The dream state is often a topic that is shrouded with much intrigue and mystery. As we are able to experience things in a realistic manner, the dream state seems to be an avenue where anything can come true.
However, most of the time, we don’t really have that much control over our dreams. Like third-person spectators, we see events unfold before us. As the leaves fall from the tree and our lover slowly vacates the shaded bench underneath it, we watch them leave. Such nature of dreams, being able to feel the breeze and vividly see the person is nothing short of confusing us from what is real and what is not.
Inversely, there are also times wherein we are able to control what we do in our dreams. Deciding whether to jump on that cliff or drive through that smoggy area, there are indeed certain instances wherein we can be fully conscious during dream state. And to an extent, we can say that it feels good to be such.
Nevertheless, the mere fact that we aren’t able to distinguish both means that we are yet to fully comprehend our dream state. Like a driver who is only beginning to learn the course, the simplistic nature of driving a vehicle might appear to be the most difficult task in the world.
As such, the way to go is learning more about our dreams. By understanding what they are and how to deal with them, we will certainly have better chances of adapting to it. Just as knowledge is power, a more profound understanding of our dreams will also give us the ability to manipulate it. But before we begin such a grandiose task, we must start by asking the right questions.
With that, we ask:
What Are Dreams?
To begin with, the American Heritage dictionary defines dreams as a “succession of images, sensations, ideas, and emotions that usually occur involuntarily in mind during certain stages of sleep.” During this resting phase, our mind flashes images and feelings to us, making us see, feel, hear, smell, and even touch things, or at least the way we know it.
During stages of sleep, there are moments wherein our body exhibits what we call as REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Resembling activity when we are awake, our minds are active despite the fact that we’re on resting stage. To date, people are yet to have a full understanding of dreams for all we have are theories that simply attempt to grasp the ominous nature of such.
Historically, dreams are seen as avenues of spirituality. Given how prophecies are said to be revealed through dreams on a universal scale, people have often seen these images with much reverence.
For instance, the Greeks believed in the existence of the Greek god Morpheus, who used dreams as warning signs for people. Similarly, the concept of dreams is also highlighted even in the Christian religion. As God speaks to His prophets through dreams, stories of mysticism and miracles have been passed on.
Digging deeper into this concept will only make you realize that dreams did exist since way back. Whether it is from ancient Greeks to Chinese dynasties, such existential phenomenon has been seen with much reverence.
Given such spiritual significance, dreams are then associated with visions and premonitions even to date. This is why, even with the advancements of science, people still place some sort of spiritual value to it.
Dreams: An Interplay between the Conscious and Unconscious States
Transitioning to the developing theories on psychology, Sigmund Freud popularized the now common idea that dreams are manifestations of one’s unfulfilled or repressed desires. As he interpreted it using his psychosexual theory of development, Freud associated dreams, and its meanings to events in our lives wherein we fail to meet the demands of a certain level in our development.
Even so, not all people adhered to this interpretation. Given the limited nature of the psychosexual theory, prominent psychologists such as Carl Jung emerged in the shadow of Sigmund Freud. As others didn’t agree that dreams are primarily caused by these repressions, they challenged this assumption and built their own take on the matter.
As a direct response to this theory, Jung adopted the same concept. But instead of interpreting dreams simply based on the psychosexual theory of Freud, Jung interpreted dreams simply as a push and pull between conscious and unconscious elements.
Following the Jungian tradition, we can say that the contents of our dreams are comprised of three things – our conscious thoughts, our unconscious thoughts, and elements from the collective unconscious.
For our conscious thoughts, these might be ideas, symbols, or images that we constantly think about during the day. While you’re in your office, you might be thinking of the outcome of today’s baseball game. Carried over to dream state, it is only natural for you to dream of such.
Furthermore, our unconscious thoughts may also affect the kind of dreams that we have. Basically, there are two elements in unconscious thoughts – repressed ideas and unconsciously absorbed concepts.
As we live our lives, it is normal for us to acquire ideas and not mind them. After all, everything that we can see is being absorbed by our brain. For instance, as you read this work, you most likely see your surroundings, your phone, or perhaps your keyboard. However, because you aren’t conscious about them, it doesn’t really have much of an impact on you. But in reality, such concepts can randomly show up in your dreams.
Moreover, our repressed ideas of the self can also be part of the whole process. By making moral choices in life, we accept some ideas and reject others. For instance, you may accept the idea that being different is wrong and so you keep on trying to fit in. But as you dream, you’re encountering symbols of birds that are flying, symbolizing freedom from the social clutches. As such, this likely represents the repressed part of yourself.
Lastly, the collective unconscious also contributes to the dreams that we have. As such, these archetypal images coming from the general consciousness can present images and symbols during dream state even when we weren’t consciously/unconsciously aware of these things.
As Jung argued, archetypes exist within us. Being forms of universal responses to certain situations and roles in life, these archetypes are concepts that are garnered throughout human history. Like the human body that’s constantly evolving, Jung argued that the human psyche is also evolving as well.
With this framework, we’ll have a good grasp of why we dream and why certain dreams appear even when we are totally unfamiliar with them. As both individual and universal concepts and symbols appear in our dreams, understanding such will give a unique perspective on our conscious thoughts.
Following the Jungian tradition, Jung himself lists two basic methods of investigating one’s dreams. First, we have dream analysis and second, active imagination.
For the first method, dream analysis is not something that uniquely originates from Jung. Instead, this method was used not only by Jung but by Freud as well. As a matter of fact, the rift between the two originated from a conflict in interpreting one’s dreams.
On one account, Jung was said to have dreamt skulls under his home. With Freud attempting to interpret this using the psychosexual theory of development, Jung countered otherwise. This prompted to create a rift between the two prominent psychologists during their time.
With that, Jung established that dream analysis should be done in order to reconcile elements from the conscious and unconscious parts of the self. In seeking self-understanding, paying attention to these aspects of ourselves which are embedded within us can help us to know more about ourselves.
To prove this point, Jung even used one of his dreams to represent the different levels of the psyche. On one account, he wrote about his dream – a house with three floors. “The upper floor had an inhabited atmosphere and represented consciousness, the top layer of the psyche. The ground floor was the first layer of the unconscious—old but not as alien or ancient as the Roman artifacts in the cellar, which symbolized a deeper layer of the personal unconscious. In the cave, Jung discovered two human skulls—the ones for which Freud insisted Jung harbored death wishes. Jung, however, saw these ancient human skulls as representing the depths of his collective unconscious.”
While there can be many ways to interpret a dream, perhaps the Jungian way would be the best to use given its wide-range applicability. Unlike the Freudian method, which limited the interpretation to the psychosexual theory of development, the Jungian method is more open to other causes and the interpretation of such.
Four Key Areas of Dream Interpretation
Using the Jungian method, all that remains now is – how do we interpret certain symbols in our dreams? While there can be a lot of ways to do it, the way to go is to systematically assign the interpretation of its meaning. With that, we’ll utilize Pamela J. Ball’s A-Z interpretation of Dreams.
In her book, she outlined a grasp of the meaning of each dream. But before we go into detail, we have to categorize these meanings according to their key areas in life.
1. Spiritual Meaning
In this section, the meanings of dreams are usually understood for their spiritual significance. As Ball writes, “Dreams also give us access to another dimension of being – spirituality and the intrinsic use of power. Many Eastern cultures see sleep as a preparation for death and therefore, a learning experience. One definition of spirituality is ”the awareness of other dimensions of existence beyond that of the purely physical, tangible realms’.”
With that, certain symbols carry with them concepts that allow us to reflect on the transcendent. On a personal level, it leads us to some sort of inner truth.
2. Psychological/Emotional Meaning
The psychological/emotional meaning of dreams reflects another slant of interpreting it – the subjective. Just as the value of each symbol/concept for us can vary depending on the person, dreams can be interpreted in a way that its value is heavily related to our own phenomenological experiences in life.
For instance, when you dream of a cat, it can have a spiritual revelation. Otherwise, perhaps its value also stems from your personal experience of it.
3. Everyday Material Meaning
This section refers to the value of dreams based on how they are weighed in the real world. As each dream will have a value in the real world, seeing them as such will also be crucial in interpreting. After all, perhaps do we really need to give a spiritual meaning to cheesy ultimate bacon mushroom burgers in our dreams?
4. Gender Meaning
Lastly, gender meanings may not always be present in dreams, but when they are, one has to pay close attention. Given how dreams are related to archetypes, the anima and animus can also strongly influence their meaning.
Often symbolized by the yin and yang, both gender powers exist within us. By accepting this, we’ll be able to interpret dreams based on how close they are to one of these forces. Doing so will allow us to have a more gender-accurate interpretation.