Have you ever woken up from a dream and thought, Wow! What on Earth was that all about?
Maybe your mind was full of confusing images, your heart was racing, and you had a strange sense of foreboding, or possibly even joy
Our minds have a pretty exciting life while we’re fast asleep. They get to travel, play, interpret, fantasize, time hop, shapeshift, and just about anything else we can—and can’t—imagine.
We need to dream to keeps our minds psychologically sound, because that’s when a huge amount of emotional work gets done. But as familiar as the process is, we actually know little about it. It’s almost like we have a whole secret life to which we are connected only tenuously through our imperfect consciousness.
Some people say they don’t dream. While the amount we dream and our ability to recall our dreams certainly varies from person to person—and can be directly impacted by drugs, alcohol, illness (mental and physical), and other factors—if you live and breathe, you also dream.
So how do we tap into this secret world that is so close and rich with meaning, but can also be maddeningly elusive?
Many people subscribe to the idea that there are universal images in dreams. Having a dream of one’s teeth falling out, for example, is often construed as a sign of imminent death or a fear of death. While human beings do share a language of symbology with one another, I don’t think we need to be fluent in it to interpret our dreams.
Furthermore, I think interpreting our dreams through other people’s understanding of symbols is as likely to get us off track as it is to enlighten us. In my clinical experience, dream interpretation can be a lot more straightforward than we think.
The following are some simple steps to mastering our own magical dream world.
1. Get a dream journal.
Dreams are notoriously slippery. The only way to consistently grab a hold of them is with intention. Ground this intention in action.
You will need a place to write down what you can remember of your dreams. While I recommend hand writing—which engages the mind differently than typing on a screen—anything that encourages consistency will work. Make sure this journal or any other note-keeping system is always by your bed when you go to sleep.
2. Have a dream.
I’m only half kidding! As I said, some people believe they don’t dream at all, and others struggle to remember a single dream.
We can increase the chances of dreaming with proper sleep hygiene though: getting to bed at the same time every night, turning off screens an hour before sleep, and having nighttime rituals like a bath. If we don’t sleep properly, we’re often too tired to remember our dreams. Sleeping more gives us a larger time frame in which to have dreams as well.
3. Be still with your dream.
Alarm clocks are the great destroyers of dreams. They jerk us into another state of awareness, causing us to lose a hold of our dream state.
The best way to ditch the alarm clock is to go to bed early so that you wake up with plenty of time to spare for your morning routine. (I know, I know, this is tough. But it can be done!) Without an alarm, when you do wake up from a dream, you can let yourself lay with it for a bit. Rest quietly in bed and reflect on the dream, trying to cement it in your thoughts without looking for any meaning.
4. Make notes about your dream.
As you slowly wake up, keep cradling the dream carefully in your mind, and then write down as much of it as you can. Don’t get too wrapped up in making it exact. Write down images that stood out, people you may have encountered, your prevailing emotions, and the general themes or locations you recall (running, flying, water, mysterious strangers, landscapes, and buildings are all common and important examples).
5. Expand your notes.
Now that you’ve got the essence of the dream down (well done!), take a few breaths and let yourself consider the prevailing mood of it. If you nail down nothing else, this can be enough to get key insight.
Force yourself to name a feeling the dream evoked: I was afraid, I was lost, I was frustrated, I was excited. Whatever other symbols or connections you make, this is an undercurrent of your emotional life at the moment. Ask yourself, In my waking life, what am I afraid of losing, frustrated by, excited about?
Next, reflect on the concrete images and words that stand out and circle them. For example, I had a dream last night that I was wearing my father’s coat and that it was 100 times heavier than a normal coat would be. In the pocket were a pair of cheap sunglasses that I was forced to wear, through which I couldn’t see well. My husband came and fixed the glasses, and though the coat was still heavy, at least I could see.
In my notes, I might circle the words “father,” “coat,” “heavy,” “husband,” “cheap sunglasses,” “can’t see well,” and “fixed.” If any meanings jump forward, jot them down. If they don’t, leave it alone for now. As I wrote down this particular dream, I realized that my father’s coat symbolized all the heavy emotional stuff he has passed down to me that I’ve been forced to wear or carry, and the glasses symbolized my inability to see my own issues clearly while carrying all of it, a problem that my healthy relationship with my husband has helped fix.
Again, human beings do share a universal symbology: hearts generally stand for love, eyes for sight or vision, Earth for grounding and being grounded, and so on, but that knowledge is already inside us and we don’t need to do any special research to understand it. If we can just trust our own intuition and insight, we’ll understand what the things we dream about mean to us.
Some details to look for are places or things that seem familiar from childhood or other important periods of your life, the settings in which the dream takes place and how they make you feel, the people in your dreams and how it felt to interact with them, the task you may be trying to complete in a dream (I often dream of desperately trying to use a broken cell phone, which reflects a worry that I won’t be heard), and themes such as being chased, being lost, or searching for something you can’t find.
6. Share the dream with a friend.
This part is key. The same day you have the dream, get a friend on the line who has a few minutes to listen to your weirdo babbling and won’t judge you. Ask the friend to let you say the dream without offering any interpretations of their own. (This can muddy the waters.) More often than not, if you’ve done all the previous steps, as soon as you start talking the epiphanies will roll. If they don’t, don’t worry. You just need to practice.
Learning our own dream language, like learning any language, is a war of attrition. If you faithfully begin to record as many dreams as you can, you’ll begin to see recurring themes and familiar narratives. You’ll notice things like, “Oh yeah, there I am locked in my childhood room again with the windows melting, or there’s me being chased down an alley for the 100th time. I seem to always be afraid in my dreams.” You’ll start to connect the emotions and symbols in your dreams to the emotions and issues that are less recognized in your conscious life. This gives you the chance to address them—hurray!
Pro tip: if you’re feeling something in a dream, it is a direct reflection of a feeling—unconscious or otherwise—that you are dealing with in reality. Even if the dream emotion seems unrelated to any emotion you believe yourself to be experiencing or grappling with, know that it is a real emotion, and that is what your mind is trying to process.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by trying to interpret our dreams because, let’s face it, they can be really strange! I think this strangeness is our brains way of protecting us from information overload. They’re trying to be subtle so they don’t completely freak us out. While I might appreciate a more blunt and straightforward conversation with my unconscious, that generally doesn’t seem to be an option, so we should chalk up the strangeness to our head’s misguided effort to be helpful and dive into the muck anyway.
We’ll never understand all of our dreams, or every aspect of a single dream, but there is a great deal of useful information to be gleaned from the parts we do. If you want to deepen your understanding of yourself and explore the beautiful mysteries of your own mind, you need only wait until the next time you lay down and drift away.