By Pulkit Sharma
When interpreted correctly, dreams can give us major insights into our life and situations, says Pulkit Sharma
Dreams have always captivated popular imagination; and dream interpretation has always been a favourite pastime. While most dreams are forgotten, some leave a vivid impact on our minds, lingering even after waking up.
Dreams transport us into a zone which feels very real as long as we are having them, no matter how illogical or non-linear. Many times, a recurring dream or a nightmare can disturb us for a long time. Such dreams compel people to look for their meaning and the message it may hold for them. Most ancient cultures had their own theories around the nature, function and meaning of dreams. Several historical and mythological texts accord a significant role to dreaming.
Often dreams fall into the zone between real and unreal. While some elements reflect our everyday lives, they merge with the strange and bizarre to produce often astounding images and outcomes. Such is the range of experiences they expose us to that we awake with a sense of excitement, déjà vu, fear, joy, sadness, rage, loneliness, emptiness, insight or reflection. No wonder almost everyone wishes to engage with them, and learn something more about their past, present or future.
Man’s ongoing engagement with dreams faced a pause when modern experimental psychology decreed that anything outside the domain of waking human consciousness including dreams were unscientific and hence to be ignored.
Fortunately, this changed with the emergence of psychoanalysis which brought to centrestage the fact that a large part of our mind is mostly unconscious.
The unconscious contains all the wishes, desires, fears, hopes, traits and potentials that we push out of our awareness either because they are too threatening to confront, or because we have been discouraged from experiencing them by our family, teachers or peers, who considered them unacceptable. Even though they stay out of our waking consciousness they continue to exert deep influence on our mind leading to unexplained conflicts, deficits and symptoms.
But, thankfully, there is a way out of this seeming chaos. Dreams are a bridge between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. We can live our life fully and realise our true potential once we understand our unconscious, and stop submitting passively to its influence. Since its inception, the psychoanalytical perspective considered dreams a powerful medium to understand and work with the unconscious. No wonder that Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, referred to dreams as ‘the royal road to the unconscious.’
While we are awake our conscious mind exerts a strong control over what we can recall. However, during sleep the conscious mind relaxes and various unknown and threatening contents from the unconscious part of our self are relatively free to pervade out awareness. But even then the conscious mind is watching over and therefore dreams are often a compromised mix of our conscious and unconscious mind. This explains why dreams appear familiar and bizarre at the same time.
Interpretation of dreams
There are several mental processes involved in a dream formation. Symbolism is a way through which the unconscious content gets expressed in a disguised manner in the dream. For instance, an image of a decaying tree in the dream may represent feelings of deadness in oneself. Yet dreams can be quite considerate and accommodative to people facing difficulties. They let us express or face a contentious issue in a seemingly mild and harmless manner, helping us come to terms with our reality in a non-threatening way.
The mechanism of displacement allows the use of a substitute and more neutral objects in the dream in the place of emotionally threatening or charged things. In my work as a psychologist, I encountered a patient who often dreamt of tearing apart a stuffed toy. On analysis, it became apparent that the stuffed toy represented her baby towards whom she had ambivalent feelings. It was more acceptable to the mind to substitute the image of her child with a stuffed toy so that she did not feel overwhelmed.
Then there is the process of condensation in which several unconscious feelings, wishes, conflicts, impulses or attitudes are fused together and represented by a single image. A 27-year-old male patient reported a dream where an old woman wearing his wife’s bridal dress was running away. When we looked at the dream carefully it became obvious that he feared that just as his mother had abandoned him, his newly wedded wife would also leave him. The image in the dream therefore represented both his mother and his wife, and his fear of being abandoned by females.
In projection, the dreamer disavows his original feelings and impulses and often sees them as being enacted by other people. A small girl coming for therapy reported a fearful dream of a monster chasing her. When her dream was understood, we could see that the monster represented her own feelings of aggression towards several people. After the birth of her younger brother, she had been feeling left out and enraged, wanting to hurt her parents, grandparents and the infant.
The psychoanalytic method
According to psychoanalysis, if we know how to understand and interpret dreams, we can illuminate even the deepest recesses of our mind. The basic method of dream interpretation requires the dreamer to relate to and elaborate on the dream in as much detail as possible. The dream is then broken down into various small parts and the person is then asked to take up each element of the dream one by one and say exactly what comes to mind. It is important that the dreamer pay attention and report whatever is coming up in a non-judgmental and uncritical manner. Often people need some training to freely associate to dreams because they try to relate to it as if they are trying to recall a past memory. It is never so simple because dreams have been camouflaged by the interaction between our conscious and unconscious mind. One must, therefore, observe in a relaxed manner and focus on what associations arise, and then the dreamer should continue associating freely without any censorship till the time one feels that one has exhausted all associations. After the process of free association to the dream is over, the therapist integrates all this material and looks for a common underlying theme. He then tries to understand how this theme may fit into the personality, symptoms, relationship patterns and the life history of the dreamer. Based on his understanding the therapist comes up with questions, observations and trial interpretations. Through a detailed discussion, the therapist and the dreamer are able to understand the latent material in the dream.
The curious case of Rahul
Consider Rahul’s case. He was 35 when he sought help from me because of a history of recurrent depressive episodes. At the beginning of therapy, he felt that his symptoms were without any cause. However, in the course of treatment, we realised that the symptoms were being stoked by some very intense and difficult experiences that Rahul had not dealt with. During the treatment he mentioned a dream which gave us a crucial clue with regard to the source of all his difficulties. Rahul narrated a dream: “A person is carrying ashes representing a dead body for which he has to perform the last rites. He is desperately asking for money. Everyone has a flat and stony expression on their faces, and no one is willing to give him money.”
When told to freely associate to the dream, Rahul came up with the following associations: (Money and flat faces) He described several instances where he had seen beggars and stray dogs being shunned by people. He often experienced extreme pain whenever he encountered a beggar or a stray dog as he felt that the world had been very cruel to them. He felt that both beggars and stray dogs longed for love and care but everyone rejected them. After this he recalled many occasions where he was misunderstood, criticised and let down in close personal relationships. Rahul was traumatised further when he noticed that whenever he shared his pain with others, no one understood him and they accused him of dramatisation and exaggeration. This empathic failure increased his pain manifold. After looking at these associations, we could make out that in the dream beggars and stray dogs symbolically represented Rahul’s feelings of neediness and his sense of being rejected by others.
(Dead body) While looking at the image of the dead body in the dream, Rahul remembered the death of his father who passed away in 2002. He was very fond of his father and did all that he could to save the ailing man but could not succeed. His mother was grief-stricken by the death and accused Rahul of not trying hard enough. Rahul felt even more guilty and dejected. He respected his mother and could relate to her pain but he could never express the pain he experienced fearing that his mother would be devastated by his anger. He craved for his mother to understand and value the efforts that he made.
(Performing last rites) In response to the theme of performing last rites in the dream, Rahul talked about the emptiness, loneliness and deadness that he often felt within. For a long time he had been feeling that he was doing everything mechanically; he had never found joy in anything that he did or experienced. All relationships appeared distant. We could understand that the ashes in the dream signified Rahul’s dead self and his recurrent depressive symptoms. While talking about performing last rites, Rahul talked about his belief in rebirth. He shared that just as trees shed old leaves and generated new ones; human beings also die when old and worn out but get recreated in a new, vibrant and hopeful avatar. Thus towards the end this dream reflected optimism and a wish to renew and resurrect.
After looking at all these themes, associations and related feelings we came up with the following interpretation. The dream represented Rahul’s emotions of sadness, anger and grief. He felt dead because there was no one to acknowledge, understand and support his pain to help him overcome these negative emotions. The dream also pointed towards a wish to find someone who would understood, love, and support him, which would give him hope of recovery and transformation. This interpretation gave Rahul an insight into the origins and relational dimension of his depression and helped him overcome the depressive symptoms he had been struggling with for years. From the point of view of psychotherapy, the dream helped me understand Rahul’s needs and cater to them in therapy. When he saw that I could understand and feel his pain and support him emotionally, he felt empowered to overcome his negativity and carry on with life with a fresh and hopeful perspective. If we can develop the skill of interpreting dreams, they are a huge asset in understanding our own selves as well as others. They carry the potential of offering a new perspective and transforming us.
Water Portrays our emotions by its quality. For example – calm water represents peace, cold water represents loneliness, turbulent water represents inner chaos Flying
Depicts the extent of our motivation and self-efficacy. Flying high swiftly indicates determination to counter all adversities Fire
Signifies that one is either willing to go through, or undergoing the work of purification necessary for spiritual progress Snakes
Snakes represent evil forces that are either hidden in the person’s subconscious, or coming from outside which can impede the individual’s progress Fish in the ocean It indicates either a desire or an experience of being one with the Divine House
The various rooms of a house often portray different parts of the person’s self while on the whole the house represents the personality of the individual Nurturing woman This image often stands for the Divine Mother Being chased
The phenomena often conceals our wish to run away from something unpleasant, either our own negative parts or bad relationships Nudity It could indicate a wish to surrender to the Divine or a fear of being exposed Sun/Light This represents an experience of Divine Consciousness or higher knowledge
About the author : Pulkit Sharma is Clinical Psychologist and Spiritual therapistat Imago- Centre for Self, Delhi
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