#12 Dreams never waste our time. But what do they mean?

Where do dreams come from? What do they want from us? Follow this guide and learn how to use Jungian psychoanalysis to interpret your dreams.

Something magical happens to you every night. After scrolling through TikTok for much longer than you wanted to, you close your eyes and slowly drift off. Suddenly, a great drama is unfolding. You find yourself in your childhood home. People you recognise from work are there, but are acting in strange ways. You kiss your mother on the mouth. A dark figure appears out of nowhere and chases you, and you’re completely terrified. A man you work with, but barely know, makes love to you. Your teeth fall out, but when you look at your hand holding them, they’ve turned into flowers. And when the alarm goes off, you justifiably whisper “what the hell” and never think about it again. But you’re missing out on your greatest tool for growth.

Dream Dreaming GIF

My first inkling that there might be more to dreams than the odd sequence of images or a manifestation of anxiety happened last year, when I was doing psychedelic integration therapy. Soon after I came back from the retreat, I had a strange dream where I reacted out of proportion and completely uncharacteristically. I’ll tell you the dream:

It was late at night, and my parents and I just got to the Airbnb we had booked. I went in to check that everything was alright, only to discover that the previous guest hadn’t left. This young woman was propped up in the middle of an unmade bed, casually scrolling on her laptop. She looked relaxed. Her clothes and stuff were thrown around everywhere, and the whole room was a mess. I got angry, and asked her to leave because my parents were waiting to come in. She asked me if she could stay a little bit longer because she’s having a hard time and she’s grieving. I became furious, and started shouting at her to get the fuck out right then because her time was up and I had arranged this place for my parents.

When I woke up, I was confused by how aggressive I was towards this vulnerable young woman in my dream. The anger wasn’t like me at all, and I liked to think that in reality I would’ve had some sympathy if this happened. So, when I brought it up with my therapist, she encouraged me to tell it from the different points of view of other characters in the dream - a Gestalt practice. As soon as I told the story from the young woman’s point of view, I felt a strong, familiar sadness hit me. I identified with this wounded, but complacent part of myself who was messy and a bit all over the place and used the childhood hurt as an excuse to stay. The dream-ego’s strong reaction was exaggerated in response to my waking ego’s way of relating to this part of myself. It was shaking me out of complacency, showing me it was time for this part to move on if I wanted to make progress on this journey of healing my relationship with my parents, and ultimately myself.

Since then, I’ve been paying careful attention to my dreams, and have recently plunged into the writings of Carl Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, James A. Hall and Robert A. Johnson in order to put together a framework for dream interpretation. That framework would take many newsletters to share, as it requires a broader knowledge of the elements of the psyche, symbols, myths and fairytales. This article is in no way exhaustive, but I’ll do my best to give you the tools you need to begin working with your dreams.

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Dream interpretation has always been important to humans

“In each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves. When, therefore, we find ourselves in a difficult situation to which there is no solution, he can sometimes kindle a light that radically alters our attitude - the very attitude that led us into the difficult situation.” - Carl Jung, The Collected Works

Even though I’m completely enamoured with Carl Jung’s dream interpretation, he wasn’t the first one to look at dreams. Tribes from all over the world have worked with their dreams long before us Westerners did. Some saw dreams as real experiences of their soul when it leaves the body at night - for example, the West African ashanti tribe believed that if a man dreamed about sleeping with another man’s wife, he should be punished for adultery in real life, as his soul had sex with that woman’s. Others saw dreams as visits paid by the recently deceased to instruct or warn against something, or as the voice of spirits or God.

Greek philosophers were also concerned with the nature of dreams. Plato believed that they are a reflection of our wild, instinctual side. Aristotle, on the other hand, thought that dreams are caused by indigestion or movements of the sensory organs even past the original stimulus had ceased. About 500 years later, Artemidorus wrote the first comprehensive guide to interpreting dreams, which heavily influenced dream work in the Middle Ages, and is not completely ridiculous. His approach identified five types of dreams: the Dream, which speaks the truth in a dissimulated way; the Vision, which is a prediction of what is about to happen, motivating the person to act; the Oracle, which is a discovery or warning brought to us by an angel or a saint; the Fantasy, which reflects and fulfils thoughts we’ve had during the day; and the Apparition, which is nothing but a nocturnal vision seen by dumb children or weak old people.

In the West, people started properly paying attention to dreams again around the time of Freud. He called dreams the via regia, meaning the royal road to the unconscious. He used dreams to help his patients become conscious of their repressed sexual strivings, which, in his view, were the source of all neuroticisms. He believed dreams had the function of protecting our precious sleep from our unsettling instincts by fulfilling them in this imaginal way.

As a student of Freud, Carl Jung felt differently about dreams. Having interpreted at least 80,000 dreams in his life, he considered that all dreams are in various degrees relevant to the individual’s life. According to his most eminent student, Marie-Louise von Franz, he believed that “they contain something essentially unknown which emerges creatively from the unconscious background and which must be examined anew, experimentally and objectively, in each individual case, as far as possible without preconceptions”. Dream interpretation was a key part of Jungian analysis, and continues to offer great insight into one’s inner world. And I freakin’ love it.

Understanding where dreams come from

We can’t really start talking about dreams and their interpretation without first getting a (very, very) basic understanding of the psyche - and, mostly importantly, the unconscious.

The psyche, in Jung’s view, is mainly formed of two parts: the conscious and the unconscious, which is personal and collective. Think of the conscious as everything you are currently aware of, like a flashlight illuminating a small area in front of you. This flashlight can move, bringing new things into the light and submerging others in the dark.

Everything that you (the ego) can’t see is the unconscious - this includes memories, feelings, complexes (groupings of related images held together by a common emotion), all the split-off parts of yourself that you repressed or aren’t aware of, and shared instincts and inherited patterns of human behaviour called archetypes.

The Story and Mind of Carl Jung – Brewminate
Image from here

One of the biggest failings of our culture is our lack of appreciation for the vast realm of the unconscious. Jung wrote extensively about how the process of civilisation in the West estranged us from our instinctual nature, polishing us into rational, what-you-see-is-what-you-get material beings. Culture and society dictate to a large degree what is acceptable and what isn’t, so many of us end up operating out of tiny identities that play well within the system, but are only a fragment of our true and complex selves.

Jung compared the ego (our conscious mind) to a cork bobbing in the enormous ocean of the unconscious. Sooner or later, we all become aware of the unconscious whether we like it or not. Most of us don’t approach it voluntarily, afraid of what we may find. So, we become aware of it when we get into trouble with it: when we become deeply anxious without knowing why, or when we think we have everything under control, yet we are horribly depressed without understanding what’s behind it all. As Robert A. Johnson said: “When we experience inexplicable conflicts that we can’t resolve; when we become aware of urges in ourselves that seem irrational, primitive, or destructive; when a neurosis afflicts us because our conscious attitudes are at odds with our instinctual selves - then we begin to realise that the unconscious is playing a role in our lives and we need to face it.”

The language of dreams

The unconscious constantly speaks to us every night through dreams. But, since it contains our primitive nature, it cannot employ the rules of logic and language that we’re used to in our conscious life. Instead, the unconscious speaks through symbols.

Symbols can be a term, a name, or even an image you’re familiar with in your daily life, but that holds other meanings than its obvious one. We need symbols to express things we can’t consciously define. You see them all the time in art, poetry, or your dreams. Some of the meanings of a symbol are personal and unique to you, but some are collective, shared by your culture or even the greater human race.

Symbols do not occur solely in dreams, but in all sorts of psychic manifestations like a mirror breaking when someone dies, or a watch stopping at the death of its owner, or a series of minor and unexplained breakages in a house when someone is going through an emotional crisis (remember my last newsletter?).

In working with dreams, it’s useful to think of them as inner dramas where all objects and figures appear as symbols that represent unknown aspects of yourself. Most often, they are parts of yourself, but sometimes they can represent actual people. For example, Jung recalls a dream of a patient of his who wasn’t making progress in therapy. He dreamed of this woman sitting up on a balustrade on a tower, looking down on him. In order to see her properly, he had to bend his head far back, and said to himself that “If… I had to look up at the patient in this fashion, in reality I had been probably looking down on her”. As soon as he conveyed this interpretation to her, their treatment resumed successfully, proving once again the compensatory function of dreams.

The compensatory function of dreams

The dream in Jungian psychology is seen as a natural, regulatory psychic process, not much different from compensatory mechanisms of bodily functioning. Because our conscious awareness that informs and guides our ego is limited in its perception of reality, the dream’s role is to balance it out by forcing the ego to experience the other side of its attitudes and circumstances. Basically, our dreams are constantly forcing us to see things from another point of view. They show us what we don’t know, and where we’re out of balance.

“It is much like having a wise but impartial friend, who knows things about oneself that one may suspect but does not yet know in full consciousness.” - James A. Hall, Jungian Dream Interpretation

If the ego is the center of our consciousness, and the Self is the totality of the psyche that includes all the parts you rejected and didn’t get to develop yet, as well as everything you’re conscious of, then dreams aim to bridge a connection between these two. Jungians call this the ego-Self axis. See it as a line of communication between your everyday self and a deeply wise person who knows everything about you. When the lines of communication are open (by paying attention to your dreams, working with a therapist, doing active imagination, or diving deep with psychedelics), you can start moving through life more authentically. You begin to incorporate unconscious parts of yourself, thus becoming more “you”. You become whole.

Why you should pay attention to your dreams

“When we pay attention to our dreams a self-regulating tendency in the soul comes into play which counterbalances the one-sidedness of consciousness or completes it so that a kind of wholeness and a life’s optimum is achieved.” - Marie-Louise von Franz, Dreams: A Study of the Dreams of Jung, Descartes, Socrates, and Other Historical Figures

Dreams are incredibly useful because they serve us fresh, dynamic insights about ourselves every night. By writing them down as soon as you wake up and taking the time to go through the process I’m about to share with you, you signal to the psyche that you are listening. And there’s nothing the psyche wants more than for you to listen to it. This way, you actively engage in the process of individuation, of psychic growth, making it easier for yourself to move through this inevitable, necessary, liberating, but not always comfortable process.

Basic rules of dream interpretation

“As a general rule, if you already know what the dream seems to be saying, then you have missed its meaning.” - James A. Hall, Jungian Dream Interpretation

Even though dreams often feature aspects from your past, as well as the present, they always refer to your current life situation and should be interpreted with that in mind. Consider what’s happening for you at the moment: are you going through any transitions, or are you struggling moving forward?

Another “rule” relates to the compensatory function of dreams. Jung believed that dreams were most often balancing a limited view of the conscious ego. So dreams never tell us what we already know - they offer us a counterpoint to our conscious attitude, with the aim of widening our view of a situation.

It’s also important to never feel like a dream has been exhausted of its meaning. There’s no way to verify the validity of an interpretation, so it’s best to hold meanings lightly. Sometimes, a dream can only be understood in the light of subsequent dreams, or may not even need to be interpreted to have a meaningful effect on you (think of sex dreams, which occur to compensate for the frustration caused by the lack of sexual intimacy in a dreamer’s waking life).

The four-step approach to dream analysis

“A story told by the conscious mind has a beginning, a development, and an end, but the same is not true of a dream. Its dimensions in time and space are quite different: to understand it you must examine it from every aspect - just as you may take an unknown object in your hands and turn it over and over until you are familiar with every detail of its shape.” - Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols

In interpreting a dream, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson recommends following a process of discovering the meanings behind the images in the dream, looking for the parts of our inner selves that the dream images represent, then putting it all together to see what the dream might mean as a whole. Finally (and this is my new favourite part) he recommends creating a ritual to embody the meaning of the dream and maintain the connection to the unconscious. Let’s have a closer look at these steps.

1. Making associations

Your dream may contain different people, locations, animals, colours, or speech. So, the first step is to identify these symbols, by paying attention to every small detail. Nothing is accidental in a dream. If you see a cat, note what colour it was, how big or small it appeared, or any other feature. Then, allow your mind to freely make associations. James A. Hall identified three layers to the associations you can make for each symbol:

  • The first one is personal - Every symbol in your dream has a special connotation that is unique to you. So always start by asking yourself what the symbols mean to you. What do they remind you of? How do you feel about them? How did you feel about them in the dream? (this is very important)

  • The second layer is cultural and transpersonal: what are some general, common associations that you could objectively make? For example, red lights conventionally mean “stop”. Pay attention to colloquialisms, as dream images sometimes refer to sayings. For example, if you dream of flying, your associations could include idioms like “flying high”, “my head’s in the clouds” or “I should be more down to earth”.

  • The third layer is archetypal: what forces, or patterns of human existence can you recognise in the dream? This is slightly more complicated as it requires knowledge of the archetypes and how they manifest in myths, fairytales and religious traditions. The dream that contains an archetype usually has a mythical quality: you’re either taken to a legendary place, or there’s something magical, larger than life about the symbol. Archetypal figures usually have a sense of sacredness attached to them. If you’ve identified an archetype in your dream, find out more about it from by going to the source that discusses it. Figure out its role in human life, and see what associations spring out from that. However, this level of association is not always necessary in interpreting a dream. If your unconscious used the symbol, it already knows its own reference to it and it’ll reveal it at some point.

In making associations, it’s important to always come back to the initial dream image, rather than allow one image to lead to another and so on. Freud fell into this trap, and his interpretations often veered so far from the original dream that they completely missed the point. If you dreamed of teeth, write down everything that comes up for you when you think about them: chewing to nourish yourself, smiling, biting as aggression, baby teeth, whiting teeth to be more attractive, and so on.

Cool, but how do you know which association is right? Jung insisted that “intuition is almost indispensable in the interpretation of symbols, and it can often insure that they are immediately understood by the dreamer.” Robert A. Johnson calls this intuition the “it clicks” method: as you go through all possible associations, one will eventually generate a lot of energy in you. This might be a surge of excitement, or the feeling that a sore, vulnerable spot has been touched. But it’s also important to hold these associations lightly, and see how they fit within the entire dream. Sometimes dreams cannot be understood right away, because our ego mind isn’t ready to get the message.

2. Connecting dream images to inner dynamics

“Every dream is a portrait of the dreamer. You may think of your dream as a mirror that reflects your inner character - the aspects of your personality of which you are not fully aware.” - Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work

This is where we begin to identify parts of ourselves, our beliefs and our values that appear as the images in the dream. The unconscious works by borrowing images from our life in order to construct the drama of our dream. However, this doesn’t mean that if you dream of your spouse, that the dream is actually about them. Instead, your dream might be using their image to point to a specific characteristic of theirs that you might also contain.

Each person in the dream is a personality that coexists in your psyche. Robert A. Johnson recommends starting from the top and dealing with each image at a time, by asking: “What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately? Where do I see that same trait in my personality? Who is it, inside me, who feels or behaves like that?“.

Similarly, the place where a dream takes place represents a place within yourself. It can represent a “place to stand”, as an ethical position you take, or an emotional environment, a set of circumstances, or a sphere of influence. A good way to understand the significance of a place is to ask who it belongs to. If the house belongs to you, it likely represents your ego-house - the field of consciousness of the ego, the world you built around yourself with everything you know, think, believe, and the walls you erected to protect yourself from the unconscious.

Animals typically represent primitive physical and instinctual energy systems within us, like the need for food, rest, exercise or a need for erotic or sensual experience. If you dream about an animal, explore its positive and negative connotations. If you dream about fighting with a frightening animal, your dream may signal a conflict between the needs of your deep, instinctual side, and the “civilised” attitudes of your ego. Animals can also appear in mythical form, representing the great archetypes of spiritual development: the elephant or cobra usually represent the highest manifestation of the true self, or a cat may take you back to ancient Egypt when these creatures were revered.

Although generally dream images refer to your inner world, sometimes they can be directed at something outside of you: you may dream of something happening to a friend, a disaster breaking out, or that a colleague at work is behaving in a deceitful way. In some cases, your unconscious is warning you about something it noticed, but escaped your awareness, the way I explained above. This, however, is rare. Generally, dreams are reflections of inner dynamics, so we should start by looking in.

3. Interpreting

Okay, you’ve made your associations, linked them to your inner dynamics, and now you’re ready to put it all together in a unified image. At this stage, Robert A. Johnson recommends asking yourself questions like: “What is the central, most important message that this dream is trying to communicate to me? What is the overall meaning of the dream for my life?”. What emerges should be a simple, main idea that can be applied to your life.

However, this might not come right away. It’s incredibly difficult to interpret one’s own dreams - in interpreting a dream for Marie-Louise von Franz, Carl Jung himself complained that there’s no Jung to help him understand his dreams. Robert A. Johnson suggests writing down all possible interpretations. This allows us to see the holes in them better than if they’re just in our heads. He also suggests these four principles for validating an interpretation:

  • Choose an interpretation that shows you something you didn’t know - dreams never waste our time telling us something we already know.

  • Avoid the interpretation that inflates your ego or is self-congratulatory - dreams are aimed at unfinished business in your life, they show us what to face next rather than inflate our egos.

  • Avoid interpretations that shift responsibility from yourself - dreams are concerned with you, not pointing the faults of other people. Leave that to their own dreams.

  • Learn to live with dreams over time - sometimes we have “big dreams”, that are part of a larger timeline, so their meaning will become clearer with the passage of time. In this case, we need to return to these dreams regularly and see how their meaning evolves.

4. Doing rituals to make the dream concrete

“Whether we are aware of it or not, much of our behaviour is symbolic. But what transforms physical acts into high ritual is the expression of symbolism with a conscious act. At its best, ritual is a series of physical acts that expresses in condensed form one’s relationship to the inner world of the unconscious.” - Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work

When you find an interpretation that “clicks”, that intuitively feels right, it’s time to integrate the experience in your waking life. Similar to how you’d work with a psychedelic experience, this requires a physical act that affirms the message of the dream - it can be performing the advice that came to you in the dream, or a more symbolic act that allows you to connect with the unconscious. It’s not enough to just “get” the dream mentally. In order for the message to stick, you need to embody it.

The reason for this goes back to the instinctual, primitive nature of the unconscious. Jung considered rituals and ceremonies important avenues towards it - one of the meanings of the word ceremony, in its original Latin form, was “awe”. So a ceremony is a way of expressing the awe we feel when we encounter the powerful intelligence of the unconscious. When we do something to express the symbol using our bodies and our emotions, the symbol becomes a living reality to us.

To come up with an appropriate ritual, we just need to go into our imaginations and “dream” a ritual that we feel would honour a particular dream. This ritual can be very small, but it needs to hold a symbolic value to us. If you can’t think of anything, Robert A. Johnson recommends that you do anything - even walking around your block to honour your dream, or lighting a candle. As long as you perform this act consciously, it will register with your unconscious, strengthening that ego-Self axis and propelling you to Baba Ram Dass levels of illumination overnight. Or, you know, it will make you slightly more aware of inner world, so you’ll have an easier time in the outer one.

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And that’s it!

I believe that this guide should be enough to get you started on working with dreams. There’s so much more to share, like Jung’s theory on recurring dreams, anxiety, depression, pursuit dreams, dreams within dreams, dreams of creative people, common dream motifs like deaths and incest, common symbols and their meanings… but we’re running out of space here.

However! I’m currently putting together all this information in a Google Doc. If you’re a Patron of BeginAgain, you’ll get this for free! as a thank you for your generosity, along with a free dream interpretation Zoom chat with me.

If you’re not a Patron, but would like to get your hands on this complete(ish) guide to dream work, and get a free dream interpretation session, please consider becoming a Patron or giving a one-off donation via PayPal, and I’ll get in touch to express my infinite gratitude and tell you more details about the guide.

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Dept. of further investigation

Thanks for reading. I’ll see you in two weeks, when I’ll tell you the crazy story of my most recent psilocybin journey and the big life questions I’m still pondering as a consequence. If you liked this newsletter, don’t forget to hit the little heart button, share it with a friend and subscribe :) HUGS!