Using Literature to make sense of life and dreams

Themes can help us to recognise the connection between dreams and waking life
Themes can help us to recognise the connection between dreams and waking life

One of the core aims of understanding dreams is to recognise the connection they have with waking life.  Once you can start to do this you are well on the way to creating a life full of richness and meaning.  But recognising this connection can be one of the hardest things to do.  So many people ask me “what does my dream mean?” and my standard response is “only you can really know.”  An answer, I know, which is very unsatisfactory to most!  So I created The Dream Well, to help you become the expert in your own dreams.  One of the easiest ways to start decoding dream meanings, and the by far the most popular, is by identifying individual symbols, then trying to decipher what each particular symbol means to you personally.

But there is another way to approach dream interpretation, and we can take our cues from understanding literature.  When analysing a work of fiction, we often try to identify the underlying “theme.”  We can apply the same technique to understanding dreams and life.

So what, exactly, is a theme? http://www.learner.org describes in very simple terms:

“What exactly is this elusive thing called theme?

The theme of a fable is its moral. The theme of a parable is its teaching. The theme of a piece of fiction is its view about life and how people behave.

In fiction, the theme is not intended to teach or preach. In fact, it is not presented directly at all. You extract it from the characters, action, and setting that make up the story. In other words, you must figure out the theme yourself.

The writer’s task is to communicate on a common ground with the reader. Although the particulars of your experience may be different from the details of the story, the general underlying truths behind the story may be just the connection that both you and the writer are seeking.”

If we change the words “fiction/story” to “dream”, the word “writer” to “subconscious” and “reader” to “conscious ego” we get this quote:

“In DREAMS, the theme is not intended to teach or preach. In fact, it is not presented directly at all. You (CONSCIOUS EGO) extract it from the characters, action, and setting that make up the DREAM. In other words, you must figure out the theme yourself.

The SUBCONSCIOUS’S task is to communicate on a common ground with the CONSCIOUS EGO. Although the particulars of your(CONSCIOUS EGO’S) experience may be different from the details of the DREAM, the general underlying truths behind the DREAM may be just the connection that both you (CONSCIOUS EGO) and the SUBCONSCIOUS are seeking.”

How then, do we recognise a theme that is playing an integral role in both our dreams and waking life?  The first step is to stop analysing dreams in their minute detail, and to look at the overall feeling or message the dream seems to be conveying.  Try to take a more holistic or “helicopter view” of the dream.

One technique we use when trying to understand a theme in literature is to look at the title.  If you were to give you dream a title, what might it be?  How could that give you an insight into the over-arching meaning of the dream?  Another device is to look for recurring patterns – do you have a volcano, the colour red and someone being “fired” from their job?  You may see a recurring theme relating to fire, which may reflect a feeling you have of been “burned” and disappointed, for example.

You can draw upon common themes in great literature for examples and see if any of these seem relevant to you.  Some common themes include:

  • a person’s struggle/journey to find their true nature
  • the relationship of individual to nature (our basic animal wild Self), society (the roles we play, the expectations we live up, or fail to), to the divine (our sense of the sacred, our sense of control or fatalism, the role of an over or under developed ego)
  • alienation versus a sense of connection, the role of community, family, technology to individual
  • the loss of innocence, coming of age, stages of initiation and associated losses and gains
  • the importance of relationships, and whether they serve us or reduce us, what sacrifices are noble and what are wasteful, the role of loyalty and the pain of loss
  • time – how fleeting it is, seizing the day versus planning for the future, and the wisdom or folly of either
  • struggle against adversity, overcoming difficult odds, or the inherent value of trying even if the outcome is not as planned
  • the importance of work, service and contribution – what makes a meaningful or wasted life
  • birth, life and death, all as inextricably linked, being stages that apply to each of us.  Recognising this cyclical nature, coming to peace with this or raging against it.  Possibly the absurdity of it all
  • love as giving meaning to both life and death

This is not meant to be a definitive list, but just some ideas to get you started.  Have a go at coming up with your own!

To use the themes, you can start either by looking at your waking life OR your dreams.  If understanding your dreams seems difficult, I suggest first coming to a conscious understanding of your waking life.  What themes are going on with you right now?

Chances are you will you find that one or two of these kinds of themes will resonate strongly with you, without having to spend a lot of time considering what is going on in your own life.  But if you do have difficulties, try reflecting on some of these questions:

  • What issues are you struggling with?  What is making you anxious?  This may be something like work causing you stress and making you wonder if you are in the right job.  You may decide a theme of your life then is “the importance of work, service and contribution – what makes a meaningful or wasted life”
  • What is exciting you?  What is creating energy in your life?  You may have started some new education and love what you are learning, and then decide a key theme for you is “coming of age” or even “finding your own true nature”
  • What changes are you facing, and how do you feel about them?  You may have recently lost a loved one, and are in the process of working through grief and what life means without them.  You may feel a theme of “the cycles of birth, life, death” is most relevant, or perhaps “love as giving life and even death meaning” works more.

Write these ideas down before you start your dream work.  When you start to think what the specific meaning of your dream may be, greater insights may be gained by looking through the lens of the theme.  Instead of thinking “what does my dream mean” try considering “what does this dream have to reveal to me about **my theme.**  For example, “what does my dream about wolves have to reveal to me about coming of age and finding my own true nature?”  Or  “how does my dream of windows help me understand the cycles of birth, life and death?”

Of course, you can also work it the other way around, and identify a major theme in your dreams and then see how this can help reveal patterns you may not have noticed in waking life.  You may a have series of seemingly unrelated dreams about climbing a mountain, pushing a large boulder and escaping from burning building.  Applying the theme technique, you may decide there is common pattern of struggle in overcoming adversity, and this relates to your financial difficulties, or efforts to heal a troubled relationship.

Do you see how themes then can provide a new insight into dreams and waking situations that otherwise may have seemed obscure?  I hope that applying this approach may help you discover greater meaning and richness in your own life.

Image: Fantastic Depiction Of The Solar System Woodcut Later Colouration, The German School

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