Translate Dream Symbolism:
The Rosetta Stone of Dream Interpretation
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone more than a century ago provided the means to translate ancient languages such as Egyptian hieroglyphics. The intricate symbols used by ancient Egyptians perplexed researchers. “Ooh, pretty pictures” pretty much sums up what Westerners thought of hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone finally unlocked the mystery of what people thousands of years ago were communicating with pictures.
Communicating with pictures is also the language of dreams, and today we call it symbolism.
Dream interpretation begins with symbolism. Symbolism is the language of dreams, so the ability to translate symbolism is necessary to interpret dreams. The famous dream psychologist Dr. Carl Jung says if you want to be a dream interpreter, begin by understanding symbolism.
Symbolism is the use of symbols to convey special meaning. A symbol is a shorthand way of expressing an idea. By translating dream symbolism, you can understand the idea(s) behind it.
Dream symbols are like words; they express ideas and string together to convey more complex ideas like words forming sentences. But symbols are pictures that say a thousand words, and when symbols string together they tell entire stories with depth and complexity like high-level artwork. Symbols presented in story form create symbolism. The -ism part is important to distinguish because it denotes a language that uses symbols.
Simplistic translations of symbols are mostly unhelpful and counterproductive. Symbols are PACKED with LAYERS of information. Hieroglyphs work the same way. They aren’t letters or even words, as is commonly assumed. They are sentences, paragraphs, and chapters all summed up in one image. For example, a hieroglyph depicting an Egyptian god wasn’t just the name of the god; the symbol contains cultural associations with the god.
The goddess Isis, for example, is a ruling mother / wife goddess associated with resurrection, protection and selfless giving. Ancient Egyptians used her glyph as much more than just a name.
The glyph, like a dream symbol, appears in conjunction with other glyphs, each packed with layers of information. We call it hieroglyphic writing. Dream symbols used in conjunction with other symbols is symbolism. It’s dream writing.
As a rule of thumb, everything in dreams is symbolism. Sometimes dreams speak literally and directly, but in my experience, most of the time they use the shorthand language of symbolism.
Symbolism is a language of pictures (think glyphs) and gestures, sensations, and thoughts. Like other languages it has nouns (symbols, settings, characters) and verbs. (action, reactions, resolution).
It also has adjectives. An adjective modifies a noun. A dream character, for example, is a noun in a dream, and details related to it such as its appearance are the adjectives: The color of its skin, eyes, and hair; its height and weight; its dress and overall presentation are all details that say something symbolically or add to the story. For example, the dream presents your father in a dream as being 20 feet tall, a way of saying he’s a “giant in your eyes,” a “giant among men,” or even “out of reach.”
Think beyond details related to appearance, such as when a dream character is presented as being on the opposite side of a bridge from you. It can mean there’s a lot of metaphorical distance between you and what the character symbolizes. For example, it’s your old friend on the other side of the bridge and the physical distance represents emotional distance or the passage of time since the last time you saw each other.
Dream language has adverbs, which are details that modify the actions. For example, in a dream you drive a car recklessly. Driving is the verb, and recklessly is the adverb.
Dreams can substitute one thing to mean another, like a pronoun. This is the definition of a symbol, but think of pronouns of dream language as like surrogates. For example, a friend’s parent in a dream can symbolize the friend. The dream uses the parent as a surrogate so for whatever reason it doesn’t have to actually show the friend. You could say that the parent is a pronoun. Objects, too, can act as pronouns. Usually those objects are associated with the person, such as a vehicle or article of clothing.
The interjections of dream language are your feelings and emotions experienced in response to a dream or during it. They include strong expressions of desire, opinion, or need.
Like a language, dreams string together words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, chapters, and stories. Like a story, dreams build around a subject or central idea. All the dream’s details relate back to that subject or idea. The symbolic details are the story elements and narrative components and everything that modifies them. The entire dream, assuming it is fully formed, is a complete picture that says everything at once. Everything in a dream interconnects either symbolically or as part of the story and narrative.
Dream symbolism: telling interactive stories
Dreams introduce an idea or subject then tell a story about it, its condition and circumstances, its history and prospects. The story paints a picture, then you step into the picture and participate in the story as an actor, or you stay out of the story to play the role of observer. You respond to the dream as if everything’s really happening, while knowing subconsciously what it all really means. What it really is: symbolism.
It’s a fascinating fact about dreams that we create the stories subconsciously then decide to enter and experience them. The reason for it is found in Carl Jung’s quote:
Dreams are invariably seeking to express something that the ego does not know and does not understand.Carl Jung
You’re teaching yourself something, basically, by experiencing it.
Dreams are pros at storytelling. As you become fluent in the language of symbolism and the mechanics of dream storytelling, you improve at deciphering the meaning. You see there are morals and points and lessons to learn and understand. The part of you that creates your dreams is always trying to show you something. It teaches, illuminates, explains, and provides information and perspective to expand your horizon, help you adapt to life, and fulfill your potential.
Dream symbolism can seem absurd and meaningless, and sometimes it is. Your dreaming mind translates to symbolism any input experienced while asleep: thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions, memories, physical sensations and sounds, bodily messages. Sometimes the input isn’t deep and meaningful. It’s simply what you are experiencing at that moment. A fantastic example is found in how the dreaming mind responds to sleep apnea (blockage of the airway) by producing imagery such as a snake wrapped around the neck or a blocked chimney. It’s symbolic but lack narrative, therefore it isn’t meaningful.
When you first go to sleep and progress through the sleep cycle, your mind can produce dreamlike imagery that has no story or narrative. It’s just a memory dump. Or think of it as the rehearsal, the warmup, before the performance begins and dreams become meaningful.
Because some dream imagery is meaningless doesn’t mean it’s all meaningless. When the imagery weaves together into stories that engage you, that’s the performance. Those are the dreams to focus on. They are certainly meaningful.
Symbolism in action
Action is a primary way for dreams to create symbolism, and to explore this subject we will use actions and details related to driving. It offers a wide variety of uses as symbolism depending on how the dream sets up the story. Let’s explore. As you read the following examples keep in mind that driving often symbolizes movement in your life (or lack of it), as in the term “going places in life” In that term is an idea. Your dreaming mind wants to show you the idea.
This lesson is an introduction; I’m not going to cover every possibility for symbolism. Read the four bullet points below and think of possibilities for what they mean symbolically.
- Drive in reverse.
- Press the brakes but don’t slow down.
- Tire goes flat.
- Drive on a narrow road.
Drive in reverse: If movement in a vehicle symbolizes how your life moves, driving in reverse can symbolize a setback. Simplify the idea and it means “going the wrong direction.” Unless of course you want to drive in reverse, which could be a way of saying symbolically, “I’m getting ahead of myself and need to step back.”
Brakes don’t work: Your life is moving too fast. You can’t slow down. Or your pulse or blood pressure won’t slow down. Always consider what dream imagery could say about what’s happening in the body.
Flat tire: A flat tire can symbolize something that hinders, slows, or stops your life’s progress. For example, losing a job. If the job is taking you somewhere in your life, losing it is like a tire going flat. The imagery can also express the idea of “feeling deflated.”
Narrow road: Your choices are limited. You feel hemmed in. No deviation is allowed.
A dream can create symbolism in actions such as driving in reverse, a verb of dream language, or even in the lack of action when the brakes don’t work or the car doesn’t move. Details about the control of the vehicle, like when the brakes don’t work, are adverbs; they modify the action.
Details about the condition of the vehicle, such as a flat tire, are adjectives in some cases. But a flat tire could be thought as an expression of emotion such as “feeling deflated,” an interjection. And it’s a verb or adverb if the action happens during the story. For example, a tire blowing out while driving affects the control of the vehicle, therefore it’s thought of as an adverb. The point in making these distinctions is to teach you how to analyze story elements and narrative components in context of how they’re presented by a dream’s story. Context is how dreams define the symbolism.
Road conditions such as narrow, treacherous, icy, crowded, or empty modify the central idea, so they’re adjectives too. But again, if the conditions affect the action of the story such as when an icy road leads to losing control of a vehicle you’re driving, you focus on the action of losing control to find the meaning of the symbolism.
For example, what does a dream say when it shows you screaming down the highway and barely keeping control of the vehicle while navigating a sharp turn? It can mean you’re barely in control of something that’s headed in a perilous or unexpected direction. Amplify the idea and it can mean “flaunting disaster.” By interpreting the symbolizing and analyzing the story in Step 2 of the D3 interpretation process you generate ideas such as the two possibilities presented above. Then in Step 3 you see if either one fits the context of the story and your life.
The possibilities for symbolism created with vehicles and driving go on and on. We’ll pick up again with this discussion in a moment.
Focus on the action
The symbolism in the above examples is defined by actions such as driving and braking and by imagery such as flat and narrow. Symbolism is usually acted out in dreams.
Action tells the dream-story. An in-depth discussion of action in dreams is given in Step 2. In the meantime, here’s an important point:
No matter what happens in a dream, how gruesome or gross or shocking it might be, it’s all symbolism. It’s meant to be poignant. It’s trying to get your attention. When you say, “oh my god, I can’t believe I had that dream!” your dreaming mind says “mission accomplished.”
If it’s unreal, it’s symbolism
Oftentimes the symbolism of a dream is noticeable, in your face. It draws attention to itself, unmistakable. Once you know what to look for it will jump out at you.
Discrepancies with waking reality scream “symbolism!” For example, you see a friend in a dream and that friend has neon blue hair, but in reality their hair is a different color. The discrepancy is obviously symbolism, it’s deliberate, and it’s purposeful. Your job as dream interpreter is to figure out why the dream deliberately and purposefully created the symbolism.
Anything absurd or unreal in a dream is symbolism. When you take a hot-air balloon ride with Snoop Dog, it means something. When an ax murderer chases you down a dark alley, it’s symbolism. It might mean you are trying to escape a person or situation in your life, or you fear facing something.
Don’t take the imagery literally. The ax murderer in your dream isn’t someone who wants to kill you, but it could be a sign that something needs to change. Perhaps you feel hunted physically or emotionally. Perhaps someone has bad intentions toward you. Perhaps a situation is stressing you out. Something needs to change and it won’t let you get away until you do something about it.
When you do something out of character or completely unreal in a dream, it’s a sign of enacting symbolism. For example, you cut off your leg like it’s no big deal. It’s symbolism. Cutting off your leg might mean that you are doing something that’s hindering the progress of your life. After all, your legs are used to move you, and you already know that movement in a dream can connect symbolically with movement in your life.
You jump off a cliff, seduce your teacher, or murder your spouse — all symbolism. Don’t take it literally!
More Driving Symbolism
Now that you get the idea, let’s interpret more symbolism that involves driving. Think of your own ideas for meanings before reading mine.
- Press the gas pedal but don’t speed up or move.
When people are exhausted they are said to be “out of gas.” Gas means motivation, drive, energy, power, will, spark. If you press the gas pedal and don’t move, it could mean you are exhausted or aren’t making progress despite your effort.
- Drive from the backseat.
Do you see the figure of speech enacted in this imagery? A backseat driver is someone who controls from a distance. They are not in the driver’s seat, but they are in the driver’s ear, telling them what to do. I’ve seen variations of this idea where the dreamer is in the backseat and the steering wheel and control pedals extend from the driver’s area to where they are sitting. It’s funny that they’re clueless about the meaning when it’s so obvious to even untrained observers. But remember what Dr. Jung says: the dream is showing the ego something it doesn’t know. An outsider’s perspective can help you see what your dream imagery really means.
- Drive off a cliff.
A cliff implies an abrupt or sudden change, or an imminent danger. As a figure of speech you say that a person drives off a cliff when they make a poor decision or continue on a path that leads to trouble, failure, or disaster.
- Drive into a wall.
When you hit a wall in your life you reach a point where you can’t go any farther. It’s the end of the proverbial road. Something has to stop.
- Park under a structure that collapses.
When you park your car it’s like making a decision about a place where your life belongs. For example, you start a new job; you are getting somewhere in life. Then a month later the company goes belly up and you’re laid off. You figuratively parked your car under a company structure that collapses. The idea can also apply to a romantic relationship, housing situation, and other situations in life where you expect to stay for a while but things don’t work out.
More lessons about dream symbolism
Symbolism is understood in context.
Dream symbolism interconnects.
Dream symbolism is exaggerated.
Dream symbolism plays with language.
Mine the metaphors
Many of the examples given for car symbolism show figures of speech and metaphors in action: backseat driver; drive off a cliff; hit a wall. Dreams are not only insightful, they can be funny and satirical. They memorably dramatize situations, and if humor or satire is the best way to tell the story, so be it. It’s not malicious but it might sting to see yourself drive off a cliff and realize the dream is talking about your tendency to ignore warnings and plow ahead no matter what. It’s exaggerated, yes, and it sure gets your attention! That’s how language commonly works. It doesn’t just recount the facts, it dramatizes them.
Symbolism can be translated by explaining in simplest terms what you see or experience in a dream. For example, a map is used to find your way somewhere or figure out where you’re at. Simplify the idea and translate it to your life, and the symbolism can mean you need direction and guidance in general or with something specific related to reaching a goal: solving a problem, answering a question, making a decision, or fulfilling a wish. As symbolism, a map equals direction — personal direction, not literal. It can also tell you where you are at with something, a “YOU ARE HERE” marker, for example where you’re at in a relationship or your career.
Follow your feelings
You react while dreaming based on subconscious knowledge of what everything means (see: Three Simple Facts about Dreams). Your feelings show in how you react while dreaming to the story as it’s presented to you. How you react can tell you what the dream symbolism means.
Dream symbolism: your car is stolen
What does it mean when your car is stolen in a dream? Think about it before reading my explanation.
Your car is the vehicle that moves your life — forward, backward, in circles, whatever. Movement in a car symbolizes your drive, direction, ambition and so forth. If your car is stolen, one possibility is it means that your ability to make progress in your life is compromised or threatened.
For some people their car is a big part of their identity. A car can say a lot about the person driving it. Take the same person you see in a Ferrari and put them behind the wheel of a minivan. It’s an entirely different impression. So your car stolen in a dream can mean something about your identity being taken. You lost or fear losing a piece of your identity or something else that’s important to you.
So what does it mean to dream your car is stolen?
- It might mean that you have lost your drive or ambition.
- You let someone in on a plan or idea and they stole it. The plan is the idea that was going to move you forward in life.
- You lost a job or relationship, something closely related to your personal identity.
- You feel like you are giving up something important about yourself in order to reach a goal. For example, in order to be a manager at work you have to be more distant with your co-workers than you’d like to be. A part of yourself — the part that wants to connect personally with people you work with — is stolen by circumstances.
- You feel unlucky. You feel robbed. The symbolism of the car is likely to pinpoint exactly how you feel unlucky or robbed, but dreams can create scenarios simply to express how you feel, and the individual details aren’t as important as the big picture.
- You don’t know how to get to somewhere you want to be. You have an ambition or goal but don’t know how to reach it.
- A rogue part of yourself is working against you, taking something from you needed to advance your life. Or something’s robbing you of an opportunity: illness, failure, circumstances.
When analyzing symbolism, think broadly and creatively. The word “stolen” can be used to describe a lot more than just a possession or item taken illicitly. If someone “steals” your boyfriend they don’t stuff him in pocket and run away. In most cases nothing is literally stolen, like when someone says “stole my heart.” The idea of stealing is used to compare to a situation, event or feeling — something tied to your external life, or something going on inside you.
Consider the obvious message and meaning
Your car stolen in a dream is probably symbolic, but the first rule of dream interpretation is to consider the obvious possibilities. Dreams are known to bring to light subconscious knowledge and preview possibilities for future events.
Dreams can be literal and have literal messages, though it doesn’t happen often for most people. If you dream about your car getting stolen you should consider the possibility of it really happening. Dreams are known for giving timely warnings.
A way to tell the difference is by analyzing a dream for literal and figurative representations. If the car stolen in a dream is “yours” but doesn’t look like the car you drive, you can bet that the dream is using symbolism. Discrepancy with reality is a sign of symbolism. Symbolism is a sign that a dream is telling a story, not giving a literal warning, but it’s not a sure thing. The dreaming mind is a translator, after all. However, that rule has exceptions.
The use of symbolism indicates a comparison is being made, not a literal warning given. But let’s say that the car stolen in your dream looks exactly like the car you own. It’s parked in your driveway where it’s usually parked. And the group of shady teenagers who steal it in the dream look like the teenagers you saw eyeing your car the other day. The dream could merely reflect your thoughts or fears, or it could be an obvious warning to secure your vehicle.
Continue this lesson in Part 2.