Given the power of dreams to reveal ourselves to ourselves, why do relatively few take advantage of this opportunity? Early societies had symbolic and mystical explanations for every life experience, including dreams. In a postmodern, global culture, many of us have not been taught a way to understand dreams.

Understanding the Language of Dreams

Your dreams deliver a rich soup of information every day. How can you remember them?

How To Remember Your Dreams

  1. Ask yourself to dream about something you want help with before going to sleep.
  2. Record dreams before they fade using a notepad or tape recorder.
  3. Take what you get, even a dream fragment.
  4. Don’t overdo alcohol or other sedatives before bedtime—they can disrupt sleep and make it harder to remember dreams.
  5. Get enough sleep to help you better recall your dreams.
  6. Be patient. You may not remember your dreams right away.
  7. Don’t lose a lot of sleep trying to remember every dream.

Types of Dreams

There are very different types of dreams. Mostly, we experience dreams as a composite of familiar experiences. Those experiences may flow into each other more suddenly or abruptly than in waking life. These ordinary dreams usually do contain significant meaning worth exploring.

Other kinds of dreams may shake you up or even challenge your model of reality. The most commonly recognized categories of dreams are as follows (a single dream may fit more than one of these categories):

  • Ordinary
  • Guiding
  • Repetitive
  • Archetypal
  • Nightmares
  • Lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences
  • Paranormal
  • “Big” dreams
  1. Guiding dreams can outline the core issue a person is struggling with and provide extensive guidance on how to proceed with treatment. Other guiding dreams may offer meaningful perspectives from an inner healer or teacher.
  2. Repetitive dreams suggest that the unrealized dream material has not been understood or the dreamer can’t or won’t respond to it.
  3. Archetypal dreams contain universal forms (archetypes). For example, an image of a golden sphere can represent wholeness and completion of long internal work.
  4. Nightmares are sufficiently frightening that they awaken the dreamer to a situation unaddressed in conscious life. The dreamer usually recalls nightmare contents. This is different from “sleep terrors” where someone may awaken in a terrified state but be unable to record the dream contents. The difference may be physiological, since sleep terrors are produced during a deeper state of sleep.
  5. In a lucid dream, the dreamer is aware of dreaming and is able to make conscious choices within the dream. Lucid dreams may correspond with a heightened ability to maintain consciousness in relaxed states, something found in people who advance in meditation practice or consciously pursue dreamwork.

    In addition to being awake within a lucid dream, some people report an experience of leaving their bodies during the dream state. Dr. Stephen LaBerge favors the view that these out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are a product of the imagination. He has conducted research that supports his belief. Dr. Charles Tart is another respected researcher whose experiments support his belief that people can partially separate from their physical bodies and even report objective perceptions obtained during OBEs.

  6. Paranormal dreams are those said to contain information one might not otherwise know through the physical senses. (You don’t need to believe in psychic abilities to benefit from the imagery produced by the sleeping mind.) It’s not unusual, for instance, for people to dream that someone has died and find out that later that this was true, even though it was unexpected and they hadn’t been told. Such dreams may be more common with highly-charged emotional events.
  7. “Big” dreams contain visions or information beyond one’s daily, personal concerns. These are relatively rare and may be more common to people of intellectual, visionary or spiritual stature. An example of such a dream is that of C. G. Jung before one of the great world wars of the 20th century, in which he saw Europe floating in an ocean of blood.

Working with Dreams in Therapy

It was nothing, really. Just people and things I see every day. — a frequent client statement.

At the start of therapy, I encourage clients to bring any dream material they remember. Discussion of dream contents stimulates the imaginations of therapist and client and evokes creative thinking about healing.

People often report unpleasant dreams early in therapy, which can discourage them from wanting to do dreamwork. They may have had similar or repetitive unpleasant dreams for years. Jung discovered that as people go progressively deeper in exploring unconscious contents, the layer they encounter on the surface is shadow material—those aspects of themselves they reject or ignore. For instance, a dreamer may be chased by a gang of threatening people in a dark street. When faced, the gang members may represent insights or attitudes that have been pressing for consciousness but have been resisted by the dreamer. Pushing such contents below awareness tends to add to their power and threatening nature.

You’ve probably seen books about dream interpretation or symbolism. These can be helpful, but if followed rigidly can miss the point entirely. For example, saying that a body of water in a dream represents the unconscious will be off base if you miss the dreamer’s personal memories of a lake where she spent her teenage summers. Associations to that lake are more likely to be meaningful than the “cookbook” interpretation alone.

Dream details lead to associations that may bring emotions to the surface or stimulate important memories. If you see a familiar person in your dream, I may ask you about him. Is he someone you once knew? A current friend? What do you think of him? Are there things about him you find admirable, peculiar or irritating? You may dream about people you know because they portray an attitude you’re bringing to your current life situation. In this sense, that person in your dream is a part of you being presented in dream language.

The skilled interpretation of dreams can assist therapeutic work by delving into the multiple layers of meaning found in a dream. Although some of that meaning may be inaccessible to conscious realization at this time, the meanings on the surface may be apparent enough to promote growth.

Dream Interpretation

The layers of meaning in dreams offer a sense of the richness of dream experience for self-realization. These layers begin on the surface with material that is closest to consciousness. Emotions or thoughts that haven’t been given enough attention may be at this near-surface level. Even at this level, dreams offer us a chance to change a one-sided attitude.

At this layer one may already see transference material. Transference is the dreamer’s attachment to the therapist and reflects both healthy and distorted attachments to other important figures who influenced formation of the dreamer’s psychological self. When a therapist interprets transference material with tact and sensitivity, this can help the dreamer realize attachment conflicts in the here-and-now of the therapy experience and promote healing.

A phenomenon that is close to the surface and connected with a layer below it is what Freud described as wish fulfillment. Here, a person may dream of loving interaction with an estranged spouse, for instance.

The next deepest layer reveals aspects of the dreamer’s personal unconscious. There are many technical terms to describe functioning at this layer. For simplicity’s sake, consider interactions between your urges and your conscience. Or consider the difficulty of making an important decision about a relationship, where you’re torn between two alternatives. Touching upon such situations may bring forgotten memories to the surface and offer opportunities for healing.

Consider a boy, for instance, who had a harsh, authoritarian father. The boy vowed never to be like his father, deciding instead to be the model of calm fairness when differing with others. In situations that closely resemble the drama with his father, the father complex is unconsciously triggered into action. Thus, confrontation with a submissive and ineffectual employee or a harsh, authoritarian boss can induce the boy, now man, to replay conflicts of dominance or submission. Each pole represents an extreme, and one identifies with either pole when the trigger is activated. When activation is intense, it is linked to age-old instincts.

The connection between complexes and archetypes is one way that the personal unconscious links to the objective psyche. The objective psyche where archetypes reside is more than a mere repository of ancient stories, or myths. Many believe that it is a larger, living intelligence. Others find such evidence in transpersonal experiences, such as paranormal perceptions or visions during dreams, and in synchronicities, paranormal perceptions, and visions while awake.

Many in Western technological culture reject the possibility of paranormal or psychic perception because accepting such a possibility seems to contradict scientific models of cause and effect. However, scientific theories, such as that of quantum physics, do allow for interactions of objects at a distance and independent of time. There is an extensive body of research that demonstrates with substantial statistical significance that paranormal abilities are real (see Radin, 1997).

Jung wrote of a female client who dreamed she was given a golden scarab. As she was telling him this dream, a beetle closely resembling a golden scarab knocked at the window. Jung opened the window, caught the beetle and presented it to the client. This meaningful coincidence shook up her rigid reality construct and helped start her healing process. He writes that the dream also had archetypal roots directly related to the synchronicity:

Any essential change of attitude signifies a psychic renewal which is usually accompanied by symbols of rebirth in the patient’s dreams and fantasies. The ancient Egyptian Book of What Is in the Netherworld describes how the dead sun-god changes himself at the tenth station into Khepri, the scarab, and then, at the twelfth station, mounts the barge which carries the rejuvenated sun-god into the morning sky.


  • Jung, C. G. (1954). The practical use of dream analysis. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), The practice of psychotherapy: Essays on the psychology of the transference and other subjects (2nd ed., paragraph 343). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Freud, S. (1950). The interpretation of dreams. A. A. Brill, trans. New York: Random House. (Original work published 1900)
  • This helpful tip comes from the website of the Lucidity Institute, which is a treasure trove of information about dreams and lucid dreams. Their extensive article on how to remember your dreams can be found at this link.
  • Knowledgeable readers may have seen other dream categories or definitions of types of dreams. My purpose in this article is to give a brief and readable overview. I invite you to e-mail me with any comments or suggestions of additional material for this introduction to dreamwork. You don’t have to believe in paranormal or psi abilities to benefit from dreamwork.
  • Jung, C. G. Dream analysis: Notes of the seminar given in 1928 – 1930 by C. G. Jung. (W. McGuire, ed., p. 205). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • This differentiation is cited at (retrieved February 13, 2005) where sleep terrors are said to occur during NREM (nonrapid eye movement) sleep and nightmares occur during REM sleep.
  • From Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 26, 1913. Cited at, retrieved January 29, 2005.
  • For benefits of lucid dreaming, see The Lucidity Institute’s FAQ page.
  • Dr. LaBerge has written online about OBEs as an imagined perception. Dr. Tart has posted online about his view and experiments about OBEs, which were previously found at As of August 15, 2005, that website address is no longer functioning.
  • Hall, James A. (1983). Jungian dream interpretation: A handbook of theory and practice. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.
  • Jung, C. G. (1960). A review of the complex theory. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), The structure and dynamics of the psyche (pp. 92-104). New York: Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1948)
  • Jung, C. G. (1960). Synchronicity: An acausal connecting principle. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), The structure and dynamics of the psyche (pp. 417-531). New York: Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1952). Paragraphs 843 and 845.