Dreams - Dream Interpretation With James Harvey Stout
Perhaps dreams do not need to be interpreted. We can explore
various reasons for this idea.
- Some people think that dreams have no meaning. From their
viewpoint, dreams are hallucinations. Even some researchers agree;
Hobson and others have theorized that the brain merely fabricates a
story in an effort to make sense of the random firing of nerve cells
in the brain stem during REM sleep. The dream is like a Rorschach
test, with no significance in itself.
- Dreams produce results without interpretation. Many animals
(including nearly all mammals) exhibit the same REM cycles which
characterize the human dream state -- and plants, too, show cycles of
activity during sleep. If dreams have value only if interpreted, there
would be no reason for these other species to have dream-like states.
Dreams are not merely communications which the conscious mind is meant
to interpret; they exist in their own world of emotion and symbolic
reality where our wakeful conflicts and problems can be resolved
without either our recall or interpretation. Awareness of our dreams
(much less an interpretation of them) can actually be a hindrance to
the unconscious processes; Freud said that a dream "failed" if we
became aware of its intentionally concealed information. Occasionally
in our sleep, our mind conducts business of which we are not meant to
be informed; when I tried to recall one dream, I backtracked as far as
possible, until I reached a point where I picked up a thought from
another part of my mind: "We're through; he can see the rest of it."
- Certain dreams might not need to be interpreted. Some activities
during our wakeful life are "important," but at other times, we are
indulging in recreation, frivolous play, and apparently irrelevant
digressions. During sleep, the unconscious mind probably follows
similar patterns; certain dreams are probably nothing more than sheer
creativity and indulgence, and they are not "symbolic" of anything.
Other dreams which might not be intended for interpretation are "high
dreams" (lucid or non-lucid) in which we experience a "spiritual"
light or a contact with a being whose presence alone is significant --
just as a painting or musical composition is significant in its own
right, without being "interpreted." Also, some dreams are "literal";
we dream about a car accident, and then one occurs on the following
day. Nor do we need to interpret dreams which impart information of
which we are already aware; at the end of most of my interpretations,
I say, "I already knew that" -- although I frequently add the
statement, "... but the dream gave this message because, even though I
knew the information, I have not acted on it." Also, I consider the
possibility that the dream might allow a different interpretation
which does disclose previously unknown data.
- Certain elements are not meant to be interpreted. Within a given
dream, the elements might be symbolic or literal; the literal elements
would not need to be interpreted. (As Freud said, "Sometimes a cigar
is just a cigar.") In one of my dreams, a character was singing Neil
Diamond's song, "September Morn." What was the significance of the
song? Probably none; when I awoke, that song was playing on my radio,
and it had been incorporated into my dream. We often add external
stimuli to our dreams; in another dream, I complained about the heat.
Was this a dream about a fear of hellfire? No, I had left my heater
on, so the bedroom's temperature was about 90 degrees. If our physical
body is thirsty, we are likely to dream about water; if we have a
disease (of which we may not be aware), we might dream that the
afflicted body part is distressed; if we hear our physical-world alarm
ringing, we could dream that a doorbell is sounding; if we dream about
our daughter, this character might be representative of the girl
herself or what she symbolizes to us. Other characters in dreams might
be literal visitors (not symbolic dream characters); many people have
experienced mutual dreams (in which another person entered the dream),
or encounters with angels or "spirits" or religious teachers. Some of
the other elements in dreams are mere "props" with no symbolic
meaning; during a wakeful active-imagination exercise with a dream, I
asked a character in a hospital bed to tell me about himself, and he
did so. Then I asked the bed, "What do you represent?" The
bed responded (and I swear I heard sarcasm in the "voice"), "I'm a
bed. The man is in a hospital, so he needs a bed to lie on. I'm
- Logical interpretation has limitations. Logic is a limited tool
within the wakeful, left-hemisphere human world; dreams, however,
exist in a world which might be considered right-hemisphere. When we
translate dreams from one realm to the other, we might be betraying
the nature of the dream through the imposition of human reasoning,
wakeful-world physics, and our narrow understanding of psychology,
spirituality, and the dreamworld itself. Our logic is a further
hindrance when we deal with dream-experiences which are beyond
description (as is often the case of spiritual or archetypal
occurrences), or dreams of which we have only a partial memory (and
for which we tend to fill the gaps with whatever would seem sensible),
or dreams which have elements that are disregarded because they don't
fit into the interpretation which we are concocting, or dreams which
are distorted by the imperfections of memory or by repressions or
other psychological obstructions, or dreams which are multi-layered,
multi-dimensional, or otherwise non-linear.
- We might be able to "understand" intellectually without
interpreting. If the dream's symbolism is a "language" which we
usually interpret, perhaps we can learn to comprehend this language
without a translation. This skill is displayed among people who are
fluent in two languages, such as English and Spanish. If we know the
Spanish language, we don't need to translate abre la puerta
into the English words, "open the door"; instead, we hear the Spanish
words and then we open the door, without thinking of the corresponding
English words. Similarly, we can understand "body language" and
familiar verbal metaphors without recontextualizing them into rational
concepts. In a similar way, we might master the "dream language"
sufficiently to comprehend the meaning without paraphrasing the
story-line into "what the symbols mean"; the symbols would make sense
in their own context, on their own terms.
- Interpretation might not be the best means of appreciating our
dreams. Throughout this book, other approaches are presented. They
include dreamwork, active imagination, and other methods in which we
don't need to know the intellectual "meaning" (as it would be
expressed in interpretation) in order to benefit from our dreams.
Perhaps we can teach the unconscious mind to communicate in
our language. If we can learn its language, why could it not learn ours?
Sometimes the unconscious mind seems to be trying to communicate when it
presents the same message in different symbolism; this often occurs in
the consecutive dreams of a single sleep-period, as if to say, "Let me
rephrase that ..." (We can create this effect by incubating a
"clarification dream" for a dream which we were unable to interpret;
before the next sleep period, we ask the unconscious mind to deliver the
same message in simpler symbolism.) Some psychotherapists have found
that their patients start to report dream symbolism which conforms to
the school of therapy which is being used: we begin to use more sexual
symbolism if our therapist is Freudian, and more mandalas and archetypes
for a Jungian. If the unconscious mind can accommodate us in those ways,
perhaps it would respond to further attempts to create a common language
for these two parts of our mind. Maybe we could encourage it to be more
literal than symbolic; some dreams are literal, in their
imagery and in the words which are spoken by the characters. (One person
reported dreams in which the regular dream-drama would be verbally
narrated by someone who explained the symbolism as it progressed; also,
a minister had a dream in which he simply saw the number of the chapter
and verse -- such as Matthew 3:4 -- which he was being encouraged to
read.) We can enhance this literality by incubating the specific
nonsymbolic images which are to be used in a dream which we wish to
experience. Imagine the rewards we would gain from our dreamlife if we
could replace obscure symbolism with a simple conversation between
conscious and unconscious, particularly if this occurred during lucid
dreaming (and eventually, perhaps, even during wakefulness) when we
could consciously ask questions and receive replies in a common
language. We can attain a commonality during lucid dreams simply by
asking a character or any other element, "What do you represent?"; it
replies in our native tongue, such as English.
Dreams represent our inner state. Our unconscious processes
(including emotions and thoughts) are invisible; dreaming makes those
processes visible. To our waking consciousness, the processes are
abstract; dreaming makes them tangible with characters, action, colors,
and other sensory elements. Many of the processes are too subtle for us
to notice, but dreaming can make them discernable and bold. There is an
old saying: "A dream is a picture of a feeling." Except in certain
instances (e.g., mutual dreams, spirit visitors, dream "props" like the
hospital bed mentioned earlier, "extras" who serve the same purpose as
the background characters in a movie, etc.), everything could represent
a part of us. I believe that this idea is stretched ad absurdum
by some theorists (as in the case of a friend who insisted that the
hospital bed did symbolize something); to analyze every detail
in a dream is to become bogged in trivia. However, we benefit from
viewing pertinent elements as our psychological components which we have
projected into the dreamscape: the main character, the characters with
whom we interact, and the objects which attract our attention (e.g., an
exploding bomb, a tree which we are climbing, etc.). With
qualifications, we might agree with Carl Jung, who said, "The dream is a
theater in which the dreamer is the scene, the player, the prompter, the
producer, the author, the public, and the critic. ... all the figures in
the dream are personified features of the dreamer's own personality."
Dreams reveal parts of ourselves which have been slighted. Those parts
have been disowned, ignored, inadvertently bypassed, or inadequately
expressed by the wakeful, conscious mind. Dreaming presents these
aspects of us specifically because they need to be re-integrated. (In
one sense, the dream is our "conscience").
Symbolism is the natural language of the unconscious mind.
Although Freud said that the unconscious mind uses symbols in order to
deceive the conscious mind, perhaps the unconscious mind is
communicating as clearly as it can, with its natural "language"; this
language is no more of a subterfuge than is the French language to an
American who travels to France and then is bewildered by the
incomprehensible conversations there. As Jung said, "The dream does not
conceal; we simply do not understand the language." The unconscious
mind's vocabulary includes visual images (static or active), other
sensory impressions, feelings, and dramatic experiences. Symbolism is
also a part of our language during wakefulness. Symbolism, simile, and
metaphor exist not only in the self-conscious creations of the poet,
painter, dancer, or other artist, but in our common conversations: for
example, "That car is a lemon" or "He is a bear before he drinks his
morning coffee." Our thoughts themselves are symbols of the objects
which are being pondered. Entire discussions can be symbolic; e.g., an
argument about household duties might represent a conflict regarding the
people's commitment to the family unit. (To learn more about symbolism,
we can read poetry, mythology, and books about the writing of
poetry.) Our human life is symbolic. We view our entire lives
symbolically; e.g., a job promotion symbolizes "success," and home
ownership represents "security." When we see a church, we think of God;
in that sense, it is a symbol. A certain perfume might symbolize "love"
if it was previously worn by someone we adore. Merchants use logos as
symbols of their business. Certain traffic signs use symbols instead of
words. The human body is also a symbol -- of our Self. If we look at the
symbols in every element of our wakeful life, we might be more adept at
interpreting the symbols of our dreams.
Symbols have a personalized meaning to us. Dreams might be
considered a universal language because they often use the same symbols
which exist in the dreams and mythologies of every culture; however,
dreams are also a personal language in which our unconscious mind
generates symbols which eloquently and elegantly portray our individual
state, particularly our unique emotional reactions to a given aspect of
life. An example of this individualized meaning is in a dream about a
plane crash; this could represent a warning to a high-flying
stock-market speculator, or an encouraging sign that a foe is going to
"crash and burn" -- or it might be a literal precognitive message for a
pilot who needs to be more careful in maintaining his aircraft. Because
our symbolism is personalized, we should never yield to anyone who
insists that our dreams have a particular meaning; we are the experts on
our dreams. Dream dictionaries have limited value. Because symbols are
personal, we cannot rely on dream dictionaries, which present a list of
dream elements and the meanings which are traditionally assigned to each
one. Our unconscious mind is so creative in assigning symbols to our
psychological processes that the interpretation cannot be reduced to the
simplistic formulas which are offered in dream dictionaries. However,
these books are not worthless; certain symbols might tend to have the
same meanings among dreamers, particularly within a given culture where
we share the same symbols of wakeful life. (Also, archetypal symbols are
common to all of humanity.) Dream dictionaries can suggest the
possible meaning of a symbol -- but this should be only a
starting-point, from which we must seek a personal meaning. We can make
our own dream dictionary. As we interpret our dreams, we might make a
list of the symbols and their meaning in each dream. Those symbols might
include the people, activities, settings, and other elements of a dream.
In this way, we create a dictionary which is derived from our own
unconscious mind's symbolism. This will be particularly useful when we
encounter recurring elements; e.g., the blonde woman who has appeared in
several dreams. However, even a homemade dictionary is not infallible;
the unconscious mind might use the same symbol to represent different
things in different dreams. Conversely, the same psychological component
might be represented by different symbols; if we alter our attitude
about a dreamed topic, we will require a new image to express the new
underlying dynamic. (That is called "symbol evolution.")
We can expand our possibilities in interpretation.
- Don't limit yourself to one school of interpretation. Because of
the many types of dreams, and messages within dreams, we should feel
free to use ideas and techniques from every school -- Jungian,
Freudian, Gestalt, etc., as well as the various types of dreamwork.
Each dream might require a different approach in order to reap its
value. Jung said that every dream should invite us to create a
"totally new theory of dreams."
- Don't limit yourself to one interpretation. If we interpret a
dream more than once, we are likely to find different meanings. This
probably occurs because the same psychological tendencies are likely
to manifest in various ways; for example, if one interpretation says
that we need to be more patient with our children, another
interpretation might suggest that we should be patient with our
projects at work, or that we need to "stop and smell the roses" with
regard to our life in general, or that our body is being damaged by
the stress. We can learn more from our dreams if we seek multiple
meanings. Jung said that the "correct" interpretation is one which
seems reasonable and usable. During one interpretation, my inner child
said, "This whole dream could be interpreted on a deeper level, but
this interpretation is valid. Don't worry about getting things on the
deepest level; just accept things at whatever level is comfortable for
you. Your life can work on any one of a number of levels. All levels
- Don't limit yourself to one dream. Dreams are not isolated from
one another; they repeat previous themes (perhaps in different
contexts and symbolism), and they present an update on a changing
situation (using symbols which have evolved to represent the changes),
and they continue a story-line from one dream to the next (as if each
dream were a chapter in a book). In our dream journal, we can find
correlations among dreams, particularly those which occurred during
the same sleep-period. (Some themes might recur during a course of
years.) As we study our previous dreams, we can gain insight into a
dream which we are currently trying to interpret. Jung placed little
value on the interpretation of individual dreams; he felt that they
could be understood only as part of a series.
- Don't accept an interpretation at face value. Although this book
frequently ascribes wisdom to the unconscious mind, the purpose of the
conscious mind is to challenge that "wisdom" in the context of the
facts and proprieties of wakeful life. When we receive a message from
the unconscious mind, we need to accept it as only a suggestion and
then discern whether its application would be sensible and productive.
If a message seems ridiculous, we should try to find a different
interpretation which is useful.
- Don't assume that the dream is being straight-forward. Some dreams
are expressing the opposite of what they seem to be saying; this could
be because of our misinterpretation or because the Freudian "censor"
has been successful in masking the real meaning of the dream. Other
dreams are simply "not what they seem." In one dream, I was on a
stage, and I felt nervous because I was being watched by a man in the
audience. If I had accepted a superficial interpretation of the dream,
I might have assumed that I needed to perform correctly for that
important person. However, my inner child said, "You are strong when
you are no one's actor. That's the secret: It's a phony situation set
up to test you. You pass the test if you throw the script into his
face."Don't be confused by "run-on dreams." Sometimes one dream leads
directly into another; the second dream might even retain certain
elements from the first. When an interpretation becomes too
complicated, consider the possibility that you are trying to
understand two separate dreams as if they were one.
- Don't give up on the attempt to interpret a dream. When the
meaning does not become apparent to us, we can set a dream aside. More
ideas about the possible meaning might occur to us later in the day;
both Jung and Freud said that some of their own dreams were not
understandable until years later. We might be able to comprehend the
dream after we have had time to ponder it, or after we have
interpreted other dreams which help us to decipher this one, or after
a wakeful event reveals that this was a precognitive dream, or after
we have gained enough insight into our wakeful life and psychological
dynamics that we can recognize the forces which were expressing
themselves in the dream.
Rely on the "aha" factor. This is also called "the tingle
test"; it is a confirmation that an interpretation is probably correct.
When we touch upon that interpretation, there is a sudden feeling, or
gut reaction, or surge of energy, or a burst of joy, or an instinctive
general sense of rightness. However, this response does not indicate
that this interpretation is the only correct one; we might experience
another "aha" when we find a different meaning in the dream. And
sometimes we discover an accurate meaning without feeling a response;
this could occur because we are not monitoring our reactions, or because
we are in a dream group where we are too self-conscious to allow our
feelings to emerge, or because we simply don't recognize the
interpretation's validity at that particular moment. Use the right
hemisphere for interpretation. The "aha" response is more likely to
occur if we are in a relaxed, playful, right-hemisphere mode (which can
be encouraged by allowing the mind to wander, and the hand to doodle).
Primarily we use our intuition; the intellect plays a backup role to
keep our reverie aligned with wakeful "reality." Have a sense of
adventure and fun and passion, to keep the right hemisphere engaged.
Use associations to interpret your dreams. Freud used a
specific technique called "free association," but most dream
interpreters use an informal means of relating elements to meanings.
While seeking associations, we need to let our minds roam in an
uncensored, uncritical, unhurried, right-hemisphere reverie. We can ask
ourselves the following questions in regard to each element of the
- What do I feel when I think about, or visualize, this element?
Have I felt that same way about anything in my wakeful life?
- How would I describe this element to another person? Does the
element exhibit traits which I possess?
- When I contemplate the characteristics of this element, do I feel
envy, dislike, admiration, another emotion? Could this element be
representing a feature which I disown or dispute in myself?
- Does this element correspond to anything which happened during
wakefulness in the preceding day or week? (We can review a longer
period of time; one reason is that dreams sometimes happen on the
anniversaries of events.) Does it correspond to the topic I was
considering as I entered sleep?
- What wakeful memories are evoked by this element?
- What is the first thought that occurs to me when I ponder this
- If I write a paragraph about this element, what do I write?
- If I imagine myself to be that element, what am I feeling or
- If I say the dream-dialogue, or my description of an element, what
emotions are expressed in my voice?
- Do I recognize any puns in the dream? (For example, I had a dream
in which a stream of raw egg was pouring onto my head; a friend
suggested that I was being "egged on" by someone.)
- If I saw this symbol in my wakeful life, what would it mean to me?
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