For as long as we have dreamed, we have tried to understand the meaning of our dreams.
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Over the ages, many meanings have been ascribed to various dream elements as is apparent when checking out any dream dictionary.
Recently, psychologists in the West have tried to approach dream interpretation by means of the scientific method, coming up with different theories regarding both why we dream and the meaning of our dreams.
This scientific endeavor however is yet to explain the phenomenon of dreams thoroughly.
Dream interpretation theories include:
Freud & Psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud regarded dream interpretation as “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”
In most dreams we combine “day residue” or daily events with a fulfillment of wishes that we cannot fulfill in the waking state of consciousness.
Any wish that we had in the previous day and could not fulfill remains within us as a stuck energy. We can suppress it so that it doesn’t interfere with our daily functioning, for example, if the wish cannot be fulfilled due to social conventions. This energy can be suppressed but it remains in the unconscious level of the mind where it waits to be expressed, experienced during the night, in dreams, where there is no convention, no morality, no ego.
However, even dreaming about some of our deeply unconscious wishes could be highly upsetting therefore, Freud postulated, there is a “censor” within us who distorts our wishes and codes them symbolically into non-disturbing dream material. In this way, the energy is at least partially released, yet sleep is undisturbed. If this mechanism fails, the dream can become disturbing, resulting in a nightmare or anxiety dream.
In Freudian dream interpretation, the symbolism is analyzed, which allows to identify the unconscious wishes that are trying to become fulfilled. Then they can be released under the guidance and support of the psychoanalyst, thereby freeing any tensions and neurosis they may have created in the patient.
Carl Gustav Jung
Jung continued where Freud left off, expanding his theory of why we dream and how to appropriately interpret dreams.
If Freud focused on the pathological side of dreams and the personal unconsciousness, Jung spoke of the broader meaning of dreams and the collective unconsciousness.
Jung recognized that there are archetypes, dream images with a universal meaning that are common in dreams across all humans.
While Jung’s method of dream interpretation appears similar to the traditional methods of dream dictionaries, like Freud’s method, it relies heavily on the subjective interpretation of the dreamer himself.
Adler also developed a theoretical and clinical approach for dream interpretation. While Freud centered on the internal realm, Adler spoke of the influence of the social realm.
While Freud saw the libido is our main driving force, Adler recognized the importance of politics.
Dreaming in Animals & Primitive People
Animals don’t dream.
Primitive people don’t dream.
Dreaming has a different function in primitive societies. When a dream occasionally happens in a primitive tribe, the dreamer is recognized as a shaman and his dreams are regarded as prophetic, and believed to bring important messages for the tribe.
Why is there a difference between uncivilized people and modern societies?
The former do not repress as much as the latter. The unconscious mind of primitive people is a lot smaller than that of modern people; they live their lives naturally with no repression.
Animals too do not repress and hence do not need to dream.
Why We Dream?
Repressing any energy, for example a unfulfilled desire, results in dreaming. The repressed energy enters the unconscious mind and when your guard’s down, while you’re sleeping, it is released and manifests as dreaming. Finally, in the dream, the desire can be fulfilled and the energy can be released.
For example, after a day of fasting, eating dreams may arise. If one abstains from sexual activity, then one will likely experience sexual dreams.
And the more one represses, the more civilized one becomes; the larger the unconscious mind becomes.
Nightmares result from very strong repression.
Dreaming in an Awakened Person
An awakened individual, like animals and primitive people, does not dream.
But the difference between enlightened beings and primitives is fundamental. Primitives conform to all their desires unconsciously, naturally, while an enlightened person does so in full consciousness.
An enlightened person does not care about respectability and of what others think of him. Therefore, he can wholeheartedly do anything he wants to do without thinking of the consequences. Nothing is left incomplete. The life of a Buddha, or an awakened one, is intense and total. With no repressions, dreams simply aren’t created.
Keeping all the above in mind, what kind of work can be done with dreams?
Dreams can be worked with in various ways. For example, the practices of astral projection, lucid dreaming, and dream yoga all require strong dream recall; otherwise these experiences may not be remembered. Dream journaling, the act of writing dreams upon awakening from them, can improve dream recall.
Psychologically, it is indeed possible to use dreams as a reservoir of uncensored mental material to work with in understanding oneself. No dream dictionary or outside interpretation will suffice however; one needs to figure out what each dream element represents in one’s personal mind.
To overcome nightmares, working with dreams can also be helpful.
While in primitive societies the shaman has an important role due to his use of dreams for divination, in civilized societies the psychoanalyst has power over dreams because he can help his clients analyze them.
As a psychotherapeutic tool, dreams can indeed offer the therapist easier access to the patient’s inner world. By working with the insight which can be derived from dream interpretation, one can become more natural and less repressive.
However, psychologists should not waste their whole lives interpreting others’ dreams… What is needed is consciousness.
Ultimately, dreams should be transcended, not simply analyzed, by allowing the energy of the unconscious mind to be released and no longer storing energy in the unconsciousness. This can be done through the practice of meditation. By simply knowing that a dream is merely a dream, the dream is transcended and the energy is released.
This brings to mind a story about a Zen master who woke up one morning and said to his disciple:
“I had a dream last night. Would you interpret it for me, what it means?”
The disciple said:
“Wait! Let me bring a cup of tea for you.”
Taking the tea, the master then asked:
“Now what about the dream?”
The disciple said:
“Forget about it, because a dream is a dream and needs no interpretation. A cup of tea is enough interpretation – awake!”
The master said:
“Right, absolutely right! If you had interpreted my dream I would have thrown you out of my monastery, because only fools interpret dreams. You did well; otherwise you would have been thrown out completely, and I would not have looked at your face again.” (Source: Osho; Osho)