How to Interpret Your Dreams

Even though dreams are a universal human experience, the modern world does not take dreams seriously. Every night we all go to bed and most of us have dreams that we quickly forget when we wake up. We think of these as random static images. Or we don’t really know how to make sense of these images which can be troubling.

Freud said that dreams were images and symbols associated with repression: the psyche was trying to repress what your subconscious mind was telling you. Jung, a disciple of Freud before breaking from him, had a different view. He said, that the dream had fragments of your personality that were furthest away from your conscious awareness. And in his work, he developed a framework of interpreting dreams.

My intention in this essay is to provide as overview of why dreams are important and then show you how to interpret your dreams. Then you can figure out for yourself if this is a modality that is helpful for you to communicate with your unconscious.

The Lindy effect states that things that have been around for a long time will continue to be around for a long time, especially when compared to new things. This is because anything that has stuck around for a while has shown its resilience in the face of time, and the volatility that time brings, and thus will continue to show resilience.

Dream interpretation is Lindy – it is one of the oldest professions and was common in pre-modern societies. Some prominent examples are present in the Old Testament and the Quran. Perhaps the most powerful illustration of a dream interpretation is in the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh. Joseph in his early life has dreams that become premonitions. When he is young he has a dream that all his brothers bow down to him. His brothers are obviously not happy to hear this.

Much later, through life’s twists and turns Joseph is separated from his brothers who think he is dead, and becomes an employee of the Pharaoh before being thrown into prison. The Pharaoh has a dream where he dreams that he is standing next to the Nile and seven attractive and plump cows come out of the Nile and feed on the reed grass. Then they are followed by seven other thin and ugly cows. The seven ugly cows proceed to eat the healthy cows. Pharaoh wakes up after this dream uneasy. He falls asleep a second time and has another dream where he sees seven ears of healthy grain growing in one stalk. And then after them sprout seven ears thin and “blighted by the east wind”. The thin ears swallow the seven plump, full ears. Pharaoh wakes up the next morning, disturbed. He calls all the magicians of the land, but they are unable to interpret the dream for him. At this point Joseph is languishing in jail, but has developed a reputation to interpret dreams. The Pharaoh calls on him to interpret the dream.

Joseph tells the Pharaoh that the seven cows and the seven ears symbolize seven years. He tells him that Egypt will see seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of famine. So, the Pharaoh should take one fifth of the produce of the abundant years and save it for the years of famine.

The interpretation so pleases Pharaoh that Joseph is immediately promoted from convict to advisor to the Pharaoh.

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Egypt goes ahead and carries out the advice of Joseph and they end up having stores of grain when the famine does come. Many people outside of Egypt who are also affected by the famine, hear of Egypt’s surpluses and seek to travel to Egypt to buy its surplus grain. Word of Egypt’s surplus also reaches Joseph’s father, Jacob. He asks his sons to go into Egypt to see if they can get more grain. The brothers, go into Egypt and learn that the Pharaoh’s advisor oversees the trade of grain. They arrange to meet him and once in his presence bow in front of him. Thus, fulfilling the dream that Joseph had as a young child.

That being said, most dreams for most people will not be about the future events in their lives [1]. In fact, most dreams represent different parts of your inner personality interacting with each other. Often the images and characters that show up in your dreams are those furthest away from your conscious mind. The dream is telling you about your blind spots.

To see if this works try it for yourself. Below is a methodology I adapted up from Jungian Analyst and author Robert Johnson.

Step 1:

Write down the outline of your dream, along with key themes. Especially if the dream was complicated and involved multiple scenes. The value for this step is you don’t have to worry about forgetting stuff when you write the rest of the dream down. I usually write the dream down in bullet points. If there are parts of the dream that are hazy I just write that down too. “This happened…and then not sure what happened after that, and then it seems like this other thing happened, oh and then this happened”

Step 2:

Write your dream down in detail. The quicker you can write it down the more details you will remember. Write down all the important details, even the small ones. They will become important later on. I’ll be honest though. Sometimes when I’m in a rush I skip this part and go right to Step 3.

Step 3: 

Pick major themes from the dream and write them down. And then do free form associations out of each of these words

Here is an example of a dream from a client of Johnsons:

“I am in a monastic cloister, in a room or cell attached to the chapel. I am separated from the people and the rest of the chapel by a grille. Mass begins. I participate along in my cell. I sit with crossed legs, zazen style, but holding my rosary I hear the murmurs of the responses through the grille. The voices are tranquil. I close my eyes and I too receive communion, although no one and nothing physical enters my cell. The mass finishes. I become aware of flowers blooming at the side of my chamber. I feel deep serenity.”

For context, the dreamer was a woman from an Italian Catholic family. As she grew into adulthood she found herself rebelling against her Latin background and her childhood religion. She became involved in Zen Buddhist philosophy and meditation, but ultimately dropped it too. Below are the associations she made from the dream:

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Step 4:

Go ahead and for each word pick the association that feels most right. How do you figure that out? Well the right association will have an emotional charge to it, a “click” feeling. Sometimes it is not immediately obvious which association is the right one in which case it is best to leave it for a day or two and come back to it later. Once I’ve picked the right association, I go ahead and circle it.

And once you have the words, the next question to ask yourself is what inner part of you is represented by that figure or association. Your psyche is made up of multiple parts and in your dreams these parts will be personified or symbolized by characters. For example, if you see a friend who is very loyal in a dream, the dream is usually not about your friend, but about the part of you that represents loyalty.

In the above example, the Mass represented a part of the dreamer associated with her Catholic Christian heritage. Combined with the other themes, the emphasis of the dream was around participating in a collective religious tradition while still pursuing the path of individuation and her own identity. This was not because she was elitist but because that was her nature.

The flowers blooming at the end were a symbol of creating a synthesis for a new type of consciousness between her childhood and adult experience of religion. Flowers represent femininity in dreams, but also of the Unified Self. In Christianity, the Rose represents Christ and in Eastern religions the thousand petaled lotus portrays the One.

This bring us to another point: while some of the associations will be personal, some associations will be universal in their archetypical imagery. For example, water usually represents the unconscious and the Old Man represents generational wisdom. However, if you are not sure if a symbol is personal or universal you should pick the personal meaning over a universal one.

This dream signaled a return to her cultural and religious roots, yet a graduation out of her childhood version of them. It showed her that she could make a synthesis between East and West out of herself that was true to her character.

Step 5:

Once you have understood the interpretation of a dream, you must do a ritual to concretize the insight and make a connection from the inner world to the external world. Often times it is hard to think of what to do, and we are tempted to think of dramatic ways we should create a ritual around our dreams. But make sure the ritual you chose does not harm your current relationships or work life. Even simple acts can suffice. In the example above the dreamer considered joining a monastery herself but that would have been against the spirit of the dream. Instead she focused on the final part of the dream where she had seen flowers bloom. She purchased a wreath of flowers and drove to the seaside and made a ceremony by casting the flowers into the sea. As Johnson puts it “This was a beautiful symbolic act of giving the gift she had received back to Mother Earth, back to the feminine sea of consciousness.” [2]

[1] In my anecdotal experience individuals who are INFJ in the MBTI typology system most frequently have dreams that are premonitions

[2] Excerpts taken from Inner Work by Robert Johnson

[3] all kinds of funny coincidences started happening to the dreamer after the ritual. Maybe I’ll discuss it in another blog