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.
They are the heart and soul of many of our favorite stories, from fairy tales to blockbuster movies: we all recognize the archetype of the Mentor (for example, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) who trains the Hero for a quest, or the archetypal Old Hag (the witch in Hansel and Gretel), or the Trickster (Rumpelstiltskin). Archetypes can be both positive and negative, and they embody energies that are deeply familiar to us. In dreams, they often transcend the mundane level of our waking life to reveal something deeper.4. Lucid Dreams
This is one of the most popular types of dreams. These dreams may fall into any of the other categories shown here, but the difference is that lucid dreamers know that they are dreaming while they are dreaming. Lucid dreams are often especially vivid and memorable. The lucid dreamer can also guide the dream and choose to respond to the dream scenario in a particular way: to face a fear, for example, or to realize impossible fantasies, like flying to the stars.
5. Soul Dreams
These are dreams of the higher; of spirit and soul. They often involve light, beautiful nature, or luminous beings, and have a spiritual quality. A woman I know dreamed of a glowing, energized female Buddha floating above her bed. I once dreamed of columns of blue light that seemed wise beyond belief. Such dreams connect us with a deep source of light and knowledge that we all have somewhere within.
Examples of Dream Interpretation
The following are simplified examples of dream interpretation, to give you an idea of the way how different dreams can communicate, and the importance of context and analysis in what do dreams really mean. 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 the man processing his out-of-control behavior from the previous day.
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 co-creator, 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.
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 and what they mean.
Practice # 1: Re-enter the 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.
1. Find a quiet space where you can relax and close your eyes.
2. 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. This is applicable to all types of dreams.
3. Now you are ready to engage with your dream; for example, by focusing on the imagery and watching it move and transform.
Practice # 2: Ten Key Questions for Unwrapping a Dream
1. Who are you in this dream? (A younger self, an observer, an animal, a different person, or yourself as you are today?)
2. How do you feel in your dream? What are the strongest emotions?
3. Do these emotions resonate with any situation in your life, past or present?
4. What is the core image or scene in this dream? (“Core” means the central, most arresting, most energized or emotional image.) This is considered as one of the most important elements in understanding one’s dreams and what they mean.
5. What are your associations with this core image or scene? Note down keywords or phrases.
6. If every dream figure and symbol represents a part of you, which part would the core image represent? Use your keywords to make it easier to connect with the core image.
7. 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?
8. 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.
9. What does the dream want? Different dreams have different meanings but what is your dream really about? 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.
10. If you could go back into your dream and change the ending, what would happen?