Understanding Dreams: Core Techniques
The saying goes that “eyes are the window to the soul.” The same thing can be said of dreams. There are many types of dreams and they 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.
This article shows how to decipher the symbolic language of dreams, to give you an idea of how images can reflect specific feelings, events, and attitudes. We’ll look at five different types of dreams and you’ll learn core dreamwork techniques for what different dreams mean.
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. Different dreams may have different meanings but they all love this picture-language and it is one of their preferred ways of communicating with us.
But when we first look at a dream and what it means, 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. 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.
Getting to know the language of dreams and what they mean is so exciting. It’s exhilarating to crack the code of a dream that’s been troubling you and experience that rush of recognition that dream therapists call the “Aha” moment. 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.
To understand our dreams, we need to speak their dense symbolic language. How do you know what certain dreams mean?
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 and what they mean is much easier than you may think, and you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
Sometimes it gives clarity to a dream to see which category (or categories) it falls into. Let’s take a quick look at five types of dreams.
Five Types of Dream
Dreams can be roughly divided into five categories: physical, emotional, archetypal, lucid, and soul dreams. Many dreams will contain elements of more than one of these categories.
1. Physical Dreams
These relate to your body: are you cold, hot, or exhausted? Do you need to pee? (We’ve all had those maddening dreams of hunting for a bathroom.) Are you ill or in pain? Physical sensations, pain, and illness that we are currently experiencing in our body can be woven into our inner movie in the form of unpleasant imagery, but if we manage to change any negative imagery while we’re in the dream, this may help to relieve the pain. A friend of mine went to sleep with a headache that she’d had for two days. She dreamed she was wearing a tight metal band on her head. In the dream, she managed to take it off, and when she woke up, her headache was gone. In a far more serious case, journalist Marc Barasch dreamed he was being tortured with hot coals beneath his chin, and it turned out he had thyroid cancer.
2. Emotional Dreams
We are bound to dream about what concerns us, frightens us, or makes us happy. This is among the many important reasons why studying the types of dreams and what they mean can be of great help. Emotional dreams tend to have a psychological and personal focus. They involve clearly identifiable feelings such as sadness, happiness, loss, disbelief, surprise, horror, fear, and so on. For example, a friend of mine dreamed she was furiously smashing plate after plate in the kitchen while her husband watched helplessly. In such dreams, the setting and the action serve to illuminate the emotion that is hidden in our unconscious. The dream shows us how we really feel. When dream emotions are this extreme, they are calling out to be worked with.
3. Archetypal Dreams
Dreams can contain archetypal symbols—universal images, characters, and themes that appear in all cultures throughout time in anything from legends and myths to cartoons and comic books. Archetypes are universally present in individual psyches. The “psyche” is the soul, mind, or spirit. Carl Jung believed that archetypes embody basic human experiences and universal meanings.