Dreams, Pen and Paper: Getting the Message

I first met our latest guest poster through his son Steve, who writes the Friday humour column here. Although they are both keen observers of human nature, Henry Sharam has approached his subject matter from a completely different direction: he is a Jungian psychotherapist with many years' experience nurturing personal and spiritual growth in environments as varied as relationship workshops, jails, nursing homes and mental hospitals. Dream analysis through journalling is a specialty of his. -DJ

My picture nameWhat a strange world we move in when we lie down to sleep. We use toilets with no door or for people of the opposite gender. We walk nude through our home towns, attend funerals partially clothed, are attacked, and seduced. Monsters of all kinds confront us. Nazis, drug lords and hoodlums threaten us. Old lovers entice us, long dead grandparents tyrannize us. Animals appear: starving or dangerous dogs, lions in the living room, and crocodiles in our swimming hole. Images of death abound, starving and neglected children emerge, beautiful women and great god-like men appear.

So the kaleidoscope turns. Each night brings a cast of beggars, thieves, kings and princesses. Is this all nonsense, some disturbance in the chemistry of our brain, or is it meaningful? Let's look at this important question. We now turn to a journey into this strange, confusing, and often frightening world of our dreams.

The D*I*Y Planner is an excellent tool, as many thousands of us have discovered. It is a great resource in helping to organize one's outer life. One place where the planner tends not to focus is in dealing with how our conscious outer life in the world relates to our secret, private, inner life. This is an area where I spend a large part of my professional life. Doug has asked me to address the issue of what happens inside our heads and hearts and how we can make the connection between these two parts of our experiences. To this end, we will spend some time looking at how to extract the meaning and messages that we can get from our dreams, both our night dreams and our daydreams.

Daydreams are enormously important to many of us, and we spend large parts of our time preoccupied with various exciting and/or useful fantasy projects. If we look at most popular TV shows, movies, books and video games, we see the living-out of many of our daydreams: police chases, murders, seductions, finding our only love, etc. In our daydreams, we fantasize heroic accomplishments and plan practical ways of getting things done. We daydream a lot. Some of this feels like it is wasted time and some seems productive. We shall be looking at daydreams and their meaning at a later date, but for now we turn to our night dreams.

Some people will immediately insist: "I never dream." This is an interesting thought, but research tells us that, unless we have some debilitating physical problem, we all dream an average of an hour and a half each night during our REM or rapid eye movement sleep.

"If I dream that much," many will say, "why don't I remember them?" That is an important question. I think that the answer is that since childhood we have been told that what happens at night is not important. "It was only a dream," we are reassured after horrendous nightmares which wake us up screaming. We trusted our parents, even though part of us knew that the dream was real to us, and we slowly grew to adopt their attitude. "Don't pay attention. It was only a dream."

This is a completely different attitude from that which was held by all ancient cultures. Homer, in his Iliad, describes a scene wherein Agamemnon receives instructions from the messenger of Zeus in a dream. Socrates, like Homer, valued dreams highly. Even in his last days, Socrates took careful note of his dreams. Plato believed that "when the gods spoke they spoke the truth," and one of the ways was through dreams and visions.

Thothmes IV, a future Egyptian pharaoh, fell asleep at the foot of the Great Sphinx. His dream promised him the throne of Egypt if he repaired the god's temple. The Roman Artemidorus (c. AD 150) wrote the first comprehensive book on the interpretation of dreams: he brought out the idea that dreams are unique to the dreamer. All ancient cultures saw dreams as coming from a source beyond themselves, and for many, they were the direct revelations of the gods.

In the Old Testament, dreams and visions are not separated. A common description of a dream is "a vision of the night." The Theological Word Book of the Bible tells us that one of the tasks of "Seers" was to explain signs and to interpret dreams, and the prophets Samuel, Amos, Isaiah and Micah were all called seers. Joseph, a great dreamer, declared "Do not interpretations belong to God?" Then he interpreted the baker's, butler's and later the Pharaoh's dreams foretelling the future. At the time of Moses, God declares "If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision. I speak with him in a dream."

The briefest glance at the ancient narratives of all cultures shows a similar respect for and reverence of dreams. Modern psychology and the modern church generally ignore dreams, because generally psychology tries to fit us back into our "old place," ignoring messages from our unconscious telling us that we need to make changes in our lives. If we are anxious, depressed, addicted, have an affair, etc., the attempt is made --not to understand our symptoms and discover their meaning-- but to suppress our symptoms and fit us back into our old slot in society, which may have created our symptoms in the first place. Where does this leave us?

That leaves us on our own. Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung give us helpful advice about our dreams, but what can we do in a practical way to recapture some of their importance?

What we have to do is remember our dreams. For many of us, this is not easy. As soon as we wake, our feet hit the floor, and our dreams are usually gone like smoke.

To catch our dreams, we have to slow this process down. The first step is to hope that we will be awakened without an alarm clock. The shattering music, voice, or bell of an alarm drive most dreams instantly out of our heads. We need to begin by keeping a journal on our bedside table. I like to use a full-sized book, but you can use a small but quality notebook or even the journal pages out of the D*I*Y Planner. Whatever you do, don't use scraps of waste paper: your dreaming side will respond better to a good journaling book. When you awaken, don't move, don't kick the cat off the bed, but say to yourself, "What was I just looking at?" Then write it down. Sometimes, if the dream seems very thin, it helps to write a series of key words down. Then you can go back and fill in the story.

You may also feel embarrassed by your dream, or think it is unimportant. Remember that what happens in dreams is symbolic. A symbol, unlike a sign, points to something beyond itself. The flag, national anthem, Christian cross, Muslim crescent and seated Buddha are all examples of something which point to something beyond itself, and likewise are our dreams. To understand them, we must look beyond the literal interpretation of the figures, to the symbolism they represent.

Obviously, you did not have an affair last night or walk nude through town. Those are symbolic images. Whatever the image that you remember, write it down. Dreams come in series, and although this dream may make little sense, the following ones may explain it. (I talk more about this on our blog.)

Work with, but don't become too worried about, your dream images. Sometimes the psyche overstates the case to get our attention. Despite vivid dream images, we are not really going to be eaten by a tiger. Our unconscious often uses strong images to get us to focus on the dream and its message. If the images seem embarrassing, it may be important for some people to keep their journals private. To ensure privacy, I often encourage concerned people to keep the final copy of their journal, including their dreams, on a computer disk: if the files are password protected and you carry it on your person, they will remain private.

Depending on your partner's comfortability, you need to decide beforehand whether you can turn on the light to record your dream. One excellent solution is to have one of those tiny reading lights -- if you paint the bulb red with a magic marker it will be bright enough to write by, dim enough not to intrude, and will also not spoil your night vision. There are also pens for writing on maps and so forth that have small but dim lights for use at night, and then there are those little key chains that look and function like miniature lanterns. There are a number of ways which allow you to write at night without disturbing others, so all you need is a bit of ingenuity.

For those interested in more specific details about how to use journals to record and interpret dreams, the best book about journal keeping and listening to our unconscious is still the classic At A Journal Workshop by Ira Progoff. It gives 27 different ways of working with our dreams. You will likely never use all of his ideas, but they will give you many practical suggestions and inspiration.

Our dreams still entertain, frighten, and --if we will work with them-- teach us. They give us instruction about our relationships, tell us why we are depressed, anxious, feel unloved or unsuccessful, are in trouble, or out of balance at work. In short, in our rush to succeed in life, our dreams tell us the critical things we are leaving out and what we should do about that.

As Carl Jung says, "The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul." We are trying to understand how that door works and how to use it for our great advantage. I will be talking in the next article about how to take advantage of this door and more steps we can take to practically work with our dreams. If you'd like to know more about this topic in the meantime, please see our our blog for a detailed online workshop on working with your dreams.

Henry Sharam

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I've never been completely at ease with the idea that are dreams are symbolic manuals of what is going on in our subconcious...

How is the interpretation of dreams affected by the concept of lucid dreaming? That is, how can dreams be intrepreted when the dreamer is fully aware that they are dreaming, and have the ability to manipulate their dream?

Good question....

I never allow my dreams to do their own things.... they're mine, I direct them....

NOTHING is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool! [Silvermoon's Law]

I think you missed the point

I think you missed the point of my article, but it is a lovley fantasy that we can control our dreams. My experience of what happens to myself and talking with innumerable people about this issue, is that we have a dream and then are half awakened by the energy in the dream. Since we are focused to remember our dreams, in a half conscious state, we begin to fix the images to suit our conscious mind, then we finally finish waking up and have the lovely fantasy that we have controled the dream. I do not think that we can control our dreams, despite the articles and books about "lucid dreaming." I think they are describing this half awake stage.
The problems is, according to Jung, that our dreams are trying to get us to see something that our conscious mind has so far not seen, and may be resisting seeing. When we are content with a "lucid dreaming" experience we miss the point the unconscious is trying to make.

Lucid Dreaming

A few years ago, I had a few friends that were big into the whole lucid dreaming thing. (For neophytes, that's the type of dreaming where you actually control what's happening in the dream, because you're actually aware you're dreaming.) I was intrigued by the concept, so I gave it a whirl too, by keeping dream journals and doing the little tricks found in the books.

Now, it turned out that it wasn't that difficult for me, since I'm the sort of person that tries to see both sides of the coin all the time, and when something strange happens in my dreams, I often go, "Hmm. That's not right. What would be the cause of that happening? Oh, right, I'm probably dreaming...." A little silly, but that's how it works for me.

But when I consciously tried to direct my dreams after that, I found that I became closer and closer to consciousness, trying to force my dream to continue, and I woke up soon thereafter. Perhaps some psych major out there can elucidate this topic a little further, but I think that I was travelling through that shallow hypnagogic state between sleep and awakening anyway.

Eventually I gave the whole experiment up. It turns out that letting my subconscious have full reign was a lot more interesting than using it to fulfill my goals and fantasies. After all, that's what real life is for, I reckoned.

all my best,