What Does the Meaning of My Dreams Have to Do with My LIfe? #1
The internet is full of people who are willing to tell me “the meaning of my dreams” — but what do dreams actually have to do with the way I live my life?
From a case studies perspective, there is only one real justification for spending the time and effort to look at one’s dreams, and that is that the dreams must have some direct impact on the way life is lived. Otherwise, there’s just no point!
So, what can I determine about my life from my dreams? Well, here’s some things that we know…
Moving Away from the “Garbage Dump” Theory of Dreaming
When I studied psychology as an undergrad, the dominant theory that I was taught was that dreaming was a basically meaningless activity that amounted to the brain “clearing its tapes” during REM sleep, to allow space in memory for the following day. Thus dreams were reduced to something fairly banal and meaningless.
However, with the rise of neuroscience, this kind of an approach to dreaming seems to be gradually on the wane, and is being replaced by theories that recognize that dreaming is a psychologically meaningful activity of the brain, with implications for our personal journeys. Much research has contributed to this change in understanding.
For instance, Harvard Medical School’s Prof. J.A. Hobson has analyzed brain functioning in dream states, and theorizes that dreaming involves a “protoconscious” state, providing a kind of “virtual reality model of the world” that serves a very concrete functional purpose in the development and maintenance of waking consciousness. Somewhat similarly, psychiatrist David Kahn, also of Harvard Medical School draws the theoretical conclusion that dreaming is an important state of consciousness, potentially leading to creative insight.
If dreaming develops and maintains waking consciousness, and enhances creativity in our lives, it’s far from meaningless. This strongly emphasizes the benefit of paying attention to dreams.
Don’t Over-Rate the Unconscious… but Give It Its Due
On the other hand, it’s important not to inflate or distort the meaning of my dreams. As Andrew Samuels, following C.G. Jung, points out, to treat dreams as infallible impairs human freedom and diminishes the power of conscious decision.
We should particularly beware the incredibly, overpoweringly, beautiful or compelling dream. Such a dream can seem so overwhelming that it appears as the voice of absolute truth. There may well be much truth in it, but it’s important that consciousness enter into dialogue with such a dream, not just submit to it.
It’s most likely best to be receptive to what the dream might be saying, and treat its message as a supplementary “take” or perspective on our life situation.
Sticking with the Dream Images
Dream images are the best possible expression of still unconscious facts. So to get benefit from my dreams, I really need to understand what those dream images mean.
“To understand the dream’s meaning I must stick as close as possible to the dream image.”
~C.G. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 16
Now let me be clear and blunt. This isn’t something you’re going to be able to get out of a dream dictionary sold at the supermarket check out — or even a really good symbol dictionary! (And let me assure you, there are far more bad ones than good on the market.)
To truly understand the images in dreams may well be one place where help from a /a-midlife-transition well versed in the psychology of dreams would be of genuine assistance.
Patience and Honesty Are Rewarded
We live in an era of instant gratification. It’s very easy to be seduced by the assumption that we should be able to get answers to life’s questions right away. However, working with dreams takes patience and honesty, if it’s really going to bear meaningful fruit.
Dreams can provide an important perspective on our lives, but it takes diligence in recording them, patience in bringing them into therapy sessions, and hard work with the symbols the dreams present.
What I can learn about myself from my dreams depends very much on my taking them very seriously, and patiently uncovering their meaning.
Next time, we’ll reflect on how the unconscious complements the conscious mind through dreams, and what this means for us in terms of a creative and aware approach to our lives.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst
PHOTOS: © Raluca Marie Wolfski ; martinak15 ; Sebastian Appelt