What can our dreams (at night) tell us about our deeper selves? How do we make sense of something so nonsensical by nature?
Dreams are unique. Where else does our psyche spontaneously generate an abundance of images, feelings, landscapes, without the mediation of our ego to sort, order and censor? Dreams can leave us puzzled by their lack of sense or clarity, yet they can be such a valuable tool for people coming into therapy. The psychoanalysts have always put a lot of stock by dreams, believing that they show our true, real self, “the internal state of affairs,” between different, often unconscious, warring parts. No matter how well we might present to the outside world, the theory is that any deep-running, internal conflicts, come out and reveal themselves in our dreams. Characters such as the thief, the beggar, the murderer, the mother/father, the child, the monster, the inventor, the beast, may all hide parts of us in their various disguises. Equally, natural landscapes, creatures, objects, can bring us all sorts of hidden messages from the depths of our unconscious. People we know (dead or alive) often appear in our dreams, leaving us asking the question – why them?
How do we find meaning from strange characters and objects that populate our dreams? One way is to look at the literal function of a character or object. For example, we may be puzzled (and terrified) by the appearance of a murderer. Yet, if we think of which aspects inside us function as a killer, then a dream could be raising awareness of an inner critic, for example. How often do we think of our inner critic as a murderer? Yet this is exactly what happens. An inner critic kills off new ideas, new potentials and growth, creating division, indecision and wholeheartedness. When we encounter the murderer in our dream, it can be worth asking what parts of our self is it trying to kill off?
As well as our more destructive parts, dreams can also show signs of ambivalence. A gate or door might show us where we are open or shut to new experiences. Equally dreams can show us where there is hope, new beginnings, positive forces in our psyche. A baby in a dream, might also signify a newborn potential to be nurtured, protected. Dreams may also show us images of transformation in nature – a snake, a growing flower, a tree. More often than not, we see many images happening at the same time, as forces for growth and stagnation in the psyche battle it out. Sometimes, it’s worth asking, “what am I not living?” or “what am I scared of living?”
In integrative arts psychotherapy, physical art making is used to help people bring to life their dreams. People might represent different and paradoxical elements of a dream through drawing, painting images, or also by using a sand-tray. The sand-tray is a large wooden box full of fine sand. In choosing objects and placing these inside a sand-tray to re-tell a dream-story, people often find they gain a greater insight into their internal and external dynamics; the dance between different parts of themselves.
Running a superficial search of images in a dream dictionary can kill off some of a dream’s mysterious power. Instead, it can be truly illuminating to explore symbols in the context of both personal and cultural associations. Simply exploring all our associations with a dream image, can be a rich source of memories. Looking at dynamics between different dream images can be equally fruitful. A brilliant book that helps us reflect on the cultural and global context of archetypal images that so often appear in dreams is “The Book of Symbols.” It offers a rich collection of reflections and essays on archetypal symbols that have merged through the history of humankind… it’s a deeply nourishing book.
Your dreams will never be the same again.