Why do we dream? What exactly are dreams? And should we bother seeking dream interpretation answers? If so, where and how?
Humans have pondered these questions for millennia, and still we don’t have definitive answers. It’s like we know dreams hold some value, but we can’t put our finger on what it is, exactly. The meaning and purpose of dreams appear to be as slippery and elusive as our dreams themselves can be.
I don’t have the answers. But I’ve been listening to the messages of my dreams for many years, and they’ve produced some pretty astonishing insights. Sometimes, they’ve communicated vital information so far removed from my ordinary life, I still can’t explain where it came from. I only know it didn’t come from my personal pool of experience. So for me, it’s undeniable dreams serve a purpose. And the more I learn about them, the more I see that purpose is manifold. There’s a lot going on with our dreams, and we can use them in different ways to support our healing and growth.
In this post, I’m exploring three different theories on dreams that seem to contradict each other. Yet, when we combine the wisdom each perspective provides, we discover the powerful potential for healing dreams may be offering us. Because when we don’t feel the need to adhere to any one position about dreams, we’re free to embrace the unique piece(s) of the puzzle each one contributes.
What are the three dream theories I’m talking about?
3 Dream Interpretation Answers: No Meaning, Healing Dreams & Dream Yoga
The first dream interpretation answer takes a mechanistic view of things. Comparing our brains to complex computers, it tells us dreams are nothing more than random data we’ve encountered throughout the day, or relatively recently. This includes stuff we may not have registered with our conscious mind. According to this position, dreams work kind of like a computer defragmenter, processing massive amounts of data while we sleep. They get rid of what we don’t need and reconfigure what we do need in a way that makes it more useful and psychologically healthy for us. Thus, while the content of our dreams is essentially meaningless, they do support our overall wellbeing.
However, others who follow this vein of thought assign dreams an even less meaningful role. They assert what we experience in our dreams is nothing more than a byproduct of neurological processes occurring while we sleep. It’s only because our minds like to construct stories around everything we experience that these random neurological events appear in our dreams as narratives that carry meaning. This means, any meaning we attach to our dreams is essentially nonsense. Moreover, dreams aren’t helping our brains reconfigure mental content. They’re just a neurochemical residue, not a function with a purpose in and of itself
Now, if you’re tempted to dismiss this reductive dream interpretation answer offhand, hold on a bit. While it may seem to undermine the idea our dreams serve a valuable purpose, it doesn’t. Not entirely, at least. We’ll look at how this perspective can actually be quite helpful in a later section.
Healing Dreams Theory
The second belief asserts dreams are rich with meaning. It tells us dream interpretation answers can provide us with important keys to our psychological health. However, it’s not clear how exactly we should go about interpreting our dreams. Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytical view is perhaps the most well-known, posited our dreams are comprised of content we suppress in our subconscious. It’s the stuff we don’t want to look at – the hidden impulses we don’t want to act on – in ordinary, waking life. Looking for an outlet, this rejected psychological content comes to the surface during our dreams. When we can bring these unacknowledged parts of our psyche into the light, we release the subconscious grip they have on us. Thus, dreams can be healing.
However, Carl Jung – a colleague of Freud’s – held a different view. He didn’t believe dreams arise from a dark pool of unfulfilled wishes. Instead, he proposed they serve as a bridge between the unconscious and conscious mind. And this bridge can connect us to profound insight, creativity, and solutions to problems we’re facing in our waking life. If we can learn to translate the language of our dreams – which is symbolic – into terms our conscious mind can understand, we gain access to a vast resource of intuitive wisdom we all have within us.
Healing Dreams Are Like Overnight Therapy
Modern research, using fMRI and other controlled studies, supports this healing dream perspective. Dreams do seem to be accomplishing important goals. For instance, they can increase creativity, support problem-solving, and provide the ideal setting for processing difficult emotions. In fact, this article by a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Berkley University goes as far as to compare dreaming to overnight therapy.
Of course, if you’ve ever had a revelation that brings clarity, felt a cathartic release, or experienced some other profound shift after an intense dream, this probably doesn’t surprise you. I’m in that boat too.
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition holds a far more spiritual perspective on dreams. And from this view, a practice called dream yoga emerged. Though it might sound like it involves doing yoga poses in your sleep, it doesn’t. What it focuses on is development of the meditative and spiritual aims of yoga. And it’s called dream yoga because it uses the uniquely potent context of our dream state to accomplish these goals.
In dream yoga, mental activity that occurs during normal dream states is likened to what happens in our minds during waking states. It’s all just mind stuff – mental chatter that keeps our mind preoccupied. The mind stuff of our dreams is comprised of mental images we came across earlier in the day, as well as long-held tendencies of our mind habitually playing themselves out. This mirrors what our mind does during waking life – recalling memories, producing thoughts and emotions that fit our habitual way of interacting with life. Only on rare or intentional occasions does our mind rest in pure awareness of what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Dream Yoga & Training The Mind
According to this philosophy, nothing that arises in our dreams holds ultimate truth or inherent value. Which means, seeking dream interpretation answers is a pointless endeavor. This belief aligns with the dreams have no meaning viewpoint. However, what makes dream yoga different is, Buddhists don’t view the mind mechanistically, like some sort of computer. They see the mind as a holistic experience of consciousness.
Our mind isn’t merely controlled by, or comprised of, neurons and chemicals in the brain. It transcends the brain. This is why we can use our mind to observe and train our mind, and refine how we experience consciousness. And the more we fine-tune this, the better we’re able to cut through mental chatter. We come to see the chatter as an illusion, and thus, free our self from the suffering it brings.
Dream yoga is one such training method. It uses the dreaming state of consciousness to help us realize the illusory nature of our mind stuff. So we can see it for what it is, stop getting hooked by it, and dwell in the more peaceful, easeful state of mind that is our true nature – pure awareness.
That Was Just A Dream
If you think about it, the premise of dream yoga makes sense. It’s so easy for us to acknowledge our dreams aren’t real once we wake up. We say, oh, that was just a dream. And recognizing this, we can let go of any mental or emotional disturbances the content of our dreams may have ignited.
The practice of dream yoga helps us awaken within our dream state, so we recognize we’re dreaming while we’re actually dreaming – not after we wake up. This is also called lucid dreaming. When we practice it, we can even learn how to control what happens in our dreams. Dream yoga takes advantage of this, using our capacity to take charge of our dreams to turn them into a training ground for our mind. For example, we can learn to conquer fear and transmute anger into forgiveness or compassion. And when we do this in our dream state, it creates powerful shifts in our waking state.
Therefore, seeking dream interpretation answers isn’t the goal of dream yoga. Ultimately, the intention is to access the same state of pure awareness we seek in meditation, while we’re dreaming. Our dreamscape offers the perfect setting for this. Because it’s more obvious what we experience in our dreams is an illusion, we can practice letting go of our mind stuff more easily. And this training carries over into our waking life. We find we can unhook from the story of our thoughts and emotions, and dwell instead in the peace and equanimity of pure awareness.
This makes dream yoga a transformative, healing practice. And it endows dreams with much purpose.
*To learn more about how practices of the Buddhist tradition support calm abiding in pure awareness, read my article What Is The Middle Way? (A Practical Guide).
How To Use These Dream Interpretation Answers
We humans like certainty, don’t we? That’s why having a single theory that ties everything up with a nice little bow feels so appealing. But what happens when we have several theories about the same phenomenon? Do we have to choose one and reject the others?
I don’t think so. In fact, when faced with different plausible truths, I always recall the ancient Indian parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Basically, it tells of a group of blind men who’ve never encountered an elephant before. When they come across one, they each use their sense of touch to conceptualize what it is.
However, because the elephant is so much bigger than them, they each can feel only one part of it – i.e. an ear, the trunk, a leg, etc. This leads them to arrive at very different conclusions about the nature of an elephant, and the group begins to argue. Each man insists his truth about the elephant is accurate, and given his limited perspective, it is. But the real truth is they’re all describing one piece of a larger, more holistic truth.
More Than One Truth For Dream Interpretation
Likewise, all three of the dream interpretation answers we’ve explored hold a piece of the truth. Dreams can present a random, meaningless parade of mental images from our recent waking life. They can arise from our habitual patterns of thought and emotion. And they can also bring deeply rooted impulses, wishes, fears, and memories of how we’ve suffered to the surface. Sometimes, they can serve as a portal that taps us into creative inspiration, profound insight, wisdom, and even psychic knowing.
Dreams can do and be all of these things, because they’re part of the vast, complex marvel that is consciousness. (Which no field of human inquiry has managed to define conclusively.) And when we choose to work with the dreaming state of consciousness intentionally – whether it be through psychoanalysis, dream journaling, or dream yoga – dreams become psychic ground for healing and transformation.
Let’s take a look at how each of the dream theories can support our growth.
Using the No Meaning Dream Interpretation Answer
The first dream interpretation theory we explored takes a rather dismissive view of dreams. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use this perspective in our healing dreamwork. In fact, in order to glean the wheat from the chaff in our dreams, it’s essential we understand that sometimes what comes up in them really is just meaningless residuals from our waking life.
In my experience, much of my dream content falls into this category. And it’s really helpful for me to recognize this. If I were to try to assign a deeper meaning to everything my dreams present to me, not only would I be wasting a lot of time and energy trying to analyze them, but I’d be confusing myself on my journey toward clarity and wisdom.
Releasing Attachment To Our Thoughts
Additionally, knowing my mind has this tendency to offer up random thoughts and images helps me not take them so seriously. Have you ever had strange things pop into your head just as you’re about to fall asleep? This is the dream state gearing itself up. If we get hooked by the thoughts and images that come up at this moment – whatever they may be – it can make it difficult to fall asleep. However, if we acknowledge it’s just mental chatter, we can detach from it. This not only helps us fall asleep, but it can also help set the stage for dream yoga. And, over time, it can train our mind in the letting go of attachment to our thoughts and emotions.
If you’ve tended heavily toward thinking your dreams are meaningful, spending some time relating to your dreams as nothing more than random sensory experiences your brain is reconfiguring can be a valuable exercise. Likewise, if in your waking life you tend to buy into every thought and emotion as being important, valid, and true, it can be an eye-opening experience to consider how much junk your mind produces when you dream.
Using The Healing Dreams Interpretation
While much of our dream content is random or arises from the habitual patterns of our waking life, there are times when our dreams beg for our attention. They’ve got something important to show us. Which is to say, we’ve got something important we’re trying to process, see more clearly, or become more aware of in our waking life. A deeper level of our consciousness has the answer, and it presents it in our dreams.
In my experience, these kinds of healing dreams have a different quality to them. They’re far more vivid and emotionally charged. Not only do I remember them more clearly right after I wake up, but they catapult me into a semi-lucid dream state while I’m still asleep. It’s like they’re saying, hey you, pay attention!
When I have a dream like this, I know it deserves some analysis. These are the dreams that have led me to profound healing, insight, and wisdom. On a few rare occasions, they’ve alerted me to some incredibly important circumstances in my life I wasn’t aware of. The psychic nature of these dreams remains a mystery to me, and I’m okay with that. But these experiences are why I know without question dreams are more than just a residue of neurons and chemicals in my brain. You may have a similar pool of experience telling you the same thing.
How To Find Your Own Dream Interpretation Answers
There are plenty of books and websites offering advice on how to interpret your dreams. The common symbols and themes offered by Freud, Jung, and others have been well enumerated, so I won’t list them here. Instead, I’ll point you to some resources you might find helpful on your dream interpretation journey:
- Man And His Symbols, by Carl Jung
- The Interpretation Of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud
- Inner Work: Using Dreams And Active Imagination For Personal Growth, by Robert Johnson
- 5 Step Dream Interpretation Guide (a quick step-by-step analysis)
- Dream Moods (online dream dictionary)
- Working with a psychologist or counselor trained in dream analysis (i.e. Psychoanalyst, Jungian Analyst, Gestalt Therapist)
While I included a link to a dream dictionary (and there are many others out there), it’s important to note such resources are merely a jumping-off point. If you’re having trouble finding the meaning behind a symbol in your dream, it can be helpful to consider what others have associated with the symbol. But ultimately, what matters is how you relate to whatever shows up in your dreams.
When Interpreting Dreams, It’s Not ALWAYS About You
Much of what we read about dream interpretation answers tells us everything that happens in our dreams is somehow reflecting a part of our psyche back to us. There was a time when I believed this religiously. Every dream I had, I interpreted through this lens. If there were two people in my dream, each was an aspect of my own personality. When a house showed up in my dream, the attic was my spirit, the basement was my subconscious, etc. And this way of analyzing my dreams proved to be quite fruitful.
My Psychic Dream
However, about ten years ago, I had a dream so vivid and disturbing I can still see it clearly to this day. I was sleeping in my son’s bed, because my husband’s snoring had woken me up, and my son wasn’t home. In the dream, there was a young boy – almost ghostly looking – banging his forehead into the wall over and over again. I yelled at him to stop, that he was hurting himself. He turned to look and then lunged at me. Instantly I awoke, terrified.
It took a while for me to get back to sleep, and the next morning I analyzed the dream in my journal. I did all kinds of mental acrobatics to figure out how this young boy represented some aspect of me. I settled into this understanding over the next couple of days. And then, I learned of a serious, life-threatening condition my son was struggling with. Suddenly, without having to contort my mind at all, I knew everything that dream was trying to tell me.
It wasn’t about me. It was about him. I can’t explain how my dreaming consciousness knew to present me with this information. There had been no foreshadowing in my waking life whatsoever. And since then, I’ve had several more dreams that revealed information about other people that turned out to be true. My point is, we can’t put dreams in boxes. There is no surefire way to interpret a dream. We have to rely on our intuition – not a set of rules – to guide us in understanding their meaning.
Using Dream Yoga For Transformation & Awakening
I haven’t mastered dream yoga. However, I’ve worked with it enough to have gained some powerful results. It has awakened me to the awareness of how insubstantial and illusory my thoughts and emotions really are. And it has helped me detach from the story of my waking life, so I don’t get absorbed in big emotions like fear, anger, and despair the way I used to. Additionally, I’m less attached to outcomes and find it easier to stay mindfully aware in the present moment. It has even supported me in making peace with death.
Whether or not you want to dive into the full practice of dream yoga, the very first step of the technique can create big shifts. You actually do it during your waking life to prepare your mind for becoming lucid in your dreams. It’s simply telling yourself throughout the day, I’m dreaming right now. This is all a dream. Which is true, when you think about it. Because when you die, you’ll realize your life has been essentially a dream. Nothing that happened touched your true nature – your pure consciousness, soul, higher self, however you may call it. It only obscured your awareness of your true nature, for a time.
To acknowledge this throughout your day is a spiritual practice that can help you keep perspective. So you don’t get too attached to things going your way. And you don’t get too bent out of shape when they go another way. Likewise, you can face your fears more courageously and process loss without getting trapped in a pit of despair.
But for those of you who want to dive into dream yoga, here are some resources to guide your practice.
Dream Yoga Resources
- Waking Up From The Dream Of A Lifetime
- Dream Yoga: Illuminating Your Life Through Lucid Dreaming, by Andrew Holecek
- Meditation, Transformation, And Dream Yoga, by Gyatrul Rinpoche
- The Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And Sleep, by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
These resources illuminate the profound path that is dream yoga in far more detail than I’ve shared here. In addition to what you’ve read about in this post, you’ll learn how to use dream yoga for identifying and transforming problematic tendencies of your mind. Also, how to transcend your ego and train your mind for the moment of letting go that comes with death. This practice offers vast and powerful potential for healing and transformation.
In closing, I find something valuable in all 3 of these dream interpretation theories. They each present a unique piece of the puzzle. And when I combine them, I see this complex, mysterious state of human consciousness – and its potential – more holistically. Furthermore, I can see how these different perspectives don’t necessarily contradict each other.
When we’ve grasped the idea that our dreams can be simply mental chatter, and we’ve done the work of untying psychological knots through healing dreamwork, the goals of dream yoga become more accessible. Likewise, the practice of dream yoga helps us become more lucid in our dreams. Which means, we’re better able to access the insights and wisdoms our healing dreams are trying to offer us.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. What has been your experience with dreams and dream analysis? Do you think they’re nothing more than random firings in our brain? Or have you found they serve your growth and wellbeing in some way? Let me know in the comments section.
As always, I wish you clarity, courage, and wisdom on your journey of awakening and growth.