Do you sometimes wonder what your dreams mean? Are they just random nonsense, as some people maintain, or might they offer some sort of reflection on your life? Especially the more bizarre dreams, like, why was I apparently driving my car backwards? Or that nightmare about being attacked by a dog? Or that strange talk with my Grandma who died five years ago? Are we just imagining things?
On top of normal dreaming, you may have had a number of dreams in the last year or so, triggered by the widespread anxiety about the threat of Covid-19. It lurks all around us, even in the air we breathe, an invisible enemy ready to invade wherever it finds low immunity. People all over the world have reported bizarre dreams of insects attacking, loved ones dying, falling ill alone, isolation, being hunted by killers… Whatever personal anxieties we already have get unduly exaggerated in these dreams, so we need to keep calm and think realistically about them, recognising their wider social source.
Dreaming is Natural
You may have heard that everyone dreams every night, mainly during the Rapid-Eye-Movement phases of the sleep cycle, but did you know that dream-sleep occupies about a quarter of our natural nightly eight-hour sleep, that is, totalling about one-twelfth of our lifetime? And that all mammals show evidence of dreaming? It’s part of our biological heritage, a requirement of the more complex mammalian brain to spend about a third of its regular cycle asleep, processing the day’s experience without new input, including short bursts of REM-sleep. So dreaming must be necessary to our existence, or evolution would surely have extinguished it long ago.
We know that our ancient ancestors dreamed, from the records they left on cave walls, clay tablets, stone tombs, parchments, usually about heroic deeds or guidance from the gods. In the ancient Greek temples of Asklepios, pilgrims travelled long-distance to seek healing, based on dreams they incubated in the underground sleeping chambers. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Artemidorus wrote an early encyclopaedia called the Oneirocritica, meaning “Interpretation of Dreams,” from which Freud took the title of his pioneering volume in 1899. Hippocrates and Galen, the Fathers of Western medicine, began their careers as practitioners in the Asklepian cult, with its use of dreams for guidance.
The Judaeo-Christian Scriptures are full of powerful dreams recorded by the Patriarchs and Prophets, who understood they were hearing and speaking the Voice of God, from Abraham in Genesis to John in Revelations. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed were all inspired by a series of dreams. Throughout history, the saints and leaders of the Christian Church have recorded dreams and visions that guided them, from Saul on the road to Damascus, to Martin Luther King in America – and even Barack Obama!
A Developing Science
The science of Dream Studies has developed enormously since Freud opened the way, although some of his observations on the nature of dreams are still valid. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, came after Freud, developing a much wider framework for understanding the range and purposes of dreamwork. Many of his followers began to publish books about dreaming in the 1970s, and new theories emerged with different emphases. Sleep laboratories had emerged in the 1950s, beginning to explore the behaviour of the sleeping brain. Systematic research on dreams expanded rapidly in the United States, especially after the Vietnam War, revealing the origin of severe nightmares arising from the experience of combat trauma. Women psychologists soon recognised the parallels in nightmares resulting from domestic violence and sexual abuse. By the 1990s, brain scans were showing how different parts of the brain behaved during the cyclic stages of sleep. By the 2000s computers were enabling scholars to collect hundreds, even thousands, of dreams for analysis of themes, including the influence of different cultures.
In 1983, the Association for the Study of Dreams was founded in California, promoting research and public education through the academic journal, Dreaming, and annual international Conferences. I joined the ASD in 1991 and have been a member ever since, attending two of their big Conferences, held in Hawaii in 1998 and Berkeley, California, in 2003, when they added International to their name (IASD). These were deeply inspirational experiences, a mingling of dream scholars from many cultures and disciplines, from Quantum Physics to Visual Arts to Medicine to Psychology. I met some of the authors whose books I had learned from. My own workshops were well-received there, especially because of my use of action methods, enabling dream characters to speak.
Dreamwork in New Zealand
I have been running dream workshops in New Zealand for 35 years, mainly through the Human Development and Training Institute in Auckland until it closed in 2012, and now in my own name at the Mercy Spirituality Centre in Epsom; and elsewhere by request. I am professionally trained in teaching and Psychotherapy, now semi-retired, but still involved in co-leadership of the Dream Network of Aotearoa-NZ. I have also published two books, Dreams and Visions – Language of the Spirit (1997); and Healing the Nightmare, Freeing the Soul – A Practical Guide for Working with Dreams (Calico, 2016). I have developed a training programme combining basic dream education with action methods, derived mainly from elements of Jungian theory, Psychodrama, Transactional Analysis, and a process of sensitive exploring. My aim is to teach people how to interpret their own dreams, and to work in small dream-sharing groups.
Working with a typical dream
So what do I consider are the essential steps in the process of dreamwork? I will outline a summary, assuming, for example, that a trusting friend has asked you to help her make sense of a recent dream. You don’t have to “solve” it, only raise questions to help her make connections. Bear in mind that most dreams involve “concrete” metaphors to represent more abstract ideas; and do avoid being judgmental.
Listen respectfully. Ask her to sketch a diagram of the dream scene on a blank page. Clarify the setting of the scene. Often there’s more than one scene.
Identify the dream ego, which reflects some aspect of herself, and what she is doing in the dream. Ask open questions (not simple yes/no questions).
Ask what she is feeling in the dream, and how that connects with any feelings she had recently. Allow strong feelings to be expressed.
Clarify the context: when did she dream it? What was on her mind at the time?
These four items offer strong clues to what the dream is about, so ask her if she is making any connections yet. (Keep your own theory to yourself until you know more.) Why this dream? Why now? This may be all you have time for, in a casual conversation, but maybe she’s intrigued enough to want to go further.
Ask her what she associates with the other figures or main objects in the dream. What do they remind her of? Listen for double meanings and parallels that she may not have noticed. A dream may have meanings at more than one level: objectively referring to relationships, and/or subjectively to the inner world.
Consider the ending – is it satisfactory to her, or is it unfinished? If the latter, ask her to imagine what she could do next in the dream to create a better ending. This step is needed for most nightmares.
Consider what meanings have emerged so far, and whether they suggest any action or change of attitude in reality. If you have a theory, you can tentatively offer it as an option, but do not press it. She can decide what fits; it’s her dream.
That’s probably all you can do in, say, half an hour. She may like to ponder it more by herself, or wait to see if another dream follows, with more clues to its meaning. Recurring dreams indicate an issue needing more attention.
A Simple Example
Here is a simple example, from Jo, a woman designer in mid-life.
I dreamed I had a little baby girl to look after, but I got called out to work. At the end of the day, I suddenly remembered I hadn’t fed her for hours! I woke up horrified, until I realised it couldn’t be true, because my children are grown up now. Why would I dream I had a baby?
What’s the setting? Her office. What’s she doing? Working hard – then recalling her other responsibility. What is she feeling? Satisfaction at work, then horror for neglecting her baby. Context: Dreamed three nights ago, after a busy weekend with the family. What associations come to mind? She’d been a good mother, never neglectful, and has no grandchildren yet. Nor do she or her husband want to have another child. She loves her work, its creativity, which is deeply absorbing. What might the baby symbolise then? A new idea? A project she has been neglecting? Maybe – but “feeding it” doesn’t seem to fit. Then she suddenly remembers she’d just read an article in a magazine, advocating that women should take regular time out for self-nurture – and bingo! The dream makes sense to her, as more thoughts fall into place. The baby is part of herself! What new ending then? A decision to plan for regular time-out in future…
Different Kinds of Dreams
Of course, there are many different kinds of dreams and visions that may invite further exploration, such as enabling one or more of the dream characters to speak to the dream ego. Some dreams feel like warnings to be heeded. Some seem highly creative, in the realm of art or music, or even technology, such as Elias Howe’s famous dream of the sewing machine needle. Loss of a loved one is normally followed by dreams of grief and lost hopes, in which the loved one may still be actively present. Then there are the post-trauma nightmares that follow after a shocking experience, such as witnessing violence or abuse or accidental injury. And sometimes an inspirational dream that seems to open a window into another level of consciousness. We dream of our emotional response to significant events in our life, rather than the events themselves. If it’s overwhelming, we may dream of a tidal wave engulfing us; if it’s exhilarating, we may dream of flying like a bird; if it’s exhausting we may dream of a car running out of fuel.
Keeping a Record
Most of our dreams, however, simply pass by unnoticed. When one does catch our attention as we wake up, we need to write it down immediately before it fades, at least the key elements, to be expanded later. You need to allow a few minutes as you wake up to check what’s in your mind, before turning your attention outwards. A radio will pull your attention away immediately; so may a partner, a child or a pet; so treasure the opportunities when they do occur. Keep a pad and pen beside your bed for the purpose. Give each dream a date and a title, so that you can recognise it when you look back over the sequence. Allow one page per dream, so that there is space to add further thoughts when time allows, perhaps at the end of the day.
I recommend reading a book about dreamwork, attending a dream workshop to learn the basic skills, and finding a dream-buddy, someone you can trust, to meet once a month and share each other’s dreams. It can become a valued time of personal reflection on the issues running through your life; and generates a deeper level of sharing between you.