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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


The Psychology of Dreams: How To Interpret Them

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, September 09, 2012

The dreamscape is a projection of self

I’ve never quite been sure as to why people use the axiom “the stuff of dreams”. One might say that owning a house on the Bahamas and being able to live a relaxed, slow-paced lifestyle or winning Tatts lotto is the “stuff of dreams”. But why should dreams be connected with pleasure, success and positive sentimentalities when most of the time they’re pervaded by the more shadowy, disconcerting aspects of human nature? It makes no sense whatsoever. Then again there are many adages and generalizations that are nonsensical from the perspective of sound human reasoning. Dreams appear nonsensical too, though they’re products of an entity that adheres to the emblematic parameters of a different knowledge system. When our nocturnal perambulations shoot us through the membrane separating wakefulness and sleep, we usually find ourselves in unfamiliar territory that constantly transgresses from the physical law. Dreams can mimic adorable toddlers in that they’ll keep pushing boundaries and breaking them to prove that nothing is set in stone. The dreamscape is one string of vivid images and occurrences that physically blend into one another in ways which to the waking conscious appears outrageous and ludicrous. You know you’ve slipped down the rabbit hole when your body looks grossly disproportioned or when the foundations of your house are made of cotton that swiftly morphs into a bulbous cloud and the former a mountaintop. There’s no noonday logic to be found there or at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party for that matter but what else might we expect from an unconscious process that dogmatically resists appropriation by the egocentric intellect and never learned how to communicate with spoken language?

We could easily think of dreams as mentation projected from the unconscious. As we sink back into the womb of unconsciousness every night our awareness withdraws completely from the external world and begins to surrender itself to foreign influence. All of a sudden we rematerialize in a realm quite unlike the one to which we have become accustomed. Things are different here and etiological connections taken for granted in waking consciousness are tenuous if not absent altogether. In this state, the periodic abeyance of senses, reflexes, and conscious control of the body can make for unruly and fear-provoking circumstances. We try to run and our legs seem glued to the ground. We try to scream and nothing comes out. We also acquire abilities which evolution has hitherto denied us i.e. the ability to fly, to jump from the roof of one skyscraper onto another, or to enact a series of mid-air somersaults. Sometimes we can become aware of farcical, fantastical, or melodramatic elements that announce to the dreamer his or her unconscious state. When this happens the dreamer becomes acutely aware of the ethereal environment and acquires a miraculous ability to control the manner in which subsequent events will unfold. Psychologists call such experiences conscious or lucid dreams and they can be quite memorable and profound. On a more general note what we find with dream sequences is that some are symbolic, others predictive, and others still psychological compost jettisoned by a brain attempting to cleanse and ready itself for the psychic impressions of a new day. It’s safe to say that in the modern scientific inquiry into mental functions and behaviours, dreams are amongst the most mystifying and least understood. From this perspective it makes a lot more sense to focus the discussion on what is known about them rather than what is not.

If somebody tells you they don’t dream you shouldn’t be inclined to believe them. There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that human beings have between four and five dreams per night, sometimes more. These transpire on what I call the wraithlike shore separating the sea of unconsciousness from the fringe of conscious land; an individual slips into a dream state on penetrating the threshold into sleep and again upon falling out of delta-wave or deep sleep before fully awakening. There are all sorts of wild myths about their nature, from spatiotemporal conceptions attempting to place the interval of an entire dream sequence within the fraction of a second to dogmatic declarations that dreams only ever occur in black and white. The truth of the matter is that they share the same spatiotemporal characteristics as the world of contracted, everyday consciousness and are experienced with the latter’s same colourful vibes and intonations. More specifically, dreams last between three to sixty minutes, are psychotomimetic (meaning that the type of experiences mimic those of psychosis), and occur mostly during periods of rapid eye movement (REM) where brain activity remains high but the body lapses into a catatonic state. The correlation between brain activity, REM sleep, and dreams was made in 1953 by Eugene Aserinsky ((1921– 1998), a PhD student of physiology professor Nathaniel Kleitman (1895-1999). For that reason alone Aserinsky and Kleitman are often referred to as the founding fathers of sleep research.     

Unless one takes the requisite steps in the preservation of its memory it is often extremely difficult to recollect a dream in its entirety; in most cases, the tail end of one will mould into the beginning of another, often in ways that are so subtle as to escape the attention of the dreamer. In truth what actually happens is that the demarcations between them are so incoherent and blurry that the personal conscious doesn’t think it necessary to preserve them.  It perceives them illusory and insignificant and dubs the memory tape of the mind over with the more important “real” events of wakefulness. It can take only a few hours after awakening for dreams and even dream fragments to be lost forever. Hence, if one wishes to preserve them for the sake of self-learning through conscious review and further investigation, a good idea is to keep an electronic note taker or diary by the bed. It’s much more difficult to forget something once you’ve recorded it onto paper or put it on tape.

One thing that I notice upon glancing at the Mind, Body, Spirit section of general bookshops in shopping centres or at the specialised Theosophical Society bookshop in the city is the plethora of high quality and sometimes intricately-designed books on dream interpretation. Often I’ll glance at their spines, pick out the most interesting ones, and flick through them. Most contain a short exposition on the primary characteristics of dreams and image-specific definitions. What does it mean, for instance, when one appears naked before a crowd of people that are fully clothed? Or when the death of a relative or close friend is seen? Or when one feels and sees their teeth falling out? While these hermeneutical keys can make for some very entertaining reading before bedtime they are practically useless in unlocking the meaning of your dreams. Why, you ask? Simply because the dreamscape experienced by any one dreamer is merely a figurative and melodramatic extension of foremost concerns arresting the conscious life. Dreams are symbolic reflections of one specific concern out of a possible hundred. As good as someone is at Freudian, Jungian or any alternative school of metaphysical analysis, he or she cannot interpret the symbols that appear in your dreams because they lack sufficient knowledge of your most intimate thought processes at any one time and the circumstances of your phenomenal and inner life. One cannot hope to garner an accurate interpretation of a dream scene unless they can accurately perceive the life concerns of the dreamer. The person in the best place to do that is obviously the dreamer himself. Because we live on the same planet, belong to the same species and share the same psychobiological wiring, our life paths and experiences are going to be similar. Of course the key word here is similar. No two life paths are every identical. Thus attempting to unlock the meaning of a dream associated with a foreign life path is just as ludicrous as lecturing at a conference on a subject matter with which you have only the slightest acquaintance.

There are a few other characteristics worth mentioning. Foremost amongst these are sensory modalities which can be unevenly skewed. There’s usually an absence of auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), and gustatory (taste) experiences and an overcompensation of visual experience (seeing) in dream sequences. To give an example, we can have sexual encounters with familiar or unfamiliar persons but rarely will we smell their individual scent or taste their salty skin. As an exponent of the visual, colours can be especially vivid and profound to an attentive dreamer. Another interesting feature is the propensity of unconscious processes to incorporate external stimuli into individual dream fragments: rain pelting on the windowpane might suddenly appear out of nowhere as swarm of bees or a landslide; an external pressure placed on the abdominal region might be experienced as a struggle to crawl through a small tunnel; and a blast of wind as a light slap across the face. These phenomena are intriguing from the perspective that a sensory input captured by one sensory modality during wakefulness translates into experience through another (mostly visual) in the realm of dreams. They also imply that there is an enduring relationship between the phenomenal world in which we all live in and have our being and the inner processes of the mind. The two talk and engage on a level of interplay completely unintelligible to the egocentric conscious. On occasion the unconscious will of the dreamer can assume complete control of bodily functions; I’m sure everyone has some childhood recollection of answering nature’s call only to awaken to the feel of warm wetness proliferating from between the legs.

At some stage in their lives people will experience repetitive dreams as if the unconscious was a comprehensive home entertainment system that had been eternally condemned to replaying the same one-track CD. One which continued to plague me intermittently from about the age of thirteen to twenty-one involved macabre sequences of digging up skeletons from beneath my home with a trowel. During those years I had become plagued by a completely unfounded fear that I’d somehow contracted HIV. The egregore (thought form) was so powerful that I began suffering from the same physical symptoms that sufferers of the deadly virus manifested. Some days were definitely better than others, but on the whole my entire existence was beleaguered by languor and physical exhaustion. In hindsight the unwillingness to seek medical advice stemmed from a deep fear of vindication; acknowledgement of the illness’s presence would mean an intense encounter with implications that my fragile conscious wasn’t quite ready to come to terms with. Ignoring it seemed like a much better option for through an existing pocket of doubt I could go on entertaining the prospect that I was completely healthy. At some stage my symptoms worsened to such a degree that I could no longer put off medical attention. I was going to face the music and march to the sound of the prognosis.  You might imagine my confusion and surprise when all tests returned perfectly normal. A few days after receiving this good news the symptoms miraculously vanished. From the abovementioned example it can be inferred that repetition is the unconscious’s way to drawing our attention to ever-present concerns that have not been acknowledged and resolved. A repetitive dream will cease when its symbol is correctly decoded and the underlying issue addressed. Our psyche yearns for one thing above all–closure.

Your dreams shouldn’t be difficult to decode because they allude to and speak about the condition of your own life. They are made out of the fabric of your own being and reflect it back to you as a mirror reflects one’s physiognomy. The following befell me many years ago when I was experiencing doubts about my choice of profession.


I am on the shoreline, watching the sea recede. It’s as if some giant hand invisible to me has pulled the plug on it. What does this mean? Shit, there’s going to be tsunami. I need to warn my friends and family! I pivot on my heels and catch sight of my mother and brother moving furniture and other belongings up along a steep mountain. Other people are also engaged in likeminded activities. I guess everyone wants to save their belongings, mementos and anything else of sentimental value that connects us to and evokes the past. I am well aware of the imminent danger which presents itself, but for some strange reason I make no concerted effort to get myself on higher ground. With my back turned to the sea I call out to them, “You need to get them even higher. Tell Jimmy that they’re not high enough. If saltwater gets inside those chests it will kill my plants.”

Suddenly I’m floating in water, completely submerged except for my head. How on earth did the sea return so quickly? One minute I’m dry, the next I’m wet. That doesn’t make any sense at all. I can see that the primary wave has annihilated free-standing structures that had been built on the side of the mountain facing the sea. My mother calls out to me from the mountaintop, “The wave took one of our chests. I can see that it’s floating right beside you! Grab it!” I thrash about violently, propelling myself towards the wooden chest. It seems to be floating though the lower half is submerged in water. I feel a tight knot form in the pit of my stomach; if my plants are ruined I’ll kill myself! Once I reach the chest I yank the cover off the chest and peer inside. To my surprise seawater has not penetrated through and the plants are perfectly safe.   


This whole dreamscape is a projection of my own self and my interpretation must proceed with this logic in mind. The sea is in essence primordial chaos and in this case the personal unconscious. During this time I discovered that I had multiple interests that branched out into the sciences and the arts. I was interested in English literature, psychology, history, esoteric philosophy and spirituality, but I was also drawn to some scientifically-orientated disciplines like physics, geology and palaeontology. For a while I was overawed by the heterogeneous scope of my choices. I didn’t know to which avenue of inquiry I should commit. That’s the tsunami. But my brother and sister, projections of my own higher self, were well aware of the violent forecast before it transpired and moved our belongings, my intellectual and creative inheritance, to a place where they could not be dissolved. Hence my inner self was basically assuring me that choice of career does not blunt intellectual and creative potential. It also counselled me that whatever transpired the plants that I was growing would not be affected. The vegetable kingdom is a projection of life force with a final cause. Adherents start out as seeds and become full-grown plants. What plant was I growing at the time? I was writing a book, an implement which is manufactured from materials of the vegetable realm and hence retains their vital force. Just like a plant a book also has a final cause; it begins as a kernel of thought and proliferates into a complex story with powers of mentation that spur the flowering of those aspects of the individual soul that have fallen into slumber. Things might seem irresolute at the moment, my unconscious was telling me, but persist with the spirited work you have commenced for it will come to fruition. The meaning of the dream was crystal-clear.

I frequently experience precognitive dreams as well. The most recent involved a visit to a doctor’s consulting rooms where something emotionally disturbing unravelled. “You’re dying,” I remember the elderly doctor blurting out quite matter-of-factly from behind his wooden desk. “You’ve got till next Tuesday, Wednesday at most.” Hearing the proposed date of my own death and realizing the futility of trying to transcend my own fate stirred such inner turmoil that I was jolted from my sleep. It was Saturday 25th August. By the following Wednesday I had forgotten about the dream and went about my usual business. That day I pondered some fascinating esoteric material that I am currently studying under the aegis of Exeter University in the United Kingdom. I even brought up a picture of staff members and students taken during an October 2011conference on the sumptuous grassy-green grounds of the university to aid my intellectual musings. I don’t know what possessed me to retrieve and stare at an electronic photo that I hadn’t seen for at least a year; whatever the reason I suddenly found myself feeling a sentimental sense of kinship with its smiling subjects. Leading the academic charge was Professor Nicholas Goodricke-Clarke, the Director of the Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism. About a week later I received the lamentable news that the latter passed after a brief illness on Wednesday 29th August, a day designated by my inner unconscious process as a date of death.  

In the last two centuries modern analytical psychology has paved an inventive hermeneutical path for dream interpretation.  Thanks to great pioneers of depth psychotherapy like Alfred Adler (1870-1937), Sigmund Freud (1859-1939), and Carl Jung (1875-1961), most psychologists and dream analysts will appeal to a contemporary model that perceives dream contents as irruptions of symbolic representations sent from the sphere of the personal unconscious. While we ourselves can sometimes modify and inject certain dream elements with conscious material (as is the case with lucid dreaming), the various landscapes and individuals we experience in them are usually not open to negotiation or modification. Without a doubt they are brilliantly designed mechanisms of evolution, projecting vivid metaphors of personal concerns and circumstances back to the life to which they relate. But they also serve a much more rudimentary purpose; they are psychobiological devices that reinstate internal balance to human beings as well as some other animals. It is an established fact that deprivation of REM-sleep for extended periods eventually leads to an interjection of waking consciousness by intense hallucinations that cease only when the former is appeased. Dreaming is obviously essential to our being and existence though for what reason remains a mystery.

The best and most effective way of interpreting a dream is to view the entire sequence as an aspect of self. The whole dreamscape is an abysmal mood, sentiment, belief, concern, or rumination of the dreamer. Other persons, from beloved relatives to enigmatic strangers, are also projections of self whose meaning can be extracted through the mentation of role reversal. Rearranging the perceived order in which things have unfolded in dream sequence can also shed light on the inherent meaning. Meaning is also far more likely to be extracted from humiliating and derogatory comments and situations that are in fact projections of the individual’s shadow than from ones that implicate nobility of spirit or stroke the ego. These are more readily expressed in dreams, a state when the ego mechanism is in nocturnal abeyance and cannot consciously supress the darker and more primitive aspects of the personality. One intending to do dream work should do it upon awakening as this is the time when dream content is uppermost in one’s personal sphere of awareness. When correctly interpreted dreams shed ample light on inner feelings, attitudes and desires; place the aforementioned within an objective context so that the dreamer might better understand how his or her actions and character are perceived by others; and stresses important personal morals that may have been forgotten or forsaken. In bringing the unconscious contents to a conscious level and integrating them into our lives we evolve along a path of efficient causes to become all that we were meant to be. For such a process to be successful there must be a total acceptance and unconditional love for the whole self, including the least desirable aspects of our personalities which sporadically pop up in dream sequences. Everyone is quick to speak of their virtues; but what about the necessary vices? 



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