Dreams speak to our non-rational self: our emotional, instinctual, conditioned unconscious, and experiential selves. They reach beyond our carefully construed ego self to bring new insight and understanding with the purpose of positive growth. While they speak with the language of metaphor and symbols, using a symbol dictionary limits the interpretation, and is, therefore, not recommended. The best way to look at dreams is to break down their elements and look for the associations that can best be bridged with our outer lives, remembering that it is the symbology, and not the literal translation that has relevance.
Let me demonstrate using my own dream from last night:
I am seated at a round table with my ex husband and his wives. The occasion, it seems, is the funeral of my present husband. The three of them have just returned from a cruise (their first) and were so taken with the experience that they have bought me a gift certificate from a travel company so that I can go with them the next time. I am taken aback: not only is this unexpected, it is highly inappropriate given all the circumstances. Jay’s sister-in-law (who we jokingly call his other wife) is quite animate and friendly, as is my ex. His wife does not look at me. I examine the gift certificate. Is is for just under $900, and from a travel agent who is on the verge of bankruptcy, so not guaranteed. I mention this and they say that is why we have to act now. I see my husband, bed-ridden in the next room and tell them he is not even dead yet. This is all so wrong. The women leave but my ex stays. He hands me some pieces of clothing that his wife wants me to have. They are used, but obviously washed – red satin pjs with hearts on them. The first two garments are size small. “I have never been a small” I tell him, handing them back. The last piece looks large enough, but is just the top, no bottoms. “Accept that, at least!” he commands. I do and as he leaves I wake up feeling the ludicrousness of this dream.
1. Setting – Where the dream takes place is a good starting point. When considering setting, notice whether it is familiar or unfamiliar. If unfamiliar, draw out any associations or memories that the images conjure.
My dream takes place indoors, at a round table
– the round table makes me think of Arthur and the knights of the round table. (I’ll come back to this symbol later.)
– I had table dreams regularly when going through my divorce, while I was negotiating a settlement, as in what both parties brought to the table. (Dreams often use puns to illustrate a point).
– indoors might indicate something inside myself.
– this is supposed to be the occasion of my current husband’s funeral, and the setting appears to be more ‘back at the house’ than the funeral parlour, so the indication is that it has to do with something in my own home, or inside myself.
– time of day seems to be late afternoon, early evening – if there were other mourners, they are gone. Age-wise, I am in the later years.
2. Actions – the movement in dreams can help us understand progress, or see where things are going.
The action takes place indoors, at a round table, with three other people, then moves to the sitting area with one and eventually alone.
Associations or thoughts – Three’s a crowd: the feeling of being ganged up on. (this draws an aha for me. I am feeling ganged up on by my friends and family who keep asking me why I haven’t had an MRI.) Then sitting face-to-face with my ex – facing the issue full on, and then alone – A reminder that in the end we are all alone – it is a place we need to be most comfortable in.
3. Themes – It sometimes helps to insert an ‘as if’ here:
It’s as if my ex-husband and his wives have offered to take me on a cruise – this would be totally inappropriate under any circumstances, for so many reasons, and reminds me of the time when we first separated, and he wasn’t paying support but offered to take me on a $350 balloon ride for my 40th birthday – it was so inappropriate as I needed the money for food and shelter at the time. Is there something here about how others are not always sensitive to what you need in the moment? This certainly ties in with the pressure I’m getting from others to get another opinion. It is their agenda, not mine.
It’s as if I am holding ceremony for my current husband and he is not actually dead yet.
Big aha here! I worry about my husband all the time: his eating habits, lack of exercise, and alcohol consumption. I am burying him, before he is even dead. Boy, I need to let this one go!
It’s as if I am reluctantly being handed a gift (the clothing from my ex-s wife): not sure about the connection here. Will have to give it more thought. Is someone offering me a back-handed gesture of help? Reminds me of a term my father used : watch out for Philadelphia lawyers- meaning be wary of people who have nothing invested in your issue.
4. People – Keep in mind that the people in dreams are also symbols, so consider the character traits and behaviours of the people represented. Gestalt therapy suggests that all elements of a dream are parts of the self.
Ex-husband – narcissitic, anti-social, self-serving – what part of me is this? Certainly my fearful self – when cornered or attacked, I will defend me at all costs. How am I negotiating with this part of myself?
Ex-husband’s sister-in-law: outgoing, Russian bride, in an abusive marriage – what part of me is this? The reason we call her the ‘other wife’ is that she spends more time in my ex’s house than her own given the circumstances of her marriage. She is the twin sister of my ex’s wife, the more outgoing of the two, but is making poor choices in her life. This reminds me of my own mother who could never leave my father despite the abuse that went on in their marriage. I am aware of the baggage I carry as a result of my parents’ marriage. Good to be reminded that I bring that to the table.
The Russian bride: bitchy, demanding, inflexible: Yes, my ex married a mail order bride (I always joke that he had to go all the way to Siberia to replace me). She is the anti-thesis of me – a fighter, who stands up for her rights, and won’t back down no matter what – this is me when backed into a corner. This was me the night before last when Thor and I had a fight about his health. I lashed out with a vengeance. Like the wife in the dream, I couldn’t look at myself after, I felt so ashamed.
Thor – in the dream he is sick and dying, or originally thought dead. Thor is driven, thoughtful, giving, a caretaker and provider. He is all the parts of myself that I like. Have I given up on them? I am not able to be caretaker or provider right now which causes no end of grief. But, like Thor in the dream, I am not dead – just sick in bed. The end is not here!
5. Symbols: Dreams, like symbols, have layers of meaning, some archetypal, some societal or cultural, but mostly they are personal. It is important to examine personal significance.
Table – for me, the table has historically represented negotiation, as in “What do you bring to the table?” This table is round, which reminds me of the Arthurian tales in which the table was round to signify equality – no head of the table. Round tables at school allow for more communal discussions.
Cruise – Thor and I love to cruise, but have been unable to because of our illnesses. Going on a cruise is what we hope to do as soon as I am able to travel. It offers comfort, luxury, and a variety of destinations, as well as lots of entertainment – all without having to move from hotel to hotel. The dream offer of a cruise holds no allure. It is my husband I want to travel with – in the dream and in life. (An aha moment).
Used pjs – in the dream they signify a peace offering, albeit not well thought out, almost as if last minute. Pajamas are associated with the bedroom, and intimacy. That the Russian bride would offer me pjs is curious. Things that are odd in dreams often hold important messages – I will come back to this.
6. Feelings – this is important. Our ego tends to filter emotional responses and regulates them so that we behave appropriately, however; the dream time allows for expression of anger, remorse, fear, etc. Understanding our underlying feelings can help us to make healthier decisions, and heal old wounds.
disbelief , incredulousness – where am I feeling this in my outer life? Not sure.
incensed – the feelings here are for my ex-husband, and while it has been many years since our divorce I suspect I am still harboring some resentment for the way the marriage ended and how he treated me in the aftermath. When I lashed out at Thor, it was undoubtedly with some of this leftover resentment.
7. Questions: what questions arise from the examination of the dream?
Why would I be entertaining my ex and his wives? Or more importantly – How am entertaining my ex and his wives (parts of self)? How have I enabled self-centered, explosive, foreign aspects of myself to persuade me? How have I allowed myself to even contemplate fulfilling my dreams without my husband ( I confess the thought of divorce did cross my mind – knee-jerk reaction).
Why pajamas? Which leads to another thing to consider:
8. What is odd? All dreams are odd, admittedly; but what is odd even for the dream?
The red pajamas.
An exercise to do here, would be to describe the object, as if to an alien, who has no concept of the item, its use, its origin, or social application.
These pajamas are used for night wear; women wear them to sleep in, or for lounging at night, usually when company is not present. These are red, satiny, so light weight and comfortable on the skin. They are fashioned after a man’s shirt, with matching pants, typically, although the only one that fits me is missing it’s partner. They have long sleeves, and button up at the front. They are modest.
After having exhausted the description possibilities, the next step is to take out the references to the object and replace it with “I am”.
So: I am used for night wear; for sleeping, or for lounging at night, not when company is present. I am red, and satiny, and light weight. I am comfortable. I am fashioned after a man…..etc.
Note: Work with a dream until you reach an ‘aha’ or breakthrough. Always work until you have a positive outcome: a resolution, a healing, a new insight that inspires positive movement.