What Are Your Dreams Trying to Tell You?

Find the hidden meaning in even your most puzzling dreams


“… every dream is a communique from your (larger) hidden self to your (smaller) conscious self. All dreams, even the scary or disturbing ones, have your best interest at heart. They’re messages from you to you.”

— From The Language of Dreams: What Dreams Are, and a Simple Method for Interpreting Their Meaning


I recently published a series of essays on dreams, in which I shared the simple method of dream interpretation most commonly used in Jungian dream analysis.

This week, I’ve been reading Clare R. Johnson’s Mindful Dreaming: Harness the Power of Lucid Dreaming for Happiness, Health, and Positive Change. In the early chapters, before she gets to the “lucid” part, Johnson explores the interpretation of ordinary, everyday non-lucid dreams. She shares another helpful and easy to use method for ferreting out the hidden meaning in even your most puzzling dreams.

The Alien from Another Planet Technique

Example dream journal entry:

I’m sitting in my kitchen smoking a cigarette. A shadow moves across the window and briefly blocks all the sunlight. I run to the window and look out into the back yard. An enormous owl is perched on the fence, staring back at me through the window. I feel like it wants me to come outside, maybe even to fly away with it.

I know from folklore that one common association with owls is death. At first glance, I think the dream must be warning me to quit smoking before it kills me.

Except I don’t smoke, so that can’t be it. I’m at a loss. The dream is just random nonsense…

Clare R. Johnson suggests:

“Retell your dream but pretend you are telling it to an alien from another planet. The alien doesn’t know what a window [or anything else] is… As you tell your dream, pause to explain the key images and actions. Doing this will reveal your personal understanding of the images and can prompt surprising insights.”

Let’s try this again:

Me: I’m sitting in my kitchen smoking a cigarette.
Alien: What’s a kitchen?
Me: A kitchen is the room in your house where you prepare food.
Alien: What’s food?
Me: Food is what we take into ourselves to gain energy, strength and vitality.
Alien: What is smoking? What’s a cigarette?
Me: A cigarette is the cut leaves of a tobacco plant, rolled in paper. Smoking is when people burn the tobacco and inhale the smoke. They do this for pleasure, but it also harms their bodies and kills a lot of people.
Alien: Why would anyone do that?
Me: Because it feels good, I guess. Plus smoking’s addictive, so once you start, it’s hard to stop. Anyway… A shadow moves across the window and briefly blocks all the sunlight.
Alien: What’s a shadow?
Me: A shadow is a silhouette that’s projected by something when there’s a light on the other side of it. The light is being blocked. A shadow has the shape of that “something,” but it’s really just a dark projection of where the light can’t get through.
Alien: What’s a window?
Me: A window is a hole in the wall that let’s you see out into the yard and the sky, the whole big world.
Alien: So light can get through a window?
Me: Yes, of course. So I run to the window, and an enormous owl is perched on the fence, staring back at me.
Alien: What’s a fence?
Me: A fence is a barrier you build to define and protect your property. Fences keep strangers out of your yard.
Alien: What’s an owl?
Me: An owl is a large bird people traditionally associate with death, but now that I think about it, also with knowledge and wisdom, and even mystery and magic. I felt like it wanted me to come outside, maybe even to fly away with it.
Alien: What is “fly?”
Me: Birds have wings and can ride on the air the way fish swim in water. They’re the freest of all creatures. Free as a bird,” people say…

Assembling the Puzzle

Look at all the new pieces I have for assembling the puzzle of this “nonsensical” dream!

In some part of my life where I ought to be taking in energy, strength and vitality, I am instead pursuing addictive pleasures with the potential to harm me. Some part of me that “light can’t get through” (light = awareness? Shadow = addiction/obsession?), draws my attention to the “hole in my wall,” the one place where light/awareness can reach me, if only I will look — and doing so opens my eyes to “the yard and the sky, the whole big world” I’m missing out on by living this way. Out there in the yard sits the embodiment of knowledge, wisdom, mystery, magic, and freedom, staring in at me from the barrier I’ve built to define what’s mine and protect myself from strangers. The owl wants me to come outside and fly away — to go beyond the fence, beyond the house, to be as “Free as a bird….”
Clearly, I have “walled myself in” at the expense of openness. I have fenced myself in by fencing others out. Where I ought to be feeding my energy, strength and vitality, I am spending those things on empty, even harmful, pleasures instead. Becoming aware of the “shadow” cast by these problematic life choices draws me closer to the light (self-awareness, the open window) and a broader vision of life — the yard and the sky, the whole big world.

If this was a real dream (it’s not; I made it up for this essay), I suspect I’d know at this point exactly what part of my life the dream is referring to, as well as what my dreaming mind recommends I do about it.

If I got this far and still felt like pieces of the puzzle were missing, I could move on to what I’ll explore in the next essay in this dream series, Archetypal Amplification.


Thanks for reading!

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