About a year ago, I had a bizarre dream.
I was in a large white space, like something in between a hospital and heaven (how heaven looks in the movies, anyway). There was a room with a row of gurneys with sick people on them. There was a doctor, and he told me gravely that I had "organic brain psychosis," and it was terminal.
(As a side note, "organic brain psychosis" is not a real disease, and just something my dreaming mind made up.)
Over the course of the dream I got sicker and sicker. At one point, I knew I was about to die. Three friends were there and one carried me up an escalator that led to a vast open space, with no ground.
He put me down and I floated there, in the air, with everyone surrounding me. I felt myself getting weaker and weaker, but I wasn't afraid. My eyes started to hover in that space between open and closed.
My eyes were just about to shut as I took my last breath, and then... I woke up.
So why should we bother understanding our dreams? I could have said to myself, "Weird dream," moved on with my day, and left it at that. But the reason to delve further is because dreams are a window to our unconscious mind.
They can help us understand our habits and tendencies, and open our eyes to the parts of our personality we tend to ignore or cover up. They can help us understand the contradictory and conflicting thoughts that exist in all of us. They can help us connect with our inner wisdom.
Here are the steps to start analyzing and understanding your dreams:
1. Write your dreams down. If you think you're going to be able to remember your dreams well enough the next day to analyze them, you're probably not.
First, for many people, within a few minutes of waking up the details of our dreams slip away and we're left with the feeling of, "I know I had an interesting dream, I just don't remember what happened... "
Second, while the awake mind is logical and rational, the dreaming mind is not. When you wake up, your conscious mind will try to fill in the gaps and create a story around what was likely a series of images that did not necessarily have a logical plot.
Therefore, it's best to record your dreams as soon as you wake up, before your awake mind has had a chance to add details that weren't really present when you were sleeping.
Instead of writing down a story, write down any fragments or images that come to mind, as they come to mind. The specific sequence is less important.
2. Think of associations you have with images in the dream. The next step is to examine each of the images and figures in the dream and consider what your conscious mind associates with them.
For example, in my dream, I considered my associations with hospitals (at that time, I place where I worked that caused me a lot of stress), and the diagnosis of "organic brain psychosis" (the diagnosis felt more like a tumor eating away at my brain than a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia).
You want to look at the setting (Where does the dream take place? Have you been there before? What does it make you think of?), images and symbols (Were there any significant objects in the dream? What did they mean to you?) and anything else that stands out.
3. Consider your relationship with people in the dream. In dreams, people are not always people, but often symbols of parts of ourselves.
Remember that in your dreams, you are the writer, director, and all of the actors. The less you share a significant, primary relationship with a person in the dream (such as a parent, husband/wife, child), the more likely that person symbolizes a part of your own psyche.
So when you are examining people who pop up in your dreams, you want to consider your relationship with them in real life, and what part of you they may be representing.
My dream had three primary characters (besides me). A good friend from college, an acquaintance from college, and a friend from residency. All were men, and all of them played water sports (two were swimmers, one was a surfing buddy).
I have positive associations with water (and in certain ways feel more at home in water), and in my dream all three of these people were guiding me along the course of my illness. They seemed like a part of me that was trying to help me make some sort of transformation.
4. Is there a "day residue?" Day residue refers to any symbols or objects in your dreams that appear because you came into contact with them during the previous day.
For example, I once had a dream about a person I went to high school with, even though I hadn't seen her or thought of her in years. However, the previous day I happened to have seen her pop up on my Facebook feed and was looking at her recent pictures.
In the dream I describe above, one of the people (the acquaintance from college), I also wasn't very close with, but happened to meet up with him for lunch a few days before.
5. Examine your emotions in the dream. The next step is to consider the emotional tone of the dream.
Were you afraid? Happy? Reluctant? Was there a disconnect in the dream between how you think you should have felt and what you did feel?
In my dream I initially felt really, really sad that I was dying (as one would expect), but as I was lying down about to die, I felt completely calm and ready, and even a little curious.
When I woke up right before I was going to die in the dream, I thought, Oh man, I woke up too early... I was about to see something really interesting!
6. Look for common symbols. In Jungian theory, there are symbols that tap into our "collective unconscious" and can have common meanings throughout all of our dreams. For example...
Being chased can symbolize running away from something you don't feel equipped to handle.
Disease can symbolize inner conflict.
Death can symbolize transformation.
Take a look at this dream dictionary for possible meanings of other common symbols.
7. Ask what the dream could be trying to tell you. The practice of dream analysis assumes that dreams have a function: to balance what is unbalanced, and restore ourselves to homeostasis.
Dreams are not under our conscious control, and can't be willed or anticipated, and so it makes sense that dreams are like other autonomous bodily functions, and serve to promote health and growth.
Therefore, you should analyze your dreams with the perspective of, What is this dream trying to tell me? You should ask, What deficit in my waking life is this dream trying to expose? What is this dream trying to rebalance?
When I examined my above dream, it seemed clear that my death symbolized a transformation my unconscious mind was trying to encourage me to make. The "organic brain psychosis" seemed to symbolize the ways in which I drive myself crazy through my rigid standards and perfectionistic tendencies.
It seemed like the dream was trying to tell me to let go of these expectations, and that even though it feels scary, nothing bad would be on the other side. It suggested to me that I could wake up to a better way of life.
A dream can rarely be fully understood and interpreted, but the process of trying to understand your dreams matters.
With this process you won't come up with any "one answer" or "one meaning," but rather with a series of ideas and questions that you can examine further in your waking life.
Elana Miller, M.D. writes at Zen Psychiatry. She is a psychiatrist who is passionate about integrating western medicine with eastern philosophy to help people live fuller and happier lives. To get new articles on improving your health and happiness, join her weekly newsletter.