Yesterday I received a text from a dear friend. Attached was a picture of two pages from her Bible’s study guide. They were about how to understand parables and she wondered if it would work to insert the word dreams wherever the word parables was used. It occurred to me that my response might make an interesting blog post. So here it is: my letter to her and this post for you.
I think of dreams as extended metaphors describing what’s going on in my unconscious at the time I have them. I believe they are images of my emotions. I’ve found that if I examine the emotional content of a dream, whether it’s expressed by someone or something else in the dream, or by my dream ego, or by my waking ego when I look back on the dream, I can trace these emotions and behaviors to specific incidents in my waking life that occurred shortly before I had the dream.
Every time I have an experience that triggers an emotion in waking life, my ego and my unconscious begin to process it, each in their own way. If there’s a disparity between their responses, and if that difference is important to my mental and emotional health, my dreams automatically share the reaction of my unconscious in a new dream that compensates for my conscious reaction. In other words, my dreams tell me things about myself of which I’m usually unaware.
The reason my ego and my unconscious have different takes on my waking life is because as a child I built up layers of rationalizations and strategies to protect my ego from strong emotions I didn’t want to feel. Children learn very early to repress emotions that are unacceptable to their parents or caregivers. After a while, our defense mechanisms become such an ingrained part of our personality that we have very little or no awareness of them.
Psychologically, this is what is meant by being unconscious. The term is not meant to disparage or imply dumb ignorance. Having an unconscious self is simply a fact of human nature. We’re all totally aware of some things about ourselves and relatively or completely unaware of others. Everyone wears a persona constructed out of shoulds and shouldn’ts in our early years and few of us remember exactly when or why we made those distinctions.
A mother once told me her children were not allowed to come to the breakfast table without a happy smile. It reminds me of the old song, “Just put on a happy face.” I know this woman thought she was teaching her children to be grateful, respectful, and well-mannered, but what she didn’t realize was that she was also teaching them to stifle their worrisome conflicts and disown their honest emotions.
Maybe there were times when she allowed them to express their fears and pain and helped them deal with internal conflicts. I hope so, but I doubt it. My parents never said anything like that to me, but I knew there were things I could do that would make them deeply uncomfortable. Bemoaning my frustrations and anxieties was at the top of that list. They had enough problems and worries of their own. From what I knew of this mother and observed in her family interactions, the highest priorities in their household were to avoid conflicts and keep up appearances—just as they were in mine.
Like author and dream expert Rev. Jeremy Taylor, I believe that dreams come in the service of health and wholeness, so I take them very seriously. I see them as guidance that can make me more conscious and self-aware. When I make the effort to understand a dream’s symbolic meaning, it’s as if I’m having a conversation with my personal inner guru.
This is different from the kind of guidance you get from a parable someone tells to a group of people. A parable makes one central point about one truth, often a spiritual truth, that is related to a specific occasion. The details are relevant only to that truth and that occasion. They do not automatically apply to other truths and occasions. Nor are they necessarily relevant to you at the time you hear the parable.
Dreams are almost always for and about you: your emotions, experiences, needs, and desires. When dreams feature people you know well, your associations to those people bring valuable insights; for example, about your relationships with them, or the ways you are like or unlike them. Dream images, settings, and symbols also have special meaning to you at some level.
If a dream image or event wasn’t important to you and your well-being in some way, it wouldn’t be in your dream. This is true of nightmares as well. It’s as if Dream Mother knows exactly which images arouse particular emotions in you, so she uses them again to arouse the same emotions, hoping you will eventually pay attention and understand yourself better. Once that happens, you’re on your way to greater consciousness, healing, and wholeness.
Thank you for the inspiration, Trish. I enjoyed working out my answer to your question and hope you found it meaningful.
Image Credit: Awaken, by Cameron Gray
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Thank you Jeanie so much! My dream world has been absent for a while but my goodness, one or 2 have come back with a vengeance. I could hardly believe when I re-read the most recent one in the cold light of day – am still fretting and pondering over it. Thankfully, even as I write this I am making an association – tenuous – but at least something. Even if the dream was a bit horrifying … the last few have involved jungian analysts that I know very well. One here in SA the other in the US.
A lovely post. Exhorting the necessity of paying attention to the dream world. Love, Susan
I’ve been going through a phase of remembering fewer dreams lately too. This seems to be the norm as we age. Although as I say that, I just checked my dream journal and found that I’ve recorded 133 dreams so far this year….so that’s still plenty!
Paying attention to my dream world has been so important to me, especially since mid-life when I underwent a major life transition. It’s felt like having a close friend and guide who only wants the best for me and knows me better than I know myself. That’s been enormously comforting and affirming. I guess I keep writing about dreams from so many different perspectives because I want everyone to have the same experience.
Ooooh, dreaming about Jungian analysts! That theme sounds rich with potential meaning! Good luck working on your most recent dream.
Thank you, Jeanie. I love this clarification and agree. Even in something like mythology, I see a general message for a specific group or culture which may or may not be important for me. My dreams are very personal most of the time, unconscious clarifications of my conscious attitude about something that happened recently or something that’s been on my mind. I find I remember my dreams more reliably when I talk to my dream therapist every other week. Maybe it just brings more motivation to wake up and write the dream down since I rarely remember in the morning if I don’t get the dream into my journal as soon as I have it.
Thank you, Elaine. My dreams have been essential to me developing more self-awareness, i.e. consciousness. I think that must be their primary function. The better I know myself, the more quickly and easily uncomfortable shadow issues are resolved. And it’s not even as if I, my ego self, makes those changes happen with good intentions and will power. My unconscious automatically does it just by reminding me of them until I finally get the message.
Deborah recently sent me the Rumi poem, The Guesthouse, which is also a favorite of yours. As you know, it’s about being hospitable to everything and everyone that comes your way. After she sent it I had two dreams about my hospitality to strangers and in both I saw important, healing changes in my attitudes and feelings that corresponded exactly to what’s been happening in my life. I’m so grateful for that affirmation from my unconscious. And from people like you!