Dreams: Answers to Questions We Never Thought to Ask

My picture nameI dream I am being attacked by a robber who not only wants to rob me but beat me us as well. What should I do? One extreme solution some people have been known to adopt is to actually go out and buy a gun, to feel safer. But is that the best solution? Do we need to arm ourselves to the teeth? What if we sleep with the gun under our pillow, but have more dreams of being attacked? Do we have to go out and get a weapon or is there an intermediate step? There is. If you and I are to discover this intermediate step, we need to work with the images in the dream.

In my last post, I underlined that all ancient cultures saw dreams as coming from God or the gods, and that all of us who are healthy dream at least an hour and a half a night during our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. I also mentioned that, despite being told during our childhood, "It was only a dream, don’t pay attention," we continue to dream. We also often continue to have the same kind of disturbing dream. Modern Jungians or Freudians would not dispute the ancients claim that dreams come from a divine source, but they change the language somewhat and go on to say that dreams come from the unconscious or the psyche. They emphasize that dreams have a message, that our dreams are telling us what we are leaving out in life. They also tell us that we cannot control our dreams.

Now we'll talk about how we can get to a dream's hidden message.

In answer to a comment from last week's post, I noted that lucid dreaming books and articles telling us that we can control our dreams are not helpful or accurate. Such articles may make us feel more comfortable, as many dreams are confusing, frightening, or easily ignored, and it can be frustrating to realize that we cannot control them. The only time this happens is when we half-awaken and our ego takes over and changes the dream to suit us. It is no wonder that people want to control their dreams, because a controlled dream helps us live out our fantasies. It can be quite threatening to have to recognize that --in our dreams-- a voice speaks to us out of our unconscious psyche which knows what we need to attend to and what we need to do.

If you have read my first post, you may have noted the first most important thing: to write the dream down. Now what? Today I am going to suggest one way of working with dreams, which means that I will compress a lot of material into this post. You may want to bookmark , where there will be a lot more explanatory material on dreams.

The first thing to realize is that dreams about your family, fellow workers, pet, car, old schoolmates, and --in fact-- almost all dream images, are primarily about yourself. The figures in the dream are symbolic of aspects of yourself. You dream almost exclusively about your own conflicts, problems, and unrealized potentials.

  1. The first step in moving deeper into your dream is to see where the dream image connects to your experience. You need to write down the associations you have for the dream image. Suppose you have a dream where you have a carton of eggs and you are trying to go somewhere with them. To arrive at your associations you need to ask yourself, what pops into my head about eggs? "I like ham and eggs; I know an egg is an embryo, a beginning of new life. I also remember the rhyme about Humpty Dumpty...." You need to write down all of these associations, and any others that come to mind.

    Every time that you write out your associations, you need to go back to the dream image with which you are associating. The purpose of this is to keep you as close to the dream message as possible. It keeps you from going off on a fantasy trip, which is a danger that we are all prone to.

  2. You also need to write down your associations about the next image: "going somewhere." What may come to mind is that you would like a vacation, need to go on a trip for your company, and would like to make some changes in your life. Connected to that need for change, you may realize again that you are somewhat fed up with your job. Write down all these associations and any others that come to mind.
  3. Of these associations you have written down, you need to think about which has the most energy, or is the association that clicks the loudest for you. Go back over your associations and underline the phrases or ideas which feel truest for you at this time in your lives. You are looking for what feels right. Looking at your associations for egg, you may come to the realization that the most energy is around the idea of new life. But what does that mean?
  4. Now you need to answer the question about what has the most energy about the idea of going somewhere. It may well be the idea that you would like to make some changes in your life, perhaps with your job. Underline that association.
  5. Now you can look at the total dream from the point of view of what might be its inner message. Go back over the associations that you have underlined and write down the way your associations deepen the message of the dream. You now have a picture of the issues that your psyche wants you to attend to. With our example dream, you may see that the dozen eggs stand for your rich potential for new life, and that you are uneasy with your job, and with your life generally. However you are not using the eggs or your new potential in the dream, but simply carrying them somewhere.
  6. Now here is a serious question that you need to address: How are you going on your life's journey and not taking advantage of your potential? What do you have to do to use some of this rich potential? This is an important question. Many people live below their potential out of anxiety, fear of failure, taking chances, or old negative messages from childhood.

This model I have given you is only an example of the kind of analysis we can all make of our dreams. These are the sort of questions we need to consider as a way of unravelling the mystery of our dreams, and learning more about what our psyche is trying to get us to pay attention to. Often we are being told to take advantage of our potential, as I suggested in this dream.

Dreams are a door into our inner world. We attend to them because they tell us what we are leaving out in life. When Jung was asked about why he attended to dreams, he replied that it was because, "things go better when one pays attention." Things have gone better for me since I started to pay attention and will, I am sure, for you as well. Dreams can be terrifying, especially if we take the wrong approach and take them literally: what we need to do is approach them symbolically.

What I have described above is the way that I have found most helpful to approach my dreams, and those of my clients. Write out the dream, your associations on all the nouns, underline the most charged associations, and rewrite the dream using your new associations. If you wish to get more in depth information on dreams, look at the workshop I did on our blog.

The best book about doing this practical work with our dreams is Inner Work by Robert Johnson. Johnson is a Jungian anaylist with broad experience in dream interpretaton and he gives very practical direction about working with them.

Happy dreaming!


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Cool technique! Thanks.

Cool technique! Thanks. One question I had was how to pick the dominant theme in a dream that had many themes. What I did was to write sentences of all the different themes, and then do associations for all of them. Upon doing that, I saw that all of the themes were really elements of a more general theme, and I wrote out a revised interpretation of the dream using the different associations that I had for that more general theme. Any comments?

Dream anaylsis

Excellent. Very well done. I should have said that after I write the dream out, I make a list down the page of all the nouns I can remember (for example: cat, house, wife, gun, river, lion, etc.). Sometimes what seems like a silly, insignificant image will set my analysis off. I leave some lines between each. Then to the right of the nouns, I write out my associations. If I do it this way, I find I get to the central theme faster. You are absolutely right, finding the central theme is critical. This central theme usually goes against our day to day thinking about that aspect of our lives and pushes us to think more broadly about it. When we do this process faithfully, we will make some important and wonderful discoveries that will enrich our lives.