Updated: May 3, 2022
Dreams can be a rich source of insight, guidance and creativity when we take the time to offer them our attention. I think it's safe to say that modern society has a strong bias towards materialism. What’s real is what we can see, touch, taste and smell with our five outer senses. Our dream experiences (which, in fact, we do experience as sensory reality) are often seen as waking life debris, or a kind of release valve for the conscious mind. While dreams may in part fulfill such a function, there is so much more depth, coherence and wisdom to our dreaming lives than most of us realize.
Freud aptly referenced dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious.” Dreams are an accessible conduit to a vast realm of symbols, images and inner experiences that we can only begin to touch with the limited perspective of waking consciousness.
I’ve been enthralled with the dream world since I was a child, as so many children are. But for a long time I did not know how to go further in connecting with my dreams - I kept my dream journals dutifully for many years, knowing that there must be some purpose for recording this information. Once I learned how to dive deeper into the world of dreams, the time and energy I have devoted to following the threads of my dreaming mind has benefitted my life experience in ways I could never have anticipated.
We all dream, so we all have this amazing source of information, creativity and wisdom available to us if we simply begin to listen. You don’t need to be a therapist or an expert to work with your own dreams, although working with someone competent in dreamwork or joining a dream group can be a valuable experience.
I’d like to offer a few simple ideas that you can easily implement to begin to connect with your dreams.
1. Keep a dream journal
It’s been said time and again, and I'll repeat it, because I agree - keeping a dream journal is an excellent first step to opening the door to your dreaming reality. Simply by setting the intention to record and recall your dreams, by putting a journal beside your bed or even using a voice recorder or phone to speak your dreams upon waking, you are signaling to your unconscious mind (your inner self, or the dreaming consciousness, or whatever you want to call it), that you are, in fact, listening. This simple act, if you stick with it, will almost certainly increase your dream recall. And by doing so, you have created a bridge to a new realm of inner images, feelings, and experiences.
2. Pay attention to feelings in your dreams
Dreams can often be imbued with strong emotions - often those which we are not giving full space to feel in our waking lives. These emotions have important messages for our conscious selves - highlighting aspects of our inner experience that may need nurturing and attention, but that have not been given full permission by the ego to be expressed. A subtle feeling in the waking world (that could be easily brushed aside by the conscious mind) may show up in exaggerated form in the dream state, calling for our attention.
3. Use free association to explore your dream images
On one level, dream images can function metaphorically. An image, person, or event in a dream may be standing in for, or playing a part of, something else in the waking world. Rather than looking solely at the literal meaning of the image, you can use free association to unlock the metaphorical meaning of certain images. An easy technique is to take an image or character in a dream, and write the first three words or phrases that come to mind in association with that image. Going from there, you can begin to uncover some of the themes and symbolic messages that your conscious mind might have missed when considering the dream on a surface level.
4. Notice repeated themes and images
When the same images, symbols, or stories keep showing up in your dreams, these themes are inviting you to pay attention. Take note of these repetitive images and approach them with curiosity. Begin to explore what they mean to you, using some of the other techniques I’ve described, or by any other method. (There are far too many approaches to working with dreams than I can possibly include here, so I’m just mentioning a few that I think would be easy to immediately put to use.)
5. Approach your dreams for creative inspiration
If you enjoy any form of creative expression - art, poetry, music, dance, etc - dream images can be a wonderful source of creative inspiration. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an artist, the simple act of drawing a dream, for example, is a way to bring the dream content into conversation with your waking mind, and to further the dream exploration. You can learn a lot about the dream, and about yourself, by taking any small step to invite your dream images (which can so easily slip away from waking consciousness) into a form that brings them into tangible daytime experience.
6. Share your dreams with others
Sharing your dreams with other people is another way to honor dreams and invite them into your waking life. Dream sharing circles offer a helpful space to do this, but so can talking with a friend or dream-sharing partner. Because dreams may reveal vulnerable material, I recommend choosing to share dreams with people who you trust to honor and respect your inner world, in a context that feels emotionally safe to you.
Be wary of the impulse to interpret others’ dreams for them, or allow others to do so for you. Consider the perspective that your dreams contain messages for your own personal growth and healing, so taking on other people’s opinions about your dreams (even if well-intentioned) can interfere with the process of listening to your own inner knowing, and hearing the personal messages which the dream has come to deliver. In many dream-sharing circles, the guideline is observed that any projections on another person's dream content should always be prefaced with "If it were my dream..." - in other words, owning that our interpretations reflect our own experiences, and may or may not be useful to the dreamer.
7. Learn more about dream studies and dreamwork
There are so many wonderful resources and practitioners out there in the world exploring this amazing topic. There’s too many to mention here, but know that there are a wealth of perspectives and approaches available for you. I recommend checking out The International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) as a good place to begin. If I were to recommend one book to start learning about dreamwork, it would be The Wisdom of Your Dreams: Using Dreams to Tap into Your Unconscious and Transform Your Life, by Jeremy Taylor.