Understanding Your Dreams

“An unexamined dream is like an unopened letter” – Moses Maimonides

One of the purposes of this website is to give people tools to increase self-knowledge and live life from a deeper awareness. Dreaming – a nightly experience for most of us – is a way that our brain sorts out data, learns from it, and makes meaning of our experiences. This article is intended to help you to learn from your own dreams.

“But I don’t dream…..” ….Actually, the likelihood is that you don’t remember your dreams. While some people with severe sleep disorders don’t dream, laboratory studies of sleepers show that most people dream several dreams every night…but few people remember even one dream upon awakening. If you make an effort to remember your dreams (say, by planning to record your dreams when you awaken, using a pencil and paper or a tape recorder ) you will probably remember more dreams than you do now.

“What do dream symbols mean?”….. everyone’s dreams are individual. While there are some common themes in dreams – many people have dreams offlying for instance – there is no absolute correspondence between dream symbols and meaning. Understanding your dreams means understanding yourself.

However, there are some basic guidelines that you can use to make sense of your dreams.

First of all, dreams almost always have something to do with events (or people, or ideas) that you’ve been involved with, or thinking about, the day before. So in searching for the meaning of any particular dream, review what you’ve done, thought about, and who you’ve seen or talked to yesterday.

Secondly, you can use as a “sorting principle” that your dreams will “mean something” on one of three levels. Either they are:

  1. Telling you literal information about the real (objective, material) world; or,
  2. Telling you accurate psychological information about aspects of your external (social-interpersonal) life; or
  3. Telling you about changes or conflicts within your inner personalityor self.

(Note: dreams can have meaning at more than one of these levels, but it’s simpler to look at each level of possible meaning separately).

Now let’s look at each of these three levels of dream-meaning, using as an example a dream that a person is unprepared for an upcoming examination (a fairly common “dream theme”):

At level 1 – the “Objective Reality” level of meaning – this dream is saying, “you’re not prepared for this exam”. So, ask yourself: are you taking a class, or preparing a presentation for work, or in some other way going to be “tested” – and are you in fact unprepared? The dream may be your reminder to “hit the books” and prepare for your upcoming test!

At level 2 – the “Psychological perception about Social Reality” level of meaning – the dream is telling you that you aren’t prepared for some symbolic type of test. Using the principle that dreams are always related to your current life, ask yourself what kinds of “tests” you are concerned with now: A job promotion? A new relationship? Becoming a parent? Some new life stage or life challenge may be represented by the exam in the dream. Are there ways that you haven’t done your homework to prepare for the test life is giving you?

Level 3 – the level of “Internal Psychological Reality” – the exam-anxiety dream may be telling you that you are not living up to your own goals and values – that you are not meeting your own standards. The details of the dream (the exam subject, where the dream took place, who was in the dream, etc. ) might give you clues as to what goals, values, or standards are involved. This is the most subtle type of dream analysis, and takes time and patience, and a developed sensitivity, to do well.

To take another example, I had a dream in which I came downstairs in my house one morning and couldn’t find my old (battered, hand-me-down) desk. I asked my wife if she knew where it was and she said she’d left it somewhere when it had broken down and fell out of our van while she was driving around. She hadn’t bothered to tell me because she didn’t want me to become upset. I did get angry – storming around the house ranting, but (in the dream) – whenever I’d say anything to my wife about it (“how could you have done this without consulting me” type statements), I knew I was just overstating the whole thing. I didn’t really miss the desk at all.

Looking first at “level one” ” – the level of everyday reality – I
observe that the desk in question is not my actual desk that I use, and that nothing is going on in my life at the moment related to desks. So I don’t see any meaning at level one.

On “level two” , the desk in the dream has no significant emotional meaning to me, nor does it have any importance in my current life. I note also that I’m not having any anger or conflict with my wife currently, so it doesn’t seem that the dream is talking about some aspect of my marriage. There’s no emotional connection I can see between the dream and anything in my life. I could, if I think about it long enough, “force” some kind of meaning to this dream at this level – if I think about where I got the desk, or where the desk is in my (real) home now. But those associations and thoughts don’t have any emotional resonance to me as I reflect on them, so I conclude that this dream is not operating to bring me emotional information about my current interpersonal relationships.

The place where I do connect with this dream is at level three, the “internal-psychological ” level. Here, I see the dream as being about getting rid of old habits, old stuff that no longer serves a useful role. My wife (in the dream, a representation of another part of myself) dumps this broken desk, and “I” – representing in the dream the part I most often identify myself with – gets all in a snit about it. But even as “I” am ranting about the loss of the desk, “I” can tell I don’t really care, and that it’s okay to lose this piece of junk.

The dream, then, seems to be telling me that it is fine to let go of old habits and old ways of doing things – especially, perhaps, in relation to the sphere of work ( I associate a desk with work) – even if I feel somewhat uncomfortable about giving the old ways up. From this thought, I can think of some work and business habits of mine I’ve recently become critically aware of, and which I’ve been thinking I might need to change.

While there is no absolute system for understanding dreams, the approach outlined above may help you make better sense of your dreams. I have personally found dreams to be interesting and sometimes valuable guides to my inner life, and I wish the same for you.

A useful book on dreaming is Our Dreaming Mind (link to purchase on Amazon.com) by Robert L. Van de Castle.

Michael Abrahams, LCSW-C