I’ve been writing about how I learned to analyze a waking dream and thought it time to share some analytic tools. I’ve developed a dream interpretation worksheet that has served me well over the past several years, compiled through my readings in depth psychology. This analytic worksheet and an example of a dream interpretation can be found at the end of this article under “Resources” in a Microsoft Word document format.
When we analyze our dreams–even our so-called ‘waking dreams’–what we’re analyzing is images that have particular meaning to us as individuals. No one else will perceive the meanings we perceive. Robert A. Johnson explains that
Each person has a distinct psychological structure. It is only by living that inherent structure that one discovers what it means to be an individual. If we work at individuation, we begin to see the difference between the ideas and values that come out of our own selves and the social opinions that we absorb from the world around us (Inner Work, p. 12).
It thus behooves us to discover just what the images that appear in our sleeping and waking lives have to say to us.
I often write in first person singular about my adventures in individuation because this is, after all, my blog. Sometimes, though, I fret that when writing about myself I may throw the reader off the track of his or her own essential process. The reader may misinterpret, assuming that because I’m writing about my own experience that there’s nothing applicable to him or her.
“Am I giving the reader the tools he needs?” I wonder. The tools I use are as essential for you as they are for me. We need these tools; individuation is hard work. It’s specific work, work that “builds consciousness,” according to Johnson. Following are some basic steps we can take as we do the works of consciousness.
Identify the images. When we interpret dreams, waking or sleeping, we first identify the images or symbols in the dream. Let’s use the Dream Interpretation Example dream (below) for our purposes. In this dream, we see images of (1) a wasted city, (2) a trapped person, (3) a girl, (4) lifts, and (5) mangy cats. Look into your dream or your waking experience and list the images you see. Imagine that you’re watching the dream or situation unfold at the cinema with the sound turned off. What do you see? What you see is the image. Make a list of those images.
Make direct associations. Now that you have a list of images, you can begin your analysis. Make direct associations to every image instead of a chain of associations. For example, using Peter’s dream from the Dream Interpretation Example, make associations to “a wasted city.” Your associations would differ from Peter’s associations–hence the idea of individuality. Peter associated feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and dismay to the wasted city, along with hard and hostile environments. Peter should go no farther than that. For instance, if Peter thinks, “wasted city… nuclear bomb… article I read in The Atlantic…. Atlantic City… gambling… I want to go to Las Vegas…,” he has gone too far. Peter should stay with the feelings of despair and the idea of a wasteland, rather than ending up in Las Vegas.
Connect each image to an inner dynamic. Now that you have an idea of what your associations are to each image, it’s time to identify parts of your inner life that have found expression through the dream images. Robert A. Johnson suggests that we go back to each image and ask ourselves, “What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately? Where do I see that same trait in my personality? Who is it, inside me, who feels like that or behaves like that?” (Inner Work, p. 65). Keep in mind that even images you consider negative have valid, respectable places in your life. If it’s part of you, it’s respectable. As Johnson writes, “if you give it its place, and hear what it has to say, it will be revealed as a valuable part of your inner self” (Inner Work, p. 71).
Pay attention to the location of your dream. Where are you? If you’re in your own home, or a place you sense belongs to you, it’s probably the possession of your ego. But if you’re in your grandmother’s house, you may be in the home of the archetypal Great Mother. The physical situation in which we find ourselves in a dream usually provides an important clue to what the unconscious is trying to tell us.
Interpretation. Once you’ve identified the images in your dream (or situation), made direct associations, and theorized about how each image relates to an inner dynamic, it’s time to interpret the dream. It’s sometimes so difficult to bring unconscious meanings into consciousness that the worksheets I include here can be very practical. Using Peter’s dream as an example, Peter can go through each image and interpret the dream image by image and thus ‘prime the pump’ for further revelation. Since in Peter’s dream, a girl is trapped in an apartment in a building with broken lifts, in a wasteland, Peter could begin with this narrative:
I’ve built up an ego [building] for myself that’s hard, hostile, and doesn’t show hope. I radiate dismay and sadness wherever I go, just like my girlfriends and Susan said. My ego is as strong as concrete; nothing happens to change me, I never change; I’m full of despair.
Inside me is this girl—vulnerable, beautiful, loving, and full of hope. But she’s trapped inside me in the wasteland of my hard ego, the doorkeeper, the one who could fix the lift (he’s a guy after all). He isn’t providing the technology for her to escape, enter, exit, etc. It’s as if I’d rather keep her hostage inside myself than give her a way of escape. Maybe I’m afraid she’ll leave me like Susan and all the other women.
I know this is about my inner feminine because of the cats. Cats archetypally often mean the feminine. Since I have a particular aversion to mangy cats, I know that this means I have a similar aversion to my own inner feminine.
By the time Peter reaches the last line–“I have a similar aversion to my own inner feminine”–it would be no surprise if he was near tears. A correct interpretation is almost always accompanied by emotion, whether the feeling that the interpretation is right, or deeper feelings that move one to tears. Go with the energy. Follow where the energy and the emotion (affect) want to go.
Validate the Interpretation
Once you’ve interpreted the images, there are some general principles offered by Robert A. Johnson that can validate or confirm the interpretation. These are:
- Choose an interpretation that shows you something you didn’t know.
- Avoid the interpretation that inflates your ego or is self-congratulatory.
- Avoid interpretations that shift responsibility away from yourself.
- Learn to live with dreams over time.
Honor the Interpretation
Johnson suggests that we honor the message the unconscious gives us through dreams and waking images by performing some small ritual. When friends invite us for dinner at their home, for example, it’s customary to take a bottle of wine, flowers, or some other small token of our appreciation. Similarly, it’s appropriate to express gratitude and respect for those parts of ourselves that are persistent enough to keep communicating with us even when we consciously resist them. One way of honoring the dream is to “dream the dream on” through an active imagination. Another way is by doing an act that shows that we want to grow in the direction of the light given us by the dream.
We can use Peter’s dream as an example. Peter’s mother left his father (and Peter) when Peter was four years old. Peter’s dream causes him to return to his feelings of grief and loss as a four year old boy. What can Peter do to honor the truths the dream gave him? If Peter were a Christian or Buddhist, he might visit a church or temple and light a candle or some incense in honor of his four-year-old self. He might pray to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of all mothers, and ask her to mother him. Or Peter may buy a glass cat figurine and put it on his desk, where he’ll see it every day and be reminded of his own inner feminine. He may choose to buy himself a toy similar to one he loved as a four-year-old boy. No matter what he does, if he does it consciously and with reverence, it will become a ritual to him and thus an act of honor. As many times as he needs to, Peter will be able to return to the time when he first performed the ritual and appropriate the energy and power this respect gave to a slumbering part of himself.