The secret language of dreams

Pay attention to your nightmares and you will realise they contain powerful messages, designed to get your attention when all else has failed.

Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

Ted Andrews, author of Dream Alchemy,writes,“Dreams shift and dance. They mold themselves into scenarios of wonder and terror. They delight and amaze, amuse and frighten. They are never the same and yet always the same in the way they manifest themselves within our lives.” There is no doubt that dreams serve a unique purpose in our lives. At times, dreams are the portal through which truths surface from deep within the subconscious. Other times, dreams carry messages of specific guidance or warnings in the form of terrible nightmares. Pay attention to your nightmares and you will realise they contain powerful messages, designed to get your attention when all else has failed. Dreams can show you where you need healing and where you are being led astray. They are no accident. What at first seems random or nonsensical is, in fact, the genius creation of your subconscious.

Once you realise how your dreams work and are willing to look at them, you can unlock their secrets and decipher their hidden messages. If your dreams are scatty and disjointed, or if you simply can’t remember them, the reason is most likely that you haven’t been paying attention. Direct your attention to your dreams and they will become more vivid and memorable. That’s your subconscious saying, “Finally, she’s paying attention!”

The art of interpretation

Did you know that by the end of your life you will have spent approximately six years dreaming? For something we do so much, it’s surprising how little importance we ascribe to our dreams. “Dreams are a part of our lives. And as with all life functions they serve a purpose,” observes Andrews. The purpose of dreams can at first seem shadowy. Most research focuses on what happens to your brain while you’re asleep, rather than on the significance of the dreams themselves. Dreams can also serve multiple purposes. While one dream portends the future, another offers a valuable insight into the drama of your waking life.

Dream interpretation always takes into account what’s going on for you at the time. Take the example of a dream I had recently, in which the famous Oprah Winfrey invited me over for dinner. Finding my way to her home, I was surprised to discover she lived in a small, tastefully decorated apartment. The main feature of Oprah’s home was a long wooden dinner table, around which sat a mix of lively, totally unpretentious dinner guests. I was struck by the warmth and intimacy of the scene and felt instantly at ease.

This dream was significant because at the time I had been experiencing something of a personal crisis. Was it possible, I asked myself, to be a successful woman without sacrificing my feminine nature? Would success mean disposing of my love for people? Oprah, a successful woman with soul, appeared to me as a symbolic character to demonstrate that success and femininity were by no means mutually exclusive. If I wanted, said my clever subconscious, I could have both.

While you were sleeping

Before the 1960s, sleep was considered to be a state in which the brain simply “switched off” for the night. Then scientists began to measure brainwave activity and discovered that the brain is equally active, if not more so, during sleep as during waking life, consuming vast amounts of energy for its processes.

The period of highest brainwave activity is the dream state, known as rapid eye movement or REM. During this stage the muscles of the body are effectively paralysed, while the eyes can be seen moving about wildly under the eyelids as though they are literally tracking the action of the dream. Every hour or so while you’re asleep, you enter the REM state and dream intensely for about 15 minutes.

During these relatively brief intervals you can have anything from one to several dreams, often in a series relating to a particular theme. “The various dreams in a single night or a single week may simply be different in their form but not in the underlying message,” says Andrews. “The subconscious mind may be communicating the same message to you in different ways to make sure you do receive the message.” Your subconscious mind is a bit like the director of a movie, casting familiar props and characters to communicate a specific theme to you. Once your conscious mind is out of the way, the subconscious effectively takes the stage, bringing you guidance and messages from deep within.

Dream symbolism

Dreams have a way of showing you things. Totally unlike the way we normally communicate, ie through language, dreams communicate through symbols. Symbols are especially potent because they are the language of the collective. They are the universal language that all people innately understand. As a race of interconnected beings, our collective consciousness is populated by archetypal symbols that bear a similar meaning for all of us.

Among the easiest symbols to interpret are the archetypal figures we recognise from our shared mythology: kings and queens, tricksters, damsels, warriors, fools. Other symbols take the form of powerful objects, such as the dagger, chalice, shield or crown. Once I dreamed I was window shopping when I came across a beautiful magician’s cloak. The cloak, made of thick velvet the colour of midnight blue, seemed to shimmer and call to me from the shop window. Standing on the pavement, I wondered if I dared to go inside and try it on. Was I worthy of such a cloak? The dream revealed a powerful, enchanted aspect of myself trying to emerge.

Animals are also likely to show up in your dreams. Typically a relationship-phobe, I recently dreamed of standing with my beloved on the edge of a deep-blue sea filled with wondrous sea creatures. We both feared “taking the plunge” in case of sharks — symbolic of our deepest fears of togetherness. Frightening creatures such as wolves and bears are also common symbols of fear, while other creatures represent all manner of characteristics.

To interpret your dream, the first step is to realise what the symbolic imagery means to you and then to relate the metaphor to your waking life. As Andrews explains, “Anyone wishing to make the most of the dream alchemy must learn to work with symbology. It is the language of the unconscious mind. Symbols are the only way the unconscious mind has to communicate with the conscious aspect of ourselves.” As on the set of a fantasy film, the characters and props of your dreams have all been cast for a reason. Once you begin to pay attention you will gain skill in deciphering the meaning. “To understand symbols is to understand ourselves,” observes Andrews. “They provide the clues to our deep-rooted, instinctive actions and capabilities. They help us to understand what the basis is for our beliefs, superstitions and fears.”

Active dreaming

Have you ever woken up inside a dream? One moment you’re flying through the air and the next you’re thinking, “Hang on, this can’t be real!” The phenomenon of “lucid” dreaming occurs when your conscious mind intervenes in the dream, attempting to reassert its concept of reality. But which reality is more real?

Some believe our dreams are every bit as real as waking life. Among shamanic cultures, for instance, dreams represent a separate reality in which you can walk unencumbered by the confines of earthly life. While dreaming, you are as light as a spirit, free to do anything and go anywhere, even to explore other etheric worlds. Our world, many shamans believe, is simply one of many coexisting worlds. We experience ourselves in this reality, on planet Earth, because our consciousness is designed to limit our perceptions.

One proponent of this view was the famous author, Carlos Castaneda, who spent years under the tutelage of a Yaqui Indian sorcerer, Don Juan. In one of his books, The Art of Dreaming, Castaneda is being instructed by Don Juan on how to achieve what he calls “dreaming awareness” so he can wake up inside the dream and move freely within the other worlds. To do this, Don Juan tells Castaneda, “You must start by doing something very simple. Tonight, in your dreams, you must look at your hands.” The first step, as Don Juan instructs, is to set a powerful intention before you go to sleep, to wake up inside the dream and find a specific object — in this case, Castaneda’s own hands.

While this sounds simple, it took Castaneda six months of constant nightly attempts before he was finally able to wake up inside the dream and look at his hands. As he tells it, “My first attempts to look for my hands in my dreams were a fiasco. After months of unsuccessful efforts, I gave up and complained to Don Juan about the absurdity of such a task.” Laughing, Don Juan revealed to Castaneda that the challenge of dreaming was much more formidable than this simple task. Finding his hands, said Don Juan, was only the first of “seven gates” Castaneda would have to pass through if he wanted to learn to dream with the mastery of a true sorcerer.

Dare to dream?

Your dreams hold the keys to your secret fears and desires. Sometimes a dream comes in the form of a parody or farce to show you the absurdity of your actions. Once I dreamed a prince tried to woo me with the gift of a big souped-up ride-on mower. It was the tackiest gift I could possibly imagine! Clearly, the dream was making a joke about how easily I was fooled by superficialities. Another night I dreamed my favourite healer, Katherine Bright, was cooking up a magical potion in an enormous cauldron. When it was ready she poured the brew over my bare feet, saying, “This will remove the lead from your legs.” I instantly felt lighter and went skipping off down the beach. In my waking world I had been feeling bogged down by the demands of life. Bright appeared to show me that a simple healing could lighten the load whenever I needed it.

Do you see how it works? Your dreams are intensely personal, perfectly constructed by your higher self — and they can only be interpreted by you. While dream interpretation often requires a bit of artistry and lateral thinking, it’s usually a lot of fun. You may also notice your dreams will change if you share your living space with someone else. It’s not unusual to report being visited by another person’s spirit while sleeping, even over long distances. Recently an old friend, Anna, phoned me excitedly from halfway across the country. “I just had a dream that you were pregnant,” she said, demanding to know if it was true. Laughing, I told her she was close — I wasn’t pregnant, but I had just enrolled to study midwifery. I guess my etheric self just couldn’t wait to share the news!

A spoonful of honey

One way to heighten your dreams, as outlined in The Honey Revolution, is to simply consume a teaspoon of honey before bedtime. While the body is resting, the brain is extremely active and needs a steady supply of glycogen (stored glucose) from the liver to function properly. Glycogen is an important fuel for the brain and is steadily depleted throughout the night as the brain enters its high-intensity REM dream state. Honey, a natural source of glucose, is very effective at replenishing the liver’s glycogen supply. As the authors observe, “The most common and interesting anecdotes reported from those who consume a tablespoon or two of honey before bedtime relate to dreams and dream recall. Dreams are more vivid, intense and colourful.”

The brain, which is intensely active while you’re asleep, needs a high-energy fuel source that won’t result in digestive stress for the body. Absorbed rapidly by the body, honey supplies the brain with a steady fuel supply through the night. “Folks who believe the ‘Do not eat before bedtime’ myth do themselves a great disservice,” say the authors. “Sleep is a high-energy enterprise for the brain. Therefore, it’s essential that the brain be provided with enough glycogen for fuel to last throughout the eight hours of the night fast. Fuelling the liver with honey before bedtime fuels the brain.” Something as simple as consuming a spoonful of honey before bed not only results in better and more vivid dreams, but also a better night’s sleep.

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