you feel in your dream? What are the strongest emotions?
- Do these emotions resonate with any situation in your life, past or present?
- 42 MINDFUL DREAMINGWhat is the core image or scene in this dream? (“Core” means the central, most arresting, most energized or emotional image.)
- What are your associations with this core image or scene? Note down key words or phrases.
- If every dream figure and symbol represents a part of you, which part would the core image represent? Use your key words to make it easier to connect with the core image.
- If you were to ask the most negative or scary part of your dream if it has a message for you, what might it say?
- Is there any light or beauty in your dream? This might be moonlight on water or a vibrant animal or person. Close your eyes and focus on it. Ask it, “What do you want me to know?” It might respond, or change into something else.
- What does the dream want? Consider the actions and emotions within it, along with any surprise events or unexpected feelings. Sometimes stepping back from your dream and viewing it as if it were a movie can help you to pinpoint what the dream is attempting to convey to you.
- If you could go back into your dream and change the ending, what would happen?
©2018 by Clare R. Johnson. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com
Mindful Dreaming: Harness the Power of Lucid Dreaming for Happiness, Health, and Positive Change
by Clare R Johnson
There are many books on dreams, dream interpretation, and lucid dreaming. What makes this one different is that Clare R. Johnson, PhD combines the principles of mindfulness with a fresh approach to lucid dreaming. The end result is a step-by-step guide for understanding dream language, waking up in our dreams, and transforming them to improve our waking lives. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Clare R. Johnson, PhD, is the leading expert on lucid dreaming. She has a PhD from the University of Leeds on using lucid dreams as a creative tool (the first doctoral work in the world to explore this topic), is a lucid dreamer herself, and is the board director of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. She regularly gives talks and leads workshops about dreaming. Visit her at www.deepluciddreaming.com.