The self—the organizing center of the psyche and repository of your psychospiritual DNA—composes each night, with astounding detail. The experience we call a dream is full of visual imagery, sounds, tastes, smells, sensory details, vivid action, emotions, words, puns, memories, references, and energetic nudges. If we relax into our metaphorical knowing, we see that these dreams, even little fragments, are rich with meaning. (Jung famously commented that the chief ailment of his middle-aged patients was lack of meaning.)
A dream’s meaning is about our journey toward wholeness: dreams are primarily concerned with the growth, transformation, and flourishing of the soul.
Image and Emotion: Dropping Into Another’s Dream
Dreams regularly offer astounding wisdom, but rarely will they use pragmatic bullet points. If they did, it would be too easy to never engage with the deeper meaning. Instead, dreams use the experiential language of image and emotion, as poems or parables do, to wake us up to our own reality. (As Carl Jung said, the transformative power of dreams is not in the analysis but in experiencing the images.) Dreams link the mystery of the unconscious with the concerns of our waking lives. They tell us something we don’t know—or they present a familiar insight with a new perspective. And they never mean just one thing.
[Read: “My Dreams Are Really Bizarre!”]
Another amazing thing about dreams is that we can participate in anyone else’s dream because it draws from the collective unconscious and general human experience. Try this exercise for yourself with the “Lightning Foot” dream:
Let yourself drop into the dream … become the dreamer. Feel yourself now, lying face down on a tiny raft … you’re at sea, and the wind is rising, and the darkness is thick, and you’re alone. How do you feel? What are your hands doing, your heart? What are you telling yourself in this situation? The waves swell and you rise and drop, rise and drop. Then the wind picks up and the waves grow wilder … you’re still holding on. Suddenly the storm comes and lightning flashes all around you … over and over … and then you see the lightning is flashing in the water now, brilliant underwater lightning, lightning above and below you, all around … then one loud crack and you feel the searing heat on the sole of your bare foot …
Uncomfortable? Good. When we feel discomfort in a dream, it is usually the ego that is balking. The dream challenges this “me” to feel our growing edges and see where we need to welcome transformation. Like smoke alarms, nightmares show us something as urgent as a housefire that demands immediate attention.
Remember, dreams work primarily by offering emotions and images—settings, characters, animals, actions, situations, stories, and so on. We can begin to understand a dream by taking it image by image, letting each work on us like a bridge, connecting something we do know with something we aren’t yet conscious of.
Sometimes just the setting and our feelings about it tell us what we need to know about what’s really going on. In “Lightning Foot” we can ask, “Where in my waking life am I experiencing fear… the feeling of being alone, overwhelmed, ‘at sea,’ ‘in the dark,’ and totally vulnerable?” Maybe you already know that you’re “at sea” in your life, but the dream helps you realize the particular possibilities of vulnerability.
Archetypal Situations, Characters, and Images
The ocean and the sky are both archetypes of the unknowable vastness that surrounds us—below and above, within and without. An archetype is a profoundly raw and central energetic reality common to all humans, and we recognize it when it dresses up in powerful costumes.