Dreams: What do they translate?

In a previous post I wrote about Dreams as language. In this post I will focus on what is translated.

The images that we remember appearing to us in dreams are an expression of something that lies below the place of verbal language. Dream images and their characteristics are like words in this language. The images themselves are a reflection of the conversation between two elements of psyche (mind): the Ego and the Unconscious – although these are very rough terms.

Also, talking about this now I am using verbal language to translate yet again. If this sounds grossly abstract, I apologize but the verbal language is the primary medium through which we communicate. The language of dreams lies deeper in psyche and is thus more difficult to convert into words. Dreams, like any language, requires considerable time to understand and to achieve a modicum of fluency. My goal with this post is just to highlight the language aspect of dreaming to lay the groundwork for further exploration.

I think this necessary because of the general misconceptions that seem to exist about the nature of dreams and what they are.

My approach values life experience and the acquired wisdom of humans through the eons, including scientific wisdom. I am skeptical of approaches that need a component of magic to explain dreams and dreaming or ones that impose a kind of anthropocentric bias onto nature. To my way of thinking, dreams are a natural process and not exclusive to humans. Another way of describing dreams is animal consciousness, and one could even break this down further into mammalian consciousness and reptilian consciousness as way of describing the depths and complexity of this process that evolved over the eons.

What I promoting here is the idea of a multi-layered consciousness where there are several layers that have built upon and expanded previous layers in ways that provide for a more effective life experience as the organism evolves. As mind becomes more complex the amount of energy needed to maintain consciousness increases as well as the amount of unconscious information. Humans contain an additional layer on top that allows for enough space for the development of consciousness to the point of self-awareness, but at the cost of more of psyche (mind) needing to remain unconscious. As a result we can become unaware of the lower (animal) layers of mind.

So one way of thinking about dreams and what they translate is that they translate unconscious impulses, feelings, and experiences into images perceptible to the conscious mind. Beings with complex minds need down time for these processes to occur and for information to be more fully exchanged and processed. As the solar light of Ego sets at the end of the day the unconscious constellation of images becomes perceptible to the Ego that remains conscious.

So, what gets translated through the process of dreaming is something like the patterns of the stars at night, but more intricate and complex, as if each star was a complete image that can be interacted with. These images exist in a very real way and have an internal (symbolic) aspect and an external or apparent aspect that is the image that we see. In other words, an image of someone we know has the external aspect of that person but also carries a symbolic aspect that could also represent a part of ourselves. There is much more that can be explored regarding the symbolic aspect.

Dream Language

I have found that the most effective way to understand the process of dreaming is to imagine the dream images as a language. All language is at its root a symbolic representation of direct experience. We use words to represent something more basic than words. But we usually end up focusing on the words themselves as being what is communicated. And most of the time this is fine because the process usually functions well. But sometimes it doesn’t and we miss what lies under the words. You could say that we have become so attached to words as the content of our communication rather than as symbolic. In other words, we may often think that words are the thing rather than a representation of the thing.

Language can be seen as a process of translating something from one layer of experience to another. Words translate a more basic experience or thought or feeling into something more abstract and collective. They provide a way of sharing something by providing a means for that sharing. Words provide a matrix through which experience can be communicated.

Dreams are also a language, but the language is not of words but of complex images. These images, like the words of verbal language, provide a means of translation from a more basic experience to something sharable. But the persons sharing the language are internal rather than external.

When you are able to perceive this process, a realm of symbolic understanding opens up like a new layer of reality. Becoming fluent in the language of dreams is becoming aware of the symbolic layer that exists in every aspect of reality.

Tips for Remembering Dreams

Everyone dreams, but for most people recalling dreams is difficult unless the dream is especially powerful. Here are some suggestions which may aid you in remembering. Most of these ideas are techniques used by someone I know or that I have used myself. I suggest trying whatever you think will work, or using a combination of techniques if you like. Experiment!

  • Place a notepad by your bed and write as soon as you wake. Describe as much detail as you can including the images, sounds, feelings, other sensations, etc. Typically the dreams that are easiest to remember are the ones that occur right before waking in the morning, but we experience dreams during several light sleep stages (called REM sleep) during the night. Sometimes dreams are written down in the middle of the night and then after going back to sleep and waking in the morning what was written down makes no sense.  To reduce the chance of this happening it is good to wake up fully and replay the dream in your mind.
  • Alternately, Place a audio recorder by the bed.
  • Before going to sleep consciously request a dream or recite a mantra like “I am open to whatever dream may come and I will remember it.”
  • Practice remaining in “twilight.”  There is a state between being awake and asleep that many call twilight. It is a state where you are kind of awake but not fully conscious or in full control. It is a kind of transition stage. As you are coming out of the dream, if you can (this takes some practice because it just as much a ‘not-doing’ as a ‘doing’) allow the images of the dream to be there and without making sense of them gently go back through the dream, replaying/reliving the images as your consciousness becomes more active. This is a way of allowing the dream to be transported into the conscious mind where it can be more easily remembered then as you gain full consciousness go through your regular process of recording/writing down the dream.
  • Find a “hook.” As you awake and the dream is fading try to snag one aspect of the dream. perhaps it is something like an image of ‘an elephant in a tree’ or the sound of a ‘knife slicing bread’.  Holding onto a ‘hook’ can then aid in reconstructing the dream around it. As you reconstruct the dream you may end up going both forward and backward or even lose track of the sequence of events, or not recall anything but a single image. But even so, it can be valuable to explore even a single image.
  • When you record/write down the dream use the present tense. The language of dreams is symbolic and for reasons I’ll elaborate on elsewhere, this language exists outside of the normal experience of time where there is a past and a future.  Recording dreams in the present moment can aid in recalling them, and also seems to be a more accurate accounting of the dream.
  • Persistence and Attitude. Over time what seems most important in being able to recall dreams is one’s attitude and continued interest. If one is open to the possibility that dreams have something to offer then it is more likely that one will encounter dreams that have something to offer. I have found tremendous benefit in recording and exploring dreams for several decades and this interest has also led me into a deeper understanding of how the mind works and the interaction between mind and brain, psychology and biology, inner world and outer world, the universal and the individual, and in general dreams have helped me to adopt a more integrated way of living.

Transition – Liminal (in-between) Space

Liminal comes from the Latin word, limen, which means threshold. It designates a particular item that exists at the entrance to a room or building, separating two distinct spaces. Often this item is overlooked as it is passed over or through as we move from one space to the next. But there are times when this space becomes apparent, like the carrying of a bride over the threshold on the wedding night. It is about entering a new space, a new time or phase in life that is distinct from what was before.

Liminal is about the space in-between, a space that we often experience when something happens that knocks us for a loop. Negative aspects of this space include feeling lost, un-grounded, having a fear of the unknown, feeling out of control. The way forward may appear dark, eliciting a fear of the unknown to come. But there are also positive aspects of this state which can be inaccessible to us if we are in the grip of the more negative aspects. These positive aspects include creativity, freedom, alertness to the present moment, opportunity for change.

It seems that as we age these threshold experiences become more apparent, evolving into ‘phases’ or ‘transitions’. They are no longer something we just pass over without consideration, but become something ‘to get through’, to ‘get over’ or ‘to overcome’ so we can move on into the next stage.

At the threshold we are leaving as well as arriving, sometimes escaping from danger or sadness, sometimes moving toward security or peace.

As we pause at a threshold we begin to notice and to feel both sides at the same time. If we look around we can see that how we move forward hinges on this moment. It could be that we have rushed through so many times before that we didn’t notice that this space has value in itself. In this space we are neither where we were nor where we are going to be. But being in a space like this is also like being nowhere and this can be very uncomfortable at first. In fact, it can be so uncomfortable that we push on through as quickly as possible to what’s next.

In a counseling session it is often helpful to shine a light into what is coming, and to get to know it in detail. It is also helpful to reflect on what has brought us to this point. Doing this can help to alleviate fear about what is changing, while at the same time building confidence in one’s ability to face it well.

What are Dreams?

Simply put, dreams are background processing. They are a characteristic of complex minds. In the most general sense, dreams are constantly present and are always running even though we are not aware of them. A good analogy is the night sky. The stars are always there, even during the day, but we cannot see them until the sun goes down. Similarly while we are awake there is so much activity in consciousness that it blinds us to what is happening in the background. It is only when we sleep and the sun of consciousness sets that we can become aware of dreams.

But just because dreams are happening does not mean that they are easy to perceive, and even if we do perceive them they are often difficult to remember.

Working with dreams is helpful because we can learn more about ourselves. Understanding more about what is happening in the background of our minds we can become more aware of why we think and feel the way we do, and the more we understand about these things the more tools we have for managing life and living.

The Wisdom Years – Old Age

Old Age – The Wisdom Years
If you can make it long in life, you accumulate a wealth of experience that has the potential to become wisdom. Wisdom does not mean intelligence or skill as much as it means an openness to all of one’s life experience. There is certainly no one way to wisdom – only one’s way – your way. A life well lived is a life that is unique, unbounded by convention. As one accepts more aspects of oneself as true, one can gain an increasingly penetrating sense of peace. Our society has little understanding about this wisdom and tends to focus instead on the physical decline of these years. But I think it is safe to say that the experience of 80 years has greater potential for wisdom than the experience of 60 years which has greater potential than 40, etc. The beauty in a person that has reached old age is to be sure a different beauty than the physical beauty of youth. But look into the face of an older person who has reached life’s final stage with integrity – you can see the accumulation of years in the skin’s crevasses and in the eyes you can see every age this person has ever been. The persona of old age can be one of tremendous beauty. Can you see it? Can you see it in yourself? This is one area of focus for counseling at this stage when death is no longer something remote.

Midlife Transition

Mid Life – Reclaiming the Losses
It is pretty much certain that after the defining stage of youth with its emphasis on building identity that there will need to be a correction. Youth is often a very social stage of development when one judges oneself against what one sees to be the norms of society. Youth is often focused externally as one needs to figure out how to navigate through the world. Inevitably there comes a time when the regular ways of doing things no longer work, or perhaps the way one has come to think about themselves is no longer accurate or complete enough. One begins to think that something is wrong with them because their way of doing things is supposed to work and yet problems remain. For a while, perhaps a decade or two, one continues to look around for answers in various places, ultimately either finding something that works (at least for a while) or despairing that there is no hope for them, perhaps even feeling that they have failed at life. Depression or anxiety may set in.

What is needed at this point in life is usually to do the opposite of what we’ve been doing. However, the resistance to this can be overwhelming. Navigating this transition is difficult. There are some good books about this, but for some reading is not enough. It is important to look inwardly at this time, to work on reclaiming what was lost in youth. The active processes in youth and young adulthood are geared to defining what one is and what one is not. Some of the parts of ourselves that have been denied or repressed in this way begin to come to the surface and become increasingly harder to ignore, like youthful desires that were never met – or even acknowledged. If we do not increase our awareness of what is happening we can find ourselves lost in an affair, or losing interest in things, or becoming depressed about the state of our career, or the unsatisfying nature of much of what we do. It is important during this time to learn about ourselves, about what is happening inside of us and to reconnect with what has been lost. By doing this we can feel hope again and live more fully and completely as ourselves.


Adolescence and Young Adulthood

Youth/Early Adulthood – Building Identity

When one accomplishes something, it feels good. It is good to know how to do something, and the more challenging our tasks become, the more satisfied we feel in accomplishing them. It is important in early life to learn how to do things, how to interact with others, how to build rewarding relationships, how to think in more complex ways, how to earn a living, how to live life well and the importance of tending one’s needs and eventually the needs of others and society as well. But there are times when we seem to hit a wall, perhaps we lack the tools to work our life well or the skills to use them effectively. Counseling work during this stage will typically focus on building the skills and confidence necessary to navigate effectively through society and the world.