4 Simple and Helpful Steps to Better Dream Interpretation
I have long been fascinated by dreams, but suspicious of books and websites that purport to interpret them for me. I agreed with the argument that only the dreamer can interpret the dream, but knew my interpretations to be superficial, self-serving and almost always wrong. Then my editor, who knew a lot about Carl Jung, turned me in the direction of various Jungian analysts. I found the work of Robert Johnson and dream interpretation has been easier, illuminating, and right-feeling ever since.
Dream Interpretation, Jung Style
Carl Jung believed that dreams did the “work of integrating our conscious and unconscious lives.” Jung referred to this process of integration as individuation, nicely explained on this site as “the mind’s quest for wholeness, or that quality of applied wisdom that separates elders from grumpy old men.”
Dreams are expressed as mythic narratives. They are ‘mythic’ because sometimes the symbols and images in our dreams are archetypes–universal psychological patterns that human beings have in common. Archetypes may be patterns in events (the hero’s journey, birth, marriage…), roles (the great mother, the wise old man, the trickster…) or motifs (the creation, the apocalypse…). Although all archetypes are present in every person’s unconscious, they combine in different ways in each of us.
Jung believed that dreams would do their work whether you interpreted them or not. However, says Robert Johnson, “By learning to do your own inner work, you gain insight into the conflicts and challenges that your life presents. You are able to search the hidden depths of your own unconscious to find the strengths and resources that wait to be discovered there.” (p.13) Working with your dreams helps you to know yourself and thereby live a more authentic life.
These were the ghost hours of the night. The hazy cataract dream of time, where we come unmoored from our lives, floating in non-space, in non-time, divorced from the context that makes us who we are.Noah Hawley
A Dream Example
I’d prefer to keep my dreams to myself. They feel too personal and, often, too silly to share. But Johnson’s four steps of dream interpretation are a bit confusing without an example, so here goes. This is a dream I had a couple of weeks ago. I got up at 4:00 a.m., wrote it down, and went back to bed. As it turns out, the writing wasn’t really necessary. This dream stayed in my mind, suggesting that it would prove to be important to me.
I am in an empty women’s washroom. There are perhaps a dozen toilets in doorless stalls. I need to go and am just about to sit down, when a man bustles in. He looks around and grins sheepishly, seeming startled and uncomfortable. I am very nurturing and caring, offering to show him where the men’s washroom is located.
I take the man outside and point to the sign for the men’s washroom. He is in a hurry and obviously uncomfortable but, as I watch, he gets in what turns out be a long, unmoving line snaking outside the men’s washroom into the open area. I think we must be in a mall or conference centre. It’s a covered area, huge trees in pots, lots of glass and sun coming in from above, metal railings because we are on the second floor.
The man–somehow I know his name is Mr. Liberty–is late middle-aged, very affable. He joins the line. I really need to go to the washroom myself but I go over and get him, telling him to come with me. As we return to the women’s washroom, I’m in charge and explaining the plan. I reassure Mr. Liberty that I will go in first, make sure the coast is clear, then I’ll stand guard at the door. He’s looking grateful, uncertain, like a little boy counting on me to be his saviour.
The dream splits into several fragments at once. In one version there’s a woman washing her hands. She argues when I ask her to leave. In another version, the same woman leaves when asked, no problem. In a third, no one is in the washroom and I’m thinking about taking a quick second to go myself before letting Mr. Liberty in.
I wake up needing, of course, to go to the washroom!
Dreams say what they mean, but they don’t say it in daytime language.Gail Godwin
Step One: Make Associations
Make a list of each image in your dream. Beside each image, list all of the associations (feelings, words, ideas) that come to mind. Here are mine:
- women’s washroom —choice, female, elemental
- needing to go–hidden message, elemental, urgency
- man–embarrassed, needing care, worried about his feelings, obedient, silent
- long line–sheep, passivity
- public space–money, comfort, conferences
- Mr. Liberty–freedom, liberty bell, “give me liberty or give me death”, secretive, formal-no first name
- me–taking charge, strong, capable, directive
- woman in washroom–choice
The critically important point is to return to the image for each association. In other words, don’t create chains of associations. A simple example is that I gave ‘sheep’ as an association for ‘long line’. If I had chained that association, I might have gone to “farms, woolly, bleating.” Those words would have taken me away from the dream’s meaning, not towards it.
No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it.Carl Jung
If your dream contains an archetype (mine didn’t), the dream will have a mythical quality to it. As Johnson explains, “Instead of scenes that seem like the everyday world, the dream takes you to a place that feels ancient, from another time, or like a fairy tale….Another sign is that things are bigger than life or smaller than life. Archetypes may also present themselves as otherworldly animals: talking lions, griffins, dragons, flying horses. (p.61)
My experience is that archetypal dreams feel exceptionally important and stay with you for a very long time. The sea turtle that is the logo for Profound Journey came to me in a very powerful dream some years ago; a dream whose details I remember still. When you have an archetypal dream, it’s very helpful to do some research in mythology or religion to better understand the archetype and the role it might be playing in your life.
The final part of this step is to choose an association for each image. Choose the association that clicks; the one that feels right. I have italicized the associations above that are most significant to me.
Step Two: Connect to Your Inner Life
Jung believed that everything in a dream referred to the dreamer and to an aspect of her/his inner life. If you dream about someone else, for example, it’s likely that your unconscious is working on a trait you share with that person.
In this second step, you therefore connect each image’s energetic association to yourself by asking, “What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately?”
This step takes time, but it is fascinating time that is well spent. As Johnson tells us, this most important step in dream work is “the one that determines whether you will find the wisdom in your dreams.”
Here is an example from my dream. I wrote the questions, “What part of me is take charge? Where have I seen take charge functioning in my life lately?” The ‘take charge’ part of my personality is well established. I didn’t think I’d learn anything new. But in writing my response to the question, in the context of my dream, I surprised myself.
I want to take charge of myself, to find a new purpose in life. But I am afraid to take charge in the wrong direction. I want to take charge in loving self-acceptance. But my usual way of taking charge is in bullying self-flagellation, slavishly adhering to restrictive routines, and making work all-consuming. Reading more of Johnson’s book, I can see that the take charge, directive part of me is doing battle with the part of me that feels unimportant and disconnected from the world. That’s the part I’ve called Liberty.
A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read.The Talmud
Step Three: Interpret the Dream
At this point, you take all of the work you have done and you answer the question, “What is the single most important message that this dream is communicating to me?”
A satisfactory dream interpretation gives you not only a significant insight, but a direct application to your personal life and how you are going to live.
Johnson offers principles for testing the validity of your interpretation. They are:
- Choose the interpretation that tells you something you didn’t already know. Assume your dream came to challenge you and help you grow.
- Avoid interpretations that make you look good or are self-congratulatory. Dreams are always focused on the unfinished business in your life.
- Avoid interpretations that are about other people being at fault or other people changing. Dreams are always about you.
Here’s the first paragraph of my dream interpretation:
This dream has helped me see that the old me–the take charge, work until you drop, do for others in the public arena, logic not feeling–that old me is not who I want to be. Liberty is the new me that wants to emerge. She is feeling and love, self-acceptance and self-understanding. Liberty wants to emerge. But not through therapy or marriage or getting heavily involved in other people’s lives. Liberty wants to read, dream, journal, make art, and learn to write scenes and true sentences.
Step Four: Create a Ritual
The word ‘ritual’ sounds a bit woo-woo, but Johnson is simply asking us to honour the dream by doing some small, concrete action. The dream is there to help you live your life so you need to do something to bring what you’ve learned into your conscious life.
In my case, my ritual is that I will spend a minimum of thirty minutes a day in my art studio, doing whatever comes to mind at the time. Sometimes, I turn to Jill Mellick’s book The Art of Dreaming where I always find creative ways to explore my dreams. Please see my post where I use the above Liberty dream to share five of Mellick’s creative activities.
What do you think? I hope you’ll give Johnson’s dream interpretation framework a try. If you do, please let us know what worked and what didn’t in the comments below.