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I do not presume to be an expert on dreams or dream analysis. But I have been studying dreams for over 20 years. In 1985, one of my professors strongly urged me to attend the Jungian Institute in Switzerland. It never came to be, but it encouraged me to take dreams seriously, to study the science of dreams, and to develop the art of analyzing them. I have found understanding my own dreams indispensable in my own life, and I have helped many people understand their own. Having said that, you can take or leave what I’ve written here. But I hope it helps, and if you haven’t taken dreams seriously before, I hope this might encourage you to do so starting today. Here are 10 basic steps to help you understand your dreams:

  1. Write the dream as completely as possible in present tense. Some people keep three columns: one for the dream; the middle one to list the elements; the third to write some interpretations of the elements and the general meaning. Some people tell me that they don’t have dreams. Not true. Everybody dreams. Others say that they don’t remember their dreams. That can change. You will be surprised, once you become more intentional about your dreams, just how many you will have and remember in a night. Be as detailed and accurate as possible. Sometimes the smallest detail in a dream can be the most important. Writing in the present tense helps keep it fresh and alive. Keep a journal handy. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night from a dream. If I want to pay attention to this particular one, I’ll write it into my journal right away.
  2. Consider your life right now, that is, the context of the dream. What’s going on in your life that this dream emerges in? It may not be obvious at first. Again, keeping a journal can help here. Carl Jung, one of the greatest pioneers of dream analysis, said that dreams are the unconscious compensation for the waking life. So, although sometimes dreams can be about others, most of the time dreams are telling you about yourself. So there’s probably something going on in your life right now that you aren’t conscious of, but that you are aware of deep down inside. I recently had a dream which revealed to me that even though a certain person was being nice to me on a superficial level, that deep down inside their was something disingenuous about this person’s behavior that I needed to be aware of. So, even though the dream was revealing the superficiality of a certain person, what it was really doing was helping me to realize how easily blinded I was by someone’s disingenuous kindness.
  3. Approach the dream with an open mind and courage. Your dreams will often reveal not only positive things about yourself, but negative ones too. We are very, very complex beings. We have several aspects to our complicated personalities. I like my iceberg theory of the human being. The 10% that is above water is our conscious selves. The other 90% is submerged, dark, unseen and mysterious. This is the unconscious from which dreams emerge to inform us. As we understand our dreams, coming to a deeper and more whole understanding of ourselves, this is integrated into our conscious selves, which make us more whole human beings. But the submerged part grows as more is integrated into our conscious selves because it is tapped into “humanity” in general. Jung called this the “archetypal”. This is complicated, but I believe this is where the whole human race is truly connected on a very deep level that we cannot easily understand.
  4. Write down thoughts beside the dream. Sometimes just sitting with the dream in front of you can conjure up some interesting associations. Write these down. So, for instance, if you dreamed of your sister’s cat, write down anything you feel about the cat, your sister, the way she treats the cat, how the cat treats you. What’s your general feeling about cats? Suddenly, you realize that even though your sister’s cat is dark brown, in the dream it was black. Hm! What does this mean to you? Does this mean you think the cat is evil, and that you don’t like the cat at all, even though you pretend to like it to keep peace with your evil sister? This part is more about what your think about certain parts of the dream. Your first impressions. Nothing is unimportant.
  5. Write what you feel about the dream and its parts. How did you feel during the dream? Did you feel fear? Do you feel fear when you read the dream now? Why? Was it deep water you were swimming in? Why were you afraid? Can you swim? Did you nearly drown as a child? Or someone you know? Are you afraid of sharks or eels or seaweed? What are you feeling about this deep water? Vulnerable? Threatened? Terrified? Write all your feelings down. It takes some practice and skill to be able to name a feeling, but you can do it. I remember when I was being trained in this area, one of our exercises was to hear a story and to diagnose what the person was feeling. It can be done!
  6. There are four parts to a dream: The first is the exposition (I was in a boat.); the second is the development (something happens to further the story: then my son joined me); third is the culmination (something decisive happens, good or bad: he then kicked me in the ass and said, “Why do you always talk down to me?”); the fourth and final part is the conclusion (solution or result: I cried and asked him to forgive me). Anyway, I made up that dream. (I wonder if I should analyze that?) It is helpful to remember these parts because it gives structure to what is sometimes a mysterious and intimidating thing. It becomes a story that perhaps can be understood in time.
  7. Then, boldly make your own associations. That is, write down what you think about or feel when you look at the “apple” that appeared in your dream. Apples don’t always mean temptation, like in the garden of Eden. If you associate picking an apple with remembering stealing apples from a neighbors tree and getting shot with rock-salt (yes, that happened to me!), then apples could be a symbol of “trespassing” to you. I often hear people say that “dog” means “best friend” or something cozy and faithful. But, what if you were attacked by a dog as a child? Then dogs could mean something threatening, dangerous and harmful for you. Or you may associate a certain song with a gorgeous girlfriend at summer camp. Make as many associations as you can. I discourage people from using dream dictionaries for this reason. They are, in my opinion, mostly useless. I don’t feel there are universal interpretations for every symbol, except for maybe a few (like water or a basement may symbolize the unconscious; and a car may symbolize the ego; and a policeman may symbolize your inner judgmental and self-critical voice). You can interpret your dreams without a dream dictionary!
  8. Meditate long and hard on archetypal dreams. I call these “big dreams” because they seem to speak about something big, important and mysterious. These dreams feel momentous, and often contain amazing symbols such as masks, helpful talking animals, demons, gods, goddesses, dragons, hidden treasure, ceremonies, witches, wise old men, and so much more. These kind of dreams often appear at important moments in our lives. They are unforgettable. I remember one night in 1985 I had a dream about a mask made of stained glass. A deep voice said, “My name is Morpheus!” I awakened literally afraid for my life. I never heard the name before, and I felt I had met some kind of spiritual being. I went to the library and after some research discovered that Morpheus is the Greek god of dreams. To this day, I felt I was touched by the numinous that was communicating to me both the beauty and superficiality of religion. Frightening but important. They can provide profound insight into your self, and sometimes they can even provide important direction in your life and help you make a difficult decision.
  9. Adopt an attitude of acceptance toward the negative images in your dreams. They may change it into something harmless and it may even eventually disappear. I believe that what we hate most in others we are most blind to in ourselves. It’s called transference. At some time or another we are going to meet with an evil presence in our dreams. I often hear people tell me that a demon visited them in a dream and frightened them and that they need protection. I advise them to realize that this isn’t necessarily so. More often, what the dream is revealing to us is our own dark side that is so repugnant to us that we label it evil and even demonic. These kind of dreams are tools to help us become more self aware, which means discovering, embracing and integrating what we think are the darker aspects of our nature. I realize this may be disagreeable to many people, but I’ve become convinced that this is true. I have found, as have many others, that as soon as you adopt an attitude of acceptance of your dark side, the frightening presence in your dreams will disappear.
  10. Sometimes dreams are for more than just ourselves. They can be for others too. They can be for the collective good. There are many stories from tribes that have been lead to water or food or out of danger because of a dream of one of the elders. In 1997, I had a dream of a space ship that would boldly go where no man has gone before. I was the captain. I knew an alien presence had infiltrated my crew and that there was going to be a mutiny. I knew which person was going to lead it. Sure enough, within weeks this very person effectively lead a split that almost completely destroyed the church. It was a warning to me and those who were with me that helped us prepare for the traumatic weeks ahead. A biblical example might be Joseph’s dreams that saved a nation, and therefore other nations, from destruction due to a terrible famine. Or what about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” from his “I have a dream” speech? Sure, we can all agree that it is metaphorical. But what if he did have a literal dream in which he saw many diverse people together in mutual acceptance and love, and this fired his energy to work for that collective good?

So, there you have 10 simple beginner steps to help you understand your own dreams a little better. You can do it! I might be inspired to write weekly on dreams. I work with them almost every day, and I think this might be helpful. Leave a comment. Tell me what you think!