Beyond Our Wildest Dreams
How our sleeping adventures can help us understand our waking life.
Earlier this week I woke with a start, my heart pounding, my fingers clinging onto the bed as if my life depended on it. No, this wasn’t an experimental Valentines Day evening gone awry, but simply the breathy aftermath of a particularly visceral bad dream.
I won’t detail it here, as there’s nothing more wearisome than the non-sensical monologue that follows the phrase “hey, I had the weirdest dream last night…”. It might be coming from a friend you really care for, yet suddenly they’re recounting an overnight stay in Buckingham Palace with their dad who’s speaking Spanish to a cat with no teeth who turns out to be a nightclub owner …and on and on and on it goes.
You love your friend, but you’ll never get that time back.
I’m not saying dreams aren’t important, in fact I’m about to argue the contrary. But just for conversational decency, perhaps the excruciating minutiae of those unconscious screenplays are best kept between self and therapist.
We use the term ‘bad dream’ as the unpleasant feelings residing in that post-slumber hangover rarely feel good. However, even dreams that seem distressing may hold important pieces of information delivered through the unconscious. There are different schools of thought around how and why this happens, with research ranging from scientific to spiritual. (But no, it’s not because you ate too much cheese). It can be a divisive topic, as many will balk at the intangible nature of the sleeping imagination. To some, the subject of dream analysis belongs in the same pot of ‘woo-woo’ as horoscopes and birth charts. However, certain fields of psychotherapy consider dreams to be useful not only as an indicator of a person’s inner turmoil, but also as an effective visualisation tool to work through with clients. Especially those who struggle to express needs, or may have emotionally or sensorially detached from themselves.
According to psychotherapist Carl Jung, dreams offer ‘a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul’. Having had to study dream theory over the past 3 years of my training, I was surprised to experience first hand just how revealing dream interpretation can be for identifying suppressed needs or emotions.
The mad scenes depicted in our private night-time screenings may seem non-sensical and random. But only if we take them literally. If we subscribe to Jung’s theory that dreams are the bridge between our inner and outer worlds, then our unconscious is communicating through a series of symbols, whereby each aspect, person or environment in a dream represents a different part of our soul nature or soul journey.
Despite common misconceptions, we do all dream every night, whether we remember it or not. For individuals who are extremely detached from emotion, their clever psyche may immediately erase the memory, disposing of it in the bin along with everything else marked ‘Not to be dealt with. Thanks. Bye’.
Transpersonal schools of psychotherapy propose that the unconscious will only bring forth what it knows we can handle, so in cases of acute pain or trauma, material may well stay buried until the person is ready to process it. As a basic example, in the 10 years without my mum, she’s almost exclusively appeared in my dreams as a mean or cruel figure, which she wasn’t in life. Only once, extremely recently did she appear as I actually remember her, because I was finally more equipped to deal with the feelings of grief that I’d previously suppressed.
That’s the thing about the unconscious - although it may give you some time in respect to your ‘process’, that sh*t doesn’t go away. And in cases where you have a similar theme or scenario occur time and again, it may well be there’s something your unconscious is urging you to address or bring your awareness to. (Mine has made me late for approximately 1092 maths classes since I left school. It never stops being stressful).
Although we may never be able to fully evidence what dreams are or how they manifest, the idea that they serve to offer guidance seems to me a helpful and harmless one, regardless of your beliefs. For example, to consider the symbology of what we see in our dreams, simply gives us pause to reflect on what those images mean or represent to us. It’s a personal meditation on what feelings were evoked, what key characteristics certain figures or entities embody to us, and the relevance that timely apparition may have to our current circumstance or mindset.
For those who are interested in the psycho-spiritual aspects of dream analysis, the transcultural and elemental interpretations of symbology can unlock much deeper investigation. For instance, large bodies of water may represent emotion. Houses often symbolise the self, a run-down house perhaps indicating a lack of self-care. School can signify life lessons (yes, I’m perpetually late for mine). Fire may be anger. Etc. Etc.
Dreams are, however, incredibly personal. Therefore, symbols should be interpreted individually. Representations specific to our soul nature, lived experience, or cultural background. Personal symbology may also change over time, depending on what we’re going through and what needs to be brought forth to consciousness at that time. Unless you’re Freud of course, in which case everything represents a penis. Always.
“No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it, and there is no definite or straightforward interpretation of any dream.” - Carl Jung
A great way to understand what your psyche is trying to tell you is to detail your dreams in writing. The very process of committing your dream to the page facilitates deeper reflection on the experience, and can ignite further insights into the meaningful interpretation. It’s important, when deciphering symbols, to connect with how you felt in the dream. Were you excited, fearful, angry, calm? Was there frustration or disappointment? What’s your relationship to these emotions in your outer world?
The fact that my recent inner-escapade left me clinging onto the bed in breath-snatching fear most likely signifies my fear of letting go of something, which if you read my last post, doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out!
If you do buy into the theory of dreams as a ‘doorway to the soul’, then they can serve as little puzzles in unlocking the Self. Personalised messages to you from …you. A nudge in the right direction. An unconscious cheerleading in the Hero’s Journey. If, however, you think that’s utter nonsense, and that dreams are simply randomised images borrowed from various rolls of your brain’s camera film over time, then they still offer opportunity as a rogue prompt, to reflect on where you are currently, and storyboard your own relevance, taking inspiration from what your brain decided to vomit up for your enjoyment. It’s not the dream that matters, it’s about bringing your awareness to your inner psyche.
So, next time you dream of Barack Obama on a unicycle launching goldfish at some school kids, don’t just dismiss it as dairy-induced lunacy. Write, reflect, connect.
By engaging with the unconscious, respecting whatever may be trying to emerge, we can start a process of better understanding who we truly are. Cutting through the distractions, defence-mechanisms and daily surface-surfing in our outer world, in order to heal what’s seeking peace in our inner world.
Now THAT, my friends, is living the dream.
Sleep well! 😴
The psyche hosts multiple parts of the Self, just as the body hosts a multitude of organs. The Self (as name suggests) is all about you, therefore each image/aspect brought forth in a dream represents a different part of you.
You don’t have to be particularly spiritual in order for dreams to be helpful. Use what comes up as a creative prompt to reflect on your own internal world and current emotional state. You don’t have to consider the two to be connected if that doesn’t work with your belief system.
Symbols can mean multiple things to multiple people. Before diving into a Google search of what certain things mean in dreams, take the time to consider what each representation symbolises to you personally.
Dream journalling can help you go deeper in investigating what your unconscious is trying to communicate. Write👏It👏 Down👏.
Adding More Weight
9 Common Dream Interpretations - (little reductive, but may whet your appetite to explore your own interpretations)
Dictionary of Symbols - extensive and fascinating (as a guide, not a diagnosis)
If all this is your vibe, you’ll love reading The Untethered Soul, by Michael Singer
Option to Go Deeper
What’s the last or most memorable dream you can remember?
Try and engage with the key themes, figures, and elements of the dream. How did you feel? How did the dream progress? Mind-map each significant part to note ideas on what each aspect may symbolise to you personally, drawing on your current state and previous life experience.
So! … I recently learned that the etymology of the word ‘nightmare’ is derived from the Old English (c.1300) belief that it was ‘an evil female spirit afflicting men (or horses) in their sleep with a feeling of suffocation’.
(🤦♀️ FFS. …And I thought the cheese thing was bad enough!)