A lot of us are drawn to working with our dreams. Knowing where to start and how to go about it can be confusing. Here are some basic tools to help you with the process.
1. Tell yourself the whole dream. Tell yourself the dream from start to finish so that you have a sense of it as a complete narrative. Dreams sometime seem to open somewhere in the middle — things are already in process. Capture this information as fully as possible.
Tony, in his early 30s, dreamed that he was on an island, but before the dream started there had been some kind of a catastrophe that resulted in his being there. For Tony this unspecified catastrophe was part of the set-up of the dream — something he knew about when he stopped to think about it.
Also include your feeling responses to the images and events. Mark and Bob both had recurrent dreams of being naked in public. For Mark the feeling tone was one of mortification, but for Bob it was mildly pleasant. Sometimes the disparity between the happenings of the dream and the intensity of the feelings that accompany them is what makes the dream powerful and memorable.
Writing down dreams is an effective way to be fully present to them. Some people keep a file in their computer, some write a blog and many use hardcover journals. Keeping a dream journal next to your bed so that you see it as you’re getting ready for sleep can act as a cue for recalling your dreams in the morning. An added benefit of documenting dreams is that it’s easier to notice and follow sequences and themes.
2. Explore and establish your associations to the dream images. Next, follow out the associations you have for the people, places and objects in the dream. If other people were present, were they known or unknown? If known, who were they, and what’s the context in your waking life in which you know them? If unknown, what type of person were they — a threatening, shadowy figure, a helpful old man or woman, a homeless man making eye contact with you? How do you feel about homeless people? What do you think about when you think of homeless people?
Maria, in her early 60s, had recurrent dreams of being invited for a walk by a group of her family members. While these had all been people she loved in life, in the dream she realized that each of them had died, so that leaving the house with them seemed like taking a scary risk.
Arthur, the same age as Maria, dreamed he was in an unknown work environment, which made him feel anxious. But his co-workers were people he knew and liked from all of his previous jobs, and their company made him feel better.
Another way to track associations is through “big stories” you may know. For some, these come from fairy tales, mythology or religious tradition. For others, movies provide access to big stories. Big stories are less about anyone’s personal history and experience and more about themes from your culture.
Tom dreamed that he was a boy and his father gave him the keys to the car, which he then drove off of a bridge. This had never happened to him in waking life, but it’s a pretty close parallel to the Greek myth of Phaethon and the chariot of the sun.
3. Link the dream to your waking life. Once you’ve made associations to the images in the dream, which act like definitions for them, link them to what’s happening in your life currently. Here it’s the associations that form the place to link. For instance, in Arthur’s dream, the anxiety about the unknown workplace connected to the fact that he had recently changed jobs and was feeling uncertain about the future. The friendly colleagues from each company he’d worked during his career were expressions of his sense of the skills and expertise he was bringing with him into his new career.
Maria linked the threat of being taken to the other world with concerns about her psychological stability. As she explored this theme, she realized that she had a version of this dream whenever events in her life stacked up so that she felt under pressure.
Tom had never been very interested in Greek mythology, but he had been thinking a lot lately about the relationship with his father, including the amount of responsibility his father had given him early on. He frequently felt worried at work that he wasn’t going to be able to fulfill his responsibilities and that some vague but catastrophic event would result because of this.
When he heard the story of how Phaethon was given permission by his father to drive the sun chariot, couldn’t control it and was struck by lightning because he was endangering the earth, it resonated with his dream. He was able to identify how the desire to not disappoint his father had played out in his life, what some of the consequences were and how he wanted to take better care of himself.
One of the effects of working with dreams is to become aware of deep and often unconscious responses to life. This provides a platform from which to address issues before they become problematic, to increase self-knowledge and to practice good and compassionate self-care.