Wondering about dreams: finding clarity in the murkiness

Dreams can feel rather mystical. What do they mean? Are they trying to tell us something? What’s it saying about me? If we come from a religious background, perhaps we might be wondering whether God - or some darker power - is at work.

I suspect their mystique is found in their metaphorical and murky nature. They deny us any obvious or even single interpretation and they are filled with often quite intense emotion. However, I find that if we can descend into the murky depths of dreams for a while, tolerate their ambiguity, wander around in them, we can often climb back up into our everyday lives with greater clarity.

So how can we think about dreams? How can we start to interpret them? Here’s my approach (for my own dreams and my clients’).

1. Dreams represent data

I remember hearing that someone left a business deal because they realised, from a dream, that they were experiencing the other party as untrustworthy. They hadn’t consciously realised this. It only became evident from a dream they had. We might say this is foolish - like our dreams are likely to be fallible. Why should we trust our dreams in this way?

The idea here is that our senses and intuition are constantly bombarded with far more data than we can consciously process. This means that we can know far more than we think, and this knowledge can be represented symbolically in our dreams. They become something like stories of our intuition. The benefit of becoming aware of this extra data is that it can help us respond to our environment (relationships, stressors, changes) in a way that is more accurate to how they are.

2. Dreams represent the unconscious

One vivid and distressing dream I had was about a person dressed in black capturing me, shoving me in the boot of a car and driving away. I felt they were going to kill me but we ended up striking a bargain whereby they needed me alive. After wondering about the dream for a while, I realised how this echoed a deep, unacknowledged feeling - that I felt a lot of shame about - around certain relationships.

If the previous point was about things out of our awareness in our environment, this is about things going on out of our awareness within us. Right from psychoanalysis’ founder, Freud, dreams have been seen as gateways to the unconscious. These might be about interpersonal conflicts, repressed emotion, or denied parts of us. Dreams symbolise these in their own characters, narratives or emotion.

The benefit of recognising these is the idea of integration: the experience that all the different parts of us - experiences and potentials - can be acknowledged and find their place in our everyday life, rather than ‘coming out sideways’ as a friend of mine likes to say. It also lets us make more conscious choices about how we want to act or respond.

For me, recognising this experience in certain relationships gave me compassion for that part of me and power to choose whether I wanted to keep others take the driving seat of responsibility while I tried to negotiate things from the back.

3. Dreams represent confrontations

There is a long history of seeing dreams as coming from God. I think dreams act a bit like this (whether we believe in God as the source or not): like some higher, wiser being is pulling us into some more fundamental or vital knowledge that we would otherwise skip past.

Perhaps a dream forces us to confront a feeling of meaninglessness for us or the question: ‘Why am I?’. ‘What am I doing?’, ‘Is this the right path I’m on?’, or ‘What is mine to do?’. Perhaps a dream pulls us into confronting a fear of death that is driving our life but we don’t know it. Perhaps they confront us with a conflict we aren’t facing up to to. These are questions, conflicts and feelings we might prefer to move past, or simply skip over if we’re left to our everyday business, but they are fundamental fears that need addressing if we’re going to live meaningful, connected lives of integrity and freedom.

4. Dreams need wondering about

So how do we interpret the dreams we have? How do we know what they are telling us? There is a caution here. As I said before: they are ambiguous and murky things. I don’t buy into the idea that there is one clear truth the dream is trying to tell us. Or, even if there is, that we will get to it. As Joseph the famous biblical dreamer said, 'Do not interpretations belong to God?’ (Genesis 40:8, ESV).

For me, the most significant thing about a dream is not the message it is giving us, but the invitation (perhaps quite forcefully!) to wonder about our life. In wondering, in descending into the murky waters of the dream, we can ascend again with greater clarity and integrity.

  • What might be going on in my life that echoes the crux or key conflicts and emotions of the dream? Where do I feel like this?

  • What questions or realities are pictured in the dream that I might be skipping past?

  • How is each character representing a part of me? How might they echo my experience of the relationships I’m in?

  • What might the dream be confronting me with that I’ve been too afraid, ashamed or busy to address but that really need attention?

These are personal questions best answered in a personal way. Some ‘dream expert’ giving their interpretation is often no good if it makes no sense to us. Such an interpretation is likely to miss a lot and misunderstand a lot. And, even if - as we therapist’s ego can prefer to think - it is the case that someone is just not ready for an accurate interpretation, for that very reason it will be unhelpful (if not harmful).

No, the best way to approach dreams is to personally wonder about them and then see what rings true in us. You’ll notice when this happens. It’s like your whole body goes (usually with excitement or disappointment), ‘Aha!’ or ‘Oh, that feels right.’ Only these moment of personal clarity will actually make a positive difference to our lies.

One way to do this is to do some mental ‘wandering’ around your dream, noticing things again. You can do this through journaling:

  1. Write down in the first person present tense the narrative of the dream. ‘I’m here, there’s ….. around me, I feel …., I can see ….., then this happens, I think this, I’m trying to do this ….’

  2. Try to summarise the dream’s main emotion or narrative or struggle. Does this echo part of your everyday life?

  3. Then you can take each character and reflect on how they might represent different parts of us (or different relationships we’re in). This can be a great way to have empathy for the different parts of us, the different emotions and experiences we might be having, see what they are feeling or trying to do for us. This can be particularly hard when there is a character you dislike - but also more rewarding.

Try not to have a preconceived idea of what the dream is about here. Let the wandering around be aimless: you’ll notice new things as a result.

Another way of doing the wondering is with someone else. As we retell the dream to them, they can offer their responses, what comes to mind for them, what they might wonder about - but this is all done tentatively. Equally, they might simply reflect back to you the dream as you tell it so that you get a chance to hear it again and reflect on it for yourself.

This can be very powerful, not least because it can take away the sting of shame we often associate with our dreams; a shame that may stop us from really getting to some of the more difficult things they might be about. If someone else can attribute neither mystique (‘Who knows what dreams mean!’) nor embarrassment (‘Wow, you dreamt that?!’), but can sit with the dream and the dreamer, ponder them, give them their attention and empathy, then we can learn to do the same. And then, instead of dismissing, laughing about, or secretly being embarrassed about our dreams, we can start to listen to the knowledge, wisdom, memory and energy they contain. And perhaps even suspect the voice of God.

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