Electric Dreams

The Meaning of Meaning

Linda Lane Magallón

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Magallón, Linda Lane (2003 November). The Meaning of Meaning. Electric Dreams 10(11).

What does my dream mean? That's the most common reaction I hear when folks find out that I'm interested in dreams. Not surprising. Our culture has programmed us to funnel our ideas about dreams down to that single, knee-jerk response. Before I answer the question, I must ask another. What do you mean by "meaning"? Would it surprise you to know that not everybody goes running for a dream dictionary? Those who compare dream dictionary entries to their own dreams may well conclude that dreams have no meaning at all! I don't blame them. I've discovered that while the significance of your own dream could be found in a dream dictionary, the chances are extremely small. There are just too many other possibilities.

Actually, I think we're asking the wrong question. I think it should be something more general, like, "What's up with dreams?" Perhaps we might ask why we should bother paying attention to dreams at all. Do dreams do something? Or do they have something done to them? I think the answers to the meaning question depends on the goals or values of those who are asking it. Currently, I break them down into four basic possibilities: narration, solution, resolution and first-hand experience.

(1) Narration: a search for a complete story

Do you want to uncover a missing message to yourself?
Do you sense an opportunity to transform metaphor to myth?

(2) Solution: a search for cause

Do you want to detect the actual trigger for the dream?
Are you curious about why the dream appears and acts the way it does?

(3) Resolution: a search for practicality

Are you looking for a way to enhance your waking life?
Do you want to discover what the dream portends?

(4) First-hand experience: a search for in-dream adventure

Are you impelled to try out the wider range of action available to you in the dream state?
Do you want to explore life in an alternate state of consciousness?

Yes, I'm using a meaning system to help me determine meaning! I can't help it. It's embedded in our language, in any attempts to think or communicate ideas. Human beings are meaning-creators by our very nature. We put "A" together with "B" and try to make some sense of it. Using this system, here's a few ways to glean the meaning of flying dreams.

(1) Narrative: Flying is a meaning-filled story that I can relate and relate to, after I wake.

Example: I share my flying dream with a dream group. While talking about how it makes me feel, we speculate that flying might be an "emotional high" or a "wish-fulfillment," like in the tale of Peter Pan.

(2) Causal: Flying is a meaningful mystery to solve.

Example: I trace a flying dream back to the experience of swimming the day before. Next time, I go swimming to see if the movement will induce a flying dream. If it does, I've got a new equation: swimming = flying dreams.

(3) Practical: Flying is a means that leads to a helpful end.

Example: I incubate, or program, a series of flying dreams. This helps reduce my fear of flying in an airplane.

(4) Active: The meaning of flying is in the doing.

Example: I fly in lucid dreams just because it's fun.

The 4 approaches that I'm using are typical of the four human personality types (Myers-Briggs topology). I might just as well have used astrological elements: Water, Air, Earth and Fire. I choose to be more generic and use words and numbers. It's still the same system. Why did I select it over any other? I've found it to be practical and fun. But it's not been proved scientifically, so I hold onto it lightly, playing with it until something better comes along. You can judge for yourself whether or not it makes a good story!

However, I don't think it's wise to limit ourselves to any one approach, just because we score high on a personality test or have a particular birthdate. I've given myself the opportunity to work and play with dreams using every one of these lenses and my dreams have responded to all four of them. Some dreams are complete creative tales from the world of sleep. Others seem to call out for my analytical attention to detail. With some, I find an obvious correspondence with waking life. In others, I seem to live life in a different dimension. Often, a single dream is "multi-layered," that is, it can be viewed through the more than one lens, sequentially. Each lens allows me to exercise different judgmental capacities: intuition, logic, common sense and gut reaction.

Most dreamworkers and most folks, who remember and report their dreams, are advocates of the narrative approach. In fact, the question, "What is the meaning of dreams?" is a top priority of that population. Thus, it should be no surprise to realize that most of the "answers" to the question are given from the point of view of the first population. Most of the answers are metaphoric. They concentrate on expanding signs and symbols to make good stories. They are valid because they satisfy the need to perceive a message in the sharing of a dream.

But is the message, the metaphor true, from a scientific standpoint? Verification is the concern of the second approach. Sleep lab researchers, dream field researchers and some clinicians write about this application of dreams. And, using this lens, it can be determined that, indeed, some of the metaphors are accurate descriptors of the underlying cause or trigger of the dream. But not all theories of metaphor have been subjected to scientific scrutiny. That leaves much of the task of making a "reality check" about "meaning" up to the individual dreamer. The only way to do that is to compare the "answer" with your own dream. But not just once. Your best chance to find the meanings that suit you and your dreams are to track many dreams over time. That requires keeping a dream journal.

Sorry, but there isn't a quick-and-dirty approach to dream meaning that will nurture you any more than will cotton candy at a carnival. Don't get me wrong. I like cotton candy, but as a special treat, not as a staple of my diet. Unfortunately, because there has been such public pressure to produce the quick-and-dirty response, dream interpretation has a pretty bad reputation. It ranks right down there with the newspapers' daily horoscope. Amusing perhaps, interesting yes, but too general (or too specific) to be of much use to you, in particular.

Fortunately, and more so than any time in history, dreamwork has the opportunity to grow up. Unfortunately, a field with a poor reputation means little public funding, so the progress is slow and halting. But serious work has been done in several areas and some of the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place. We're just at the launching pad of this further journey, though. There are comparatively few dedicated dreamers to do the work required to move things along. Perhaps you can be one of them.

And, if you choose to view dreams through the third or fourth lenses, if you choose to validate all the effort spent in finding meaning, or take time to develop a personal relationship with the world of sleep, your contributions will help balance our understanding of dreams. As we continue our explorations, we may develop very different ideas about what we mean when we ask, "What does this dream mean?"

(Dream Flights)