We all dream. It’s one of the few things that we share as humans, no matter what country or culture we’re from.
However, when it comes to explaining why we dream, there isn’t much consensus. Some think dreams are simply fragments of memory floating around as the brain sorts and catalogs the day’s activities. Others believe they’re messages from God or the spirit world—or that they foreshadow the future. Still others think they are ways to work out our subconscious desires in a safe place.
We can’t know for sure, but if you are curious about your dreams and want to explore the possibility that they hold important guidance for living your life, here’s how to start.
The Trick of Remembering
Not only do we all dream, we actually dream quite a bit. We mostly dream during REM sleep, which happens in short cycles that total up to 2 hours a night. New studies suggest we also dream outside of REM sleep, although we’re much less likely to remember our dreams from those cycles.
If we’re all dreaming this much but most of us can’t remember our dreams, how can we increase dream recall?
Lucid dreaming expert Charlie Morley suggests, "Set your intention to recall your dreams before you start dreaming. Before bed and even as you’re falling asleep, recite over and over in your mind, 'Tonight, I remember my dreams. I have excellent dream recall.'"
Robert Moss, creator of Active Dreaming, also recommends setting an intention. "Before you go to bed, write down an intention for the night. This can be a travel plan, or a specific request for guidance, or a more general setting of direction ("I ask for healing" or "I open myself to my creative source"). You might simply say, 'I want to have fun in my dreams and remember.' Make sure your intention has some juice."
Recording Your Dreams
When you wake, your memory of your dreams will disappear quickly, so it’s important to record your dream right away. You don’t need to take a lot of time—maybe just 10 minutes, says Morley in his book Lucid Dreaming. "You don’t need to record every tiny detail—you’ll know what feels worth noting and what doesn’t. Focus on the main themes and feelings, the general narrative, and any strange dream anomalies that you can recall."
Many people keep a journal by their bedside and jot down notes whenever they wake from a dream, even in the dark. Others, like Robert Moss, make notes in their journal upon waking and then transfer those notes to the computer. Moss explains, "As soon as possible...I'll transcribe my reports into a digital database. I date and title each report, so I have an instant chronological index. Saving my documents in Word gives me a search engine so if I want to track a theme or a name over all the years...all I have to do is type it in the [search] box and all the relevant entries are there before me."
You could also use a digital recorder or the voice memo app on your phone to make an audio recording of your dreams. It can be illuminating to listen back to your narration hours, days, or even months later when the emotional charge of the dream has passed.
What Does It All Mean?
You set your intention and one morning you finally remember a weird dream—you and your best friend from high school visited the grave of Charlie Chaplin in Switzerland, where you had a conversation with a cat who advised you to root for the underdog.
What the heck does that mean?!
You could look up a few of the key symbols from your dream (Charlie Chaplin, Switzerland, cat) in a dream dictionary, but that will only get you so far. To truly understand what the dream means to you will require some investigation and self-reflection.
Moss suggests, "First, consider your feelings on waking. Those feelings will be your first and best guidance on the nature and meaning of the dream—whether it is negative or positive, literal or symbolic, urgent or important or trivial."
He says you can also compare the situation or the behavior of your dream self with your real self, see which parts of you are represented in each character in the dream, or ask yourself if it feels like a dream about the future. Start asking yourself questions and see where the inquiry leads.
Dream interpretation expert Kevin Todeschi, in The Best Dream Book Ever, says, "Working with dreams is a process" and that "each individual is ultimately the best interpreter of her or his own dreams." He suggests looking for the theme of the dream first and then exploring the symbols. The theme will fall into one of these three categories: physical, psychological/emotional, or spiritual/psychic.
- Physical dreams are usually quite specific, like a recipe for curing your cough or a fridge full of orange juice indicating you need more vitamin C.
- Psychological dreams will reflect your emotions, like a car getting stuck in the mud when you’re feeling stuck in life or looking in the mirror and discovering you have blue skin (that you’re "feeling blue").
- Spiritual or psychic dreams might include visits from spirit beings (angels, God, elves, loved ones who have passed) and can be prophetic, offering guidance on everything from career to relationships to finances.
Once you find the theme of your dream, you can dig into what the symbols mean. Todeschi’s framework places symbols into three categories: personal, cultural, and archetypal. As you explore possible meanings, he says to always begin with the personal.
- Personal meaning takes precedence over all other levels of meaning. If you almost drowned as a child, water may have a different meaning to you than it does to everyone else. If you hate dogs and dogs are in your dream, they may be a sign of irritation rather than loyalty or friendship, which is their cultural meaning in America.
- Cultural meanings are those shared by people from the same culture. For Americans, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, welcoming, and hope. But for someone from another country it may be a neutral symbol (simply indicating "America"), or it may hold negative connotations.
- Archetypal meanings are what you find most often in dream dictionaries. These are symbols that share a meaning across cultures. For example, birds are known as messengers and older people represent wisdom.
These suggestions are just a start. There are many other ways to work with your dreams, and you may want to investigate to find one that resonates with you. If you do, you may discover an onboard guidance system for your life that’s available to you every night.