Dreams use context to define symbolism. Otherwise, pinning down the meaning without context is a tall order. A dream symbol by itself presents many possibilities for symbolism, but in the context of a dream’s story the possibilities for meaning narrow quickly. This lesson teaches you how to understand dreams in context to interpret the meaning.
Picture a limousine cruising down Wall Street. In that context, it suggests wealth and power. Wealthy and powerful people ride in limos on Wall Street. The setting provides the context that defines the symbolism. A limo in a ghetto is a sharp contrast to its surroundings. It could symbolize excess, class divide, or “urban ingenuity.” A limo at a wedding is a different context and might symbolize something like a happy married life, or getting “carried away” with excitement about a relationship or commitment.
As another example, consider, what is a wall? At its simplest, it’s a divider or barrier. But if used in the context of holding up a structure, a wall is a support.
Biting usually carries unpleasant associations, but in an erotic context biting can be quite pleasant. The dream’s story context gives you the clues you need to tell the difference. Think of the difference between being bitten by a snake or a lover. Being bitten by a snake is generally to be avoided. Bitten by a lover, well, it depends on your tastes.
A symbol with no context doesn’t tell you as much. In fact, it can obscure the true meaning and intent of a symbol, same as taking a statement out of context can be misleading. In the Dream Symbols chapter we explore these teachings more under the subheading “Symbols in Context.”
In Step 3 of D3 you take everything you’ve learned by doing Step 1 and Step 2 and find the context that explains how and why the dream creates meaning through the symbolism and story.
Personal context in dreams
Some dream symbols only makes sense when viewed within the context of your life. The context is personal, and it provides the information needed to define the symbolism and understand the meaning.
For example, a woman dreams about folding laundry in her home when a scary, skinless creature comes at her with a knife. They battle and end up outside in the street. A city bus runs over the creature, and she’s detained for it.
It’s a story about her life. She’s embroiled in a lawsuit with a former employer and recently found out that her former manager is spreading rumors about her, saying she’s a bad person and bad employee, and it’s preventing her from getting another job. With that in mind, look at the dream again. It’s understandable in that context.
- It starts off with the dreamer folding laundry. Clothing is associated with outward identity and persona, and the action of folding clothing—especially freshly laundered clothing—can mean putting your life and personal presentation in order. The phrases “straighten up my life” and “fresh start” come to mind.
- The creature is skinless, and skin is associated with outward identity. It gives us a clue to investigate as we connect together the other details and ask if the dream is about something happening in the dreamer’s life related to her outward identity and how she’s viewed publicly.
- Skin is protection, and it’s sensitive, so being skinless is a picture of feeling “exposed” and “rubbed raw.” Dream symbols capture the dynamics of a situation and how the dreamer feels. In this case, a picture emerges of damage to outer identity combined with feeling raw about it.
- The dreamer battles the creature, and it comes at her with a knife, a weapon for close combat, implying a close and personal conflict.
- Then the creature is hit by a city bus and the dreamer is detained for it, symbolizing the beating she’s taking in the battle with her former employer. Her battle is a public matter, symbolized by the city bus, and it continues to impact her life. She’s detained at the end because she feels like she’s paying a heavy price for something that’s not her fault. Her life is on hold as the lawsuit presses forward. She can’t get a new job.
The context is the bridge between the dream symbolism, the dream’s story, and the dreamer’s life. The dreamer’s external life gives us the context we need to understand most of the dream’s details. The context helps us:
- Understand the story and how the dots (details) interconnect.
- See how the context connects with the dreamer’s outer life: the lawsuit and job situation.
- See how it affects her inner life: feeling raw and wrongly blamed.
Most dreams connect with memories from the past day or two, including memories of when you think ahead to what’s coming up: an event that’s scheduled, a test, a date. You can also look ahead to what you hope will materialize in your life: a change of career, finding love, starting a family.
But this dream is a different type than the usual “recent experiences” processing type. I’ll explain in a moment under “Final Thoughts.”
At the end of the D3 dream interpretation process you reflect on your life, but I suggest you start doing it as you examine the context of the dream.
Actions in context
Actions in dreams tell the story and are a primary way of giving context. Directly or indirectly, dream symbols usually have actions involving them, and through actions the meaning is revealed.
- Climb a mountain. It’s a popular metaphor used to describe getting to the top of something, such as the “top of the heap,” feeling “on top of the world,” or reaching a major goal that requires diligence and effort. The mountain is a metaphor for something huge, and climbing to the top is your effort to conquer it. However, a mountain range could symbolize an impassable obstacle, and in that context, trying to climb it can symbolize trying to do the impossible. In the context of living on a mountain, it can symbolize desire for isolation or privacy.
- Run away. The most important context of running away in a dream can be what you run from and where you run to. Running from a monster has much different context than running from a bunny. Running to the bathroom has a much different context than running to grandma’s house. The answers are found by figuring out the symbolic connections with you and your life. You and your life provide context.
- Hide a body. It’s one thing to hide, and another thing to hide a body. That context gives new meaning to “hide” and points towards the possibility the action symbolizes something that you don’t like about yourself, that embarrasses you, that you don’t want anyone to know about. For example, you spread a rumor about a person and want to hide yourself as the source of it. A dream translates the idea as hiding a body. Or the body represents a personal habit you hide. Something embarrassing or shameful. A personal defect. The idiom, “know where the bodies are buried” comes to mind, which means “knowledge of something secret, criminal, or scandalous.”
- Eat a steak. Eating is a physical representation for taking something into you, making it part of you. Or it can mean “eat your words” or “chew on a thought.” Steak is a specific food and every detail is used for a reason in the dream’s story. Steak is commonly associated with substance, “the meat of the matter.” However, say that you dream you’re about to eat a juicy steak and notice it’s covered in maggots. In that context, it could symbolize the dark side of what otherwise appears to be an enticing situation. It can mean that something isn’t what it appears to be.
Dream context: final thoughts
You have story context and personal context to consider when interpreting a dream. That’s a lot! However, bear in mind that dreams usually address the recent past or near future. You can simply reflect on what’s been happening in your outer and inner life and find the context that you need to understand the dream.
But… dreaming is a spectrum of experience and this can be the most difficult context to grasp. Extensive experience is required.
For example, the skinless creature dream can be viewed in the context of a learning experience about how to fend off an attacker. You could say it’s a threat rehearsal if you didn’t know it’s a metaphorical story that sums up a situation in the dreamer’s life.
Or, since most dreamer’s reflect a person’s inner life, you might wonder if the dream is a dramatization on an internal battle between the dreamer’s head and heart, or something like that. Or, the dream could be precognitive. It’s a preview of a future event shown in symbolic form.
Thankfully, we have the next tool of D3 Step 3: connect the dots. The dots are the details of a dream and they all interconnect. The details of the skinless creature dream all interconnect as demonstrated, and that fact tells me it’s a type of dream I call “Week in Review.” It actually summarizes the past several months of the dreamer’s life. This type of dream is often highly metaphorical and deeply impactful.
Based on my extensive experience I guided the dreamer through her memories to find the context spanning months of time. We examined the feelings expressed in the dream and found parallels with her inner life. We tested many possibilities before coming up with an interpretation that connected all the details under the umbrella of her experience fighting the lawsuit and dealing with the sabotage to her public image.
When details don’t interconnect, perhaps it’s a different type of dream experience. Ultimately, the interconnection of details symbolically and as part of the story is the best tool you have. That lesson is next.