For those who remember their dreams (not everyone does), they can be a hack in therapy, a shortcut. Well, there aren’t really shortcuts in therapy, but dreams can feel like shortcuts when interpreted appropriately. Dreams often propel personal insights forward in the exploration phase of psychotherapy, and it feels like a hack or a shortcut.

Dreams communicate in associations, like poetry or art. The dreamer is the only one with the real key to unlock the meaning of a dream. Dream dictionaries may be quite misleading. For example, I had a dream once during a season of big choices in life. I don’t explain the entire dream here, but at one point I was trying to catch two tomatoes in a pool of turbulent water while being chased by a polar bear. Why tomatoes? Why a polar bear?

Dreams are most often linked to waking life. Like I said, my dream occurred during a season of making big decisions. Do I go this way or that way? This question preoccupied my mind for days, and then I had this dream. But why tomatoes? Well, it so happened that a day before I dreamed, I was slicing especially juicy, red tomatoes for family dinner. In my dream, the two choices became associated with this recent, waking experience of tomatoes as both equally healthy and desirable options. I don’t need to look beyond this experience for the right association.

Why a polar bear? To me and in general, bears are terrifying foes, monsters, in a sense, very difficult to kill. Watch the movie The Edge with Anthony Hopkins. The association of the bear is not so hard. Combined with the turbulent water in which I swam, it seems clear in a more universal sense that I was negotiating chaos and a sort of “chaos monster” threatening me. The water and polar bear represented both the difficulty of the choice and the potential disaster I feared of making the wrong choice. Common sense and not esotericism is really the key.

So, you see, dreams trade in associations. The associations tend to be universal, such as the ripe, red tomato associated with health and desire. Imagine choosing apples at the grocery store; you don’t get the soft, browning ones but the firm, bright red ones. In another setting, this is why beautiful female models often have crimson lipstick. Lush red communicates health and desire, one example of a possible, universal association.

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But associations are also specific and linked to the dreamer’s own, personal waking life. This is why there were two tomatoes in my dream, and that they were tomatoes (because of my experience with lush tomatoes 24 hours beforehand). The wise therapist conducts a careful and detailed interview with the client to help thread the needle with dream interpretation rather than relying on outside theories about dreams.

Like I said, dream dictionaries can be misleading, as if there were magical, occult, or esoteric meanings to dreams. For example, one dream dictionary explains the significance of tomatoes:

To dream of a tomato symbolizes contentment, victory and winning. The color red is synonymous with passion and also anger, but can also be a symbol of blood life and fertility.

None of this was linked to the waking life connection of my dream. Nor does this strike me as especially universal to human experience. It mentions “the color red,” which departs from tomatoes itself. Red can be passionate, sure, but there is more needed. The dreamer’s associations must be factored in. If I took this entry seriously, I would have been misled. Dream dictionaries can be very misleading.

By their nature, dreams themselves can be confusing and potentially misleading. Extreme caution must be taken when interpreting dreams, or if any attempt should be made at all. Sometimes there is no clear interpretation, so a meaning must not be invented. Only fools follow dreams without the light of Wisdom.

So why do we dream? Bearing in mind we often dream about “real life,” we recognize that dreams are one way in which our mind and hearts process our waking experiences in life. I was processing my choices for several days before I finalized my decision. It turned out this dream helped me finalize the decision. Here’s how it happened.

At the end of the dream, the polar bear caught me. He trapped me against the ice with his huge, dangerous paw. I feared for my life and felt fear in the dream. Then the polar bear spoke into my ear with a deep vice. He spoke the answer to the dilemma before me. He said, “Humility.” And then left me alone.

Here was the insight that propelled me forward, as if it were a hack. The dream in the voice of the polar bear did not tell me which choice to make. It rather helped me see how to make the choice. I was caught up in unhelpful, logical deliberations, and I needed to be more humble. Pride was eclipsing the right choice.

Let’s keep these axioms in mind as we consider whether to bring dreams into therapy:

  • Dreams are most often connected to waking life, either contemporaneous to the dream or past experiences.
  • Dreams communicate in associations.
  • Interpretations depend on the dreamer’s own associations but also universal human associations.
  • Dream dictionaries can be misleading.
  • Dreams may not have a clear interpretation, and one one should not be forced. Often, dreams should just be ignored.
  • A good therapist is careful and detailed and gets to know the client’s own associations without imposing his own ideas or theories.

If you have especially vivid or troubling dreams you would like to explore, get in touch with me today.