It seems like a very simple and natural thing to ask yourself: “What does my dream mean?” We all tend to do it. It’s so fascinating! Could there be any reason not to do this? Perhaps… because this seemingly simple question sets many subtle and powerful things in motion, particularly these three:
First– when you ask yourself “what does my dream mean?” you remove yourself from it in order to see it from an external perspective. You’re no longer an actor in a play, you’re the critic writing about the play.
Second–by asking this question you are petrifying the dream into something static, something which is now over and fixed in the past.
And third– you set up an expectation that there is a true and correct meaning, a meaning that may elude you, a meaning that you might need expert help to arrive at. As Toko-pa says in her wonderful new book Belonging– we often “override our bodies, ignore our intuitions, and supplant our inner knowing with other people’s information.”
When you add all these three together what do you get? You get analysis paralysis. I find it unfortunate that most of us are carrying around dozens, or even hundreds, of old dreams that never came to any satisfying resolution or insight. The dreams are languishing in the limbo of analysis paralysis, waiting for an interpretation that never arrives.
Fortunately, there is a solution– you can go back into the dream and invite it to start up again.. This may involve letting go of the desire for meaning, at least temporarily, but this action will immediately bring you back into an embodied connection to your dream.
Here’s an example. This is the dream of a 38-year-old woman (we’ll call her Heather), a health care professional and mother. Heather called this dream The Old Woman in the Wheelchair:
I’m in my office. I’m dressed in formal business attire. I’m closing up and getting ready to leave for the day. I see an old Chinese woman sitting in a wheelchair in the hallway. She is zombie-like…is she dead? I start to feel a sense of dread and fear. She has a huge presence somehow. I try to sneak around her so I can get outside and get away. I pass her and move towards the door, but then I feel she’s coming after me! I look around—she is coming after me!! I start hyperventilating, I’m not able to run, I have no power, no resources. I start to scream! (she is screaming in her sleep, gasping for air but unable to wake up, and is wakened by her husband).
Immediately after waking from such an intense dream Heather quite naturally began to wonder what it meant. Did it refer to one of her patients, since it took place at her practice office? Did the wheelchair motif specifically point towards her most seriously stuck and immobilized patients, and her fears about not being able to help them? Or was the old woman in the wheelchair an aspect of herself? If so, what aspect of her was wheelchair-bound and zombie-like? Was this dream depicting an immobility in Heather’s key relationship? A stuckness in her professional life (more likely since she was dressed in business attire, and the dream was staged in her office)?
As is so often the case when we stand outside a dream and wonder what it means– many possible meanings present themselves. Often too many. In this case the multiple meanings that Heather considered all seemed to have some resonance and validity. Heather went into a state of analysis paralysis for a few days with this dream; as she later described: “For me trying to interpret a dream can be used like a crutch. It feels easier to keep analyzing and getting help, instead of trusting my own intuition and trying something.”
The dream is clearly calling for action. It presents a very urgent situation that needs to be addressed and acted upon as soon as possible. What I suggest in such cases is– go ahead and act, even before you know for certain what the dream is referring to. By ‘act’ I mean re-entering the dream and allowing it to move forward. To do this you need to trust that a more certain insight will arrive in its own time, during or after the active dreamwork.
When Heather re-entered the dream a remarkable thing happened. She slowed everything down, keeping herself calm, conscious, and courageous (a critical aspect of re-entry dreamwork, especially when working with nightmares). A female doctor figure emerged, and Heather was both watching the scene as an observer and was also the doctor. The doctor greeted the old woman and began to interview her. The old woman was no longer zombie-like and terrifying, merely immobile. After a while Heather began to feel: “If we want to get anywhere we’d better just start moving.” Here the insight began to dawn on Heather that this dream was about paralysis vs movement. The solution was to start moving.
So…she visualized the old woman and the doctor starting to move. This imaginal movement turned out to be very slow and difficult; as Heather later described– “I couldn’t believe hard it was to stick with that long walk down the hall, not knowing what was “supposed to happen”, not having a goal… it took me days! But move they did, and eventually rounded a corner and…they saw an airplane! At this point the energy changed dramatically and the old woman came fully to life. She no longer needed to be in a wheelchair, she was fully mobile and energized. In fact, she got in the airplane and began to fly it!
Here we see a wonderful example of what happens when the imagination gets itself un-stuck and spontaneously generates a completely new and startling image. This is one of the most exciting aspects of dreamwork; as in this case it often it has the quality of something bizarre and unexpected erupting out of nowhere. Heather had to wait several days for this new image to to arrive; sometimes we have to be very patient and determined in dreamwork.
Can this airplane image be trusted, since it was not in the original dream? Yes! Because the dreamer stayed true to the conditions presented in the original dream– there was a paralysis, and the paralysis was not denied or magicked away. Heather acknowledged the paralysis, attended to it, generated a response (movement) and following the trail of this movement impulse lead to the spontaneous appearance of something new.
This piece of dreamwork was completely non-analytical. It was an experience, not a thinking process. It all happened within the setting created in the original dream– Heather’s office and its surrounding airspace. And it led to a new insight, that may not have come through an analytical approach. Heather understood that the old woman in the wheelchair was a depiction of her own fears about launching a new phase of her career. The desire was there, the preparation work had been done, everything was in place, but…she was stuck at the final step of launching (or taking off, to use the metaphor supplied by the dream). It was not primarily pointing towards her fears and doubts about working with very ill patients, although (on an intellectual level) this interpretation certainly seemed to “fit”. In dreamwork “fitting” is not enough. It has to feel right in your body; and you must re-embody the dream in some way to know whether it feels right or not.
Heather was able to move through her starting gate stuckness after working with this dream. The final steps were done, and her new career phase took off. This, of course, led to a whole new set of challenges, and a new set of dream images to set the stage for facing these challenges. The seed of movement, which did not appear in the original dream, but in the imaginal dreamwork which followed, germinated and unfolded into something which is still growing and will continue to grow through Heather’s lifetime.
As meditators through the ages have come to know through long and arduous effort– our minds want to think. It is exceedingly difficult to get them to stop thinking, even for a moment. This holds true for our relationship with our dream lives; we rush to think about our dreams and what they might mean. It’s very hard to resist this temptation, probably impossible, because in attempting to do so we are over-riding a strong habit of mind. But we should try, because the benefits are so great. Just as the meditator “catches herself thinking” then gently guides her mind back into the experience of being present, try catching yourself when you “pop out” of your dream and start thinking about it. Gently guide yourself back in…feel it again in your feeling body…and see what happens.