Thursday, July 10, 2008
Do dreams mean anything? Absolutely.
Can you look up dream symbols in a book to interpret your dreams? Absolutely not.
Can you solve problems in your dreams? Probably not.
Do dreams, like Joseph's in the Bible, predict the future? No. Not really.
The old Scots-Irish from the North Carolina mountains believed that you could travel out of your body in dreams and your spirit be anywhere in the world during the night. They also believed that you could interpret your dreams as religious symbols and that they predicted the future or revealed secrets of various kinds to the dreamer. People with "the Gift [of prophecy]" would tell of witnessing accidents that took place across the ocean during the night and waking up in the morning to read of them in the daily paper. They would sometimes warn a friend not to take a certain train, and then the train would wreck.
Scientifically, picking the one dream out of thousands (you might have a dozen in a single night) that happens to correspond to a real-world event does not prove that dreams predict the future or that your spirit was 'traveling.' That happens often enough to be coincidence, nothing more. It's like winning the lottery--purely random, and against high odds, therefore very rare.
Last night, I dreamed that I was going dove hunting with my sister. My husband and I were in the middle of a move, so I did not know where my hunting license was and I would just hang out. We were in some fields and pastures near my Dad's farm. It was already getting crowded so my sister went off to find herself a spot to shoot from. I was in a barn helping a little boy tie his boot laces when he started up a tractor and off we went across a dirt road and into a tall cornfield, in reverse, at top speed. I reached over him to steer us away from a tobacco barn then turned off the ignition. I was reading him the riot act when his father came over in a jeep with some other men to retrieve him: The Dad turned out to be Jimmy Carter!
What does it mean? Well, when I am working with a dream in therapy, I have the client tell the dream in the present tense, as if it's happening now. As in, "my sister and I are going dove hunting but I can't find my license..." When the client is done, I ask her or him about feelings they experienced when they had the dream, how they felt if they awoke from the dream, and whether anything about the dream reminds them of their waking life. Sometimes that's all we need: The person has just interpreted her own dream! But if we need to, next I ask the client to "be" each element in the dream--the other people, the tractor, the barn, even the shoelaces, if I have to! Since there is no tractor in the bed with me, and Jimmy C. certainly wasn't there, everything in the dream is a product of my own mind--it's all me, in other words. So characteristics portrayed, actions performed, and feelings experienced by other people in the dream, even my sister, are really me. Playing the role and telling the dream again in the present tense from each different point of view therefore will put me in closer touch with my own feelings and impulses.
If we do these two steps with my dream, we relate it to my annual trip to see my sister (about an hour from my Dad's) at about this time every year. However, there are things going on here (my husband and I are not moving, but we're ringing through lots of changes this year) that might prevent me from going. When we are together, we like to "hunt" for animals to photograph. (She has a big piece of property out in the country with plenty of opportunities.) Whenever I dream about vehicles out of control, especially when someone else is in the driver's seat, it is invariably because something in my life is out of control. As it happens, a family member is experiencing a health problem, and while there are things I can do to help, that is certainly ultimately out of my control.
Not every dream holds a meaning, and not every aspect of a dream means something. Sometimes a dream, dream fragment, or "symbol" in a dream is just random neurons firing. Or day residue, as Freud referred to the bits and pieces left over from the waking day. The other night I had a dream about skate practice, most likely because I had been reading Scott Hamilton's autobiography.
But back to our analysis. If I play the part of tractor, I would describe myself as large, slow, ponderous, dangerous, but a very useful working tool that produces food for a nation, a family, a community. My family member's illness is certainly dangerous, but the productive part is that we discovered it (by accident, although not a tractor accident) and are working to resolve it. The tractor was out of control for part of the dream, but ultimately brought to a stop.
This demonstrates why you can't look up symbols in a book. They are very personal to your own unconscious mind, based on your own life history. There are very, very few (probably less than a handful) of universal symbols. For example, if you dream you are in a house, it usually represents your body. Snakes are often stand-ins for something sexual. But the specifics are still very personal. For example, is the house in good repair? Is it being invaded by somebody or something? Look up "tractor" as a symbol in dreams in a book or on the web: I'll bet you won't find what came out when I worked through my dream this morning! Worse, once you look up something like that, it will color how you interpret your dream and you might miss the real meaning of your personal symbol system.
Can you solve a problem in your dream? Probably not. The dreaming mind is pretty irrational. It's called dream logic: Ever 'swim' through the air in your dreams? Not logical in waking life, but makes perfect sense in dream logic. So the unconscious produces lots of random stuff, along with sometimes some information about yourself that you can use to solve a problem, but we don't usually come up with direct answers to personal dilemmas in our dreams. My dream reminds me that there are some things I can control, and some I can't. But it does not, in and of itself, answer a question or solve a problem for me. It simply reminds me that I have an issue in my life and prompts me to deal with it. I need to have the serenity to accept the things I can't change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, but the dream can't tell me how to accomplish that.
As for predicting the future, the only way a dream can possibly do that is if you already have some sense of how a thing is going to turn out. Otherwise, what the dream is expressing is your wishes and fears--sometimes conscious, sometimes not. People will dream that a thing turns out well, then when that happens (there's a 50% chance, remember) they think, wow, I predicted that in my dream. For example, we're in the second year of a severe drought. I could say that the tall corn in my dream (as high as our heads on the tractor!) predicts that the last few days' rain is a drought-breaker, and that we are going to have a good summer. And if it rains, I could say "See? I knew that!" But I can guarantee you, odds are that somewhere in the South last night, some farmer dreamed of burnt-up stubble in hard, cracked ground. Why should his dream be any more or less of a prophecy than mine?
This dream-analysis technique, by the way, comes from Gestalt therapy and it is very powerful Fritz Perls, a leading proponent of Gestalt therapy, taught that we project aspects of ourselves onto other people and things in our dreams, and that a way to take back ownership of all parts of ourselves was the empty chair technique, a kind of role-play conducted in therapy. A purely psychodynamic psychotherapist would have you free-associate to various elements in the dream, and might offer his own interpretations of aspects of it. But I find this additional bit of technique more powerful. Powerful in the sense that it produces lots of information and teaches you much about yourself, but also powerful emotionally. You can certainly do it yourself, but it works much better with a therapist.