The Art of Dream Interpretation:
How to Discover the Meaning of Your Dreams
BY DR. CHRISTOPHER SOWTON
there is an entire art and science dedicated to dream interpretation and understanding their meaning known as dreamworking.
The Language of Dreams
I do not believe, as Freud did, that dream interpretation and information is usually disguised or latent, repressed, or taboo. In Freud’s writing there is often a sense that the true meaning of the dream is hiding itself from the dreamer; it is there, but it requires the analyst to see through its disguise, analyze it, and explain it to the dreamer.This is certainly not my experience; I believe the dream tries to communicate with the dreamer as clearly as it possibly can. However, when it comes to understanding the meaning of dreams, we need to consider the dream language.
Why then are most dreams not more straightforward in what they are trying to say? Many people wonder: “If a dream wants to give me a message, why doesn’t it just come right out and give me the message, clearly and literally?” I believe the dreammaker is indeed trying to be clear and direct but speaking in its own native language—the language used in the land of the sleeping dreaming mind. Those of us who want to understand dreams must become familiar with this language. To understand what dreams mean, it is important to understand the meaning of dream symbols.
Do You Speak Dreamish?
If you want to become a dreamworker and understand what dreams mean, you must dedicate a good chunk of time to learning the language of dream interpretation and dream analysis. The amount of time required is probably roughly equivalent to the time required to learn spoken languages—it will take you months to learn how to get by and years to become fluent, but it will be well worth it! There are five key aspects to the language of dreams:
+ Dreams use figures to “play parts” (these may be parts of the dreamer’s psyche or important figures and features of the dreamer’s life)
+ Dreams use metaphor and symbols
+ Dreams contain feelings and emotions that correspond to the feelings and emotions we experience in our waking lives
+ Dreams often employ exaggeration and heightened urgency
+ Dreams use figures of speech, idioms, puns, and wordplay
The Use of Figures to Play Parts
Most dreams typically feature the dream ego (the “I” in the dream) and one or more other key figures or entities. One of the most important skills of dream interpretation, or dreamwork, involves being able to determine who these figures are representing, which helps uncover the meaning of dreams. Are they representing parts of the dreamer? They may be, but not always. It is an often-repeated misconception that everything in our dream is a part of us. This is most certainly not true—we can dream about anything, and we often dream about people and things external to us.
Lyra, a 58-year-old woman, was struggling to free herself from a strong web of enmeshment with her family of origin. She felt manipulated and repeatedly disappointed by her father, yet still longed for his love and hoped that he would finally do the right thing and become the father that she wanted. Her dream George, Brittany, Tony, and Me features a dream ego and three other figures, and it illustrates how crucial it is to dream interpretation to get clear on which figure is playing which part—otherwise understanding what dreams mean can be difficult.“George Clooney is a killer. He is going to kill two people—Brittany Murphy and Tony Soprano. But I know about this and I grab him. I hold him upside down over a balcony, threatening to drop him. In the end I decide not to drop him.”
Clearly these three famous actors are not representing themselves here, as is usually the case when it comes to understanding what dreams mean through dream interpretation. Lyra’s psyche has enlisted them to play parts in her dream. Famous people are used in dreams all the time because they have clear and exaggerated attributes, which can help explain the dream’s meaning. Lyra described George Clooney as “handsome and charming, but can be a killer.” Her associations for Brittany Murphy were “powerless, sensitive, fragile, like a lamb to the slaughter.” Tony Soprano was “strong, selfish, brutal, but also wounded.”
Now in order to determine the meaning of this dream, we needed to figure out who these actors are representing in the dream. As we worked on the dream analysis, it soon became clear that George Clooney was playing the role of Lyra’s father (a very charming and seductive figure in waking life). George Clooney’s intent to kill the two other figures at the beginning of the dream represented two ways that Lyra felt her father was harming her. First, he was harming her sensitive and fragile Brittany Murphy-like part, constantly raising her expectations and then wounding her with disappointment and grief. Second, he was harming her strong and self-assertive Tony Soprano-like part, a part of her that was able to function very well in most areas of her life but was weakened and wounded when it came to her father.
when interpreting dream symbols it is important to remember that their meanings are often highly personalized.
Through hard personal work and a little dream interpretation, Lyra has recently come to understand the dream’s meaning that she must protect herself from her father’s repeated pattern of seducing then harming. This is depicted in the dream symbology as her (the dream ego’s) ability to grab the father and hang him upside down over the balcony. Lyra’s dream is showing her that she is now stronger than he is (or we could say, she is now stronger in relation to her father complex, which had not been the case previously).
The dream is also posing a very important question—should she drop him? This would mean, metaphorically and psychologically, that she would be “killing” her susceptibility to being repeatedly taken in and hurt by her father through the closing of some inner door she still keeps open for him in hopes that he will finally come through as the good father she longs for.
So, in this dream interpretation we have four players on stage: the dream ego, one figure playing an outer part, and two figures playing inner parts. A dream like this cannot be understood and connected to the dreamer’s life in a satisfactory way until all the role-playing is clarified. For example, if we were to take George Clooney as an inner figure, a part of Lyra, it would lead us to considering her own seductive nature and the possible damage that it was doing to other parts of herself.We could try this on as an exercise in the dream analysis process, but if it does not resonate as true with the dreamer (and with the facilitator) it will get confusing and eventually bog down and end up going nowhere in particular. When this happens (which it often does in dreamwork) simply use the inner/outer guideline—switch your orientation from inner to outer and try again to interpret the dream meaning.
+ Tip: Write down two or three associations for each key figure in the dream
When a dream features a famous figure or someone the dreamer knows an easy way to interpret the dream’s meaning is to ask the dreamer to quickly list two or three descriptive words or associations that they would connect to that person (e.g., “handsome, charming, can be a killer”). Write them down and be prepared to quote them back to the dreamer as he or she tries to make the connections during the dream interpretation process. This will help both of you identify what part that figure is playing in the dream and ultimately help uncover what different dreams mean.
The Use of Metaphor
As dreamworkers we must always be on the lookout for dream symbols and metaphors, for anything that may stand for something else. Almost everything in a dream that is not realistic (i.e., a seemingly realistic depiction of someone or something in the dreamer’s waking reality) is likely to be making an appearance as a metaphor. For example, if we dream about an elephant it will almost always be appearing as a metaphor for something. If we recently saw an elephant at the zoo (or if we are an elephant keeper who actually works with elephants), we could be dreaming about a “real” (non-metaphorical) elephant whose plight we may be concerned about. But in most instances our dreammaker will be “using” the elephant to stand for something in us or in our world. Thus, it is imperative to look at these dream symbols when practicing dream interpretation and deciding what a dream means.
Having surmised that the dream elephant is a metaphor for something, we still do not know the meaning of the dream because we don’t know if the metaphor is pointing inward (standing for an aspect of the dreamer that is elephant-like) or outward (standing for something or someone in the dreamer’s life that is elephant-like). As a key part of interpreting dreams, the dreamworker must perform a quick mental operation for every key figure that appears in the dream, which goes something like this:
+ Is the elephant referring to a real elephant, or is it a metaphor? Or might it be functioning as both?
+ If it is a metaphor, is it an inward-pointing metaphor, standing for an aspect of the dreamer?
+ Or is it an outward-pointing metaphor, standing for someone or something in the dreamer’s life?
+ Or might it have both an inner and an outer aspect?
The dream metaphor is precisely chosen for its qualities and associations. The dream object or figure that is functioning as a metaphor is not chosen randomly. The dreammaker will make its choice for a very precise reason that has to do with the outstanding qualities of that object or figure. An elephant, for most people, would carry associations of great size and power, but also gentleness, dignity, and wisdom.Of course, it is always the dreamer’s associations that are most relevant when it comes to dream interpretation, and the facilitator must ask what those associations are for every key dream symbol and figure if they are not spontaneously given. Keeping track of these associations are a valuable resource for uncovering the meanings of dreams.
Domenica, a 35-year-old woman, was overworked, exhausted, and close to a health crisis. She felt that she was giving far too much of herself to her work and not getting much satisfaction in return, yet she could not seem to change the situation. In her second dream interpretation appointment with me, she told me a dream of a big loon (a duck-like water bird of the northern lake country). We called the dream The Big Loon.
“I’m driving in my car, and I notice something off with the steering. I try to turn left, and it’s going right, and it’s almost like there’s no proper steering connection; there’s something not right. So I decide to park the car. I don’t bump into anything. I’m safe. I’m able to park. When I get out of the car and this older woman comes running down the road, and she says to me that I can’t park there. She says it’s blocking her driveway and there’s no way I can park. So then I notice this younger woman who’s next to my car, who’s being a little more cooperative. We exchange numbers and I tell her I’ll be back for the car. I just have to make sure it’s safe before I get into it again. Then I see a lake and there’s a loon, an oversized loon. It’s definitely a loon but it’s huge. I think, “Wow, it’s beautiful!” It’s looking at me, trying to get my attention somehow. I don’t know what it wants. All I know is I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of it, the size of it, the colors, the rich colors, the calmness of it, the grace of it. It was so graceful and so big.”
This is a wonderful dream that lends itself well to dream interpretation. It is a good example of an Inspiring Contact dream in which the dreammaker presents a numinous image to the dreamer that has the power to move and inspire. In this case, the dream meaning seems to be saying that if Domenica can slow down the dangerous pace of her life and “park” herself for a moment she will experience something very special. She will experience something very large, very rich, very colorful, very beautiful; something peaceful, calm, and graceful. If we look at what this dream means through a metaphor-exposing lens, we see that there are multiple metaphors at work here, as there are in almost every coherent dream:
+ The car is a dream symbol for how Domenica exercises control over where her life is going.
+ The problem with her car’s steering is a metaphor for the fact that she is not in control of where her life is going at this time; therefore, it is not a time to be driving.
+ Parking is a metaphor for being able to slow down and stop herself.
+ The old woman who tells her she cannot park there is a metaphor for an old (long-standing) part of her that believes she cannot slow down and stop.
+ The younger, more cooperative woman is a metaphor for a newer part of Domenica that has recently learned how to be more internally self-caring and self-supporting, making it possible for her to stop, at least for a short time.
+ Exchanging numbers is a metaphor for being in better communication with this new part of herself.
+ The loon is a dream symbol for the wondrous part of her that she will encounter if she can slow down and stop over-working.
+ The over-sized stature of the loon is a metaphor for its huge importance in her psyche.
None of these metaphors are hidden, or disguised, locked, or buried; they are fully exposed and open for viewing, requiring only some sort of recognition and translation. The facilitator has three tasks in using dream interpretation to understand the dream’s meaning: First, to recognize the loon metaphor; second, to help the dreamer consider that this dream is speaking about an emerging aspect of herself; and third, to stress the importance of this development. To use the language of the dream, this would mean encouraging Domenica to park her car as soon as possible and make the encounter with the loon her top priority. Previous experience working with such dreams and what these dreams mean tells us that if she can encounter the loon and incorporate it with her sense of who she is and what she is like, she may experience a very positive change.
The Use of Feelings and Emotions
Along with dream symbols, dreams are typically laden with feelings and emotions. Strangely, the feeling content is often the first aspect of the dream that is forgotten upon waking in the morning. Many people will report a dream as if they are telling a story to which they have no emotional attachment; they remember the events and the characters but they have forgotten the feelings. This is why it is so important for dream interpretation and dream analysis to encourage your clients (and yourself) to make a special point to remember and record the feeling tones that were present in every part of the dream. The correspondence between the feeling tones of the dream and the feeling tones of that person’s waking life is often very close; so much so that one of the most effective ways to help a person connect a dream to their life and understand the meanings of dreams is through the feeling tones. We dream about what concerns us, worries us, what moves us, what frightens us, what saddens us—the concerns and experiences of our emotional body are shared by the waking ego and the dream ego.
Here is an example of a series of dreams where there is a close correspondence between the feelings of the dream and the feelings of waking life, which help uncover the dream’s meaning and can be a key piece of the art and science of dream interpretation. Carrie, a 34-year-old woman, is struggling with serious health concerns. Her family is very supportive, but she often feels they are over-supportive, too close, too quick to offer help, and too much in her life. Carrie had the following sequence of dreams, which she titled Can’t Find a Private Bathroom to Use!:
“I had four dreams in a row about toilets! What the heck does that mean? I need to pee in my dream, so I’m looking for a toilet to use. I find some, but I can never use them because there is no privacy. They are out in the open. In one dream I am holding two cracked eggs in my hands, trying to get into a toilet. I have to make sure I don’t drip the egg on the floor. When I finally find the bathroom, someone goes in right before me! She is just standing there the whole time by the door, then when she sees me coming she goes in. I get so angry at her that I start to hit her!”
During the dream interpretation process, Carrie made the connection that the inability to find a private toilet had the very same feeling that she often felt with her family, particularly her mother. When she needed some personal space to explore and express difficult emotions her family members would often jump in and offer to help at the very time when she most needed to be alone. She found it intrusive but felt she couldn’t tell them to back off because they were, after all, trying to be helpful. The dream analysis and dream meaning helped Carrie realize just how angry she had become about this issue, and she resolved to address it in a more proactive way.
The Use of Exaggeration and Heightened Urgency
There is often a sense in a dream that the unconscious is exaggerating the urgency of its dream symbols and messages, in order to try to get the attention of the ego and make sure that it takes the dream meaning seriously. This is particularly the case when a dream theme has been repeating for a while. Subsequent variations on the repeating theme tend to become more and more urgent, as if to say, “Why are you not getting this message? Okay then! If you refuse to listen I will send the message in an even more urgent way!”
For instance, Joan was caught up in a relationship in which she had been repeatedly lied to, cheated on, and deeply hurt. She was aware that she should try to leave the relationship; many friends had urged her to get out, but she was unable to. Joan kept hoping that her partner, Eddie, would finally realize what he was doing, change his ways, redeem himself, and that everything would be okay. She used dream interpretation sessions and techniques to understand the meaning of the dream, Eddie Shooting Me Again and Again:
“I’m in our kitchen with Eddie. He is across the room shooting me, again and again. I can feel the pain of the bullets going in to me. I’m bleeding from everywhere, dozens of bullet wounds. I don’t think it will kill me, although I am very badly hurt. I keep thinking that this will be the last shot. He will stop soon, I’ll go to hospital and get patched up, and I’ll recover.”
This dream gave a stark and accurate depiction of Joan’s situation, clearly very exaggerated, but accurate nevertheless. The dream analysis delivered a clear, simple, unambiguous and urgent message to her: you must get out of this situation; there is no sign that it is going to get any better and you cannot keep exposing yourself to this. Joan finally got the message and ended the relationship shortly after having this dream.
The Use of Figures of Speech, Idioms, Puns, and Wordplay
The dreammaker will stop at nothing to get the message and meaning of the dream across. It will stoop to using the most outrageous puns and double meanings. Figures of speech and colloquialisms are used constantly; they are so much a part of dream language that they are often completely overlooked. The dreamworker should be constantly on the lookout for this kind of thing when it comes to dream interpretation, because it can crack open the meaning of a dream in an instant when a figure of speech or a play on words is spotted.
The Language of Dreams in Practice
Learning any language, including dream interpretation, requires both study and practice. The language of dreams is no exception to this rule. The study part involves learning about how the language works. The practice part simply involves working through dozens and dozens of dreams and analyzing what the dreams mean until things start to feel familiar, and repeating motifs and patterns become readily recognizable.
This article on dream interpretation and meanings is excerpted with permission from Dreamworking: How to Listen to the Inner Guidance of Your Dreams by Dr. Christoper Sowton. © 2017 by Dr. Christopher Sowton. Used by permission from Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd., Llewellyn.com
About The Author
Dr. Christopher Sowton holds a BA from the University of Toronto and a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND) from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. He’s licensed as a Registered Psychotherapist (RP) in the province of Ontario and has been a teacher at CCNM since 1990. Additionally, he teaches dreamwork seminars for health care practitioners and runs a private health care practice, specializing in naturopathy, homeopathy, and counseling. Learn more at: christophersowton.com