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Organic Dream Integration:

Dream Interpretation & Meaning

written by Craig Webb

dream interpretation, analysis & integration symbol

Try a creative dream integration / interpretation exercise

Four blind beggars come upon an elephant and share their experience. " It’s much like a snake", says one by the elephant’s trunk. "Not at all," replies the second, pushing against the elephant’s leg, "it’s large and solid like a temple pillar." "You’re both mistaken," says the third, holding its tail, "it is just like a rope." "How can this be?" asks the fourth man, feeling its ear, "when to me it seems identical to a rug."

Interestingly, all four are correct, yet even all their experiences put together does not give anywhere near a complete picture of what an elephant is. And so it is with dreams. In saying that the reason for dreams is this or that, or that they mean such and such, we often limit our overall experience of them. This is not to say that many very true, insightful and useful dream theories and methods don’t exist, but rather to give a hint of perspective on the incredibly vast, diverse, and enigmatic nature of the what, why, and how of dreams.

In line with our analogy, renown European physician Dr. Sigmund Freud, with his focus on phallic imagery and repressed wishes in dreams, perhaps had the proverbial elephant by the balls. Though quite true that male and female elements appear in dreams, and that dreams often bring up strong connections with our desires or have emotional roots our childhood, Freud’s is but one viewpoint. Carl Jung, perhaps the best known contemporary of Freud’s, put forth some very insightful frameworks for understanding the symbolism and nature of dreams, including his concepts of universal personality archetypes and the collective unconscious. Yet Jung himself wrote, "I have no theory about dreams. I do not know how dreams arise. I am altogether in doubt as to whether my way of handling dreams deserves the name ‘method’. But...if we meditate on a dream sufficiently long and thoroughly…something almost always comes of it." Jung added that this something is rarely of rational, scientific nature, but rather "a practical and important hint which shows the patient in what direction the unconscious is leading him." Jung observed that dreams perform restorative, corrective, compensatory, prophetic and developmental roles in the psyche and believed that we must be ready at any moment to construct and entirely new theory of dreams.

Dream Analysis vs. Dream Integration

Rather than lumping all importance on analysis or having to figure "out" what a dream might mean, it helps to see dreams as experiences valid on their own. Experiences which can be cultivated organically whose roots delve into the rich depths of the psyche as they stem outward into the light of conscious awareness and begin forming their leaves of thought. Truly, they are an art form of the soul for creative self-expression, self-discovery and self-healing, and much benefit and fulfillment comes simply by remembering, writing, tape-recording, sharing, painting, enacting or otherwise birthing them into the physical world. It can be greatly worthwhile to harvest the dream fruits of personal insight and practical guidance, yet every dream affects us physiologically, emotionally, psychologically, and/or spiritually, and becomes part of our being, changing us regardless of whether we make any logical waking connections or not. Even when we spot such connections, it can be limiting to assume that this was the sole ‘point’ of the dream, and therefore drop further exploration or creative expression; carrying away golden coins, we may miss the priceless and treasured jewel fashioned or concealed within the chest itself. Psychologist/author Jill Mellick goes as far as to say that the long term effects of dry interpretation can "too often preserve the piece in intellectual formaldehyde when it could have led a long and vibrant life."

In one of my classes, during discussions about interpretation, one student dreamt: "All I could see was a hair from an elephant." (A.P. Montreal, Qc). She chuckled when the insight came that this might be her analogy for what portion of her entire ‘dream elephant’ a linear one-line interpretation might represent.

So improve your inner green thumb by gardening your dreams organically. Till the soil using dream recall practices to help seedlings break the surface of forgetting in order to reach the light of your attention. Water them with curiosity and fertilize them through natural creative expression and contemplation, yet being careful not to overdo it such that the rest of your life falls out of balance. Learn to prune back overgrowth and distinguish weeds from fruits and flowers (and keep in mind that your neighbor may have different tastes). It’s wonderful to share with others the beauty and abundance you find, yet use discretion as to who you invite inside your protective fence — trespassers may unknowingly trample months of careful effort.

The Benefits of Dream-Sharing Partners

A group of individuals or friends with a like interest can bring wonderful benefits, allowing you to observe others’ unique styles and preferences. Natural interactions between members also brings great insight and life to exciting new dreams, inner developments, and especially to synchronicities. You can also gain appreciation for and experiment with the different goals group members have. Those with an introspective inclination may simply be inclined toward the peaceful joy of the dream recording and sharing process, while others may be focused more on the harvest — one might express the beauty of dreams as an artist, another looking for business advice or creative problem solving, and another still may be natural at cultivating dreams to heal self and others. One thing is certain, anyone embarking upon such a co-operative inner exploration will find themselves with abundant food for thought and likely have much greater discipline and success, thanks to the support of the group.

Why are Dreams so "Weird"?

"Wow, I had the weirdest dream last night," is a phrase I hear often. Rarely do I get, "Oh I had this normal dream," yet if someone began speaking Sanskrit, we would also find that it sounded strange, unless we'd taken the time to learn the vocabulary, grammar, mythology, and culture of the Sanskrit language. So it is with dreams, granted that we take time to learn the language of symbols, the associative logic of dreams and some principles and differences of sleeping and waking consciousness.

Dreams generally speak in a multi-dimensional language of feelings, images and multi-level associations rather than linear words and concepts. Says author Bernie Siegel, M.D., "While our minds and our bodies communicate constantly with each other, most of this exchange occurs on an unconscious level. That’s why I often advise patients to start recording dreams, because the body cannot speak except by using symbols."

Dreams often come as series, throughout the night, for a few nights in a row, and/or within some natural cycle of weeks or seasons. They are also intimately interconnected with events in the dreamer's life, and often even with events that are yet to occur (which can make literal interpretation a challenge). Edgar Cayce wisely insisted that one should "interpret the dreamer" and not just the dream alone. Trying to understand a single isolated dream without any life context or a look at other dreams can be like trying to understand a weekly show from a single episode — not pointless, but quite often incomplete.

The dreams that are meant to assist you in waking life, hence which are the most important to contemplate, understand and act upon are recurring dreams, nightmares, and dreams which you've asked for or incubated. Otherwise, any dream which impacts you strongly or sticks with you clearly especially the dream you remember just before getting up in the morning along with dreams or dream fragments which spontaneously come to you later in the day, are the ones that your unconscious is trying to bring to your conscious attention. Dreams which have a powerful positive impact and leave you feeling uplifted, inspired or even completely awestruck can be understood, but better yet they can be integrated and have their beneficial impact magnified if you express them creatively (as with this dreamwork exercise) by allowing them to blossom into a poem, painting, story, dance, song, collage, sculpture, or other art form. This same technique is also an excellent type of art therapy to express the fear and difficult feelings from less pleasant dreams.

Note the level of the psyche from which dreams come, which tends to be deeper at the start of the night (and often 'weirder') and closer to our waking awareness as morning approaches (dreams which are more likely to lend themselves to conscious understanding). Look first for simple practical advice about your daily routine such as diet, exercise, and challenges you face at school, work or in your relationships, yet trust that deeper issues are likely also undergoing resolution.

Your own gut feeling is always the best source to trust for understanding your dreams, and should also have the last word as to whether any interpretation is valid. As the Sufi saying goes, "only a fool takes the words of another over his own experience." This said, dreams are often meant for sharing and it's a practice I heartily encourage when done in a supportive, non-judgmental environment. Clear insights often pop up simply in the telling, and interestingly, these vary in the presence of different people. Sharing a dream not only refreshes it in your memory and gives you a chance to gain insights while viewing it more objectively, but you may also begin to glimpse how the source from which dreams come is so wise that it knows in advance who you will meet on any given day and often cooks up dreams that are also of benefit, if not sometimes mainly intended for those you later share them with. When sharing a dream, or especially when listening to someone else share a dream, take special note of body language, face expressions and voice intonation/fluctuation since these often reflect related unconscious elements.

A good rule of thumb to find out what a dream may relate to in your life is to look at the feeling present in the dream and search daily life, especially the previous day (and six days earlier, as research has shown) for the same feeling. This greatly helps you tie together the dream symbols and their waking counterparts. On the other hand, if the feeling shocks you, such as is sometimes the case of dreams with a strong component of anger or sexuality, for example, then the dream may be a safe outlet for such feelings which have been denied healthy expression in daily life.

Time and time again I meet people who bemoan how difficult dreams are to understand, and I've noticed that this stance fulfills itself excellently, since such people end up distrusting or completely blocking any insights as or before they come. Author Richard Bach sums this up nicely in his wonderful book Illusions, "Argue your limitations and they're yours." The solution and best overall method to improve your ability to understand dreams, though deceptively simple and perhaps tough to accept initially, is simply to believe that it is easy and natural to know what your dreams are saying, and that you are already good at it. Along with this, give yourself the suggestion that important dreams will start coming accompanied by a narrative or explanatory thoughts. You can even request dreams that interpret earlier ones. I made such a request once about a very important dream, and a friend I met later that week who often shares his dreams with me, told one he’d had that morning very similar to mine with the same characters and setting, and which clearly explained mine to me; I felt he 'unknowingly' dreamt it for me.

Some Universal Dream Symbolism Tips

While interpretation is not the only tool for working with dreams, it can be very useful and fun to boot. Here are some guidelines to ponder. Keeping a collection of self-interpreted personal symbols can be quite helpful, but when it comes to using a dream dictionary, remember that every dreamer is unique and each dream dependent not only upon what's going on in life at the time, but also upon other dreams and things such as age, religion, upbringing, language, sex, culture, political, social, and seasonal climate and particularly upon the individual’s interests and beliefs.

It is very helpful to take note whenever a symbol becomes very specific such as names, numbers, colors or detailed or out-of-place symbols. Contemplate why the dream chose something so precise. Experimenting with word plays in such cases can often bring surprising insights.

Following are some symbol associations to keep in mind, and though somewhat universal, they are certainly not etched in stone (see also: universal nightmare themes and how to resolve them):

Directions are perhaps one of the most insightful, though often overlooked dream elements. Forward or in front of often represents forward in time (i.e. the future), and similarly, backward or behind often symbolizes the past (the back yard of your home is your personal past, for example).Upward or high often represents the spiritual, or intellectual (i.e. flying above the roof tops), while downward or low suggests more physical, instinctive, and being grounded. Less universal but still helpful, to the right often points to logical, reasoning or outward world power focus (right hand man), while to the left suggests emotional, inner, artistic aspects. Underground, or in the dark, is the symbol of something being subconscious or unconscious (e.g. basement, nighttime), since light usually symbolizes consciousness. Colors can mean many things, often more individual than universal, though black can depict guilt or other heavy feelings (the black ball and chain you keep dragging around) while white may indicate purity, and the realm of the spirit. Pure green can suggest healing, and the healing power of nature.

Your viewpoint or perspective in a dream can be insightful. First person, where you play ‘yourself’, shows that you have a fixed identity or character. This is particularly common in nightmares and anxiety dreams where you are quite caught up in your role as dream actor. The other most common perspective is third person where you witness the dream from an audience viewpoint as a disembodied watcher or point of awareness. Sometimes, though not always, this can point to feelings or situations which are not being felt or experienced (i.e. ‘you’ are ‘removed’ from the scene). A balanced blend of these two perspectives is a good step toward lucid dreaming.

Setting is an extremely key dream element since it provides the backdrop for the scene and often provides the link about what aspect of your waking life the dream relates to. Deserts have no water (feeling, emotion, life force), and generally denote some area within ourselves which we have not paid too much attention to (usually in regards to our feelings). Oceans suggest the vast stretches and depths of the soul and of psyche.

Powerful weather or nature elements (i.e. tidal waves, storms, tornadoes, hurricanes - interestingly there happens to be a thunderstorm happening as I write this sentence) generally symbolize powerful emotions, and change, while seasons can point to a certain mood or phase of experience: winter as an unconscious time of hibernation/incubation, spring the beginning of new life, summer the height of activity growth, freedom, expression, and fall can often signify a time of harvest or a natural ending.

The type of room(s) you are in suggests the portion of your ego (house/appartment) that the dream’s about. Some common ones are the basement or cellar as the subconscious, the kitchen/dining room as the place of self-nourishment or social nature, the bedroom as a place of relationships or unconsciousness (sleep), the bathroom as private and where you cleanse yourself and dispose of waste, and the garage as the place where action/achievement (car) stems from or where we have things stored or piled up.

Dream elements that transform from one thing to another are pointing to a connection between the two. Elements of distorted size (especially in childhood home setting dreams) may sometimes denote that the dreamer's perspective is different as it would have been at a different age (i.e. the very high window might represent that the dream is pointing to feelings or experiences when the dreamer was very young).

Perhaps the most universal symbol of all, is the human body, and much light can be shed upon dreams by knowing about palmistry, face-reading, body-language, ayurvedic body types and symptoms. Some of the most common elements are dreaming of someone asleep (a part of us that is unconscious), dying, being dismembered or buried (going unconscious - the opposite of remembered), or dreams focusing on body parts. Skin often represents ‘feeling’s (skin problems may point out emotional challenges), blood is what brings us oxygen and energy and often figuratively stands for life force. A very common dream image for new dream explorers is feces, representing something natural but which is past and usually something we need to clean up, let go of, get out of our system. It's often a shocking sight, and means some work will be involved, but just remember that it is also wonderful organic fertilizer for new inner growth. Hands are our tools for creation and work in the world, while feet may describe one’s current life path.

Animals embody strong character aspects too, especially of an instinctive or emotional nature. Birds generally denote freedom, a perspective of increased awareness (from a bird's eye point of view), and also lucidity, as hinted at by the Sufi saying, "When a bird lands on your outstretched hand, then, my friend, you will understand." Dinosaurs can show up in a dreamer's early stages of becoming aware of powerful, deeply-seated "prehistoric" (i.e. childhood) emotional or instinctive feelings, and often "evolve" in successive dreams.

Dream Characters

An interesting enigma exists as to whether characters within a dream depict our own inner aspects, qualities or abilities, or whether they represent their waking counterparts the people from our daily experience. If we were to view life as a dream, the differentiation somewhat falls away. But for simplicity and practical purposes, it is sometimes accurate to treat them as relating to the actual person (and check our dream against actual waking events), and sometimes better (more often than not) to understand them as own inner characters or personality aspects. At times, characters can be composites (e.g. he looked like my brother, but I knew it was Markus) and/or may shift identity as the dream progresses which again points to a connection between the two. An in-depth look at animals and dream characters is the subject for further dreamwork training, but for the moment, investigate both potential aspects, and try engaging in a written dialogue (where you "make up" their answers) to find out what makes them tick and why they are doing and saying what they are. This technique can be very insightful.

So have some fun inner conversations, and visit again soon.

Try a creative dream integration / interpretation exercise


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