Far, far away, there is a beautiful Country which no human eye has ever seen in waking hours. Under the Sunset it lies, where the distant horizon bounds the day, and where the clouds, splendid with light and colour, give a promise of the glory and beauty which encompass it. Sometimes it is given to us to see it in dreams.

Bram Stoker

A dream setting sets the scene. It’s the stage on which the story unfolds. It’s a story element. Without a setting a story is not anchored to time and place such as where you are at right now in your life, have been, or want to be. Settings speak to areas and times of life, and they provide a starting point for understanding what a dream is about.

Another way of understanding dream settings is they visually portray your psychological landscape. Think of Salvador Dali, the famous surrealist painter, peering inside your mind and drawing what he sees. The end result is an interpretation that includes thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions, impressions and so forth. It’s a snapshot of your inner world, and it doesn’t always make sense rationally.

dream settings can be surreal
For inspiration, Dali used to fall asleep upright with a spoon in his hand. The spoon would fall and clatter, waking him up, and he’d paint the “dreamy imagery” what he saw in his mind.

A dream’s opening scene

Dreams tend to reveal the subject or central idea in the opening scene. Oftentimes, when people describe their dreams they begin with the setting: I am at a store when… I get on an airplane and fly to… My mom walks in my room then…

The setting of the opening scene is a place to focus for figuring out the rest of the dream. A dream can be complex and feature other settings, but understand the opening scene to carry you through the interpretation process. For example:

  • A dream’s story opens in a vast, empty desert setting. It’s a snapshot of the dreamer’s psychological landscape: dry, barren, lonely.

The dream then shifts to a scene where the dreamer follows a path that leads to a tree where a body hangs. The dreamer makes the Sign of the Cross then continues and finds a running stream. It leads into a cave, and the dreamer must make a decision whether to enter or turn back.

The dream is about finding a way through a dry spell in the person’s life. The opening scene paints the scene, and nothing says “dry” quite like a desert setting. We can now use it as a clue to understand the next scene featuring following a path that leads to the tree where the body hangs. It’s another powerful visual image that says “I feel dead inside,” and “I’m trying to find my way out.” The dreamer pays respect, a way of acknowledging the situation and letting go, and it leads to finding the stream, the “water of life” that will lead to feeling alive again. But there’s more deep inner work to do before that can happen, and it’s symbolized as the cave. The person has a decision to make, and that’s where the dream ends.

The whole dream is understood through the opening scene. The desert symbolically says “dry spell,” and it’s the central idea that connects the dots. It’s understood in context with the entire dream.

  • Now, what could a dream be saying by putting you in a vast, busy city setting? Readers who have a copy of my Dream Interpretation Dictionary can look up the entry for “City.”
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The symbolism of dream settings

The setting of a dream is symbolic, the same as everything else in a dream. Dreams use settings along with other symbolic details to tell a story using the language of symbolism.

Decoding symbolism is an essential skill of dream interpretation that’s taught elsewhere as part of the D3 interpretation process (see the link above). Right now the lesson is:

  • View dream settings as symbolic.
  • Understand dream settings as part of a big picture painted by the dream.
  • Look for the symbolism of dream settings by considering what they could say symbolically, then look for other details such as characters and actions that suggest the same use symbolically.

A dream can create symbolism by deriving it based on the function or use of a setting in everyday life. For example, schools function as institutions of learning, and as a dream setting a school can convey an idea related to learning. A library is a place to get information, and as a dream setting it can convey the idea of “getting information.”

More often though, dreams create symbolism that’s personal to you. For example, your home is a dream setting, either your current home, a former home, or an imaginary one. It’s a place very familiar to you, and many personal thoughts, feelings, and associations are available for a dream to use to weave a story in that place.

There are also common metaphors that involve homes. The home is symbolic if it’s a shorthand way of expressing an idea. For example, “home is where the heart is.” The home visually expresses the idea. Oftentimes the idea is something you feel, sense, or just know without needing explanation, but a dream could convey the idea as a visual metaphor such as a red home (red is the color of the heart), or by acting out the idea as a love scene.

Keep in mind that dreams visualize intangibles such as ideas. An idea exists in your mind, and the job of a dream is to visualize it. For example, let’s say the idea is, “I’m in a great place in my life.” It’s a thought, feeling, and idea all rolled up into one. How would a dream visualize it? Heaven is one way. A peaceful garden. A beach. A great place you’ve been to in your waking life.

How would a dream visualize the idea of “I’m in a bad place in my life?” Generate your own ideas.

Interpret the symbolism

In Step 1 of the D3 interpretation process you identify a dream’s settings. Then proceed to Step 2: Interpret and Analyze. The meaning of a dream setting can be found by using interpretation tools such as simplify and amplify. Start off by thinking of words and ideas associated with the setting. Making associations is a primary way to decode the personal meaning of dream symbolism, so of course you’re going to make associations with your dream settings.

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Analyze the story

A setting in a dream is also used as part of a story, so analyze the story. Stories dramatize; dreams exaggerate. For example, no, your workplace isn’t a post-apocalyptic battlefield, but it is for the person who had the following dream:

Dream about apocalyptic battlefield

Dreams compare and contrast to create stories and symbolism. For example, a dream creates a busy restaurant setting as a comparison with your busy life. Or it creates a setting that’s half brightly lit and half darkly shadowed to show the sharp contrast between two sides of your personality.

Dreams create metaphors, so you always look for metaphors and use of metaphorical symbolism. Dream symbolism is metaphor in motion. The dream doesn’t just create a symbol, it uses the symbol as part of a story.

For example, the metaphor “unlimited opportunities” could be symbolized as a wide-open expanse stretching as far as the eye can see. The expanse is a setting. In the dream you explore the setting and think to yourself, wow, this place never ends. You feel like it has no limits or outer boundaries. When you make associations the word “limitless” comes to mind and it feels correct for how the setting is used symbolically and as part of the story.

Setting the scene

Some settings don’t have specific or separate symbolism. They set the scene for the story. For example, you dream about a tiger in a cage and might expect to see it at a zoo. Voila! Dream puts you in a zoo, but it’s not as important to the story as the tiger and the cage. The cage is where the story takes place so that’s where to focus, at least initially. A setting is important to the meaning of a dream if it’s important to the story or feels like an important detail.

Sometimes the setting really is the story. It’s the thread that ties together all the dream details And sometimes — rarely for most people on most nights — a setting is a direct portrayal of a place you have been or will be in the future, aka precognitive dreaming. Or it’s a place seen in the mind’s eye, not drawn from memory or imagination like most dream imagery. Some people dream with amazing detail and accuracy about actual places that they’ve neither seen nor heard of. Such journeys of the mind while dreaming could be are common occurrences, but most people don’t remember their dreams well enough to know it happens for them, too.

For example, at Reddit Dreams a man reported a dream where he visited a place called the Hell Museum. Then he woke up and said WTF? He searched online and found a place called the Hell Museum and saw pictures that looked identical to what he saw in his dream. I’ve encountered dozens of these reports and experienced dreams that showed me in places I’d yet to ever visit, but found myself in them soon afterward.

Real and imaginary dream settings

A great way to interpret any details of a dream, including dream settings, is to ask if they’re real places you know from your waking life, or imaginary places. Is the setting a replica of a place you know in waking reality, or is it imaginary? Answering this question will help you trace the source memories.

Real places tend to relate to source memories from your outer life. For example, you dream about the place where you work or attend school and the setting is a replica of that place. The source memories are likely to be found in recent situations, events, and circumstances that involve your life in that place. But if the place is imaginary, the source memories are more likely to be found in your inner life. Inner life includes thoughts, feelings, emotions, and perceptions, and can reach deeper to the core of your personality and being.

Note discrepancies and incongruities

Incongruity of a setting must be deliberate, and it must be symbolism. Let’s say that the caged tiger in the above example is in your bedroom, not a zoo. The dream deliberately places the tiger in your bedroom. It’s a clue and could mean, for instance, you are fiercely protective of your private life—bedrooms are private places, and tigers are fiercely protective—so much so that it hampers you, symbolized as the cage. Or you heavily restrain your sensuality. Tigers are sensual beasts, and bedrooms are sensual places. A tiger in a bedroom screams “sensual!” But a tiger in a cage in a bedroom says something else.

Discrepancies are clues, too. The dream modifies a setting you know from waking life, creating a discrepancy with reality. It’s deliberate and meaningful, and figuring out why can help you interpret the dream. In the example of the house for auction, the discrepancies are it has a basement in the dream but not in waking reality, plus the house in the dream has a different layout. These are clues that the dream is referring to an internal situation with the dreamer. When dreams replicate settings from waking life reality, they’re usually about external situations.

Think like a storyteller. Question every detail. A dream has a reason for everything, so whether it’s set in your childhood home, inside a box, or on the moon, it means something.

Even if the story takes place entirely inside a car, you consider possibilities for symbolism related to cars and the actions that take place in them such turning, braking, accelerating and so forth.

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Interconnected settings

Every dream has at least one setting, sometimes several settings. Dreams can shift settings on the fly and they appear separate but actually continue the story.

Say that you dream about flying over France and notice a spectacular tree. Next thing you know you are in your family home in Florida talking with your grandfather about wine-making, which makes no sense initially because neither you nor your grandfather make wine or have any real interest in it. The two settings — France and your family home — appear unrelated, but they’re related symbolically and run together to continue the story from one scene to the next.

To understand how they interconnect, imagine you’re the dreamer in the above example. Your family has roots in France. You see how your family home in scene two of the dream connects with France in scene one. The tree symbolizes your family tree, and your grandfather connects with your heritage because his side of family hails from France. France is famous for its wine, which explains why you talk about wine. All the details connect symbolically to create a big picture.

In some dreams, you know where you are without being told. For example, you fly over a landscape and know it’s France without seeing identifiable landmarks. When the dream purposefully places you in France, the detail helps tell the story.

A dream setting is still part of the story even if it’s only referred to and not actually shown. For example, you dream about trying to find the airport and never do, symbolizing wanting to leave behind a time of life and move on to new adventures, but can’t figure out how. That’s why you can’t find the airport. Airports are places of transition, and dreams can use them to mean transition in your life or yourself. My Dream Interpretation Dictionary  is loaded A-Z with entries for settings, everything from Airport to Zoo.

Check out how the afterlife can be used as a setting:

Follow your feelings

Feelings are central to most dreams and can be used to interpret story elements such as settings. Take note when your feelings contrast with the setting. For instance, you feel sad at an amusement park while everyone else is happy, because the amusement park reminds you of the fun you DON’T get to have.

A setting can represent your inner landscape, especially your emotional one. Or it can be a snapshot of your life — past, present, or future. For example, a scarred battlefield can represent the devastation to your life caused by fighting or stress. A meadow full of butterflies can symbolize feeling hopeful or peaceful. The other side of a bridge can symbolize where you’re headed in your life. They’re great metaphors that capture the idea or set of ideas in one image.

Step 3: context, connect, reflect

Context, both the story context and personal context provides definition to symbolism. It’s help you to understand a setting’s use as part of a story and any personal significance of it.

Connect the dots with other details from the dream. The setting fits as part of a big picture painted by the dream.

Finally, you reflect on your life to find the dream’s source and meaning and fit a dream’s settings together with the other details so you can see the big picture. Now let me show you how it’s done.

Dream setting examples

The following examples of dream settings show how they can be used to tell a story (simple fact #2 about dreams: dreams tell stories) using symbolism (simple fact #3: dreams use symbolism).

  • Childhood home: Can refer to childhood in relation to something’s that’s relevant in the present, such as where a formative event occurred, a belief took root, or a pattern started. It can show how the structure of your personality (your “home”) is built atop the foundation of your childhood. In a dream, looking for your childhood home can symbolize looking for the feeling of home.
  • Hospital: Can symbolize a subject such as health, especially the need for help with it. The symbolism is derived from the function of hospitals as places we go for help, and the idea can extend to just a general need for help. Hospitals are associated with emergencies, so a hospital can be used as a setting to tell a story about an emergency of any kind. Also consider the potential for wordplay with the word hospitality. You feel exceptionally welcomed and cared for by someone that day, then dream about a friendly hospital staff that night. You’re dreaming about hospitality.
  • Mental hospital: Similar to a hospital setting, but focused on mental and emotional health and the need for help with it.
  • Concentration camp: Can symbolize a place to concentrate, or it amplifies or exaggerates the symbolism of a prison to capture the dynamics of how bad a situation is. How bad? So bad, it’s like a concentration camp.

The setting is symbolism. It’s part of the story and fits into a picture. The examples above have other possibilities for meaning and use as symbolism. They get across basic idea.

Ask:

  • Does the setting evoke a particular feeling in you?
  • Can you relate that feeling (or feelings) to your life — especially your recent life?
  • Does the setting connect with a time of life, such as something in the past that’s ongoing or still influencing the present?
  • Have you been in that setting or one like it recently? Because dreams process recent memories, you know that a dream setting that replicates a place you’ve been to recently is likely to connect with those memories. For example, you come back from vacation in Hawaii and dream about beaches and palm trees. It’s doesn’t automatically mean the dream is related to the vacation, but you begin your interpretation process with your memories of Hawaii.

Interpret a dream setting

A dream features the home of an acquaintance as the setting, and in the opening scene the home is up for auction. It could be a great second home, the dreamer thinks, but a water leak in the basement “dampens” the prospect. More work than initially expected is involved to make this home a viable prospect, and it changes the assessment of its value. The dream ends unresolved.

The first thing I note about the opening scene is it’s set at a home that’s not the dreamer’s home. Why? Is there a reason why his home is not suitable for something? A second home is generally thought of as a “getaway” location, so is there a reason why the dreamer wants to get away?

The home is a familiar place for him because it’s the home of an acquaintance, and by making associations the word “privacy” comes to mind. It’s a private, secluded home. And in the past he stayed in the home while the owner was away. Staying there felt like a “getaway.”

A picture begins to forms by making observations and associations and answering a few questions. But we need answers to a few more questions.

  • Is the dreamer in the market for a second home? No. That answer rules out a more literal interpretation of the dream. If the personal context is yes he’s searching for a second home, the interpretation heads the direction of thinking of the dream as related to it, perhaps as a suggestion or recommendation. It might be a way of saying, “a home like this is recommended based on your history and preferences.”
  • Does the dreamer need a getaway? Yes, he says emphatically, sparking a strong reaction in his feelings. Follow your feelings….
  • Is the home in the dream a replica of the acquaintance’s home, or is it imaginary? For starters, the home in waking reality doesn’t have a basement but in the dream it does, and its overall appearance and layout don’t match up with the dream. These observations about the details of the dream’s story point toward the idea of the home representing an inner space, not an outer one. We’re looking for source memories in the dreamer’s inner life.

Two details about the home presented in the story need to be understood: the meaning of it being up for auction, and the water leak in the basement. Those details are modifiers of the symbolism of the home. They’re story context. The dream setting is a home; the home is up for auction; the home needs work in the basement.

Staying within the context of the story told by the dream, I like to ask questions based on implications to get the thoughts flowing. For example, what do you do when you can’t get a break at home and can’t get away? For starters, you do your best to give yourself a break any way you can. The need for a break has been on the dreamer’s mind. These are source memories. The dreamer would like a getaway, but in the dream his getaway home has issues, and it’s not even his yet. The dream only speaks to the prospect of it. In the meantime it’s up to him to create opportunities to take breaks.

Why does the person who had the dream want a break? To work on himself. To focus inside himself. That answer has a parallel in the dream. The home needs work; the work needs to be done inside the home. The work is in the basement, meaning deep inside himself, in his subconscious mind. Water is a classic dream symbol for content of the subconscious mind.

Finally, what does the auction mean? The dreamer associates an auction with two things. One, it’s a bargain. Two, it’s a competition. The word bargain can also mean negotiate, and it’s true in the sense that he has to negotiate between competing priorities. What is it worth to him to create the space to work and focus on himself? His answer is what leads to the resolution of the dream. If it’s worth enough to him, he’ll do what needs to be done.

This is one way of interpreting the dream, and on one level it works well. But dreams always have layers of meaning, and as time progresses the dreamer starts to think of the dream in terms of taking ownership. There are difficulties in his life he didn’t create, similar to how the dream shows a water leak he didn’t create. Taking ownership means he will fix the problems he didn’t create because, as implied in the dream, he gets a wonderful new home in the process. Plus, it’s what responsible, caring adults do.

In-depth look at a dream setting: garden

Think about what a garden is in the most basic sense. It’s a place where plants grow. They start as seeds or saplings and grow to maturity. Some gardens are used to grow food, others to grow flowers, and others as places for peace and contemplation, i.e. a Zen garden. Your dream storyteller has a lot to work with in just this one type of setting.

As a basis for symbolism, a dream can use a garden’s purpose for growing food. What’s comparable to planting, tending, and growing? To providing for yourself? To what nourishes you? To what starts as a seed and grows with care or just on its own? Well, friendships can begin as a seed of mutual interest, and romantic relationships can begin as a seed of mutual attraction. When tended, friendships and relationships grow. Or they just grow on their own. A backyard garden full of weeds or dead plants, on the other hand, is a picture of neglect. It’s in the backyard because it isn’t being given priority.

My Dream Garden
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I experienced a phase in my dream life with recurring dreams about my father gardening in my backyard. On one level it symbolizes steps to repair our relationship after some years of emotional distance. A slow process of pulling weeds (hard feelings), planting ideas (we could have a better relationship) and nurturing a new rapport. Most of all, letting time take its course. Gardens require care and time to make things grow, and so do relationships. The comparison to tending a relationship is obvious to me now but wasn’t at the time.

On another level it symbolizes learning how to be my own parent, to run my own life. Gardening is inner work in the soil of your being. The seeds planted today sprout later.

Dreams reach from one association to the next and the next to chain together ideas. A popular association down the chain from garden is, plant a seed. From there a dream can use a garden to symbolize planting ideas or thoughts in the soil of the mind. It can symbolize future plans, such as for supporting yourself or your family.

Reach further out for associations and you find the parable of the seeds that land on fertile ground or not. It’s a way of saying that in a crowd of people who all hear new teachings, some people will apply them, causing new life and understanding to grow within them, and some won’t. In them, the teachings don’t “take root.” A garden is a great stage to enact that parable and any story about what takes root in you and what doesn’t. What you put your time and care into that pays off over the long run.

Gardens can symbolize peace and relaxation. In a dream detailed in my book Dreams 1-2-3, a guy’s trouble at his work place plays out in his sleep as a dramatic story, the details of which are too involved to get into right now. The part of the dream that applies to this discussion is when he returns home after a harrowing scene of confrontation with his manager from work in a post-apocalyptic setting, goes to his garden, and is so angry he can’t speak. In this dream the garden symbolizes his need to relax after work, a place to find peace of mind. But he is bringing his work troubles home and it’s disturbing his peace. If you can’t relax in a garden, something’s wrong!

On the other end of the spectrum is this dream:

I find myself in my backyard. Everything seems accurate to waking life; however, there is more yard behind my fence that belongs to me. I had not given it any attention or landscaping. There is a raised garden of marble blocks, nicely shaded. I realize I can renovate this space and turn it into an outdoor yoga/meditation practice area, to hold classes and invite other yogis to join me. I decide I would begin working on this as soon as I get home from work.

The setting of this dream is a backyard, which can symbolize the background of your life or thoughts. The garden is what really defines the symbolism, though. The garden does not exist in the dreamer’s waking life, an important personal context to consider, though the rest of the details about the space match it. That discrepancy with reality is a place to focus to understand the dream. The garden is raised, a way of saying that something is raised in importance. In this case, it’s the dreamer’s yoga practice. To raise or lift up in a dream can also mean make something more noticeable or an increase in importance or prominence.

The dreamer took the suggestion and started acting on it the next day. An IT professional by day, he taught yoga at night and decided he would focus more on teaching it. He decided to get advanced training. He did not literally build a yoga space in his backyard; that wasn’t what the dream meant. The suggestion of the dream is to raise his yoga practice to have more prominence in his life.

Personal associations come into play, too, when considering the many ways garden can be used as dream symbolism. Once you get the idea for how dreams tell stories, you will be able to cycle through the options quickly.

Next lesson:

Further exploration

How I interpret what Alaska means in a dream: