Interpreting Dreams

This morning I dreamed of a wiry man singing an Irish love song … and fish. I got up and wrote it down in my journal because in the writing I often see useful truth.

Dreams mean things. They are coded messages. When they hang around in our memory, when they awaken us with sudden bursts of feeling, when there is a natural pause in their structure at our awaking, they are notes on scraps of paper from a subconscious that has little other avenue of communication with our conscious. So I listen and I think about them.

Memorable dreams usually have meaning on three levels. On the first level, we are all the characters in the dream, with aspects of ourselves personified by others and a meaning intended purely for our personal development. On the second level, the characters represent forces or people in our immediate circle and things we have noticed about our interactions with meanings meant to inform us in our interactions with them. On the third level, they represent truths about the larger world and help us understand the forces at play there. One of those levels will usually strike us in a given dream as the primary message we are intended to receive.

Deciphering a dream can be a challenging process if we are not practiced thinking in metaphors. A picture IS worth a thousand words, and the best metaphors are conveyed through images, and especially images in motion. The most deeply-layered doctrinal teaching in Christian scripture is the Revelation given to John and in Judeo-Christian teachings is the story of the Garden of Eden, and these were related as a series of visual metaphors. Far eastern traditions are even more rich in visual metaphor. As with all metaphor, the images have to be translated to ideas rather than perceived as a meaningful story in and of themselves to clarify the message.

Here is one process (code-breaking) for interpreting the visual metaphors of our dreams. Write the “story” as the images unfold, with each meaningful idea (noun, adjective, verb, adverb) on a single line so that the dream unfolds as you read downward. Then begin deciphering the individual ideas, writing a metaphoric “definition” on the same line. How one feels in a dream and how others feel are as much a part of the interpretation as are the other images or actions and should be included in the interpretation. If you struggle interpreting the similes use an online dream dictionary for ideas (be sure to find one that parallels your own spiritual system.) Be “mindful” also of the plays on words that sometimes take shape; it’s not uncommon to have a colloquialism played out in action. I’ve dreamed of walking “over the hill”  or someone “twisting my arm.”

Then read the dream again, reading only the definitions one after another as if they are the action and images, leaving for the moment the images that your subconscious presented to you. Go back and read it again, refining definitions that don’t “feel right” as the meaning begins to take shape into a series of ideas. Pause and think about your life, what is weighing on you, and let the meaning settle in. Think about what the people in your dream represent to you, what traits they have that stand out to you, and those are probably the traits within you that your subconscious is referencing or the situations that your dream is highlighting. Be careful not to think too literally, sticking to ideas and not assuming that the people are there for any reason other than a reference. Because of this, it is nearly impossible for someone else to interpret your dream for you. Only you or someone who knows you well will be aware of all these nuances of meaning.

I write important dreams down in my journals because I find that they hold truths for me long after the incidents are past and can often be reinterpreted down the line to shine added light on my life. Dreams are highlighted as important by the impact they make on us and how they hang around for long minutes after we awaken but the details will fade quickly so it’s most helpful to write down the dream immediately after waking. I have also found that some of my worst nightmares were not about impending doom but a warning or enlightenment and have been a great benefit, bringing me great peace once they were interpreted. The intensity of feeling was merely a red flag that the issues were important.

Conversely, some dreams don’t mean anything and are an attempt to make sense of our overburdened and chaotic minds. These fade quickly making little impact on us. We are also affected by our own life patterns (for instance, I discount most dreams that occur after I’ve eaten too late the night before – they are nonsense.)

A habit of converting images to ideas and interpreting them makes much of life more sensible to us, from literature to social movements to history to behavioral action (our own and others’). A dream journal can be a useful tool to enlarge the capacity of our mind.