There is a rich field of experience available to you right now. Full of light and dark, diverse characters, wild landscapes, secret rooms, and magic.
Maybe you don't remember your dreams very often. That's ok. Rest assured, everyone dreams 5-7 times every night. But like other practices of embodiment and mindfulness, developing vivid remembering takes practice and exercise.
Maybe you dream a lot. Maybe your dreams feel overwhelming. These techniques may help with that, too. Dreams are your psyche's attempts to bring you into balance, to move you toward growth and healing. If your dreams contain traumatic memory material that feels too intense of frightening to meet on your own it may be a good idea to find a therapist versed in addressing how trauma is held in the body to walk with you as you begin.
When you're ready, whatever portal you're standing on the threshold of, I'm here to offer you a straightforward path, with simple steps, to begin your dream practice tonight.
Dreams are not just random neuronal firing. Nor are they just rehashings of waking events. Far from it. The dream field is a tremendous resource for understanding ourselves. Our ego, our conscious mind, sometimes over zealously wants to protect us from truth and growth and so we avoid dealing with those elements that the deeper mindbody is always in touch with. Those elements arise in the dream field. We just have to learn how to work with them.
Forget dream dictionaries. They are too rigid. They do not account for your personal experience and associations, and often are culture bound.
Get Familiar with Some Archetypes. Yes, there are elements and figures that transcend culture, that will be interpreted very similarly whether they are dreamed by a person in the Congo, the Netherlands, or the US. Carl Jung believed these were innate, hereditary, and universal (see The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche and this brief rundown). For instance, water is almost always representative of the Unconscious or the Great Mother; a lion is (almost) always the regal and powerful representative of the animal Queendom (even if the person has never seen or heard of a lion in waking life) though both of these would be enhanced in analysis by the dreamer's associations with them in waking life. And yes, it can be useful to look up what a thing has traditionally represented, in all cultures or perhaps in the culture(s) of your own ancestors. Much of Western psychology has been rather ethnocentrically stuck on the European, especially the Greek, gods and goddesses as the representative archetypal characters. But of course there is a whole world of archetype. Also, there has been a patriarchal gaze forming the Western interpretation of these archetypes, and it's time we looked deeper. Discovering which ones you connect with most is a fun part of the journey. Your dreams can help you in this.
Honor Your Own Associations to Dream Images. This is what no dream dictionary can give you. What do you feel, what do you think of, what is your experience of that thing from the dream? Below these Seven Steps I'll detail an example of working with associations.
Seven Steps to Working with Your Dreams, Tonight
You may watch what arises with each item, meeting each with love and compassion. Let the monkey mind take a break, try not to follow a thought around. Take your time. Slow way down. See how each initial sensation moves and changes. There may be healing taking place, and there's no need to rush or interfere with that.
Here's that dream and association example I mentioned above:
I am in the water, kind of a lake that's connected to a river. Lots of people are swimming. It's a river and lake. I look toward shore and there is my grandmother, swimming out. She's too old for this! Why is she doing this? Then I see her favorite basket floating near by. I swim over to it to get it for her. She keeps swimming out, though. I am hoping I can help her somehow.
Then a current takes me, starts pulling me off to the left, away from her. I worry it's going to pull me into the river and away, maybe Mamaw too. I'm scared. But I have tossed the basket to her, and she is okay.
I'm swimming back, along the shore on my left. I see Mamaw in front of me. Someone is helping her swim through the arch of a low willow-like tree that's hanging over and partially into the water. It seems like a poor path to me, but I go through, too.
Using as example just two (though there are many more!) major elements of the dream, the water and the grandmother, we can ask ourselves these questions:
And so, what are this dreamer's associations with these elements?
Water: Grew up on the water, on a river and a lake; loves the water very much, but was in a riptide as a child, in the ocean; survived and my love of water wasn't (overtly, consciously) affected.
Grandmother: Generally positive but conflicted relationship with this actual grandmother, who has been dead several years. Also, the dreamer has been researching this grandmother's ancestry recently. Thinks of this as the "colder" grandmother.
Grandmother's generally: Great Mother, Earth Mother, Sweat Lodge, Comfort, Magic
Then we would play with the interplay of these associational meanings, archetypal meanings, the dreamer's life, and what arises in the dreamer's body as sensation and emotion as we play look at these dream events and images.
This is the part where we notice what the body says in response to this process of playing with the dream. As an dream event is contemplated or discussed, what arises in the body (more about this in the steps below)?
And let's keep in mind, reorganization/healing of the deep body (autonomic nervous system) and the spirit (what is my life? what am I supposed to be doing? what is the Universe telling me? who am I?) are both communicated to us through that profound resonance we can feel, as bodily sensation and awe.
Traditionally, dreaming has been interpreted as something that happens in the brain. My proposal is that dreaming happens with the whole body, just like everything else we do. Somatic psychotherapies, which are based on the natural protective functions that humans share with all animals and that help us respond to events and survive through fight, flight, or collapse, recognize that healing ourselves is not just a matter of learning to think "right," but that we also need to engage the body in the healing process. When that fight or flight response is thwarted the energy generated in the attempt to survive can get "stuck" in the body, causing all kinds of symptoms, including what we know as anxiety, post traumatic stress responses, and even physical ailments like autoimmune disorders.
In my private psychotherapy practice I work with Somatic Experiencing methods (link), with dreams, and of course with thoughts and mindfulness to help initiate healing on all levels. I've noticed that dreams can "follow" the healing progress, introduce elements that the conscious mind hadn't considered, or remembered, or felt worthy of. These elements and what we draw from them can be so radically profound that the entire course of the person's self-concept, narrative, conception of possibility, internal landscape, embodied sense of self can transform.
In embodied dream work we notice not only the narrative, the symbols, and the associations of dreams, we also work with what arises in the body while in response to them. And then we work with that just as we would work with responses to what happens in waking life. It's the integration of the traditional, Jungian-influenced dream work and the work with the body (as in Somatic Experiencing) that is so very powerful.
But in order for our dreams to help us we have to engage them. They want to be engage. They reward our engagement. The more we engage them, the more we remember them, and the more they will show us and help us grow into our truest and most authentic selves.
The Third Party in Dream Work
One last word. It can be that our ego's resistance to certain truths is so strong that when we try to work with some dream messages on our own we'll remain blind to the real meaning. That is where a good therapist or analyst comes in. I personally have had many moments when my wonderful therapist said something about a dream of mine and I felt my whole body react in awe to that one connection. This is a gift for which I am so grateful.
So go forth tonight into the land of dreams. Go forth with your pad and pencil, your list of Seven Steps and engage your deepest self in dreams. It is a tremendously rewarding practice.
Later, we'll explore the aspects of this subject in more depth.
Margaret Howard, MFA, LCSW
I am a psychotherapist, gardener, writer, mother, grandmother, and dreamer.
Cover image: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Queen of the Night, from the stage set for Mozart's Magic Flute