Dream Interpretation Options

September 19, 2007

Everyone dreams, it is said. Some of us remember our dreams and some do not, but it seems that they are happening whether or not they are recalled. For those of us who do remember them the question often arises, “What does this mean”? This is a follow up to the earlier post, “The Logic of Dreams”. I hope to go a little deeper into the subject here and probably will return again at a later time to expand and deepen even more.

There are a variety of ways to understand the content of dreams including the contributions of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung who both understood dreaming as an interaction of the conscious and unconscious. Each developed a way of interpreting the objects that arise in dreams as personal symbols- Jung added to this the concept of collective symbols as well. Although Jung theorized that persons that arose in the dream represented some aspect of the dreamer, this was taken further by Fritz Perls who suggested every object in the dream can be seen in this way. Wikipedia has a good article on this if you want to pursue it further.

The distinction I want to emphasize here is that there are various ways to address the content of dreams and that, while all will be beneficial in their own way, those differences can greatly affect the meaning one derives from the dream. The most common method of dream interpretation is to use some system of symbol interpretation. In this method one might have a dream, remember some objects from the dream and their actions, look up the meaning of those objects in a book or other source, and apply those symbolic meanings to their experience in the dream. The meaning is derived from applying the meaning system to the dream object. This will have some validity in so far as the objects have universal significance, and this may be useful for the dreamer. This method can be used within the Freudian, Jungian, Perlsian, and other frameworks.

Another method of dream interpretation is to treat each object in the dream as a living, knowing being that can interact and communicate in the context of the dream and afterward. For this to take place one must suspend the inclination to label the dream object or its actions with a meaning and allow the dream object to interact with you as though they were another person in ordinary life. This is a process that uses the imagination- imagery- as a predominant way of knowing. The rational processing we would ordinarily use- thinking, rational logic- and our usual expectations must be suspended to allow this process to unfold. The rational can be used afterward as an additional, often supporting, form of knowing. Use of the rational before the use of the imagination is usually too dominating to allow the use of imagery as a later action. This process is described in more detail here.

Related to this is lucid dreaming– the process in which one is aware being in the dream state while the dream is happening. In this state it is possible to not just interact with the dream objects, but also to control the flow and outcome of the dream. This is described in the Dream Yoga of Tibetan Buddhist and Bon traditions and is an integral part of those traditions. The book, “The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep”, by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a good source for this- recordings are also available here.

Anyone care to comment on your experience with understanding dreams?

The Logic of Dreams

November 30, 2006

Much of the content of the posts and comments here so far has referred to the use of the imagination for personal growth and healing. So as to encourage a broader discussion, it should be mentioned that becoming aware of the role of imagination should not only not limited to an application in psychotherapy but it has an important role in knowing. As mentioned in a previous post (Role of Imagination, November 9, 2006), Carl Jung posited four functions of consciousness: thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting. Knowing through all these functions are a given. However, it is clear that we emphasize some functions over others creating an imbalance in the way we know ourselves and the world around us. Over-reliance on one over another of the ways of knowing will skew a view of the observed toward the method used to observe. This leads to a self-reinforcing loop that can have a profound effect on what we know about ourselves and the world and what kind of choices we make. For example, to use thinking as a predominant way of knowing will tend to filter information that does not fit into the logical system of thinking/rationality. This would tend to leave out feelings, emotions, and intuitions and useful information and would influence a formulation of what is observed.
Knowing ourselves is really the most important issue here. Most people know that dreams have some information that can serve as a way to know one’s self more deeply, shed light on an issue or problem one is facing, help to connect us to parts of ourselves that are usually out the range of our awareness. Dreams are a form of imagination. One way to try to understand dreams is to seek out standard interpretations to be applied to objects that appear. This method may have some validity if the interpretations are based on what analysis of many, many, dreams had by many, many people. But even then the interpretation cannot take into account the personal experiences and images of any single dreamer.
More to the point, the interpretation of dreams should take place through the same logical system in which the dream exists. Dreams can be best understood by using the imagination as a way of knowing. For example, we can dialogue with images that arise in dreams, even after we awaken from the dream, in order to better understand something about the dream. The use of intellectual analysis of a dream as an initial intervention will distort the information available toward the logical system of the intellect, thinking, unless it is used after further knowledge is gained through the use of the imagination.