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Dream Series: How to Interpret a Dream Image

or Keeping the Dream Alive…
What does it mean to dream that I am falling off a cliff? Or that I am back in high school and I haven’t done my homework? Or that a wild animal is talking to me? Are these just bits and fragments from my day put into weird scenarios or is there really meaning to a dream? If you have read my previous blog (Do Dreams Matter?), you already know that I believe these are not random scenes for your nighttime entertainment. But how does one make meaning of these odd stories and images? How do you know if you are interpreting your dream accurately? My primary piece of advice is to stay away from books that tell you what a dream image means. Instead, first explore your own ideas and personal experiences surrounding the images in a dream. For it is in the exploration of the dream image that the value lives. Not in the defining of the symbol.

Dreams speak in symbols, more than in signs. Jung differentiated between signs and symbols in this way: A sign communicates something specific; its meaning is fixed. For example, a red octagon on the side of the road printed with the letters S-T-O-P is a communication to stop your car, look and proceed when clear. But a symbol is something more dynamic and living. It can’t be reduced to one thing nor be precisely defined. Just as you cannot exhaust the question “who am I”, neither can you conclude the meaning of a symbol. And if you did decide you “know” the meaning of a symbol, the symbol would no longer serve as a symbol, but would become a sign – stagnant, no longer offering creative dialogue between you and the unconscious. This is the danger in relying on books to tell you what a dream image means, creating a dead end. I value a “symbolic attitude” in dreamwork, where there emphasis is in developing an ongoing relationship between dreamer and dream. I have found that, in this way, I can reflect on dreams from years ago and discover something new and relevant.

How to approach a dream image with a symbolic attitude.

First, approach dreamwork as a process, a journey, not a goal oriented activity with an answer at the end. Next, trust that you are the best person to interpret your dreams, not a book. Then, relax and let your thoughts quite. It can help to focus on the gentle flow of your breath. As your mind settles, bring an image from a dream into your awareness. Notice what you “see” and feel. Then reflect: when you think of this image, what come to mind? ideas, reactions, memories, notions, feelings, associations? Let them appear, then go back to the image and see what else comes. For example, if I reflect on a dream image of a bowl of chili, I have a few associations. First, I think of the smell of chili cooking on the stove with visits to my grandmother’s house. She made it as a special treat for me, because she knew I loved it. Next, I remember a sense of independence I felt when, also in my childhood, I would “cook” myself a bowl of canned Dennison’s Chili con Carne. And so on. Next, notice your reactions to the various associations. Look for something that gives has an emotional punch or seems to click in you. This is a likely indication that you are close to something personally meaningful. If an association seems to click, ask yourself “How is this theme/memory/feeling relevant in my current life?” In my example, the memory of my grandmother’s chili might be indicating something about a current desire to feel special or nurtured whereas if the second association has more energy for me, I might think about the role of independence in my life.

But what if I have no associations to a dream?

The task of dream interpretation is much larger and more complex than this short instruction. This is meant as a guide to get you interested and started in this fascinating and perplexing journey. Come back to this site to learn more about how to I have developed creative processes to guide me – such as art and movement. If you are interested in learning more, consider working with a Jungian Therapist.

If you’d like to read some, I recommend the following:

Inner Work by Robert Johnson

Jungian Dream Interpretation by James Hall

To find these and more, click here:
Books on Dreamwork

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