III. Interpreting Dreams

Beginning to interpret your own dreams. The first step in interpreting your own dreams is to write down whatever you remember, in whatever order it comes. Sometimes you may not remember the beginning or some other part of the dream. This might seem like a reason not to record the dream at all. But start with what you remember anyway. The missing pieces will usually come back to you during the recording process. If they don’t, then assume that they weren’t important. The dream’s imagery may have become distorted by interference from the ego.

It's easy to dismiss the whole dream if anything seems to be missing. But you can still get a lot out of the dream, even if it appears to be fragmentary.

After writing it down, divide the dream into sections. Doing so will make the interpretation of longer dreams seem less daunting. Consider each scene change or dramatic alteration in tone, mood, or character to be a new section. Number it as a separate dream.

To avoid a feeling of discouragement because you're unable to see connections between the various parts of a dream, make the assumption that each section concerns a different topic, or represents a different treatment of the same topic. Go to the section that seems easiest to interpret, even if this means treating the sections out of order. Save what seems as if it may be the hardest section for last.

Within the section you've chosen to begin with, start with any image that seems to suggest a meaning, even if it occurs in the middle of that section.

Investigate each word you've written down as a linguistic object, unrelated to the dream's images or plot. Assume that the dream's images, plot, and characters are utterly unimportant as themselves. Try to think only about the words you've written down as words. This can help you perceive the dream not as short story that doesn't make any sense, but as a rebus style word-game.

Do you demand that the Sunday Times crossword puzzle read like a work of fiction when you're through with it? Don't make such a demand of your dreams. Are there any puns in the dream? Investigate each word, not necessarily for what it means literally, but what it could mean metaphorically. Homelessness, for example, could mean not that you're about to lose your home, but that you are or will soon be traveling, and so have left your home temporarily behind.

Free associate by asking questions about the people, objects, and events in the dream. What do they remind you of? What could they represent about your growth, your past, present, or future prospects? Are they tied to a particular period of your life? As you free associate, use emotional reactions, mood residues, and feeling tones remembered from the dream as clues. Try not to be too literal.

Think of the dream as an equation with several variables. Run a set of associations through the dream to see if they provide an interpretation that makes sense of every dream image. If not, try again with another set of associations.

In the beginning, be comfortable with a trial-and-error-based approach. Let your sense of rightness and satisfaction be your guide. After having made a proper interpretation, you'll have no questions, no sense of not being sure, no tendency to argue in favor of your answer. You'll simply know that you're done with the process. If questions remain, if you're not sure or feel dissatisfied, if images remain unaccounted for, then you've been working with the wrong set of associations.

Fit the clues together. Dreams have their own internal consistency. If you're on the right track, everything will easily fall into place after you've gotten the first few images. Dreams often contain several images referring to the same topic in the same way, in part to protect against memory lapses, in part to provide assurance that your interpretation is on the right track.

As in crossword puzzles, where a letter may be used twice, a dream image may be used in more than one way. For example, a goose could mean both wild goose chase and silly goose. Try to fit everything into the picture. You'll only know that the dream has been correctly interpreted when every single image has found its place in the interpretation.

I began interpreting my dreams by keeping a journal in which I wrote down what I remembered about a dream on the right-hand page, while leaving the left-hand page blank. I would then make a list of images from the dream--beginning with those I had seen before, which had become a part of my dream dictionary--on the left-hand page. After that I would write down associations with the remaining images.

Such a procedure allowed me to break up the plot line so that the equation- or rebus-like aspect of the dream could become clearer. I wasn't so likely to take the dream literally. If the interpretation became clear during this process, I would record it on either page, wherever there was space. If not, I would simply proceed to the next day's dreams.

Over time, patterns began to develop, allowing me to add new images to a personal dream dictionary. Sometimes I would go back to earlier dreams with understandings gleaned from later ones--and the former would yield up their secrets. There were days, however, in which the left-hand page remained blank, because I didn't have time to do anything more than write down the night's dreams, or because they seemed impervious to interpretation.

If this happens to you, don't judge yourself as inadequate, or feel guilty about not getting a dream's message. Such feelings lead to frustration and possibly abandoning the attempt to understand your dreams.

Instead, I learned to maintain the attitude of an explorer venturing for the first time in unexplored territory. I recorded everything I saw, reserving judgement about what it might mean. As the body of observations grew, it became possible to speculate on possible interpretations. Later observations would confirm or deny the validity of these interpretations, leading to greater confidence in making them. The same process may work for you. Patience is essential.

I've often used the following technique as an aid to interpretation. Each night, upon going to bed, I would suggest to the soul that it provide a dream on a certain topic. The topic would usually arise from an event that had stirred up a lot of emotion, something I felt unresolved about, a question I had, or a problem that was bothering me. I would then assume that my dreams on that night would relate to that topic. Such a suggestion would become an automatic filter, narrowing the possible relationships between dream images and the intentions behind them. Sometimes, upon going to bed, I would even ask my soul to clarify the message or correct my interpretation of the previous night's dreams.

Once I’d become more skilled in figuring out what my dreams were telling me, I stopped using the suggestion technique. My dreams could then address problems that I wasn't consciously aware of.

Control your dream life as little as possible. I'm often amazed at how my dreams will bring up nearly forgotten events of the past and provide a new perspective on them, demonstrating how my actions or thoughts of the time may have been inappropriate, from the soul's perspective, or telling me what such events really meant.

A technique related to asking your dreams for guidance with respect to a specific problem would be to request information about your dreams themselves. You can do as I did: Suggest that your dreams correct misinterpretations or ask them to interpret a specific dream that you've found obscure. Often, rather than commenting on this dream, the new dream will restate the message in symbols that you may find less difficult to understand.

You could also ask your dreams to demonstrate the range and variety of dreams you're likely to encounter, thus helping you define your personal dream categories. This make take several nights to accomplish.

Here are a few more hints that may help you interpret your dreams more easily. Look for a short and apparently obvious section of a dream that may announce the topic of a series of dreams for that night or a sequence of nights. Such announcements may not come every night. But it pays to identify them. You'll have a much easier time interpreting the night's dreams if you do.

Keep asking questions as you interpret the dream. If you've written the phrase "People who are after me" to describe a chase scene in your dream journal, ask yourself who is going after you in real life. Try to avoid feeling afraid that you’re wrong. Such a fear will discourage you to the point of giving up on understanding your dreams. Assume that if you've misinterpreted some or all of a dream, or if you were unable to penetrate some of the dream's images, the same message will return in the coming nights' dreams.

To avoid misinterpretations, you'll frequently have to leap from the description of an image to an abstraction. For example, if you see a supermarket checkout counter in your dream, your thinking needs to transcend that image. You need to see that the checkout line is a visual pun for the phrase to check something out. People who take dreams too literally are often unable to do this.

My students often make the mistake of seeing a person in a dream as nothing more than a reference to that same person from real life. Such thinking rarely offers insight into the dream. The person is more likely to represent an abstract quality with which you associate that person in real life, such as kindness or rudeness.

Only a process of association will tell you what such a person represents. For example, when a person or an event from the distant past appears, it may be time to complete an abandoned growth process regarding that person or that period. Some lost or forgotten aspect of yourself may need to be brought back into the present. Or the name of the person, or what you did during that past event may become a new dream symbol. In each of these cases, it's your growth, and not the person or event in question, that is the focus.

To forestall too-literal thinking about the people who appear in dreams, assume from the start that the dream characters bear no relationship to real people. Only when someone with whom you’re presently experiencing difficulties appears in a dream can you safely assume that the dream is about that person. In my experience, however, such dreams are rare. In order to change your perspective on the person--an essential step in the process of understanding what's going on with him--your dreams are much more likely to represent him as something other than himself.

Here's what I mean about making the leap from a literal to an abstract perception of people in a dream. For many years, a stock character in my dreams has been my high-school band director, Mr. Markworth. Granted, he had a powerful influence in my life, since his example is one of the things that caused me to major in music in college. I had no quarrels with him. Yet he continued to appear in my dreams long after I graduated. Over time, I came to realize that his name was a pun: to mark worth. Thus, whenever Mr. Markworth appears in my dreams, I see his presence as an indication that I'm experiencing problems in valuing myself.

After you've written down a dream, look for unintentional switches in verb tense. It's usually best to describe your dreams in the present tense. But some dreams may insist on being written down in the past tense, or will switch from present to past tense while you were writing them down, without your having noticed.

This sort of switch indicates that the dream has allowed a growth process to complete itself. Through interpreting the dream, you're becoming consciously aware of that process and its completion.

Here's an important question to ask yourself: Is there a predominant image or action in the dream? Something that occurs more than once, perhaps in different ways? Examples would be running away from something, hiding, or defending yourself. Such actions can be important clues to the dream's meaning.

If there seems to be no predominant action, then consider the overall form of the dream. How can its action or succession of images be most succinctly described? Your answer to this question can be a clue to the dream's meaning, or at least to the area of your life that the dream is dealing with.

Don't forget the messages of previous dreams from the day or week before. Later dreams may refer to the messages in earlier ones, through continuing the message, amplifying it, explaining it, or shifting its emphasis.

Your dreaming self has a history, just as does your waking self. In the course of a day, you'll often refer to the history of your waking self through remembering events of the past. Your dreams can do the same thing--referring not only to events or images from even the distant past of your waking life, but also to dreams going right back to childhood.