WHY WE WANT TO LISTEN TO OUR DREAMS
Often, our conscious mind way want things to go one way, but there is an unconscious yet powerful force that drives our behaviours in the opposite direction. For instance, despite our conscious desire to do otherwise, we find ourselves procrastinating, lashing out at those we love, or sabotaging opportunities. We are not aware of the deep inner conflicts within us, and when they play out in our waking life, we are caught by surprise.
The limits of cognitive-based therapies such as CBT is that they deal only with our conscious thoughts and behaviours. To reach into the unconscious feelings, buried desires, suppressed anger, unprocessed trauma, or other materials that come from deep within our psyche, we must turn to what Depth Psychology has to offer.
Based mainly on the work of Freud, Jung and Adler, Depth Psychology deals with the aspects of our lives that escape the radar of our conscious awareness. In this approach, dream analysis is used as a tool for healing and exploration.
Dreams offer you important messages and guidance at critical junctures in your life. When you are feeling stuck, contemplating a career change or relationship breakup, suffering from a bout of existential depression or crisis, getting attuned with your dreams allows you to get ahold of answers to many of your life questions.
Emotionally sensitive and intense people tend to experience vivid dreams. This is likely due to the heightened receptivity of your senses and the speed at which your system operates. As an intuitive empath, your highly perceptive senses pick up hundreds and thousands of unconscious signals from the environment and people around you. If you try to receive and process them all during the day, your system will become overloaded. The purpose of your dreams, then, is to organise, translate, and make this information useful to you. Although their messages are communicated to you via symbols, your dreams are ultimately trying to inform and help you.
We have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.
PRACTICAL WAYS TO START
If you are new to dream analysis or had never paid attention to your dreams, here are a few pointers to get started:
1. Record your dream
Dream recall is incredibly fleeting. To be able to remember and record your dreams, you must catch the moments between your dream state and your fully waking state. Any movement during this time will significantly affect how much detail you recall. Therefore, as much as possible, remain still and refrain from moving your body or leaving your bed, until you have organised all the materials in your mind. Once you have formed a coherent gestalt or story, record them in as much detail as you can. The best way to do this is to leave a note pad next to your bed or use the voice recording or dictation function on your phone. Try not to worry about the materials being vague or fragmented, simply record whatever it is that comes to your mind.
2. Start a Dream Journal
After you have recorded your dreams, you can then transfer this raw data to a dream journal. This is a chance for you to organise your notes systematically. Having a dream journal allows you to track your dreams over a period of time, which allows you to discover themes and patterns. Even if the materials don’t seem to make sense, once you are able to sit with them and let them ‘gestate’ over a period of time, you will often find unexpected insights emerging from what at first glance seemed incomprehensible.
Your dream journal is not a final product but a place for an ongoing conversation with your psyche. Alongside the descriptions of your dreams, you will also record any emerging feelings, thoughts, and memories. New associations are added or edited along the way. Like an actual conversation, dream journaling is a continuously unfolding process.
“A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unopened.”
INTERPRETING YOUR DREAMS
Now you can begin to extract meaning and insights from your dreams.
Based on different theoretical orientations, there is an infinite number of ways to approach dreams. My work is predominantly informed by Carl Jung’s theories of dreams, combined with his other theories such as individuation, collective unconscious and synchronicity.
Sigmund Freud believed that dreams are trying to conceal something from us, something that our ego has forbidden— usually our repressed sexual desires. In Freud’s view, dreams are meant to hide their real meanings from us. Jung, however, disagreed with Freud and had his own theories.
While for Freud dreams are all about suppressed libidinous drives and wish-fulfillment, for Jung they are trying to tell us something new— something we don’t already know. The main difference between the Freudian and Jungian approaches is that Freud was concerned with the past, and thus worked backwards in time, while Jung’s work is about moving forward in life. The Freudian approach explores the causal factors that form our dreams, whilst Jung is interested in what the dreams may be telling us about where we are going and how those insights can benefit us. As Jungian Analyst von Franz put it: “Dreams don’t waste much spit telling us what we already know” (1980). In other words, dreams are not just regressive, a retreat into the past, or concerned with wish fulfillment. They are also purposeful and have the goal of helping you live a better life.
Jung also posits that dreams serve the function of psychological compensation. Their messages help us maintain a healthy and dynamic balance between the conscious and the unconscious, the yin and the yang, our virtues and our shadow. If you have a one-sided view of a situation or person, dreams may show you the other side. If your waking ego tries to repress a part of the unconscious, dreams will emerge to highlight the imbalance and guide you back to balance.
The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego-consciousness, and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego-consciousness extends.
THE THREE LEVELS OF DREAM INTERPRETATION
Understanding our dreams require some time and effort because they are communicating to us via symbols.
To simplify a highly complex and intricate process, you can experiment with interpreting your own dreams according to three levels:
— The explicit level
— The subjective level
— The archetypal (spiritual) level
The Explicit Level
Although the language of dreams is mostly symbolic, there are times we can take the images literally. On this level of interpretation, your dream symbols are telling you something directly. When you dream of a person or an event that also exists in your waking life, those are, without disguise, exactly what your dream is pointing to. For instance, a person you have recently met is aggressive or acts in a swift way in your dream, this may indicate unconscious signals that you have picked up about his character, and your dream is now highlighting this pre-conscious insight for you. Or, let’s say you dream of your childhood home; it may represent your actual home and the emotional energies and memories that come with it.
The Subjective Level
Subjective interpretation is a major part of Jungian dream analysis. With objective interpretation, dream characters are taken as who or what they are in the external world; But on the subjective level, all dream imagery, characters and even objects are seen as a part of yourself. For example, if you dream of a friend who you think of as kind and generous, they may represent the kind and generous part of you. All characters in your dreams symbolise traits and qualities that reside in you, including those you do not want to admit.
If you dream of an angry and envious devil, your dream is nudging you to reflect on your potential to be angry and envious. Through ‘negative’ characters, your dreams are nudging you towards psychological health by encouraging you to take back psychic materials that you have projected outward. On the flip side, your dreams can also show you your deepest potential through ‘positive’ characters that possess gifts and virtues you have not yet acknowledged. By inviting your inner projections to be manifested, your dreams help you meet with and embrace new aspects of yourself.
The Archetypal Level
This is a level at which your dreams are interpreted through the archetypal themes they present. In Jungian psychology, archetypes are patterns inherent in the human psyche shared by all humankind. These primordial images represent universal symbols of humanity. Some common archetypes may be The Mother, the Father, the Child, the Wise Old Man, the Great Mother. Other archetypal elements that may appear in your dreams are abstract and geometric patterns, kaleidoscopic-like visions, mythical creatures like elves or mystical animals. When these characters appear in your dreams, they connect you to the instinctual energies shared by all humankind. They are conveying a ‘big’, transpersonal theme that goes beyond your personal predicament. Usually, archetypal dreams are experienced with high emotional intensity. Embedded in them may be a kind of message, initiation or warning that comes from the collective unconscious.
Carl Jung has explored the archetypal dimension of many images, drawing from all great civilisations. However, it is always important that we combine the subjective level with the archetypal level of interpretation. ‘Dream dictionaries’ that can be found in bookshops or on the internet equate particular symbols with a set of arbitrarily assigned meanings. This approach is inaccurately reductionistic and of little value. Instead of relying on a set of predetermined meanings, we must pay attention to the personal associations we have with our dream symbols. For example, if you have a particular association with ‘uncle’ in your life experience, then an ‘uncle figure’ appearing in your dream may mean more than what an uncle typically means. Likewise, when you see a tree, an apple, a snake, you must first ask yourself, ‘what does a tree/an apple mean to me?” What kind of associations, thoughts, memories and effects do these motifs bring up?
An Exercise: “I am”—
This is a dream analysis technique you can experiment with on any dreams you have in the coming weeks. This approach focuses on the ‘subjective’ level interpretation; in other words, it is based on the assumption that everything in the dream represents a part of yourself.
Firstly, record your dreams by following the steps stated above.
When you have the materials written out, read through them and circle the major symbols and elements in your dreams. List these symbols or elements out.
The next step is to expand on the symbolic meaning for each of these elements via free association.
To do this, you assume the role of these elements, then in a spontaneous manner, complete a series of sentences, 5-10 for each, that starts with ‘I am’.
I will share a personal example to bring this exercise to life. I recently had a bizarre dream in which I was back in my primary school classroom. To my right was my childhood best friend Jennifer, who suddenly turned into the Japanese cartoon character Hello Kitty; to my right, there was a mountain full of the most profoundly beautiful autumn leaves. Jennifer was looking at me with helplessness, and I found myself wanting to escape into the mountain.
There are many ways we can approach this dream; for example, we can focus on my feelings in the dream or the archetypal meaning of autumn and a mountain. With this technique, however, we focus on the subjective meaning I have associated with each of these symbols. I will start with each element of the dream by circling and listing them out:
– the classroom
– Hello Kitty
– the mountain
– autumn leaves
Then, I imagine myself becoming each of these elements, and then speed-write— without overthinking— five to ten sentences that start with ‘I am’
I am Jennifer…
I am kind
I am liked by my classmates
I do not recognise my own potential
I am trapped in my current predicament
I am helpless
I am ‘Hello Kitty’
I am subservient
I am silenced (Hello Kitty does not have a mouth!)
I am liked by everyone
I play nice
I am adorable
I am the classroom…
I am old
I am harsh
I am here to impose school rules
I am a part of an old school
I am holding my pupils back from their full potential.
I am the mountain
I am red and green
I am a part of nature
I am full of abundance
I am possibilities
I am love
I am autumn
I am emerging
I am the most refreshing weather of all
I am here to make room for a new life
I am adventure
I am hope
These statements can be long or short, brief or detailed. It doesn’t matter if they seem ‘negative’ or contradictory. For example, some of my statements regarding ‘Jennifer’ reflect what I realistically know of my childhood friend, but others do not make any logical sense. The key is to welcome any spontaneous and abstract associations— It is only by withholding our urges to judge or rationalise that new insights can emerge.
When you have completed the ‘I am’ sentences with all the symbols, go through them again. This time, contemplate how each of them may represent aspects of yourself.
To share an interpretation of my dream: ‘Jennifer’ seems to represent the part of me that is a ‘persona’ to the outside world— she is a socially-approved facade that was once needed for my survival but has outlived her use. ‘The classroom’ represents the ‘superego’ part of me that is holding me back, perhaps with internalised doctrines and values from authorities and traditions. The mountain symbolises the abundance promised by a life, a new system of thinking; and autumn marks the courageous act of turning to my true self. It looks like a big part of me is eager to be free from the need to sustain a ‘nice, cute and subservient’ image that was encouraged by my Oriental culture, and to break through into something new and exciting. The dream presents a new possibility, a new phase of my life, symbolised by the intensely colourful mountain.
This theme of breaking away from the old and obvious into the new, authentic and unknown is a common one I see in many emotionally sensitive and intense people. After a whole life of living under ‘shoulds’— should not be so sensitive, should not be so loud and outspoken, should not be shy, etc, your psyche wants to move into something much deeper and truer, and your dreams are messengers who repeatedly knock on your door until you listen.
When you have completed the ‘I am’ exercise, it is often immediately apparent what the dream is telling you or asking of you. If not, simply leave it aside and let it sit. Something new may emerge if you repeat the exercise in a few days.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
― Carl Gustav Jung
START LISTENING TO YOUR DREAMS
A dream is a piece of our reality. Its origin is both personal and transpersonal. If we pay our dreams the respect and concern they deserve, they serve us in many ways. Our dreams heal us, inform us, warn us, and illuminates us with wisdom. Transforming the symbols in a dream from their raw form to meaning is an alchemical process.
Sometimes, the message from a dream is not immediately known, but we can sit with them, let them gestate and be impregnated by our ongoing conscious and unconscious enquiry. During this time, we ought to remain humble and curious. Then, when the timing is ripe, insights will come to help us receive and make sense of these divine messages.