Whether you remember it or not, you dream every single night. You go to bed, fall asleep, dream, and wake up. Well, it's not exactly that simple. We sleep in cycles. On the average each cycle is an hour and a half. For some people it is a few minutes shorter or longer, but pretty close to that hour and a half mark. When we fall asleep we start a cycle of falling into progressively deeper and deeper levels of sleep. The closer we get towards the end of the sleep cycle, we enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During REM sleep, we tend to sleep lighter than at other points in the cycle.
REM sleep is important because it is that time of the sleep cycle in which we dream. It is believed that the movement of the eyes is related to watching a movie in that our eyes are moving back and forth to see the images. During each sleep cycle the amount of time we spend in REM sleep becomes progressively longer. At the end of the first sleep cycle of the night, REM sleep lasts only a couple minutes for most people. During the last sleep cycle of the night, nearly all of the time is spent in the REM stage of sleep.
Whether or not you remember dreaming, dreams are important. Why they are important is still not completely understood. However, research has been performed which gives some clues into why REM sleep is necessary for normal day-to-day functioning. People who are deprived of REM sleep in experiments, especially over a period of several days, are found to be irritable, forgetful, and often times exhibiting states of paranoia or hallucinations. These experiments provide clues of the role of REM stage sleep.
One of the reasons it is necessary is to help move information from short term memory to long term memory. The distortions of reality and mood altering capacities caused by the lack of REM sleep also demonstrate that REM sleep may be necessary for mental and emotional health and stability. Dreaming has a great deal to do with development to be sure. Babies spend almost all of their time asleep in the REM stage. That by itself offers a clue to its importance for us even if we do not yet understand why. People who suffer from sleep disorders often have all kinds of trouble because their sleep cycles are so interrupted. They may exhibit signs of irritability or crankiness; forgetfulness; chronic fatigue; irrational behavior; or any other number of symptoms. When mental health is awry, such as with depression, sleep cycles are often inerrupted.
Dreams are also important, not just for their importance in routine functioning of the mind and body, but also because of the deeper access they can provide to our subconscious life. Many people who work with their dreams on a regular basis find answers to questions, greater self-realization, spiritual growth, and creative solutions for current problems. Have you ever used the expression "I'll sleep on it and see what I come up with"? This expression directly relates to using REM sleep to access the subconscious power of the mind. Other uses for the subconscious power of dreaming are psychic awareness, divination, lucid dreaming, and a launch pad for OBEs.
Some people have no trouble whatsoever remembering their dreams. If you are one of those people who doesn't remember dreaming, however, and you would like to, the simplest way is to keep a log or dream journal. Unfortunately, most people offer many excuses why they don't want to keep a log. The biggest one is not having enough time. Actually almost every excuse boils down to one thing: not wanting to make the effort. It does require some determined effort to keep up the practice of dreamwork. If you want to remember your dreams, you will have to make a little effort each day and follow through with the commitment. Five or ten minutes a day is really all you need. Go to bed ten minutes early and you will find you wake up ten minutes early. There is the time you need to record your dream. If you have kids you have to get up in the morning and see off to school, then don't worry about recording your dream at that moment. Make notes of keywords about the dream which will take a few seconds. The notes will jog your memory later in the afternoon or whenever you can find those five or ten minutes. The important thing is to do it every day. Eventually you will find you are remembering greater details, and often instead of remembering the dream from only your last sleep cycle, you will find that you are remembering the dreams from two or three, or even every REM cycle you had for that night.
But what exactly is the point of working with dreams? It is different for everybody. Some people genuinely don't care about whether or not they dream. Other people feel lost when they are not dreaming. Many who embark on a journey of personal development work with their dreams to aid them in the search for growth. They see dreams as a means to gain access to the information contained within their unconscious and subconscious minds. For others, dreams are a means of escape from the pressures of everyday life. They enjoy the freedom of making their own world in lucid dreams or travelling to another realm via astral projection. For some, dreams are just pure entertainment. They seek no meaning or importance beyond the private "movie" that falls before their eyes as they sleep. Each person decides for him or herself the importance of dreams in their own life. The person who says they want to remember their dreams but then has all kinds of excuses not to make the effort to try to remember more than likely does not see dreams as being an important need in their life. That is ok. Dreams aren't important to everyone.
If dreams are important to you, you've made the effort to remember, jotted down those notes, recorded as much detail as possible in your log.... Now what? Analysis and interpretation. This is where the tricky part of working with dreams comes in. This is the time where the dreamer has to decide what the dream means, if it means anything at all. Any shaman can tell you about the distinction between an ordinary (just a dream) and a nonordinary (meaningful or significant) dream. In fact, anyone who has sufficient practice with dreamwork can tell you that not every single dream has importance. The amount of ordinary and nonordinary dreams varies from person to person, and will change based on circumstances in that person's life. A person may experience significant dreams every single night for two months while real world circumstances are chaotic, creating undue stress, or changing constantly. Then maybe once some calm is restored to their life, they only have ordinary dreams for a while.
The trick is discerning when a dream is ordinary or nonordinary. It is not always readily apparent which one of the two a dream is. Adding further to the confusion is the fact that a dream may be a hybrid. It may have ordinary and nonordinary elements which means the dreamer must recognize which parts are important and which ones aren't. Even someone who is greatly skilled at interpreting their own dreams may get tricked by the mixture of ordinary and nonordinary elements. They may be looking at one part of a dream as being significant, when really that part is irrelevant and it's the part that they believe is irrelevant that has the meaning. As a person becomes more and more skilled at interpreting their dreams, these mixups become less frequent. More often than not, though, a dream is either completely ordinary or nonordinary.
Over time a person develops an understanding of recurring symbols within their dreams. Most skilled dreamworkers create their own dream dictionary. It can be explicit, that is, an actual written down list of personal symbols they have discovered and their meanings, or implicit, in that they don't actually write down definitions of symbols, but they have an abstract concept associated with that symbol. If they run across a symbol that has no meaning for them personally, then they look at the universal meaning for that symbol. Why not just use any of those dream dictionaries sitting on the bookshelf at the local bookstore? Try this yourself. Go to the local bookstore and pick a word out of a dream dictionary. Read what it means. Now look the same word up in the other five dream dictionaries sitting there. What do you see? The meanings are never the same. In fact, many times one dream dictionary will offer a completely opposite meaning for a word than the dictionary sitting next to it. Furthermore the meanings in these off-the-shelf preprinted dictionaries often has absolutely nothing to do with what the symbol really means in the dream.
Symbols are personal. That is why most intensive dreamworkers make a personal dictionary. That is also why it is hard for one person to interpret someone else's dream. Take an example of what I mean: I say the word "cat" to you. What does it bring to mind? Well, for me it conjures up expressions of warmth, fuzziness, independence, affection, just to name a few. I love cats and indeed, my primary totem is feline. I have two cats that I think of as my kids. So for me the word "cat" brings up all kinds of associations that may or may not be the same as the associations you have to the same word. Maybe when you were a kid, a cat tripped you as you were going down the stairs and you broke your leg. Your association with "cat" would possibly be obstacle, pain, tumbling. It is because symbols are so personal that preprinted dream dictionaries are not necessarily helpful when working with dreams.
Sometimes, though, a person may not have a personal meaning associated with a symbol. For example, for me a telephone has no meaning besides its universal use as a means of communication. Other than its purpose, it has no real meaning to me. In a dream I would then refer to the universal meaning of the symbol. A universal meaning is one that tends to be understood for the majority of people around the world, often coming from ancient sources. One example is water. Water is a universal symbol for consciousness, whether the fully conscious, subconscious, or unconscious aspect of the mind. There are also some symbols which may have no personal or universal meaning attached but are instead culturally specific. For example, the swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol associated with prosperity and good fortune. Yet for most in the Western world today, the swastika (with its arms reversed in direction) is associated with the Nazis who were responsible for doing some heinous things. Then a dreamworker must look at cultural aspects of a symbol to determine its meaning in a dream. Then there are things which have no meaning for a person, but become their own symbol within dreams and have significant meaning. For example, my car really doesn't have any significance to me in the real world other than a reliable way to get from point A to point B. Yet over time I have come to realize by working with my dreams, that my car represents my spiritual progression when it appears within the context of my dreams. This symbol has developed a personal meaning.
Does this all sound confusing? It can be. Especially when there are times that a person may have a personal meaning associated with a symbol, but the dream is intending either a cultural or universal meaning. To complicate matters, sometimes a symbol is thrown in for no reason whatsoever and it has personal, cultural, or universal meaning, yet in that particular dream, the object means nothing. At this point it is where long term practice at analyzing one's own dreams comes in. A person begins to recognize patterns to how they dream, what is significant and what isn't. Very often the context of the dream will clue you in to which symbol, if any, to attribute to something. A safe rule of thumb is to attribute symbolism first to personal meaning. If personal meaning doesn't fit, apply cultural. If the cultural doesn't fit, then use the universal meaning. If all that fails, then there's a good chance that the object is a placeholder in the dream and means nothing in and of itself.
Once the symbols are deciphered, the dreamworker must pull together an understanding of what they all mean put in one dream. Maybe a particular dream has only one symbol of significane, but more often than not, there are multiple symbols with no clear relationship. This is where interpretation of the symbols comes in and what they might mean to the dreamer. Skill in interpretation builds up over time. Even still, a dreamworker may not always be right. Sometimes it is only in hindsight that the meaning of a dream is clear. Also, a person's wants may override what the dream is really conveying. Or a dreamer may not want to admit the truth of a situation, so they find a different meaning than what is being presented. Any number of emotions, desires, or expectations can color the interpretation of a dream.
It's also important to understand that a symbol can come from any part of a dream. Dreams as a whole are symbolic. A symbol is anything in the dream that has meaning attached to it. That means objects in the dream can be symbols. So can people or places. A particular place may hold significant meaning to a person. Maybe it is a place they wish to see or a place that feels like home. People in dreams often are not who they appear to be, but merely are representations of traits that person has. Sometimes, even, other people in the dream are representations of the dreamer him or herself. Dreaming of your mother may not really be your mother in the dream, but perhaps a symbol of motherhood or growing older. Even actions can be symbolic in dream. Repeated behaviors, doing things one doesn't like to do, seeing ourselves doing things that we find repulsive, or seeing others do them can be meaningful. Each bit must be looked at for possible meaning. Deciphering the meaning of dreams is a skill that is built up over time. The first step is remembering dreams in the first place.
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