Dream Interpretation

James Harvey Stout

Perhaps dreams do not need to be interpreted. We can explore various reasons for this idea.

1. Some people think that dreams have no meaning. From their viewpoint, dreams are hallucinations. Even some researchers agree; Hobson and others have theorized that the brain merely fabricates a story in an effort to make sense of the random firing of nerve cells in the brain stem during REM sleep. The dream is like a Rorschach test, with no significance in itself.

2. Dreams produce results without interpretation. Many animals (including nearly all mammals) exhibit the same REM cycles which characterize the human dream state -- and plants, too, show cycles of activity during sleep. If dreams have value only if interpreted, there would be no reason for these other species to have dream-like states. Dreams are not merely communications which the conscious mind is meant to interpret; they exist in their own world of emotion and symbolic reality where our wakeful conflicts and problems can be resolved without either our recall or interpretation. Awareness of our dreams (much less an interpretation of them) can actually be a hindrance to the unconscious processes; Freud said that a dream "failed" if we became aware of its intentionally concealed information. Occasionally in our sleep, our mind conducts business of which we are not meant to be informed; when I tried to recall one dream, I backtracked as far as possible, until I reached a point where I picked up a thought from another part of my mind: "We're through; he can see the rest of it."

3. Certain dreams might not need to be interpreted. Some activities during our wakeful life are "important," but at other times, we are indulging in recreation, frivolous play, and apparently irrelevant digressions. During sleep, the unconscious mind probably follows similar patterns; certain dreams are probably nothing more than sheer creativity and indulgence, and they are not "symbolic" of anything. Other dreams which might not be intended for interpretation are "high dreams" (lucid or non-lucid) in which we experience a "spiritual" light or a contact with a being whose presence alone is significant -- just as a painting or musical composition is significant in its own right, without being "interpreted." Also, some dreams are "literal"; we dream about a car accident, and then one occurs on the following day. Nor do we need to interpret dreams which impart information of which we are already aware; at the end of most of my interpretations, I say, "I already knew that" -- although I frequently add the statement, "... but the dream gave this message because, even though I knew the information, I have not acted on it." Also, I consider the possibility that the dream might allow a different interpretation which does disclose previously unknown data.

4. Certain elements are not meant to be interpreted. Within a given dream, the elements might be symbolic or literal; the literal elements would not need to be interpreted. (As Freud said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.") In one of my dreams, a character was singing Neil Diamond's song, "September Morn." What was the significance of the song? Probably none; when I awoke, that song was playing on my radio, and it had been incorporated into my dream. We often add external stimuli to our dreams; in another dream, I complained about the heat. Was this a dream about a fear of hellfire? No, I had left my heater on, so the bedroom's temperature was about 90 degrees. If our physical body is thirsty, we are likely to dream about water; if we have a disease (of which we may not be aware), we might dream that the afflicted body part is distressed; if we hear our physical-world alarm ringing, we could dream that a doorbell is sounding; if we dream about our daughter, this character might be representative of the girl herself or what she symbolizes to us. Other characters in dreams might be literal visitors (not symbolic dream characters); many people have experienced mutual dreams (in which another person entered the dream), or encounters with angels or "spirits" or religious teachers. Some of the other elements in dreams are mere "props" with no symbolic meaning; during a wakeful active-imagination exercise with a dream, I asked a character in a hospital bed to tell me about himself, and he did so. Then I asked the bed, "What do you represent?" The bed responded (and I swear I heard sarcasm in the "voice"), "I'm a bed. The man is in a hospital, so he needs a bed to lie on. I'm the bed."

5. Logical interpretation has limitations. Logic is a limited tool within the wakeful, left-hemisphere human world; dreams, however, exist in a world which might be considered right-hemisphere. When we translate dreams from one realm to the other, we might be betraying the nature of the dream through the imposition of human reasoning, wakeful-world physics, and our narrow understanding of psychology, spirituality, and the dreamworld itself. Our logic is a further hindrance when we deal with dream-experiences which are beyond description (as is often the case of spiritual or archetypal occurrences), or dreams of which we have only a partial memory (and for which we tend to fill the gaps with whatever would seem sensible), or dreams which have elements that are disregarded because they don't fit into the interpretation which we are concocting, or dreams which are distorted by the imperfections of memory or by repressions or other psychological obstructions, or dreams which are multi-layered, multi-dimensional, or otherwise non-linear.

6. We might be able to "understand" intellectually without interpreting. If the dream's symbolism is a "language" which we usually interpret, perhaps we can learn to comprehend this language without a translation. This skill is displayed among people who are fluent in two languages, such as English and Spanish. If we know the Spanish language, we don't need to translate abre la puerta into the English words, "open the door"; instead, we hear the Spanish words and then we open the door, without thinking of the corresponding English words. Similarly, we can understand "body language" and familiar verbal metaphors without recontextualizing them into rational concepts. In a similar way, we might master the "dream language" sufficiently to comprehend the meaning without paraphrasing the story-line into "what the symbols mean"; the symbols would make sense in their own context, on their own terms.

7. Interpretation might not be the best means of appreciating our dreams. Throughout this book, other approaches are presented. They include dreamwork, active imagination, and other methods in which we don't need to know the intellectual "meaning" (as it would be expressed in interpretation) in order to benefit from our dreams.

Perhaps we can teach the unconscious mind to communicate in our language. If we can learn its language, why could it not learn ours? Sometimes the unconscious mind seems to be trying to communicate when it presents the same message in different symbolism; this often occurs in the consecutive dreams of a single sleep-period, as if to say, "Let me rephrase that ..." (We can create this effect by incubating a "clarification dream" for a dream which we were unable to interpret; before the next sleep period, we ask the unconscious mind to deliver the same message in simpler symbolism.) Some psychotherapists have found that their patients start to report dream symbolism which conforms to the school of therapy which is being used: we begin to use more sexual symbolism if our therapist is Freudian, and more mandalas and archetypes for a Jungian. If the unconscious mind can accommodate us in those ways, perhaps it would respond to further attempts to create a common language for these two parts of our mind. Maybe we could encourage it to be more literal than symbolic; some dreams are literal, in their imagery and in the words which are spoken by the characters. (One person reported dreams in which the regular dream-drama would be verbally narrated by someone who explained the symbolism as it progressed; also, a minister had a dream in which he simply saw the number of the chapter and verse -- such as Matthew 3:4 -- which he was being encouraged to read.) We can enhance this literality by incubating the specific nonsymbolic images which are to be used in a dream which we wish to experience. Imagine the rewards we would gain from our dreamlife if we could replace obscure symbolism with a simple conversation between conscious and unconscious, particularly if this occurred during lucid dreaming (and eventually, perhaps, even during wakefulness) when we could consciously ask questions and receive replies in a common language. We can attain a commonality during lucid dreams simply by asking a character or any other element, "What do you represent?"; it replies in our native tongue, such as English.

Dreams represent our inner state. Our unconscious processes (including emotions and thoughts) are invisible; dreaming makes those processes visible. To our waking consciousness, the processes are abstract; dreaming makes them tangible with characters, action, colors, and other sensory elements. Many of the processes are too subtle for us to notice, but dreaming can make them discernable and bold. There is an old saying: "A dream is a picture of a feeling." Except in certain instances (e.g., mutual dreams, spirit visitors, dream "props" like the hospital bed mentioned earlier, "extras" who serve the same purpose as the background characters in a movie, etc.), everything could represent a part of us. I believe that this idea is stretched ad absurdum by some theorists (as in the case of a friend who insisted that the hospital bed did symbolize something); to analyze every detail in a dream is to become bogged in trivia. However, we benefit from viewing pertinent elements as our psychological components which we have projected into the dreamscape: the main character, the characters with whom we interact, and the objects which attract our attention (e.g., an exploding bomb, a tree which we are climbing, etc.). With qualifications, we might agree with Carl Jung, who said, "The dream is a theater in which the dreamer is the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic. ... all the figures in the dream are personified features of the dreamer's own personality." Dreams reveal parts of ourselves which have been slighted. Those parts have been disowned, ignored, inadvertently bypassed, or inadequately expressed by the wakeful, conscious mind. Dreaming presents these aspects of us specifically because they need to be re-integrated. (In one sense, the dream is our "conscience").

Symbolism is the natural language of the unconscious mind. Although Freud said that the unconscious mind uses symbols in order to deceive the conscious mind, perhaps the unconscious mind is communicating as clearly as it can, with its natural "language"; this language is no more of a subterfuge than is the French language to an American who travels to France and then is bewildered by the incomprehensible conversations there. As Jung said, "The dream does not conceal; we simply do not understand the language." The unconscious mind's vocabulary includes visual images (static or active), other sensory impressions, feelings, and dramatic experiences. Symbolism is also a part of our language during wakefulness. Symbolism, simile, and metaphor exist not only in the self-conscious creations of the poet, painter, dancer, or other artist, but in our common conversations: for example, "That car is a lemon" or "He is a bear before he drinks his morning coffee." Our thoughts themselves are symbols of the objects which are being pondered. Entire discussions can be symbolic; e.g., an argument about household duties might represent a conflict regarding the people's commitment to the family unit. (To learn more about symbolism, we can read poetry, mythology, and books about the writing of poetry.) Our human life is symbolic. We view our entire lives symbolically; e.g., a job promotion symbolizes "success," and home ownership represents "security." When we see a church, we think of God; in that sense, it is a symbol. A certain perfume might symbolize "love" if it was previously worn by someone we adore. Merchants use logos as symbols of their business. Certain traffic signs use symbols instead of words. The human body is also a symbol -- of our Self. If we look at the symbols in every element of our wakeful life, we might be more adept at interpreting the symbols of our dreams.

Symbols have a personalized meaning to us. Dreams might be considered a universal language because they often use the same symbols which exist in the dreams and mythologies of every culture; however, dreams are also a personal language in which our unconscious mind generates symbols which eloquently and elegantly portray our individual state, particularly our unique emotional reactions to a given aspect of life. An example of this individualized meaning is in a dream about a plane crash; this could represent a warning to a high-flying stock-market speculator, or an encouraging sign that a foe is going to "crash and burn" -- or it might be a literal precognitive message for a pilot who needs to be more careful in maintaining his aircraft. Because our symbolism is personalized, we should never yield to anyone who insists that our dreams have a particular meaning; we are the experts on our dreams. Dream dictionaries have limited value. Because symbols are personal, we cannot rely on dream dictionaries, which present a list of dream elements and the meanings which are traditionally assigned to each one. Our unconscious mind is so creative in assigning symbols to our psychological processes that the interpretation cannot be reduced to the simplistic formulas which are offered in dream dictionaries. However, these books are not worthless; certain symbols might tend to have the same meanings among dreamers, particularly within a given culture where we share the same symbols of wakeful life. (Also, archetypal symbols are common to all of humanity.) Dream dictionaries can suggest the possible meaning of a symbol -- but this should be only a starting-point, from which we must seek a personal meaning. We can make our own dream dictionary. As we interpret our dreams, we might make a list of the symbols and their meaning in each dream. Those symbols might include the people, activities, settings, and other elements of a dream. In this way, we create a dictionary which is derived from our own unconscious mind's symbolism. This will be particularly useful when we encounter recurring elements; e.g., the blonde woman who has appeared in several dreams. However, even a homemade dictionary is not infallible; the unconscious mind might use the same symbol to represent different things in different dreams. Conversely, the same psychological component might be represented by different symbols; if we alter our attitude about a dreamed topic, we will require a new image to express the new underlying dynamic. (That is called "symbol evolution.")

We can expand our possibilities in interpretation.

1. Don't limit yourself to one school of interpretation. Because of the many types of dreams, and messages within dreams, we should feel free to use ideas and techniques from every school -- Jungian, Freudian, Gestalt, etc., as well as the various types of dreamwork. Each dream might require a different approach in order to reap its value. Jung said that every dream should invite us to create a "totally new theory of dreams."

2. Don't limit yourself to one interpretation. If we interpret a dream more than once, we are likely to find different meanings. This probably occurs because the same psychological tendencies are likely to manifest in various ways; for example, if one interpretation says that we need to be more patient with our children, another interpretation might suggest that we should be patient with our projects at work, or that we need to "stop and smell the roses" with regard to our life in general, or that our body is being damaged by the stress. We can learn more from our dreams if we seek multiple meanings. Jung said that the "correct" interpretation is one which seems reasonable and usable. During one interpretation, my inner child said, "This whole dream could be interpreted on a deeper level, but this interpretation is valid. Don't worry about getting things on the deepest level; just accept things at whatever level is comfortable for you. Your life can work on any one of a number of levels. All levels are good."

3. Don't limit yourself to one dream. Dreams are not isolated from one another; they repeat previous themes (perhaps in different contexts and symbolism), and they present an update on a changing situation (using symbols which have evolved to represent the changes), and they continue a story-line from one dream to the next (as if each dream were a chapter in a book). In our dream journal, we can find correlations among dreams, particularly those which occurred during the same sleep-period. (Some themes might recur during a course of years.) As we study our previous dreams, we can gain insight into a dream which we are currently trying to interpret. Jung placed little value on the interpretation of individual dreams; he felt that they could be understood only as part of a series.

4. Don't accept an interpretation at face value. Although this book frequently ascribes wisdom to the unconscious mind, the purpose of the conscious mind is to challenge that "wisdom" in the context of the facts and proprieties of wakeful life. When we receive a message from the unconscious mind, we need to accept it as only a suggestion and then discern whether its application would be sensible and productive. If a message seems ridiculous, we should try to find a different interpretation which is useful.

5. Don't assume that the dream is being straight-forward. Some dreams are expressing the opposite of what they seem to be saying; this could be because of our misinterpretation or because the Freudian "censor" has been successful in masking the real meaning of the dream. Other dreams are simply "not what they seem." In one dream, I was on a stage, and I felt nervous because I was being watched by a man in the audience. If I had accepted a superficial interpretation of the dream, I might have assumed that I needed to perform correctly for that important person. However, my inner child said, "You are strong when you are no one's actor. That's the secret: It's a phony situation set up to test you. You pass the test if you throw the script into his face."Don't be confused by "run-on dreams." Sometimes one dream leads directly into another; the second dream might even retain certain elements from the first. When an interpretation becomes too complicated, consider the possibility that you are trying to understand two separate dreams as if they were one.

6. Don't give up on the attempt to interpret a dream. When the meaning does not become apparent to us, we can set a dream aside. More ideas about the possible meaning might occur to us later in the day; both Jung and Freud said that some of their own dreams were not understandable until years later. We might be able to comprehend the dream after we have had time to ponder it, or after we have interpreted other dreams which help us to decipher this one, or after a wakeful event reveals that this was a precognitive dream, or after we have gained enough insight into our wakeful life and psychological dynamics that we can recognize the forces which were expressing themselves in the dream.

Copyright © 2002
Spiritual Awakening Network is a registered trademark
Spiritual Awakening Network/All rights reserved








Workshops 2





Site Map