"In Wonders We Sail, Questing for the Answers in Veil"

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Dream Symbolisms

Dreams are involuntary products of the psyche. They present us with a bewildering array of images and feelings, familiar and unfamiliar, all of which have something to teach us. The communicative power of dreams has been acknowledged for millennia: the ancients credited them with the power of prophecy, and in Egypt the gods were believed to speak through the dreams of the Pharoahs. However, the interpretation of dreams has always been fraught with uncertainty, because the messages they carry often emerge in an ambiguous and indistinct symbolic form.

Some dreams function at the non-symbolic level (level 1) and can be taken at face value, representing in an easily identifiable form the experiences and preoccupations of the past day or days - material arising mostly from the precociousness. Dreams that function at the mundane symbolic level (level 2) go much deeper, using symbols to express material that originates primarily in the personal unconscious. Such dreams relate to basic physical preoccupations, such as food, bodily comfort and health, emotions and self-sympathy (the so-called self-preservation needs), as well as sexual preoccupations, such as sensuality, orgasm and sexual dominance or submission (the so-called species preservation needs). Although these themes could be explored linguistically in a dream, they are frequently so exciting and alarming that if confronted directly by the mind, the result would be instant arousal from sleep. By disguising as symbols and metaphors the material it is presenting, the dream may be, as Freud put it, the "guardian of sleep", enabling us to enjoy the physical and psychological benefits that sleep brings. Level 2 dreams are often confusing in both content and presentation, reflecting the muddle that constitutes much of our psychological life. 

Dreams that operate at the higher symbolic level (level 3) touch on our desire to find a meaning in life beyond the physical, emotional and sexual, and stem primarily from the collective unconscious. Jung referred to them as "great dreams", because they carry a powerful, usually uplifting, emotional charge, and remain clear in the mind of the dreamer for many years. In most cases these dreams contain archetypal images, which are part of the universal syrnbolic language that anthropologists and psychologists have identified running right across cultures. Typically, they are clearly presented and "stage-managed", as if some director had resolved that we should leave the dream theatre with no confusion in our minds. Level 3 dreams are thought to operate symbolically because they are associated with a part of the unconscious that evolved before mankind acquired speech, and which therefore functions pee linguistically. They contain psychological material that cannot be put into words; and although the archetypal images they contain may speak during the dream, their words are associated more with those areas of consciousness which remain active during sleep than with anything directly expressed by the symbols themselves. It is as if the meaning contained in the symbols is recognized and to some degree translated into words by the mind, even during sleep. 

Dreams have a quirky, idiosyncratic way of handling their material. In dreams, symbols often undergo sudden, puzzling transformations. We leap onto the back of a horse only to find it has changed into a hammock swinging under a tree. We enter arose only to discover ourselves in the nave of a great cathedral. We open a book that transforms itself into a chess board complete with chess men. And so on. Yet these apparently bizarre transformations are accepted without question by the dreaming mind. Either our critical faculties are left behind at the gates of sleep, or we recognize at the time that these transformations make their own kind of sense. 

If they do, what kind of sense might this be? The answer is that symbols and dream events are connected together by meaning rather than by appearance. Thus, the horse changing into a hammock under a tree may indicate that by training an aspect of our powerful, instinctive nature (the horse) we may make life not only easier for ourselves (the hammock) but also more creative (the tree). The position of the hammock, mid way between the roots and the branches of the tree, may also suggest a desirable balance between our animalistic side (the earth) and our spiritual side (the crown of the tree). Similarly, the cave changing into the nave of a cathedral may represent the need to go more deeply into the unconscious self  (the cave) in order to find not only the space for which we may be longing in life (the vastness of the nave) but also the spiritual direction and guidance (the cathedral itself). And the book changing into a chess board may show that we need to put our theoretical wisdom (the book) into practice (the chess board). 

We may dream of a train waiting at a crossing which suddenly becomes an elephant charging towards us, and of a gun which we draw to defend ourselves only to see it turn into an empty bottle. This dream seems to be offering us a new opening in our life (the waiting train) provided that we are prepared to change course (the crossing, at which road meets rail). At this point, anxiety enters the dream. The charging elephant (a symbol of higher authority) threatens to crush us unless we defend ourselves. However, our weapon (the gun), turns out to be useless (the transformation into the empty bottle). These examples show the clarity with which the dream narrative can be allowed to emerge, provided that we are prepared to spend time consciously analysing our dream symbols. And just as experience improves our proficiency at spoken languages, suit allows us to become more and more familiar with dream language, and with the way in which, through this language, our unconscious psychological life allows its hopes, warnings and fears to emerge into conscious awareness.

Interpreting Dream Symbolism

A dream is a narrative, and often a highly condensed one, spanning an awesome amount of material by means of its own specialized symbolic shorthand. Although many dream symbols are associated with universal archetypes, their precise meanings are mutable, depending on the psychology of the dreamer and on the context in which they appear in the dream. For this reason the so-called dream dictionaries, which claim to give objective interpretations of every dream scenario, are of limited value. In order to understand dream language, we need first to study the meanings attached by various cultures to the most commonly occurring symbols (The Symbols interpreting in this blog is a good place to start). Next, we need to record the symbols that present themselves in our dreams and identify those features within the dream - people, objects, colours, or animals - that have the greatest impact upon us. We need also to note the emotions which these features arouse in us, and the events within which they occur. Many symbols are ambivalent, and can present themselves in our dreams in either positive or negative roles. Our emotional response to them is a good indication of which of these roles they play. By keeping a dream diary, we can identify recurring symbols and look for patterns in our dreams, which is of greater value than asking ourselves the meaning of an isolated dream. The dream diary allows us to analyse consciously the insights gained during dreams in the context of our social and psychological lives, and to move toward an integrated understanding of the relevance of our dream symbols.

Content and Context

Dream symbols should always be related to the context in which they occur. For example, a parasol, which is a universally positive symbol, may indicate the loss of protection or status if the dream shows it being blown away in the wind. Conversely, a skeleton, normally a rather grim symbol, may represent the end of an anxiety or of an unhappy relationship.

Dream Logic

In some dream, symbols crowd in upon each other and appear impossibly confused. Such dreams may actually contain several interwoven narratives: their meanings eventually emerge if we look keenly enough for them. Absurd, illogical and dream-like juxtapositions featured in the work of the Surrealists, such as Belgian artist Rene Magritte, whose painting Le Jouer Secret is shown above.

Night Terrors

However frightening or irritating dream material may appear to be, it is worth remembering that it is trying to be helpful. Dreams draw our attention to aspects of our psychological life that we are in some way misusing or overlooking while awake. They stimulate, warn, motivate or remind us with images that carry sufficient emotional charge to alert us to their importance. Dream images clearly inspired the 18th century Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli, in this painting entitled The Nightmare.

For More On Symbolisms And Meaning (Click)


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