Dream interpretation is intertwined in folklore and there are books that supposedly reveal the meaning of dream symbols.
When you dream of your teeth falling out, does it really mean you’ll soon face disease or have trouble assessing your emotional experiences? Probably not.
Working with dreams is a highly personal matter. Nobody but yourself will tell you what they mean.
Two Approaches To Dream Interpretation
We still don’t know what exactly are dreams, which makes the interpretation more difficult. Robert A. Johnson, the author of Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth advises us to conduct a formal process of investigation and try to translate dream symbols into our so-called waking reality. In that way, we’ll be able to build our character and use dreams as a tool for personal development.
On the other hand, James Hillman, a Jungian psychologist and an author of The Dream and the Underworld suggests a more subtle approach – that of “befriending” your dream and avoiding formal interpretation.
In Hillman’s view, analyzing dreams is almost an act of exploitation, as dreams belong to the realm of the soul and are close to art which eludes objective analysis.
In this article, we’ll go with a mix of these two methods.
“A dream is a small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens up to that primeval cosmic night that was the soul, long before there was the conscious ego.” – Carl Jung
How To Interpret Your Dreams in 5 Steps
Step 1 – Learn how to remember your dreams and capture them
If you want to work with dreams, you need to set an intention before going to sleep.
You could say: “I wonder what kind of dreams will I have tonight?” And really dwell on it for a moment. This will prime your subconscious. Don’t force it, just wonder.
The natural ability to recall dreams varies from person to person. But you can improve it by:
Keeping a pencil and a pad of paper close to your bed and thinking: “here I will write them down”.
Before going to bed, thinking that you’ll actually remember your dreams.
Sleeping in total darkness and getting more serotonin in your system (for example, through exercise).
Write it down
Now the goal is to remember the dream and write it down as soon as you wake up. The fuzzy-dreamy state vanishes fast and you lose the details.
That’s why it’s necessary to capture the dream within 5 minutes of waking up. You can do it by writing it down or dictating it to your smartphone.
Step 2 – List different elements of the dream and write down the associations
You’re always thrust into the middle of the dream and usually remember just a part of the story. But there are also elements of your inner vision that jump at you and stick with you after waking up. It’s important to list them on a piece of paper.
Let me share an example of one of my dreams (“the cat dream”):
I was running away from some undefined danger through the streets of my home town in Poland. I saw two hoodlums and I wanted to get far away from them. Then I found myself close to my middle school and suddenly I was walking in very slow motion, even though I wanted to run. Then I saw this cat sitting on something like an electricity box adjoining the school.
It was in shackles and its waist was as thin as a finger. I thought: “maybe I should help it” but then I thought: “maybe it’s sick, I should probably get away”. And then I went on, but the cat jumped down and now it looked like a regular cat, but still with the metal shackles. And it bit me on the hand. Then I got really scared and woke up.
The elements of the dream and associations I could list are:
- My home town – a grey place, sidewalks crossing huge lawns, trees, dangerous corners.
- Hoodlums – my youth, violence, money.
- Middle school – a dangerous school, you have to watch out.
- The Cat in shackles – restricted freedom of a wild animal – perhaps myself?
- The electricity box – danger
As you can see, the dream is filled with danger, but also with a lack of freedom (I can barely move, and the cat is in shackles). If I compared it with my current life situation, this could lead to some interesting conclusions.
Step 3 – Connect the elements of the dream with inner and outer dynamics of your life (especially emotions and desires)
After listing the elements and associations, it’s time to link your dream to what’s actually going on in your life.
There are many things you don’t allow to come to the surface – emotions, desires, or fear. You keep them at a distance and use clever tricks to pretend they don’t exist. But they’re still there, and they’ll be revealed in your dreams under a guise of symbols which are the language of the unconscious.
Try to answer the question: “How does this dream relate to my current situation?”
Step 4 – Muse on different interpretations until one of them “clicks”
You’re likely to come up with at least a few possible interpretations. Sometimes you can support yourself by looking at the archetypes and symbols, but most of the time, the elements of the dream will closely connect to your inner and outer life.
“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung
It’s important to work with possible meanings until one of them “clicks”. You’ll feel great energy behind your interpretation and you’ll intuitively know that it’s the right one.
In some cases, it might take years to fully grasp the depth of a dream – especially if it’s a big one. That’s why psychologists like James Hillman recommend that you “befriend” your dream and see how its meaning changes with time.
Step 5 – Perform a ritual and acknowledge the lesson of the dream
According to Toni Wolffe, a colleague of Jung:
“People can analyze for 20 years, and nothing below the neck is aware that anything is going on. You have to do something about it. Do something with your muscles.”
When patients came to her without having done anything physical about the dream she would show them the door and say to come back “when they mean business”.
She insisted on acknowledging the message of the dream through some kind of physical ritual. In that way, the individual becomes more aware of it and let it have an effect on their conscious existence.
The ritual doesn’t have to be fancy and elaborate in nature. It’s also not supposed to be rigid and formulaic. It has to be your unique ritual – depending on the contents of the dream.
It might be a spiritual dance, burning incense, hugging a tree, or lighting up a candle. The important thing is that the ritual comes to you in a natural way. Let it lead you to personal growth and new insights about your psyche.
The best books on dream interpretation:
- The Interpretation of Dreams – Sigmund Freud
- The Dream Book: Symbols for Self Understanding – Betty Bethards
- The Divinity Code to Understanding Your Dreams and Visions – Adam Thompson
- Memories, Dreams, Reflections – C. G. Jung
- Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth – Robert A. Johnson