Carl Jung once said that "a dream unexamined is like a letter unopened." As a college student chomping at the bit for wisdom, this prompted me to begin paying more attention to my dreams. While my dream recall became better, the messages remained as indecipherable as a foreign language. It was like watching a French movie without the subtitles, the words wafting over me incomprehensibly. My wife and I would share our dreams on occasion just for fun. Once while in law school, my wife donated $10 to a Save the Whales solicitor who came to our apartment door in the student ghetto in Boston, prompting a discussion of our finances. The next day she told me she'd had a dream of walking down a pier next to a whale who had its fin thrown around her shoulder in friendship. I asked her if the whale had $10 in its pocket. Dreams were more entertaining than TV, but more mundane adventures like law school exams consumed me.
Finishing exams prompted a dream of summiting a high mountain with more challenging peaks awaiting me. After graduation, I had a dream of pulling my feet out of wet cement just before it hardened into concrete, turning on a light to illuminate the darkness as I did so. My father had died unexpectedly in the middle of first year exams, and it'd been a long struggle. While there is no consensus on the purpose of dreaming, one theory is that dreams help integrate thoughts and emotions into our conscious mind. I took this dream as a sign that I'd reached the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. As I matured beyond the stereotypical notion that guys don't have feelings, I had a dream of a woman stepping out of a closet exasperatingly asking why it'd taken so long to let her out of there. In Jung's parlance, this represented the anima or feeling side of myself. When I started my own business, I had a dream of jumping off a high cliff into a pool, airborne long enough to wonder about the wisdom of my decision on the way down before landing safely. When my nephew asked me what it was like to start a business, this was the best description I could give him of the exhilaration and risk inherent in that leap of faith. When he sent me an email saying he'd finally "taken the plunge," I knew this description had resonated with him as well.
Paying attention to dreams seems to encourage more and better ones. When working for a large, law firm, a helpful dream suggested the solution to the problem of organizing 1 million pages of documents for a large products liability case. Encouraged, I began trying to recall my dreams upon awaking before moving out of bed. Once, after jotting a note down about a dream, the next night I dreamed of a golden key in the middle of the pages of a journal, sort of like a bookmark. Even I could decipher this message. What better sign that Jung was right, and writing down my dreams was the key to understanding them. Twenty-five years later I'm still doing it.
There is no "one size fits all" answer to what a dream means despite the pat answers offered by supermarket tabloids. While dreams may be harbingers of the future or echoes of the past, I've learned the triggering event is always something in the present. The last thing a fish can describe is water, and dreams have helped me become more aware of the water in which I swim. Although dreams seldom bear a one-to-one relationship to present reality, it's surprising how often a random thought or seemingly-inconsequential event from the day before triggers a dream. Writing about them in riffs of thoughts in a stream of consciousness is the best way I've found to discover the story behind the story. When that proves difficult, I can jump start the process by looking through past dreams in the word processing document in which they all appear to look for recurring themes. The symbolism of dreams provides a wonderful shorthand that encapsulates feelings in a succinct way, providing a "big picture" perspective, much like a trusted friend can do. Dreams cut through the logical constructs of everyday thoughts to capture an intuitive understanding of events radically different from the conclusions possible using only linear thinking. When knee surgery deprived me of my usual outlets of playing soccer and running, a dream of playing chess suggested an alternative that kept me happily convalescing for a month without losing the balance between work and play. While I don't pretend to be an expert on dream symbolism, I do know the effort to understand them has enriched my life.
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