Dreams can deepen your life — 4 steps to understanding them

Spanish woman asleep on the train.

Dreams are a handy, important doorway into our unconscious process. During the pandemic many people have been sleeping more. As a result they are remembering their dreams more, too.

Most people don’t typically remember their dreams. Living through the coronavirus pandemic might be changing that due to heightened isolation and stress, influencing the content of dreams and allowing some dreamers to remember more of them. For one, anxiety and lack of activity decrease sleep quality. Frequent awakenings, also called parasomnias, are associated with increased dream recall. Latent emotions and memories from the previous day can also influence the content of dreams and one’s emotional response within the dream itself. (National Geographic)

Some of these dreams are as frightening as the pandemic and as anxiety-provoking as societal and economic changes that have accompanied it. But all of them are instructive and help us use our wakeful times to learn about ourselves and grow deeper in grace.

Inner Work provides a useful approach

Robert A. Johnson

I think I have been remembering more of my dreams because I decided to do so. I have often gone to bed and told myself, even prayed, to remember a useful dream. This month I read a new book that deepened my capacity to explore my inner life in this way. The book is by one of my favorite authors: Robert A. Johnson’s Inner Work. I recommended it to a friend with two caveats: 1) It is Christian-adjacent, but sympathetic enough to orthodoxy for me; 2) It is a book on DIY Jungian dream work and active imagination and such work should never really be done on one’s own. It would be best to work with a partner.

That being said, I think this book is about as practical as a book on dreams can be. It provides a simple (but deep) approach to understanding one’s dreams and applying their meaning. It also details the process of active imagination (which I might outline for you next week). There are many ways to cooperate with our transformation. We can hire a professional to help us with most of them. Among the many ways, I think dream work is an important element. I have enjoyed my own version of it for many years and Johnson has improved my understanding greatly. I highlighted so much of Inner Work, I will be reading most of the book again when I look at my notes — that might be a good thing.

You should read the book for the full treatment, of course. But I want to outline his steps for you so you can get started. There is no cut-and-dried approach to interpreting dreams, internet summaries notwithstanding. The true meaning of our dreams is mainly in how we personally interact with them. That relationship is changeable and ongoing, since our dreams contain elements as vast as our unconscious experience. We have to do our own work. But it is pleasant work.

Before I get to the four steps, I think it is important to repeat that reading books and interpreting dreams is best done with someone who loves you while holding Jesus’ hand. Do-it-yourself is not the same as being personally responsible. So imagine the following steps happening in a community in which Jesus is the center, not in your own personal universe with your ego in charge.

Four steps toward understanding your dreams

Johnson’s four step process is

  • Step One: Associations
  • Step 2: Dynamics
  • Step 3: Interpretations
  • Step 4: Rituals

You will note right away that this looks like a process you have encountered in different areas when teachers were helping you take steps into depth or wholeness (like the Flow Questions our pastors offer cell leaders or the 2PROAPT method for personal or group Bible study). The process starts with observing without judgment. Then it moves to relating to what is “on the table” so to speak. Then it brings the process to an interpretation that is the main take away. Finally, it leads us to doing something about it, like we always remind ourselves to “do the word.”

Step 1 – Associations

The first step begins with writing out the dream and thinking about it. Many dreams will be quite short, not a movie script. They are essentially a series of images connected as a story which doesn’t need to be rational – some of us fly, or swim like fish, or experience mayhem in our dreams. So write out the dream and then go through it again, noting every association that comes to mind for every image. Each image is a symbol of something occurring in the unconscious. A dream may contain persons, objects, situations, colors, sounds, or speech. Each of these, for the purpose of step one, is a distinct image and needs to be looked at specifically for its symbolic value.

Write down the first image that appears in the dream. Then ask yourself, “What feeling do I have about this image? What words or ideas come to mind when I look at it?” Your association is any word, idea, mental picture, feeling or memory that pops into your mind, anything you spontaneously connect with the image. (Inner Work)

You can see why this is called dream work. It takes a bit of effort but it bears a lot of fruit. Collect as many associations as you can before you sort them out. The first one or most likely one might not be the most relevant. In the next step we will be looking for the energy of the dream, the association that “clicks.”

Step 2: Dynamics

In the second step we connect each dream image we have identified with the parts of our inner self it represents. In our dreams we meet our many selves. This concept is a major Jungian viewpoint that trips some people up. They sometimes think seeing different parts of oneself as different people turns them into a scattered mess. Maybe for some people that could happen! But for most of us, it is a short trip from seeing how we have internal conversations within ourselves all the time (“That was stupid, Rod!” Or “If you do that you will be sorry” to “Why did you never learn the piano?”) to dialoguing more consciously with “selves” who are less conscious and making themselves known in our dreams.

God may meet us in our dreams, but most of the time our dreams are contained within our nightly brain-ordering process. So when we see each image we ask things like “”What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately? Where do I see that in my personality? Who is it, in me, who feels of behaves like that?” (Inner Work) First we gathered the facts, now we add the feelings, the relating to the dynamics, or energies. (See 1 Cor 12 – our bodies work like the Body of Christ).  There are dynamics surging in us – an emotional event, an inner conflict, an unloved personality, and attitude or mood.

Step 3: Interpretation

This step is the end result of all the work of the first two steps. We put together the information we have gleaned and arrive at a view of the dream’s meaning when taken as a whole. Like we skim much of the media we encounter and find shortcuts for our video games, it is tempting to take our first impression of a dream as a decent interpretation – “That was a bad dream!” But that is like taking our first impression of a person as all there is to them. It is not a very respectful way to treat your inner process by just making a snap judgment about yourself. If you are listening to your dreams well, your dream journal could end up with quite a bit of process on the way to coming to a “simple statement of the one, main idea that the dream communicates. Ask yourself: ‘What is the single most important insight that the dream is trying to get across to me?’” (Inner Work) Johnson has a LOT more help to give, but that gets you started.

Step 4: Rituals

This step is a physical act that affirms the message of the dream. A ceremonious action makes the dream more conscious and imprints its meaning more clearly in the here and now. The action could be very practical: “I will restrict TV to an hour a day,” or it could be symbolic: You buy a hamburger that represents your “junk-food relating” and bury it in the backyard. You can see that we are taking ourselves very seriously if we do this. Some people might be afraid they would be mocked if they were caught being this heartfelt – like some people never take communion for similar reasons.

Johnson recommends,

“Keep you physical rituals small and subtle, and they will be more powerful. The ritual is a physical representation of the inner attitude change that the dream called for, and it is this level of change that is requested by the dream…It is also a not a good idea to try to make a ritual out of talking about your dream or trying to explain yourself to people. Talking tends to put the whole experience back on an abstract level…Instead of a vivid private experience, you wind up with an amorphous collective chat. The best rituals are physical, solitary, and silent. These are the ones that register most deeply with the unconscious.” (Inner Work)

1 thought on “Dreams can deepen your life — 4 steps to understanding them

  1. Thanks! This is right on time for me as I have been paying more attention to my dreams this month with a one-line journal. Plus the Inner Work audiobook is available on Hoopla (for free with a library card). I probably dream about Hoopla, haha.

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