What do dreams mean?

“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche... They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth...” ~ Carl G. Jung

A dream is a personal story told in a language of emotionally charged images. All you have seen, heard, felt and known is transformed into a visual language, more accurate than words. To understand the language of your dreams is to engage with your innermost self – a part of you that simply reflects what is true.

Your dreams also contain powerful images from beyond your personal experience. This universal language of dreams has been formed through the collective experiences of all humankind, and was named “the collective unconscious” by Carl Jung. These ‘big’ dreams often come in times of transition. Our dreams show us that we are changing.

Why learn the language of your dreams? Because the intelligence of all we have collectively desired, feared, experienced and learned sheds light on your personal story every night.

But don’t take my word for it. Dream Lab is about finding out for yourself.

Recurring Dreams

A recurring dream is a call to action. Much like a persistent knock on the door, it’s hard to ignore… but we’re not always keen to greet the urgency.

A recurring dream points to a recurrent conflict or concern in your life, often beginning in childhood. It is a theme that you face over and over again, triggering the dream. You may think it is minor, but the dream suggests it is impacting you in more ways than you’re aware of.

Sometimes people tell me “I have this recurring dream, but I know what it’s about.” I tell that there’s something they’re not seeing. If you knew what it was about, there would be no need for the dream. Once resolved, recurring dreams cease, or at least change to reflect your insight.

I enjoy working with recurring dreams as the impact of the work is measurable. As your emotional state changes, the recurring dream changes as well. One woman in my dream group dreamed for many years of being inside a dark house full of people, where no one is speaking with her. As she shares her dreams with us over several months, the dream house begins to open up. Finally, she dreams she is outside in a green field, with many others, who notice and speak with her. This marks a shift in her inner world, which cannot help but manifest in her outer life.

Ernest Hartman (2011, The Nature and Functions of Dreaming) writes about a client who repeatedly dreams of shark-like monsters chasing her through the ocean, often when a major change is happening in her life. Over the course of psychotherapy the dreams continue, but gradually become less frightening. At the conclusion of therapy, she has a final shark dream. This time the shark is in a swimming pool, instead of the ocean. It is friendly, and swims next to her. As she pats it on the head, it curls up at her feet like a pet dog.

As your emotional state changes, your recurring dream changes too. Of course, if the pattern returns, your dream may return too. However this time, you know what it’s referring to. In this way, learning your dream language turns even frightening dreams into allies. That knock on door is the knock of a trusted friend.

Animals in Dreams

“The Self is often symbolized as an animal, representing our instinctive nature and its connectedness with its surroundings” ~ Carl Jung, Man and his Symbols

Animals are instinctive, and true to their nature. We can no longer say the same for humans. In learning to be polite and self-conscious, we have lost touch with our instincts. We think before we act, and often replace instinctive drives with socially acceptable behaviour.

Unlike animals, our instincts seem to be under control. But inside us, they are churning. In psychotherapy, we see that denying important personal instincts for too long is destructive. Anger, depression, recklessness or illness, are all natural consequences of repressing our instincts.

Animals in your dream may represent instincts and powers that are bucking, chasing you, or have become tame. Get to know the animal in your dream. What instincts and power does it have? What does it want? Are you moving towards it, or away? What are your associations with this animal? Does it have mythological meaning? Does it frighten you? Does it excite you?

There are times when we must learn from animals, and let ourselves be guided by our nature. Our instincts are powerful, and can greatly enliven us. By coming into a balanced relationship with our instincts, they become life-giving sources of power, creativity and drive.

 “The original animal nature of man… blooms only when the spirit and instinct are in true harmony… Too much of the animal disfigures the civilized human being, too much culture makes a sick animal.” ~ Carl Jung, The Psychology of the Unconscious

Grief & Bereavement Dreams

After the death of loved ones, we search for them everywhere. The place we finally find them is in our dreams.

More than in any other transition, I rely on dreams when working with grief. In my experience, dreams show us where we are stuck in our grieving process. Often, something is communicated that helps us to open our hearts, and keep going.

A woman whose father died suddenly, dreamed that he phoned her and left a message on her answering machine. As we explore the dream together, we discover a part of her that doesn’t really believe he is gone. Disbelief is a normal stage of grief, and protects us from feeling the full impact of our loss. If we remain here, however, it blocks our progress through the pain. Working on this dream helped my client to more deeply accept that her father was not coming back.

In my work with suicide survivors, dreams help steer us through complex grief by pointing to what is most important to the emotional life of the dreamer. A son tells his mother it wasn’t her fault. A husband gives his wife his blessing to love again.

Most dreams during grief, however, are more complicated. They point to our unfinished business. Our unspeakable emotions. Our painful secrets. These dreams need our attention. And in return, they offer us healing.

Sexual Dreams

Dreams about sex and sexuality get our attention, and there is an art to approaching them with maturity and curiosity.

Sexual dreams may appear to be highly compensatory, offering an intense sexual release or relieving repression. Upon closer inspection, however, they are likely to contain potent metaphors of significance to the dreamer.

As if to tease us, sexual dreams rarely depict you having sex with your actual lover. Kissing your friend’s partner is more common, or sleeping with a powerful figure. Dream lovers are usually inappropriate, confusing or out of reach. Often, we prefer not to think or talk about it. But what would we find out if we did?

Freud insisted that most dreams reveal repressed sexual drives. Jung famously disagreed, seeing in all dreams the language of metaphor and symbolism. Sexuality, then, may represent a union of conflicting parts of yourself.

As a metaphor, what might your dream lover represent? Sleeping with your boss, for example, may signify a rousing desire for power. Merging with a strong masculine or feminine presence may awaken juicy but dormant qualities of yourself in waking life.

Our sexuality resonates with secretive or hidden aspects of ourselves. Memories of intense pleasure and intense pain pervade the human history of sexuality. In Tantra, sexual energy is related with great creativity and liberation. The phallus and the Yoni are worshipped in the Hindu tradition.

In the secret schools of Tibetan Buddhism, sexual energy is channeled for enlightenment.

Organised religions tend to repress or pervert sexuality. Mass media, meanwhile, has used sex to sell products, largely reducing sexuality to a superficial status. We become giddy and shamed by the power of our sexuality, and our sexual dreams get ignored or laughed at. Their potential is largely lost.

Next time you have a sexual dream, if you can bare it, write it down. Be curious. Sex is powerful, and your dream may have unexpected gifts beyond the realm of seduction.

Nightmares After Trauma & PTSD

A trauma is an event that overwhelms your capacity to cope. Sadly, processing these events can take months or years, and many people go on to experience reenactments of their trauma in their dreams.

These nightmares are extremely real, and can create emotional distress and instability in the lives of sufferers. This is particularly true for trauma survivors who develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Nightmares are frequently reported by people who experience natural disasters, witness death and violence, or are victims of abuse and crime. In studies of Vietnam Veterans with PTSD, frequent nightmares are reported in 52% – 71% of returned soldiers (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs). Although these dreams are an attempt to process shocking events, they can have the opposite effect of retraumatising the dreamer.

Research in this area has delineated a pattern in post-traumatic nightmares, which hints at their potential role in healing. Deirde Barrett, author of Trauma and Dreams, writes that nightmares often move through stages as events are integrated into daily life. The first stage may be a literal reenactment. Often, a twist in the tale may emerge, reflecting a horror averted. For example, veterans often dream of seeing themselves die instead of their friends, evoking a complicated combination of grief and guilt. With time, if the PTSD is improving, the dreams become more metaphoric, and interwoven with concerns from present day life. For example, the setting of the dream may change to your current surroundings, or emotional overwhelm may be depicted by a tidal wave, rather than literal events.

It may seem as if nightmares are preventing the person from moving on, but research suggests that these nightmares are attempts to process overwhelming emotions. Working on these dreams with a professional can be difficult, but in combination with other creative therapeutic techniques, can be useful integrating the events. As the trauma eases, so does the intensity of dreams.