Electric Dreams

How to Interpret Your Own Dreams

Stephen Flynn

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Flynn, Stephen (2001 March). How to Interpret Your Own Dreams.  Electric Dreams 8(3). Retrieved from Electric Dreams December 30, 2001 on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams 

 How to Interpret Your Own Dreams

[With reference to Jungian Psychology]



Trying to paint such a broad canvas as the title suggests is difficult enough without having to write a book on it. Instead, I hope to offer some encouragement and some essential tips, and if I enthuse you with the desire to read up some more, then I have indeed done well. If you become serious about yourself, then you might get some of your own power back and be less dependent on others, and sure , that's no bad thing.

Jung himself used the dreams his patients had to gain insight as it helped him understand what was going on for the patient in the unconscious. He studied his own dream world too. Most of my understanding comes from C.G. Jung's psychology. However he is not easy to read so I would advise a newcomer to start by reading either _Dreams and Reflections_ or _Man and his Symbols._ It makes quite exciting reading anyway.

What are dreams and where do dreams come from?

The dream acts as the interplay between the unconscious and the conscious. It's a kind of video, who's language relies on symbol and metaphor.
As Jung said 'Where and when does anything take place to remind us even remotely of phenomena like angels, miraculous feelings, beatitudes and resurrection of the dead etc,? ..... during the unconscious state of sleep, intervals occur, called 'dreams,' which contain scenes (of) the motifs of mythology. For myths are miracle tales ...'*1a.

The conscious is that part of you that is aware, a constant knowing . Consciousness is the unique quality of the Ego and seems to distinguish us from other animals. The Ego simply means 'that part of you (which is reading this line now,) or looking now, or listening now' and don't let anyone tell you differently. The Ego is 'the story writer' in you, and not the story itself, that's history. Sure, we all have our own story, and very real it is too. The Ego is the story teller, the one who experienced the happenings and is still here to tell the tale. Things can go on unnoticed by the Ego, for instance, while you are reading this, your heart is beating away and your little toe is either hot or cold or just right. If heart and toe and everything else for that matter, are all as they should be, nice and comfortable, then you will soon 'just forget about them.' There are numerous things going on about us that we take no notice of either unless they reach our attention.

This being so, it doesn't take long to realise that there are some 'memories' outside the Ego's knowledge, that is, things recently and long forgotten. These are personal memories now forgotten. Sometimes they come back via a piece of music or some smell. These can also return via dreams. This is referred to as the 'personal unconscious.' What lies beyond the personal unconscious is also the stuff dreams are made of.

So far everything is fairly straightforward. Now this is the interesting bit, it seems the further away one gets from the conscious Ego the less we can know about what goes on. From what we do know, it seems that in spite of the unique differences between each person we are much alike. Like one of my children stated when quite young, 'Underneath we are all blood and food.'
Behind our differing personalities we share similar patterns of thinking and experience and value the same things.

It seems the further away we travel from that conscious part of us, the 'bigger' become the images that come up from the deep to haunt us in our dreams. We are quite sure that some of these big images like, say, the jester, or the 'wicked witch' actually have no separate existence outside of us. We think they are, as it were, only imaginings of dreams and story. We seem to have more doubt about such 'spiritual' beings such as Jesus and all the Saints. Lots of us people see them as 'separate beings from ourselves' capable of revisiting us in visions.
I have my own answer for this one and you must find yours. It is up to you to determine which figures in the dreams (and visions) come from inside or from outside of yourself, say, from somewhere in space, or you may decide they come from deep inside, but come they do, and that is a psychological fact.

Jung calls the place where all destructive and creative forces come from the 'Collective Unconscious' as it seems we are all common or have a sameness when it comes to this type of image. He calls them archetypes. My attitude to Archetypes is simple, I don't care if they come from the inside of us or if they come from the out side of us, I respect the 'presence' they bring with them.
I don't mess about foolishly here!

Now we hit a second problem. From where do dreams come ?
I argue from the standpoint of facts ,. what do we know. The fact that all these images come from either the personal unconscious or further away from awareness where things become less conscious and 'more common,' or as Jung called it, from the 'collective unconscious.' (As we all know some images mean much the same for everyone.)

Jung argues that both the Ego and the dream rest on a sea of unconsciousness.
If we accept this statement as fact, then the whole dream happens in the head. This helps us to interpret the dream as either a personal one emerging from our distant or recently forgotten past, or one emerging from deep within, The point I am making is that In any event the whole dream comes from within the dreamer!

The third thing to grasp is that dreams are an actual message from one part of you to another. If you misunderstand this then the dream will remain of limited use. We all have had bad dreams or nightmares. Some people even think dreams are dangerous, and yet if you think about it, people are most dangerous when they are awake! But consider the idea that some of the images and people in our dreams are actual creations within our own head. That cannot be true, you might say, as you dreamed about such and such a person the other night, and they are real people out there. My reply to you is that the person you refer to is your impression of that person, not mine, or anybody else's. The same people or person will be someone else daughter or son, brother, sister, lover, father or mother. So your impression of them is unique to you. Own that impression of the person/s in your dreams and what they mean to you. This way we can move onto the content of the dream and its interpretation in a personal and more useful way.

Consider the dream as a message from something huge inside you wanting to tell you something. We all know if this were true then whatever it is or whoever it is giving the messages doesn't seem to do a very good job when it comes to dreams, because the messages, comes in a kind of Video containing symbols and metaphor or some code not easy to break. The biggest problem today, it seems, is that we need first to appreciate that dreams offer the Ego balance. The dream tries to help the Ego understand that we may have taken a wrong turn or are heading for trouble if we continue to follow a certain way . I am suggesting dreams also offer guidance.

Developing the right attitude to the unconscious is very important. I also suggest you don't 'play' with it. This would be like playing Water polo in mid Atlantic. Neither can you 'ignore' the unconscious because it will come back on you in a less helpful way, a bit like trying to block up a stream without letting any water out. It will just come over the top, round the sides or find its way underneath.

As I have said, the more sensible way is to acknowledge the unconscious is there and respect its presence.. It is worth lingering on this idea of respecting the unconscious as it is key to making further progress within oneself.
If you consider the word 'respect' it implies giving someone or something its full value. Not overinflating it, not disregarding it either, but to give it full weight and have regard. Dreams are no less and no more important than the awake state.
You are left to choose either to ignore or to follow its promptings.

There are three ways of interpreting the dream

The old way of superstition.

There is the old wives tales or superstition as way of gaining knowledge. 'If you dream of water, that means feelings, if you dream of a fish that means a quality, if it talks to you, that means you have been given a gift, and so on...'
This method of interpreting a dream is limited and does not allow for the personal unconscious part of ourselves to have any room in the dream. There is no choice as it is all done for you, this means this and that means that. There is an element of truth in this approach too.. I'm not sure what the 'old wife ' would make of me dreaming about my big toe nail. Before the old wife tells me that dreaming of a big toe nail means I will meet an old friend or something, I want to state that my toe nail is the ingrowing type and gives me a lot of pain at times, and that I thought I would have to go into hospital at one point. So my big toe nail might have significance to me that others cannot know about. Superstition does not take account of the personal unconscious in the awake state or via dreams.

The second way is called 'The Theory method.'

This type of dream interpretation starts with a belief, system or theory. The theory method is employed by Freudians, among others, where the dream fits the belief. So if the theory has a sexual base, then there is bound to be some truth in it, isn't there! This approach will touch on the collective unconsciousness of sexuality and also on the personal unconsciousness level too. Such an approach can raise personal anxieties that are not in the dream.

I suggest the theory method raises anxieties not in the dream. But sure, you don't need dreams to raise anxieties, they can easily be found. No! A general theory misses the specific point of the dream and can at best be like looking through binoculars and seeing all the issues through the same lenses, you miss the overall picture and things are too close will be 'out of focus.'

The third way'The Dreamers Own Interpretation.'

I think Jung would argue from the facts. For instance, is there any deep meaning in the dream for the dreamer? What is going on in the life of the dreamer? What is the significance of the dream for the dreamer. *2.

You could say the first dream interpretation is based upon superstition., and yet has some truth to it. The second method demands fitting a dream into a fixed theory no matter what is dreamed. The third method is Jungian and he advises that it is not what is dreamed but what the dreamer makes of these deep impulses that matters.

Jung gives us a bit more information saying that the main reasons for dreams are to balance or counter balance the dreamers life when awake. In other words they are messages asking you to cop - on! They compensate, as it were, or try to remedy what is going wrong through the day time , or the dream might even try to prepare you for a gentle let-down if things are going real well. So dreams can also tell you what is going to happen. It seems the dream can borrow from future events things that might help you now! Why not? The day time 'I' can borrow from the past (experience) to help sort out the present, why can't the 'I' of the dream go to future events to do the same thing? There is certainly enough evidence of this around, prophetic as it were, and there is enough evidence of warning dreams in the Bible. I myself have had 'warning' dreams, which I respect too!

Dreams self regulate. This point is so crucial to the understanding of dream interpretation. It seems that if we 'our Ego' becomes 'one sided' in what we chose to do, hear and listen to, then the unconscious part of us builds up an equal 'other' or opposite stance. There is always the exception, but normally the compensation coming up from the unconscious does not go against consciousness. *2 I have found both through my work and in myself, that harmony between the unconscious and conscious parts leads to good mental health. So developing a respect for the unconscious is good for us!

How to develop a more healthy attitude to the unconscious.

The first point

Accept the fact that the whole of the dream belongs to you. Its all in your head, even if its someone you know, it is your impression of them not the person themselves!
The Second Point

Developing the right attitude is important which means be a little more serious about yourselves. Write down or record (dreams) as soon as possible in a special book kept for that purpose. The dream is about transformation, and overcoming, a moving towards a state of being more integrated and content within yourself. This is about healing yourself too, if you think about it.

The Third Point

Once you have recorded your dream there is a powerful method called 'active imagination.' It works like this
Sit quietly and go back into the dream using your imagination.
If there were another person in the dream, then become the other person, and as if you were them , say why you are there.
If there is some significant 'thing' in the dream become this and state what your purpose is as if you were the thing in the dream .

Then return to yourself and reflect on what was said, and push it a bit further by asking questions and return to the role of the other, and answer the questions. Thus you can switch back and forth until you are sufficiently satisfied you cannot get any more from whatever appeared in the dream.

So you amplify or exaggerate what came up in the dream, and begin to understand. *2

The fourth point

Is there any mythical background either in fairy tale, legends or even religion, to the things or people who came up in the dream. Think about it and see it there is anything that could help you connected to the deeper collective part of you.

The fifth point

Also look at your dream in a dead simple way too! Was there anything 'stupid' in it and what might this show you.

Other tips on dreams are

1. There are 'little' dreams and 'big' dreams.
Big dreams you remember longer and they continue to be important as long as you continue to remember them. Some stay with you for life.

2. Within the average dream itself, there is generally a structure
As follows
The first stage concerns the STATEMENT OF PLACE .
(a street or a hotel etc,.)
The statements of TIME are rarer.
The statement of the PROTAGONIST (dream Ego) 'I was walking etc,.

The second phase is the development of the PLOT
The third phase is the CULMINATION where something decisive happens or something changes completely.

The fourth and last is the SOLUTION OR RESULT. *1d.

This structure of four phases generally indicates that dreams are dramatic, story like and unfolding.

An example using the 'The Dreamers Own Interpretation.' way.

I had a 'big' dream myself some years ago. I will use the above stages to help you see the dreams structure and how to use the points of interpretation.

Phase 1. STATEMENT OF PLACE. I was in in the basement of a bus depot or station where the road spiralled down into what looked like a dark car park.. The only sense of TIME was that it was daylight above. THE PROTAGONIST statement:
I was surrounded by young black Afro' warriors all dressed in war paint with spears, clubs etc,. I was taller than any one else there , white and older, and dressed in a whit e robe. I could see my three sons, The two younger were in among the black tribe. They had oiled their skin and looked every bit as black as the others who were Negro. My oldest son stood half way up the winding road. He half wanted to join me.

The development of the PLOT

I tried to make contact with my younger sons, but some irritating youth kept jumping up and down in front of me, distracting my attention.

I took his club off him and 'bopped' him on the head. Not too hard, but just to express my frustration and annoyance at his rather childish antiques.

The third phase of CULMINATION

While I was doing this the whole lot of them suddenly surged forward and ran passed me up the spiraling road and out into the world, leaving me alone in the dark, now silent space.

The fourth phase of SOLUTION OR RESULT

I knew I could not follow. These were young men doing their thing, something like some hunting party. I was too old and past it. Wrong kind of energy, kind of thing.
I woke up to the empty house, alone, and wept bitterly at my loss. My wife was away in England at the time too.
The dream had brought home to me what I hadn't noticed before, my pain, my loss. The boys were doing their own thing over in England and I was happy for them. It was a time when my youngest had reached manhood. My role as a father had 'officially' come to an end., and I hadn't acknowledged it before. I had been too delighted for them as they were all at college in England or doing their own thing. I remember thinking at the time-
'No one had warned me it would be painful to let them go!'

Some observations I made to interpret my dream

The feelings in the dream began to emerge as I thought about what had occurred.
This was a 'big' dream as I still remember it as if it were last night, so it is still important to me.
The self is often represented as the city in ancient myth


This pre Christian Celtic symbol above is also the sign of the city divided into for quarters and having a wall round it, and like all symbols it has other meanings too. It is the symbol of the 'self' too. This is a collective unconscious symbol, which still has meaning today and, as in every modern City there is the 'bus depot' a terminus. (The End of the growing family.)

The underground of the bus depot, in my city , (in my self) I could see meant the unconscious part, the lower part, like the underworld of early Christianity below in Rome. It was the birth of a new way of life in that city, perhaps this might be so for me. It was the part of the city involving 'transport.' the part I chose to ignore with the conscious ego. So this 'place' is very important. It was the going away from me, I had up 'till the dream, failed to notice.

Taking the line that everything in the dream is part of my own nature, these youths were black, in a gang and in a hunting party consistent with African jungle surroundings, but we are smack in the middle of a modern city. This is the 'stupid' bit, there is a source of serious conflict here. This unconscious part of me was still undeveloped, as one would expect, it had not caught up with modern times. I hadn't thought about it, therefore, these youths who represented my attitude to my children remained undeveloped. My whole primitive nature was being observed by the 'dream ego' which needed to act in a collective mindless group who ran up and out to the light to work out their primitive instincts.

This emerging 'in the light,' into my own awareness, will update their activities and change their behaviour even as modern young people do now-a-days, acting out their basic desires in pop music , parties, gigs and the buzz of campus life. Seeing that it is all me anyway, some of my own base nature will be released from past ignorance, and thereby, my attitude will be transform to accepting my loss and moving on to what I want to do in life. (There was more, but you get the general idea.)

When you think about it, the ideas of African style natives going hunting for wild animals with spears from a bus depot, in a large city through the city streets is stupid. I myself, was naive in my relationship with the annoying youthful vigor of youth, so as to 'forget' to communicate or catch up with the times.

The implications for me, the awake ego, shocked me . I also realized I couldn't understand my sons, because of my own prejudice.

A final word

When all is said and done about learning to interpret your own dreams, sometimes you need the help of another, as things are so close to you they cannot be recognized for what they are. It is like facing a tree three inches away, it is impossible to know if you are in a forest or what!

So remember to treat your unconscious with respect and be more serious about your dreams, they are your friends, but they are never more important than your awake state. Your own experience in life is your main teacher., not the dream, or worse still, someone else's experiences!

*1a. C.G.Jung The Collected Works. Vol' ' 9. pt 11. Aion' 81. paragraph 67.
*1b. ibid, paragraphs 315. to 320.
*1c. ibid paragraph 350/1.
*2 C.G.Jung Vol' '6 pt XI. Psychological Types '71 paragraph 693 to 694.
*2a P.W. Martin Experiment in Depth '1956 pp38/42.


Dr. Carl Gustav Jung was the son of a Minister, born in Switzerland in 1897 and died in 1961. He was a well known Psychiatrist and philosopher. His writings were put together to form 'The Collected Works ' comprising of eighteen volumes. Terms like 'complex' 'psychological types' and 'introvert and extrovert,' have become part of everyday speech resulting from his work..

He founded the school of analytical psychotherapy using the concept of the unconscious to instruct his psychiatric practice.

I was fortunate enough to have 3/4 years analytical therapy from a man taught by Hillman in Zurich. And having read most of Jung's collective works for the past 16 years I now focus all my energy into my practice as (it appears) the only state employed, permanent and full time psychotherapist in Ireland.
How come I am the only one?
'Cause I'm b**** good!
Well......there should be more employed as well, to be sure!

Stephen Flynn

Thanks to Stephen Flynn for allowing Electric Dreams to re-publish this article. Some font and emphasis marks changed to fit the Electric Dreams format.