Minding the Meaning of Dreams
Dreams are like the mind’s own movies. Some are horror flicks, some are mysteries, some are snippets of disconnected documentaries. Others are downright comedies, full of mischief, fun, and utter absurdity. Contrary to the laws of nature, pigs do fly in dreams, and so do people. The usual rules of sense and nonsense rarely apply. Metaphors and puns run rampant.
Awareness in a dream is often vague and shifting. Sometimes we are only an observer, able to view everything that is going on, but unable to take an active part. At other times, we play the main role, or that of someone close to the center of the action. Occasionally, consciousness becomes as clear as in waking life. We may realize that we are dreaming, but our senses are fully alert and we can choose what we want to do. Researchers refer to this as lucid dreaming.
The meaning of dreams is both universal and personal. Dream dictionaries abound, offering authoritative interpretation of thousands of figures, symbols, objects, and events. However, the story of a person’s own life is the defining context for whether a threatening rattlesnake represents one’s treacherous supervisor, or embodies a caution about integrating intense spiritual experiences.
Occasionally, dreams can take on a quality that is more akin to visions. These are special events that tend to transcend our understanding of mind and time. For example, studies have found that 50 to 75 percent of those who have lost a loved one report having a very vivid dream in which the person returns briefly to offer reassurance and comfort. The experience usually helps bring peace and healing. Whether or not it is “real” by our rules of reality seems unimportant.
Many people say that they rarely have dreams or cannot remember them after awakening. Dreams do tend to fade rapidly as we return to the waking world. But almost everyone has them. Their recall can be strengthened by a strategy of attitude, attention, and action.
Attitude Empirical, hard-nosed realists often dismiss dreams as physiological phenomena that have little or no importance. To seers and psychotherapists, though, they offer a key to wisdom and self-knowledge. Treating dreams with respect seems to further the frequency and richness of their visits. Put out a welcome mat by mentally inviting a dream before going to sleep.
Attention Lucid dreams have a special quality of clearness. But even ordinary dreams can become more meaningful by practicing systematic attending. Strive to pay attention to feelings, faces, setting, sounds, colors, smells. Some dreamers use personal cues to trigger awareness within a dream, such as noticing their own hands, then examining the rest of themselves and their surroundings. Listen closely to what is said, even if it is a rock speaking.
Action Upon awakening, jot down a few words to keep the dream impressions from slipping away out of awareness. Tell the dream as soon as you can, or take the time to write it out fully. Even a little digital recorder will serve the purpose. Draw it, if you like. Relive the dream by closing your eyes and narrating it in the present tense: “I am walking down a long, dark hall. I see a doorway that opens onto some stairs. I am curious, but wary. It smells musty and old…” Imagine yourself as a part of the dream and speak for it: “I am an old door. My hinges are too rusty to move any more. I don’t like people bothering me…” Let yourself free-associate with the images in the dream; brainstorm whatever words, memories, thoughts, ideas, or feelings come up. Allow your heart’s imagination the freedom to ferry fears and wisdom from the depths of the self out into the sunlight of our seeing.
A good movie is worth viewing wholeheartedly. Approaching our own inner productions with respect, attentiveness, and reflection can deepen the meaning of the journey and fortify the faith it takes to get there.