Have you ever woken up still half in the dream world thinking – what the heck did *that* mean?

Have you ever had a dream so powerful that it stayed with you for hours or even days, its emotions lingering, making you feel like you haven’t completely come back, but leaving you without any understanding of that experience?

Or maybe you are having a recurring dream or a dream-theme that keeps coming back and nagging you to… yes, exactly, to do what? A recurring dream might also be very unpleasant, a nightmare, making you dread going to sleep and having to fight with the „demons” once again. You then wonder desperately what to do to make it go away.

Dreams are important messages from our psyche (well, at least some of them) and it’s good to know how to read them. Dream-books with a list of possible meanings might give you some clues, but are usually useless when it comes to more subtle, complicated or very individual meanings. A list of dream symbols won’t tell you what a dream means to you in your life and what your psyche nudges you to do, to be or to become.

Unlocking the power of your dreams

I am not going to delve much into the dream theory, there has been a lot of interesting (and complex) things written. I’m more interested in practical approach and this is what I teach my clients – a basic framework to work with. However, some understanding of the main principles of process work (which is the groundwork for what I do) helps a lot.

Let’s start with an example. It is a work we did with a participant of one of my workshops.

The dream was as follows: the dreamer, a woman in her 50s, dreamt that she was going around pushing a buggy with a baby in it. She wanted to park it somewhere, so she found a parking space in a car park and left it there. Then she „went away” – it was not clear where, but there was a feeling of a time passage. She returned to the car park and saw the buggy. Suddenly she felt awash with guilt and bad feelings – what have I done! – she thought. Then she woke up.

The dreamer, let’s call her Ann, told me that the dream terrified her because it made her feel like a bad mother.

I will now introduce you to the three fundamental concepts in process work: primary process, secondary process, and edges.

The primary process is what we easily identify with, what we think of as „me”, or as something that is intentional and controlled by me. In dreams, it is usually the dreaming person or the narrator as well as people, figures, and objects that are nothing especially new or exciting. In Ann’s dream, it would be her going around with a buggy. She told me that she spent most of her adult life identifying with a mother’s role and she dedicated her life to her children.

The secondary process is what we feel as odd, different, new, fascinating, strange, distant, unknown. Such things can be scary or exciting and they wouldn’t be something easy to identify with. In other words, it’s what we consider „not me”. In Ann’s dream, that would be leaving the buggy and going somewhere. The “somewhere” is also something deeply secondary because we don’t even know where it is and in the dream, it was hidden or forgotten.

An edge is sort of a line or a buffer zone between primary and secondary process. It is inhabited by „edge figures” who guard the access to the secondary process. In Ann’s dream, we can notice an edge in her reaction to what she had done in the dream – it makes her feel guilty and tells her that what she did (leave the baby) is inappropriate. Also, an edge can be seen in the fact that the “somewhere” was not even described. Edges can be cultural, have roots in family belief systems or come from personal experiences and beliefs.

Now we can see the structure of the dream. Would Ann benefit from knowing that? Probably yes, but it doesn’t change much yet. The edge is there, she still feels like „leaving the baby” is wrong to do. Think of all the cultural norms that say so… Does that mean she literally needs to leave a small baby? Probably not.

Experience is key

What I did with Ann was that I asked her to enact her dream. She pushed an imaginary buggy, parked it and… off she went! She ran out of the room where I held the workshop and just went somewhere! After a couple of minutes, she was back, beaming with joy, a wide smile on her face, happily exclaiming „I went away and I’m back!”. This is how she touched upon her secondary process. She told us that when she was „gone”, she realized that she has committed the majority of her life to her children, but now they are grown and she wants to have her own life. Out there, somewhere, she could do things she wanted to do. The time has come to symbolically park the buggy and go wherever she pleases – this was her dreams message.

As you can see now, intellectual understanding of a dream is not enough to fully unlock its power to change our lives. We need to access the secondary experience, its quality, and energy. More often than not, it’s more symbolic than literal. It can be done by enactment, role-play or engagement of the body. We need to become or embody rather than just understand the secondary process.

What about nightmares?

If we consider that each part of the dream resembles a part of the dreamer’s psyche, it will turn out that we like some of them better than others. And there are some that we despise or fear. If I dream of fighting bare-handed with a tiger, in the dream I feel separate from the tiger and the tiger is something that I fear. However, since it’s a dream, the tiger is a part of me as well – a part of me that is not too welcome. A deeply democratic approach requires treating the tiger as something important and approaching it in a non-judgmental way. My everyday-self, however, feels that it’s best to avoid the tiger. In the long run, it’s not possible, though. The tiger will be back in one form or another until it gets included, seen and integrated.

Most nightmares stem out of a secondary process trying to show up through a very strong edge. Dreams experiences of being chased and/or unable to run can be seen as something very alien trying to „get” to our primary identity to convey some sort of a message. Primary and secondary are not a binary category, it’s more of a dimension. Shedding a mother-role might be a bit less secondary than confronting a scary figure that chases the dreamer. We could see that scary figure as what shamans call an ally. An ally is a powerful force that first needs to be confronted (sometimes even fought with) so that eventually its power can be integrated and intentionally used.

NB: some nightmares might be rooted in difficult, traumatic events in one’s personal history (nightmares are also one of the symptoms of PTSD). In such cases, this kind of work might not be suitable without the help of a trained professional.

Dreams are symbolic

What’s important to remember is that dreams are symbolic. We might be tempted to quickly jump to conclusions (especially when it’s someone else’s dream) just because we have an obvious association (such as dog-friendly or solder-dangerous). Dreams speak in a language specific to the dreamers inner world. Someone might dream about a horse, but we need to know what meaning that horse has for that specific person, in the context of their life and experiences. For one person a horse might symbolize power and for someone else, it might be associated with their mother who loved to ride horses.

And even when the symbol is understood, it still might not be clear what does that practically mean. This is why the experiential part is so important. Only then we can truly embrace the message.

The dreamer and her/his life are the keys to understanding the dream

Let me give you one more example. I worked once with a person that had a recurring (especially in periods of heightened stress) dream about driving a car and having this car get out of control and crash into a curb or a lamppost. The crash was never very strong, more important was that the car would stop responding to driver’s intentions.

So, having read so far, think for a minute – what is primary and what is secondary?

It seems rather clear that the driver and his intentions are primary and the car which gets out of control is secondary. But so what? We don’t know much more and such information is of no use for the dreamer. I have to admit, even I fell into this trap for a while: I spend about 15 minutes trying to explain to the dreamer that it seems like he wants something and a part of him (every part of the dream represents a part of the psyche, remember?) wants something else and rebels against that. But it led nowhere.

Only when we did a small role play of one being a car and the other being the driver, something opened up. The dreamer first played the role of the driver and felt the frustration that the car (me and my shoulders as the steering wheel) gets out of control and doesn’t go where he wants it to go and as fast as he wants it to. Then we switched the roles.

Suddenly, being on the side of the secondary process, the dreamer felt a lot of emotions: being pushed around, not being taken into consideration, not being heard and being constantly controlled. The car wanted to free itself from that, but the only way to do it was to „get out of control” since there was no communication with the driver. The car wanted to be free and follow its dreams.

It was a start of a deeper process. The dream had shown a direction, the dreamer’s role was now to unfold it and see what might need changing in his life. Was he pushing himself too much? When? Why? How could he give more space to that need for freedom? What were the dreams that were being pushed away? How to improve the communication between the part that wants to have certain things done and the one that wants to be free? Sometimes, finding the structure of the dream and touching the secondary process is just a beginning of a great inner journey.

Dreams are mysterious (and some are plain)

There are no fool-proof techniques that would enable understanding each and every dream. There are dreams that remain a mystery – but they make us think about something that maybe we would never consider if not for that dream. There are dreams that let us unfold them with time. There are dreams that we get to understand only after some deep soul searching. On the other hand, some dreams are just a way of processing all the emotional bits and bobs that inhabit our psyche. One of the functions of dreams is to clean up and make space for new things. Is something has an impact on us, is moving or important, there’s a high chance that it will come up in a dream or two. Some dreams are simply reactive – if I stay up very late filling out spreadsheets or spend three days picking strawberries, it seems highly probable I’ll dream about it.

Which dreams are worth „working with”? Well, a subjective feeling is the best indicator. If it feels like something interesting, intense, strange, exciting – go for it and try to unlock the hidden message.