The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.

Sigmund Freud

Introduction to dream interpretation

In Step 1 of the D3 process you identify the dream’s story elements (settings, characters, symbols) and narrative components (action, reaction, resolution). It prepares you to look at each separately and generate ideas about the symbolism and story so you can put it all together in Step 3 when you connect the dots in context and reflect on your life to find the source and meaning of the dream.

Learn the process step by step. In practice though, you will end up jumping around.

Dream interpretation is a loaded term. It brings mind psychiatrists’ offices with leather couches, gurus in white robes, and mysterious psychics with penetrating gazes and crystal balls. Dream interpretation can be intimidating because it’s a rarefied area of knowledge and expertise, but it shouldn’t be such a big mystery.

Yes, a gifted dream interpreter can see things in your dreams that you can’t and know things about you that you don’t know because, as the preeminent dream psychologist Dr. Carl Jung says, “Dreams … are invariably seeking to express something that the ego does not know and does not understand.” That’s a powerful and true statement. Even Dr. Jung turned to trusted friends and colleagues to help him with his own dreams.

At heart, though, dreams are stories, and anyone can understand a story. Feedback about your dreams from a dream interpreter or dream group can help you see what your ego can’t, but don’t let anyone force their views on you. The power is in your hands.

Remember simple fact #1: You already know (subconsciously) what your dreams mean.

Let’s add another fact: dreams have multiple meanings and layers of significance. The renowned dream worker Jeremy Taylor says there is no such thing as a dream with only one meaning. Psychotherapist Linda Schiller says in her book Modern Dreamwork that there’s always something new to be learned from a dream.

And I want to add a caveat to Dr. Jung’s quote. Dreams show you what you don’t know about yourself yet. The dream is showing you something that’s trying to become conscious. Sometimes it can emerge on its own like natural childbirth, but other times this birthing process requires your effort and exertion.

I’m continually surprised by the new things dreams show me, even after 25 years of study and practice. Thank god, because it keeps me open to new ways of understanding. It keeps alive the mystery. I’m happy to teach you the mechanics of dream interpretation, but I want to avoid sounding like all dreams can be easily boiled down to a 1-2-3 system to magically know all there is to know. Dreams have deeper sources than brain matter. They can only be fully understood through deep inner exploration.

Also, some dreams require time before the meaning becomes clear. Some dreams are about the future and can’t be discerned until the time is right. And some will always defy attempts at deep scrutiny. However, I am confident in D3’s ability to help you pin down the meaning of the majority of your dreams. It requires patience, persistence, an open mind, and the desire to know the truth.

I’m reminded of another famous quote by Dr. Jung that goes something like this:

I don’t know what the hell other people’s dreams mean, and I’m thrilled when I can figure them out at all — for myself or anyone else. But I’m willing to give it my best.

Dream interpreters help you remember what you already know. That’s the only way to be sure that an interpretation is correct — when the dreamer says, “aha, that’s it!” I throw a lot (of ideas) at the wall and see what sticks. I’ve found so many ways dreams can branch off in unexpected directions; never take anything for granted. We should always remember there’s much about dreams we can only surmise and will always elude us, and we will be wrong more than we are right — at least, initially.

Trial and error and try again. That’s the method. Truth is, every drop of energy and attention you give to understanding your dreams is a step in the right direction.

So leave your ego at the door and open yourself to the deeper mysteries of life and consciousness. Put on your guru hat. And have fun with it.

More personal thoughts before digging in:

  • Dreams are not secretive as Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts believe. They speak with symbolism, a language most people don’t know well enough to translate, which is the #1 reason why the majority of people don’t understand their dreams. Dr. Jung says dreams reveal rather than conceal, and I agree.
  • Every detail of a dream fits together into a big picture. It all connects, and the entirety of the meaning and message can be summed up in that picture. Even one dangling detail you can’t explain in the big picture can mean you’re off-track. If you are going to interpret dreams, absorb this lesson.
  • Meaningful dreams stand out. They make an impression. They engage you. You dream vividly (in REM stage) for around 25 percent of the time you are asleep. The most meaningful dreams will stand out among all that dream content. Many dreams from early in the sleep night originate in the body and are usual forgotten unless there’s something important for you to know.
  • I don’t follow any particular school of thought for interpreting dreams. Dr. Carl Jung is my hero and I learned more from him than anyone else, but I’m also influenced by his student Robert A. Johnson, psychologist Ann Faraday, psychic Edgar Cayce, my mentor Larry Pesavento, and too many others to list.

Step 2: Tools for interpreting symbolism

These are not the only tools you can use to interpret dream symbolism. They’re the ones I teach that are the most useful in my experience. Remember simple fact #1. Since you know subconsciously what your dreams mean, these tools help you remember what you already know.

  1. Associate
  2. Simplify
  3. Amplify

Tools for story analysis

The dream is the theater where the dreamer is at once scene, actor, prompter, stage manager, author, audience, and critic.

Carl Jung

Your dream source, the Self archetype in the unconscious mind, is a storyteller. In fact, it’s a great storyteller that draws from an endless well of history, knowledge, experience, and imagination.

You don’t have to read piles of books or watch tons of movies to understand instinctively how stories are put together and what makes them effective. Every day of your life is a story, and you continually turn it into a narrative.

History is a story. Life is a story. Everyone has a story to tell.

Your dream source builds stories around what’s most important in your life and inside you — especially in your emotions. It focuses first on areas ripe for the potential for personal growth, and on everything overlooked, unnoticed, unwanted or underappreciated. Then it sorts through its options for symbolism and chooses whatever best tells the story.

Question why a story element or narrative component in a dream is chosen over others. Question why particular details are used to set the scene and move forward the action. If you want to know how something works, think from the perspective of what it does and what it accomplishes. Story analysis is how you reverse engineer your dreams.

Story structure in dreams

The dream-story unfolds the same basic way as stories told in books and motion pictures:

  • Opening: Introduces the central theme, idea, question, problem or issue. It’s often found in the first sentence or two of the dream’s description.
  • Body: Expands on the opening scene, providing details to fill out the picture. Shows interconnections. This is often where the dream’s action helps you to understand the opening scene.
  • Climax: Brings the story to a resolution or shows what’s preventing resolution. Perhaps the dream-story is “to be continued.”

That formula is not followed in every dream, but it’s a good place to start. Some dreams provide only snippets and fragments of story. Psychotherapist Jacquie Flecknoe-Brown advises to take what the dream gives you and avoid adding to it while interpreting it. You can use techniques such as Active Imagination after you’ve gone as far as you can with what a dream gives you.

In fully formed dreams, you are likely to see in symbolic form the past, present and future represented, usually in regard to the central subject or idea of the dream.

For example, you are in a new romantic relationship and in a dream your partner is shown or referred to. That’s the present. Your ex is also in the dream as a character or reference. Keep in mind though, dreams love to use symbolism and surrogate characters, so your ex — or your present partner, for that matter — could be in the dream “disguised.” Your ex is the past. In the dream you are trying to board a boat for a long journey and you look for your ticket. That’s your future.

What the dream is really saying is you hope the new relationship leads you on a long romantic journey, and the ticket is the permission you give yourself to do it. It’s your internal sense that the new relationship is the right one for this journey, whereas the last relationship wasn’t right or things just didn’t work out the way you hoped.

Also keep in mind, the dream-story must draw you in. It must be believable — believable enough to suspend your disbelief. The primary objective of a storyteller is to pull you out of your everyday reality and create one in your imagination. Your dreams know how to do that so you don’t stop and say, “Hey, that’s not right,” and it jars you out of your belief that the actions and events of the dream are really happening. People adept at the art of dreaming know how to become aware when they’re dreaming and manipulate the environment. For most people, though, lucidity in a dream is rare.

Think like a storyteller and reverse engineer the dream

My college-level literature courses were hard at first. I love to read, and thought, meh, this’ll be easy for me because I’m a natural. Then reality struck in the form of class discussions that left me in the dark and test questions I couldn’t even begin to answer cogently. Turns out, storytelling is about much more than spinning yarns. Great stories layer meaning and references and use storytelling devices to say what isn’t said directly and show what isn’t shown directly.

In other words, you can read a story such as Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), or The Quiet American (Graham Greene), or The Violent Bear It Away (Flannery O’Connor) or A Passage to India (E.M. Forster) without realizing the surface story is merely a vehicle for telling a deeper story. Heck, even Dr. Seuss wove adult ideas into his children’s books.

The same lesson applies to dreams. They have a surface story and a deeper story. Sometimes the layers stack like pancakes and what you find at the bottom are subjects related to soul, life meaning, mortality, God — in other words, you find the deepest layers of human life. Dreams can outright address those layers, but like other great storytellers, they usually prefer to be more subtle.

Think like a storyteller means question the use of details, the why and how of the story. Put yourself into the role of the dreaming mind, knowing that it wants to convey a message or meaning or make a point. Then search through the story, the dream, and notice how it’s told. Notice the use of point of view, the roles of the characters, the flow of one scene to another, and whether the story is scripted beginning to end or your reactions determine which fork in the road it takes. Notice when the dream appears to be like a movie, a video game, or a documentary. For a storyteller, each of those vehicles for storytelling has subtle differences. Look them up in my Dream Interpretation Dictionary. And keep in mind that we’re only covering the basics — the possibilities for storytelling in dreams are wide open.

In coming lessons I will remind you to think like a storyteller and point out examples where it comes in handy. And in the lesson “Reflect on Your Life” we will examine how dreams can be like virtual reality simulations.

Reverse engineer means basically the same thing as think like a storyteller, but instead of focusing on story craft, focus on the mechanics of it. Dreams choose every detail purposefully. Figure out the purpose of a detail and it can give insight to the meaning. When you reverse engineer a mechanical device, you take it apart and work backwards to figure out the thinking that goes into its design and construction.

Same goes for dreams. For example, a woman dreams she’s living with her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend (both people from her waking life; the depictions are accurate). Everything’s fine and cool with the dreamer until she remembers that her ex dumped her to be with his new girl. Then she freaks. The dream didn’t have to include the new girl to tell the story about the breakup, even though the new girl was part of that life drama, so there must be good reason for it. The reason is revealed by reverse engineering. Why is the new girl included in the story? Because the dream is about healing the wound caused by the breakup, and the new girl symbolizes the side of the dreamer that was fine before the breakup. She’s the other side of the dreamer’s split self-perception.

Story threads

Skilled storytellers thread together their stories using themes, ideas, actions, imagery, symbolism, rhetorical devices, storytelling devices and more. Dreams don’t always use story threads, but when they do, take notice. It’s an important key for understanding the meaning and message of a dream.

For example, in my book Dreams 1-2-3: Remember, Interpret, and Live Your Dreams I analyze a dream about a man who drives a bus that slows down and responds more sluggishly as passengers board carrying bags of fast-food. The bus is the thread that weaves together the story because it represents his body, which grows outward with each McNugget and Whopper the person eats. His body slows down and responds more sluggishly with every “mile” that his life struggles forward weighed down by excess body fat and low energy level from eating poor foods. Every detail of the dream and its symbolism weaves together based on the symbolism of the bus. Understand the symbolism of the bus and you understand the dream.

Storytelling devices

Dreams have at their disposal every storytelling device and trick of language imaginable: backstory, parody, parable, nested stories, allegory, satire, pun and so on. Some devices are used more than others — this course covers the main ones. For supplemental reading peruse and familiarize yourself with the wide array of storytelling devices. Most of them, in my experience, are used at one time or another by the master storyteller that is your dreaming mind.

Dreams can even use storytelling devices that deceive, such as equivocation and red herrings, but only if it helps tell the story and show you something important. It’s not to deceive you. It’s to enlighten, to inform, to show you when you’re lying, being lied to, or lying to yourself. Dreams are reliably truthful, otherwise.

Story point of view

Everything in a dream is chosen deliberately, including the point of view from which the story is told. In fiction craft, point of view is an important for how closely the reader is drawn into the story and certain scenes of it. Do you see the story from the eyes of the antagonist, the protagonist, a witness, the “fly on the wall”? Who narrates the story? A superb example of use of point of view and narration is Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire. You get to the end and whammo! You find out who really tells you the story, with great dramatic effect. The words of the story can’t duplicate this effect; it’s delivered in how the story is told. Mr. Maguire (author of Wicked) knows how to construct a story!

Next, I offer guidelines for understanding use of point of view in dreams. The ideas are general — call them tendencies — and your job from this point forward is to analyze your dreams for their tendencies. Dreaming varies widely and tailors stories and storytelling for the individual, you.

First-person POV: Shows direct involvement or connection. You are not an observer, you are a participant, a decision-maker. The dream is about you in a close and personal way. Couple that with being a main character in the story and you can guess that the subject or idea behind the dream is close to you personally and involves you directly. Dreams can also use this point of view to help you see from someone- or- something else’s perspective, such as in the phrase “walk a mile in my shoes.” First-person POV gives a sense of immediacy.

Second-person POV: Something to avoid when writing fiction because it addresses the reader directly. However, in dream storytelling it’s ideal when the story focuses on you — which is to say, it’s an ideal POV in a plurality of dreams. In writing, second-person POV is the “you” perspective, where the camera is pointed at you instead of away to see out of your eyes. It’s a way of saying “observe yourself directly.”

Third-person POV: Suggests indirect involvement or connection. Third-person is a dream’s way of saying you observe something rather than participate in it. It’s especially helpful for seeing yourself from a distance. Third-person can observe you through the eyes of another person, for example, to see yourself from a parent or spouse’s perspective, or to better understand that person’s perspective. In third-person POV dream-stories where “you” are not present as a character, look closely for something that represents you or something about you such as a surrogate character. Third-person POV is also ideal for observing someone else or situations in which you have no direct involvement.

Omniscient POV: Is especially helpful for seeing a story from different perspectives or telling a story with many perspectives. “He said,” “she said.” Well, maybe they’re both right or have something to contribute.

Dreams use three primary storytelling devices

  1. Metaphor
  2. Exaggeration
  3. Comparison and Contrast

One, two, or all three devices can be used. Less often, dreams use storytelling devices such as puns and wordplay.



Explore dream interpretation in the following posts