The Basics on How to Interpret Your Dreams

articles Mar 13, 2020

"What do my dreams mean?" It is a question that has enamored humans since very ancient times. In times past, a medicine man or woman in a village or tribe, a person elected to care for the tribe's link to the otherworld, would hear and interpret the meaning of dreams. The mystical and metaphoric nature of dreams invites us to question them for deeper meaning. Unfortunately, in our modern times, we usually have no such person. Yet our fascination with the mystery of our dreams remains.

Dream dictionaries continue to be popular, laden with hundreds or thousands of symbol interpretations. Are these dictionaries accurate, or are we grabbing at mist? Can someone else outside the dreamer himself provide top dream meanings? As we will see, the interpretation of dreams is a mostly experimental and creative venture. However, by exploring the science of dreams, dream-recall techniques, and some standard and respected interpretation methods, perhaps we will shed some light on our sleep-induced escapades.

What are Dreams, and Why do we Have Them?

A dream is "a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep." (1)  Each night, under normal conditions, we go through a predictable cycle of several sleep states. It is well known scientifically that the majority and most memorable of dreams occur during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep cycle. We also know that while not everyone remembers their dreams regularly, everyone does dream.  

Though scientists have studied sleep extensively, it is still a topic shrouded in mystery, eluding clear understanding. The predominant views held in the scientific community are that dreams either facilitate the process of selectively turning short-term memories into long-term memories or in processing sensory input received during waking hours. That dreams help process the content of our daily lives is evident to most people, as coworkers, family members, and even celebrities appear in our sleep-scenery.  

Many people, however, sense that dreams mean something more and are intrinsically related to our soul's longings and our spiritual quest in life. Dream interpretation involves a willingness to consider widely available dream interpretations while also listening to our dreams to find the meaning unique to our psyche.

Dream Interpretation Basics

Recognize Metaphors

A simple Google search will reveal the myriad of dream dictionaries available. In such sources, alphabetical lists of objects, places, and characters are standardized with basic interpretations. The problem is that while specific icons and images hold archetypal meaning the collective unconscious, you must also consider the unique associations you bring to the table.  

Toko-Pa Turner, a mystic, author, and dream-worker explains the deeply metaphorical and individual nature of dreams, 

"...(dreams) are chiefly made up of metaphor. Metaphor is essentially mysterious and is already the subject of a library full of books; how it is considered a therapeutic gateway; how it facilitates intelligence by drawing relationships between things; how it is the philosopher's stone of poetry and literature – but perhaps most intriguing is how metaphor is the mother-tongue of the soul." (2)

You probably already recognize that not everything in your dream can be taken literally. One night you are flying over unknown lands, another night, you are naked in public, and in another scene, you find yourself giving birth to a cat. Stranger dreams than these are common. We know that the cat, the pregnancy, the nudity, etc., are meant to be symbolic messengers.

Turner suggests, rather than trying to dissect and find an exact interpretation of a dream, that we instead court our dreams, treating them as a precious form of soul communication, ripe with meaning and gifts. She reflects on being taught that courtship means "to sit next to someone and discover what they love." By treating our dreams as metaphorical expressions of inner desire, we can enter into a relationship with our deep psyche. She says, "Suddenly I could see that approaching the holy in our dreams wasn't at all about getting what we want, but about discovering how we can be of service to that which we love."

When looking at your dreams, therefore, widely distributed interpretations can serve as a starting point, but perhaps we can dig deeper. We can begin to ask questions such as: 

  • What is my association with this person or thing?  
  • What desire is being expressed or explored in my dream?
  • If this dream were a person, what would it desire?

Work with Your Shadow Self 

Both Freudian and Jungian dream analyses understand that dreams play out the content of the psyche. Deep within the mind dwells the shadow self who finds our dreams to be the perfect place to show itself. Many times our nightmares, though rather unpleasant, can reveal a wealth of knowledge about the fragmented parts of ourselves.

Turner describes, 

"One of the central tenets of dreamwork is to learn how to become curious about, and eventually hospitable towards, the scary, repulsive, ambiguous figures that appear in our dreams. These "dark guests" are what Jung called the Shadow.

Whether through personal, cultural, or ancestral forms of exile, we all become distanced from the parts of ourselves that are devalued, discouraged, or disregarded. Eventually, those rejected parts become strangers, even to us. I call these the refugee aspects of the self because they are marginalized, disenfranchised, and exiled from belonging. They are, in a sense, living on the fringes of our consciousness. They seek to re-belong themselves with us our whole lives, and the first place they show up is in violent, disturbing, or sad dreams." (3)

Believe it or not, your nightmares can be some of your most profound dreams if you learn how to face and appreciate them.  

Make a Habit of Dream Journaling

To get the rich meaning that is possible from your dreams, you'll need to start by remembering them. Many people claim they don't dream, but this is inaccurate. Many people do not remember their dreams very often, but with practice, almost anyone can retain some memory. Dream journaling is perhaps the most effective way to so.

To start a dream journal, keep a pen and paper beside your bed, where you can reach it easily. If you wake up during the night, remembering even a fragment of a dream, record it immediately. Likewise, write down anything you can remember about your dream as soon as you awake in the morning. You may remember only a vague feeling, color, or impression. It may only be one scene or image. Whatever little bits you remember, record them. If you have a morning where you remember nothing, write down 'recalled no dreams' next to the date — the critical point it to form a habit to aid in dream recall.

After rereading the dream you've recorded, consider giving it a title-another tip recommended by Turner. By providing your dream a name, you can automatically begin to unveil some of its underlying meaning. 

Common Dream Symbols

Though we've discovered some of the possible pitfalls of generic dream symbol meanings, these interpretations can provide a starting point. When attempting to interpret your dreams, you can compare your own experiences and associations against these top dream meanings.

  1. Falling or Drowning: These dreams can relate to a feeling of losing control in your life. Falling or drowning may also be metaphors for feeling incompetent in some areas of your life. To find out what it means for you specifically, consider how you felt in the dream, what you were falling off of, or into and any other details occurring in the dream. 
  2. Nudity:  In general, clothing may relate to our identities or the masks we wear in our outer lives. To dream of being naked could speak to a feeling of vulnerability or of being exposed. Whether this carries a positive or negative connotation will depend on where you are in the dream when you are undressed, how you feel in the dream, or how others may react. Perhaps the nudity may symbolize freeing yourself from identity constraints and revealing your inner self. 
  3. Being Chased:  Being chased in a dream may indicate you are avoiding facing something or maybe a sign of underlying fear and anxiety. To interpret this symbol, you need to know what or who it is that is chasing you. Are you being pursued by an aspect of yourself that you've been unwilling to face?
  4. Death: Though dreams about death can be quite unsettling, they rarely prove to be about literal death. Dying in your dream could be calling your attention to an aspect of your life that needs transformation. Meeting an untimely end may also signal a part of yourself that you are releasing. Consider the other elements of the dream and how you felt in the dream.
  5. Sexual Dreams:  Experiencing or witnessing a sexual encounter or feeling in your dream can mean several things. Perhaps you lack intimacy and affection in your life and are thus playing it out in dream-time. The individual with whom the sexual encounter happens may reveal a desire to take on aspects of that person or may highlight issues between the two of you that are similar.  

The Takeaway

"What do my dreams mean?" is a question we've all pondered. While we can refer to dream dictionaries and experts, the only real expert on the content of your mind is you. Carrying out a solid dream recall practice by journaling what you remember from your previous night of sleep and then titling those dreams is the first and most significant step to take. Once you have your content written down, consider dream dictionaries but put more focus on your associations and interpretations of your dreams. Take care to remember that your shadow may make a meaningful appearance as well.

Above all else, be open to the messages your dreams may have for you, as a more profound understanding for yourself could be right on the other side of your pillow.  


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