“All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.” ~ Jack Kerouac
“Yet it is in our idelness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” ~ Virginia Woolf
“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” ~ Sigmund Freud
Bewildering, inspiring, sometimes horrifying, embarrassing, or just plain surreal—dreams have the power to recreate the rules of reality & transport us to places where we can fly, shift from one place to another instantaneously, converse with loved ones, long dead; or people we have never met. In a dream, a person can be simultaneously themselves & someone else.
These ever-shifting, quicksilver landscapes of the subconscious have fascinated humankind for time immemorial.
Dreams have been given mystical & personal significance throughout the world’s spiritual traditions for centuries—from the Bible to the Quran. A revered part of almost all indigenous cultures—from traditional African to Native American beliefs— the concept of dreams & “dreamtime” is particularly central to traditional Australian Aboriginal beliefs.
While initially considered divine messages from God or the spirits, the Greeks were the first to propose that dreams came from within—many a mystic would not see the difference.
Jung felt his contemporary’s focus was too narrow & contributed the idea of the collective unconscious—a universal pooling of archetypal figures or personified ideas, such as The Wise Old Man (which, incidentally, according to Jung, is the archetype that represents the collective unconscious.)
Most modern students of dream interpretation agree that, while certain symbols & their accompanying implication are universal—such as stormy seas indicating a sense of emotional turmoil in the dreamer’s waking life—the most important aspect of decoding a dream’s meaning lies in the personal significance of the symbol to the dreamer.
For instance, a serpent appearing in the dream of someone who likes snakes, or owns a snake, or considers snakes symbols of life force & personal power, (as is propagated by Hindu mythology, among others) will necessarily interpret a snake dream differently than a person who fears snakes or has a strong Judeo-Christian background, in which the snake is a classic symbol of evil.
(To extend this metaphor further, a snake owner with a strong Judeo-Christian background can determine the snake’s significance in their dream by assessing how the snake made them feel.)
The idea that the dreamer’s relationship to the symbols in question is the most important aspect of dream analysis was first proposed (in our known cannon of history) by diviner Artenidorus two thousand years ago, who wrote the first known book on dream interpretation.
In order to understand what dreams are, we must first dig a little into the idea of human awareness & its compartmentalization.
While the psyche is obviously made up of many layers, it can arguably be reduced to two basic components: the conscious & the unconscious mind—an intuitive, even self-evident idea. Though popularly connected with pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the term “unconscious” was actually coined by 18th-century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling—later introduced into English by the poet & essayist Samual Taylor Coleridge. Developed by Freud, expanded upon by the trailblazing Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the conscious/subconscious split is the basis for all modern psychology.
The conscious mind, as the name implies, contains all the memories, feelings & beliefs—preferences, desires & fantasies— that we can easily draw into our awareness; essentially, what we “know” (or, if you prefer, “what we know we know.”)
The unconscious mind, by contrast, is composed of the remaining psychic terrain, of which we’re not consciously aware—all the feelings, desires & experiences we did not know how to process or reconcile with our lives, buried & hidden from ourselves until we are equipped to deal with them.
(The idea that we can hide knowledge from ourselves—like alcoholics hiding bottles throughout the house & then forgetting where they are—is one of the most fascinating aspects of psychology & the conscious/subconscious split.)
Not everything in the subconscious is emotionally charged. It also contains simple data deemed meaningless by the conscious mind, but non the less retained.
You could call these exiled & forgotten fragments “what we don’t know we know” (in some cases, too, “what we don’t want to know”). There is wisdom here, like buried treasure, along with the ghosts.
For instance, a person in a relationship with someone who is overly controlling might dream they are being suffocated. Later, after the relationship has ended & the dreamer has admitted the truth of the unhealthy dynamic to themselves, they can deduce the dream’s meaning. But if this reality was not acknowledged consciously at the time of the dream, then it will appear a meaningless night terror.
Freud famously likened the conscious mind to the tip of an iceberg & the unconscious to the vast hidden depth beneath the visible top.
For, like the hidden yet far vaster depth of the submerged half of an iceberg, the subconscious still exerts power over the conscious mind’s choices—no less powerful for its lack of “conscious” awareness, in fact, more so. The brain’s influential but hidden “shadow government,” if you will
This is one of the reasons why dream analysis can be an important part of personal development; dreams reveal the raw nature of the rejected, unprocessed aspects of our psyches & their accompanying life experiences.
This is why dreaming is commonly described as the way the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind. Through dream work we can better know the shadowed corners of our own psychology, and, as a result, be more aware of what is going on inside us—less controlled by unconscious feelings & impulses.
Why do we say that dreams are symbolic?
A symbol represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or person. Since we are not “really” doing the things in our dreams, but experiencing images & sounds as if they were real, the visual & audio cues “stand for” their real-life counterparts. This is one level.
The deeper level is that the subconscious mind is not a logical, tame beast that communicates neatly in language. It is a primal aspect, emotionally charged, which speaks in the symbolic universal tongue of images. It is the wild jungle-forest aspect of our psychic terrain which has not been colonized & farmed by the socially conditioned conscious mind.
So the unconscious uses symbolic language to express itself—presenting images & scenarios that may represents or suggest things or ideas beyond the thing itself. For example, a red rose symbolizing romantic love.
Jung popularized the now mainstream wisdom, “Everyone in the dream is you.” But many dream scholars, including myself, believe that there are many different types of dreams.
Different characters in the dream may in fact represent different aspects of the dreamer’s self. But it is equally possible that they represent actual people or circumstances in the person’s life.