No one really knows exactly what dreams are or where they come from. People who see our world through a materialistic lens usually say that dreams are a random product of memory, based on the brain’s acquisition and interpretation of sensory input. Others say that dreams help to release physio-logical, sensory and psychological data that we pick up through waking and sleeping hours.
Followers of Sigmund Freud, who was an atheist for much of his life, try to decipher the meaning of dreams according to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. For Freudians, understanding is all about deciphering the dreamer’s real and imagined world through the often baffling language of dreams.
Carl Jung, who was once Freud’s brightest student, arguably takes a more comprehensive approach. Jungians try to decode dreams by looking at the biological, psychological, cultural, transpersonal, and spiritual aspects of the self, also taking into account the dreamer’s total life situation.
A Quick Look at Dream Theory
Human beings have interpreted dreams for centuries. The ancient Greeks practiced so-called dream incubation to try to cure illnesses often associated with a deity’s displeasure. The afflicted would enter a sacred chamber, allowing visionary or incubated dreams to guide them towards health. This ancient practice was based on the belief that angry deities made people unwell but divine mercy could heal them.
Joseph of the Bible’s Old Testament became a powerful figure in Egypt because he was a gifted dream interpreter. But dream interpretation was by no means unique to the ancient Israelites. Most ancient cultures studied dreams to prophesize, predict, assist and inspire.
The early Christian Tertullian (155-230 CE) believed that dreams came from God, Satan, or were produced by the individual soul in connection with nature. And the early Roman writer Macrobius (395-423 CE) was one of the first dream theorists to look seriously at nightmares.
In medieval times the cruel and paranoid side of humanity was, perhaps, most prevalent with the Christian Inquisitions, irrational witch hunts and the burning of heretics. And dream theory within the Church reflected that disturbing paranoia.
By the 16th and 17th centuries Father Gracian, St. Theresa’s confessor, wrote that “it is a sin to believe in dreams.”¹ Gracian and other notables of the day placed much emphasis on Satan, linking the devil to the sexual content of dreams.
A few centuries later, Freud said that dream analysis is the “royal road” to the unconscious, making a distinction between the manifest and latent content of dreams. The manifest content is the dream remembered by the conscious mind, usually a condensed, displaced or symbolic version of the latent content. The latent content consists of the dreamer’s unconscious feelings, perceptions and desires, to be deciphered through psychoanalysis.
Freud believed that upsetting and sleep-disturbing latent content is psychologically censored, just as a newspaper editor censors articles that would be too disruptive if published. Freud also felt that environmental stimuli, such as traffic sounds outside the dreamer’s window, could influence the manifest content.
Alfred Adler once belonged to Freud’s inner circle but eventually broke with Freud over professional differences. Adler argued that Freud placed too much emphasis on sex. Adler also regarded conscious intent as equally, if not more, important than unconscious impulses.
Adler believed that dreams help to identify and overcome daytime problems. Life wasn’t about accepting “normal human unhappiness,” as Freud once put it. Alder saw life as an opportunity to overcome unrealistic feelings of inferiority and superiority. Through a process of self-improvement individuals gain an increased sense of mastery and, so it follows, happiness.
Like Adler, Freud’s prodigy Jung once followed but ultimately spoke out against Freudian theory. When Jung couldn’t toe the line any longer, he openly questioned Freud’s ideas, suggesting they were reductive and unscientific. This caused a permanent rift in their once very close relationship.
Jung went on to outline two main types of dreams, unpretentiously called big dreams and little dreams. Big dreams contain archetypal material originating from the collective unconscious. They may be visionary, involve grand themes (such as the mythic journey of the hero) and usually compel the dreamer to make significant life changes. Little dreams are more of the Freudian sort. They involve the personal unconscious and upper layers of the collective unconscious (such as the archetype of the shadow), and point to the need for smaller psychological adjustments instead of dramatic life changes.
The Gestalt theorist Fritz Perls believed that every aspect of the dream points toward some unconscious aspect of the dreamer’s total personality.
Contemporary parapsychologists take things a step further by saying that dreams may be predictive and involve the spirit world.
Jung also believed in the paranormal aspects of dreams but was careful to integrate the physiological, psychological and spiritual dimensions as he understood them.
How Can Dreams Help?
Dogmatic materialists and skeptics aside, most people agree that the primary purpose of dreams is to integrate unconscious and conscious attitudes, this hopefully leading to a better, more realistic approach to life.
The following builds on several leading perspectives and includes some original ideas of my own.² These categories aren’t watertight nor exhaustive. But hopefully they’ll illustrate some of the value and complexity of dream interpretation.
Compensation is when the (unconscious) dreaming self attempts to restore or achieve balance within the (conscious) daytime attitude. A daytime racist, for instance, might dream of an enchanted encounter with someone of another color. Or a daytime bully who victimizes gays and lesbians might dream about an enjoyable same sex liaison.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the dreamer should act out their dream content in daily life. Rather, the dream merely opens doors to new possibilities, encouraging a more comprehensive, less judgmental worldview.
An example of wish-fulfillment would be when someone wants a romantic getaway vacation to the Barbados but can’t afford the time or perhaps money to get there. If the desire and need for this kind of diversion are strong enough, chances are they’ll dream about it.
The same applies to lonely people in search of a soul mate. They may never find them during the day. But their dreams can be rich and satisfying to the point where it’s upsetting to awake. On this, the Japanese poet Ohtomo Yakamochi wrote:
[These] meetings in dreams,
How sad they are!
When, waking up startled
One gropes about,–
And there is no contact to the hand.
—From the Manyo Shu, compiled 760 CE
In a purging dream, one gets rid of their negative feelings for another person or situation. Typically, someone will dream of screaming and shouting (maybe even cursing) at someone else whom they consciously or unconsciously resent during the daytime. On waking they feel better.
Residual dreams illustrate leftover conscious or unconscious feelings from daytime. They can involve the purging of negative emotions (as above) but also celebrating positive feelings.
Getting in touch | Seeing where it hurts
Here we dream about people or situations that have or still do upset us in daytime reality. We don’t wake up feeling better. In fact, we usually wake up feeling hurt. But this helps us to learn about and feel our hidden pain in order to better deal with it.
This type of dream differs from purging and residual dreams because on waking we may still be upset, even shaken. But this can be therapeutic. For to not know ourselves is usually a recipe for disaster. In psychoanalytic terms, this is a kind of abreaction.
Abreaction is a release and re-experiencing of painful or traumatic events or emotions. In many dreams it is obvious that the process underlying dreams is attempting to trigger an abreaction.³
The content of feeling tone dreams are generally forgotten but on waking the dream instills an emotional climate appropriate for the day.† The waking self is emotionally prepared to “get up and go.” An example would be a traveler who wakes up in a foreign country, eager to explore various architectural landmarks.
Feeling tone dreams can also be more subtle. A typically grouchy person, for example, might wake up feeling more favorably disposed toward his or her family and friends.
Problem solving dreams provide solutions to vexing issues and practical problems encountered by the waking self. The answer may be cloaked in symbolism but usually some kind of direct statement is given in the dream.
A lost ring, for instance, might be located through a dream in which a voice simply says, “look under the mat.” This might seem trite but it points to the idea that, in many instances, the dreaming self is more knowledgeable than the waking.
These are similar to wish-fulfillment (see above), but transformational dreams signify general motifs or trends as opposed to specific objects of desire. For instance, we dream of flying around the neighborhood or to distant countries. The weightlessness is sheer joy. This could symbolize “taking off” in life, socially or professionally.
Creative and Inspirational
Creative and Inspirational dreams contain specific content that a person may apply to their daytime work. Music composers, for instance, sometimes dream about melodies and arrangements. And history records not a few inventors who dreamed of devices and innovations before manufacturing them.
Nightmares are generally viewed as warning dreams. The nightmare is trying to jolt us into recognizing and readjusting an inappropriate conscious attitude or situation. A recurring nightmare points toward something in ourselves (or in life) that urgently needs change.
Here we have wonderful or perhaps horrific dreams of things to come—that is, the future of humanity. It seems that visionary dreams and their interpretation are almost always colored by personal and cultural filters. Some visionaries recognize this, while others tend to habitually mistake their vague predictions for precise ones. If left unchecked, the misguided visionary might go insane in some rare instances. But usually they just go on fooling themselves and anyone gullible enough to follow their half-baked predictions.
Precognitive dreams are similar to visionary dreams but not as momentous. Here one simply dreams of something which, in fact, occurs later in waking reality. These could come about by (a) God letting the person know what will happen (b) the person sensing things through time (which as we now know, is a relative construct) or (c) a combination of (a) and (b), that is, God allowing a person to sort of psychologically “time travel,” as it were.† This latter view upsets some traditional theologians who just can’t get their head around the idea that space-time is not linear.
Also called conscious or lucid dreaming, controlled dreaming is a controversial technique based on shamanic traditions where one actively creates or has a conscious effect on the dream content. Some control their dreams for pleasure. Others strive to improve conditions in the everyday world, this based on the belief (and perhaps observation) that dreaming and waking realities are intimately (if mysteriously) connected.
Here the dreamer experiences another person’s problems, concerns or situation. During the empathetic dream the dreamer fully believes that he or she is confronted with issues that, in actuality, pertain to somebody else.† An extreme example would be a law abiding person dreaming they are a desperate criminal, always worried that he or she will get caught by the authorities.
The value of this type of dream is that the dreamer, upon waking, gains insight and can be sympathetic to the plight of others without actually doing the bad thing.† Of course, a similar effect can come through the arts (Elton John’s “Have Mercy on the Criminal” song comes to mind). But the impact of an empathetic dream is more powerful and immediate, making the innocent dreamer feel he or she really understands what it’s like to be a desperate crook.
Although empathetic dreams differ from intercession dreams (below), the empathetic dream can be an explanatory companion to intercession dreams—i.e. the dreamer better understands why they must spend time in contemplative or vocal prayer for another person.†
No surprise then, that the empathetic dream is especially valuable for contemplative saints (or saints in the making) who apparently take the sins (or karma) for others less able to understand and, therefore, appreciate the subtler points of religious experience.†
Intercession is a theological term. It points to the idea that souls mediate God’s graces to one another. In the context of dreaming, intercession may or may not take place in real time. That is, one may dream of and intercede for a bad situation that could take place in the future. In the dream state the dreamer mediates graces to another soul so as to engender healing or to encourage that person to avoid making a bad choice.†
This kind of dreaming exhibits aspects of precognitive and controlled dreaming. But it differs in the sense that, within the context of the dream, one prays in a contemplative way for another person.† As with daytime intercessory prayers, the ultimate source of healing and positive redirection is God, not the dreamer.
It’s conceivable that intercession dreams are effective in real time and, given the relativity of space-time, also with past events. Here, dreamers would intercede in a positive way, for example, for victims of past wars and other atrocities.†
Intercession dreams may also be related to Empathetic Dreams (see above).†
The terms paranormal and normal seem somewhat arbitrary. They’re perhaps more reflections of the status quo than absolute categories, so they’re used here mostly for convenience.
With paranormal dreams, believers claim the psyche accesses information normally restricted by conscious and unconscious attitudes and also by the selective attention that is required for daytime activities. These dreams range from contacting the dead, traveling through time, and taking astral journeys to faraway countries, distant galaxies, exotic realms and other alleged dimensions. They can also involve communing with aliens and perceiving other people’s thoughts, emotions and inclinations.
While some report seeing or, perhaps, contacting themselves in past lives (i.e. reincarnation) during a dream, it’s important to realize that this is not necessarily fact. As a rule of thumb, paranormal dreams must be carefully interpreted and assessed. To take paranormal dreams at face value without informed analysis seems unwise because there’s no guarantee that the dream information is trustworthy or interpreted correctly.†
Hellish dreams are different from usual nightmares. On waking the dreamer feels as if they have had an actual glimpse or personally experienced an actual hell. The experience is far more profound than a mere frightening series of events, characteristic of most nightmares. Hellish dreams arguably aren’t just imaginal representations but, rather, ontological encounters occurring during the sleep state. This is about the very real feeling of being damned and tormented for all time.
Due to the immediacy and intensity of the hellish experience, on waking the dreamer usually feels they’ve received a dire warning to change some attitude or behavior for the better.
Heavenly and Blissful
Many spiritually minded folk don’t like to differentiate the heavenly from astral realms (along with their respective numinous qualities). But one could reply that these people, for whatever reasons, just haven’t matured enough in their spiritual formation to understand and appreciate the difference.† By way of analogy, try telling a 3 year-old the difference between pi, infinity, and the speed of light—or, for that matter, between whiskey, vodka and wine. In both cases, the child just isn’t there yet to get it. And so it may be with many adults, who for all intents and purposes, seem more like kids (or maybe teens) when it comes to understanding matters spiritual.†
By way of contrast, many say on the basis of personal experience that heaven is of an entirely different order and beauty than the astral realms or the energy of the cosmos.
At any rate, in this kind of dream one experiences heavenly realms and all the contentment, love, grace and profound peace that accompany them. And heavenly bliss is often distinguished from the following “lesser” paths of natural and aesthetic beauty, vital pleasures (e.g. sex and eating), endorphin and adrenaline rushes, alcoholic merriment, drug-induced altered states, and forms of intuitive or extroverted pseudo-spirituality characterized by immaturity, egoism and an absence of genuine love.
To what degree heavenly bliss might coexist with other, lesser pleasures remains a matter open to debate. But even if heavenly graces did coexist with lesser pleasures, we can still discern the different components of a given experience.† By way of analogy, water may be combined with coffee, sugar and cream but these various elements remain different.
This notion of a hierarchy of pleasures, from vulgar to heavenly, isn’t terribly new. The idea appears in ancient Indian and Greek philosophies. As noted above, Tertullian wrote that some dreams are an ecstatic, purely spiritual experience, in contrast to those generated by the soul and nature.
More recently, the Indian mystic Sri Aurobindo had much to say about different levels of spiritual experience. Aurobindo also warned against the deceptive influences of astral realms. However, Aurobindo didn’t have too much to say about dreams per se because for him, sleep was something to be overcome. Aurobindo claims he eventually overcame “The Sleep,” as he put it, replacing sleep and dreaming with the preferable state of meditation.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of dreams is their tendency to synthesize a great deal of information. Assuming that one has a feel for dream interpretation, it seems that past, present and future possibilities as well as feelings, attitudes and suggestions for improvement are combined in a brief production often reminiscent of an Oscar winning movie. Because most “dream movies” exhibit such a high degree of intellectual and artistic excellence, it seems improbable that the dreamer is the sole creator and director. Indeed, most of us could never hope to write a novel or screenplay containing the wisdom and brilliance of dreams.
This synthetic aspect of dreams suggests that some unknown agency beyond the body, brain and soul is at least partly responsible for dream production. And all we have to do is sleep!
¹Father Gracian cited in Robert L. Van de Castle, Our Dreaming Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994, p. 83.
² My own ideas are indicated with the † symbol.
³ Tony Crisp http://dreamhawk.com/dream-encyclopedia/abreaction/
Castaneda, Carlos. The Art of Dreaming. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Nobody knows whether Castaneda was writing fiction, fact or some combination of the two. But he does a good job illustrating a shamanistic perspective through his account of Don Juan.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Penguin Freud Library Volume 4. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1976.
Hall, James A. Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1983.
Jung, C. G. Dreams, trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, New Jersey: Bollingen Series XX Princeton University Press, 1954. This is a good collection of Jung’s work on dreams from different sources.
Lewis, James, R. The Dream Encyclopedia. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1995. This isn’t just another “10,000 Dreams Interpreted” type book. It contains referenced and insightful comments throughout.
Pliskin, Marcia. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Interpreting Your Dreams. New York: Alpha Books, 1999. Don’t be biased against the fact that this is an Idiots Guide. It’s a good introduction.
Telesco, Patricia. The Language of Dreams. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, 1997. I found Part One of this book, ‘A Time to Dream,’ most useful.
Van de Castle, Robert L. Our Dreaming Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. An excellent survey and resource book for further study by Dr. Van de Castle.
Some Interesting Dream Quotes » http://www.quotegarden.com/dreams.html
Disclaimer: This article does not possess any kind of medical, legal or religious authority. Those with physical, mental or spiritual health issues are advised to consult an appropriate and licensed professional.
“Deciphering dreams – different perspectives” © Michael W. Clark, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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