In June 2011, a man in England bought a small fishing boat and jokingly named it “Titanic II.” On its maiden voyage into the West Bay harbor in Dorset, the boat filled with water and sank within hours. The Coast Guard found the captain clinging to the hull of the boat and rescued him. The man was able to survive the ordeal, and seemed exasperated when the media descended upon his story, saying, "It's all a bit embarrassing. I'm fed up with people asking me if I hit an iceberg."1

Choose your myths carefully, because the devil is in the details.

In a lot of my writings about dreams and dreaming, I have stayed away from the common concept of “dreams as stories,” as well as the “interpretation” of dream symbols. The reason I generally steer clear of this stuff is to emphasize how dreams are real moments in time that, just like waking life, are partially formed from our choices. But this is not the whole truth, just an emphasis that lets us acknowledge and take part in the rich co-creation of dreaming consciousness.

It makes sense that the things we think about—and the ways we think—show the continuity of our concerns and our character throughout the spectrum of consciousness, from dreams, to day dreams, to rational thought and decision-making. But we don’t just view schematics and information maps in a raw unstructured form like the code behind the movie The Matrix. Rather, we transpose them into stories in which we play a unique role. In this way, all thinking is rooted in our experience, and expressed through stories.2

Finally, as soon as we open our mouths, or sit down in front of a keyboard, the dream becomes a narrative, translated into words so we can communicate it with others. Anthropologist Barbara Tedlock suggests that at the end of night, dreams are actually expressed in the world as communication. They are social, linguistic, and story-like by definition. Dreams want to be shared. Tedlock also reminds us that the dream report is not the dream, and that researchers can only study dream reports.3  Even lucid dreaming researchers must communicate their results in narrative (or less commonly, dance and watercolor).

Personal Myths and Root Metaphors

Enter the Story.

Dreams allow us to see our personal stories—our beliefs about the world and our place in the cosmos—that operate throughout our lives. Psychologists Stanley Krippner and David Feinstein call these our personal myths. The study and conscious transformation of this basic psychological fact is the province of personal mythology, the mosaic of myths that make up our beliefs, attitudes and assumptions about reality.  

Dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley expands the discussion, calling these basic mythic expressions root metaphors, a phrase borrowed from religion scholars that he has refined for discussing dreams: “Root metaphors are metaphors that express our ultimate existential concerns; root metaphors provide religious meanings that orient our lives.”4

Although they come from different disciplines, Bulkeley’s concerns are similar to those Joseph Campbell outlined for the function of myths, as well as the ones Krippner and Feinstein mapped in their personal mythology work.

The functions of myth are to:
•    Understand the world and the forces that make things happen,
•    Express the need to secure fulfilling relationships,
•    Present a map for the shifting roles we move through as we age, and
•    Provide a forum for a sense of wonder about the universe and our place in this grand mystery.

Whatever you call them—root metaphors, central schemas, etc.—the building blocks of our deepest needs and worldviews come out in our dreams.  

For example, a classic bit of metaphoric thinking that presents itself often in dreams is “death is a journey.” Death is the inevitable ceasing of biological functioning, but we have many idioms that reveal the idea that death involves movement from one place to another. Someone passes on. Someone has left us. And, of course, someone “died and went to Heaven.” When we have dream contact with the deceased, it’s called a “visitation,” again implying movement from one place to another.

In their wonderful little book, Dreaming Beyond Death, Kelly Bulkeley and Patricia Bulkley show how modern dreams of people nearing death often contain metaphors of transportation that include cars, subways, and elevators.5 All of these metaphors are based on our bodily experience of movement from one physical locale to another. Often, the dreams are repetitive, but the dreams show how individuals approaching death can transform their feelings about the passage from fear and avoidance to acceptance, dignity, and welcome anticipation.

Sadly, we have trouble recognizing this language due to cultural prejudices—after all, metaphoric thinking is disregarded not only by narrow-minded scientific circles, but also by violent fundamentalist groups that use religion as a weapon.

Learning how to recognize and work with the dominant stories in your dreams can have a profound effect on self-growth, future decision making, and your private investigations into the meaning of the cosmos.

Repetitive Dreams

Paying attention to your repetitive dreams is a particularly useful way to discover the myths in your life. Dream journaling reveals a pattern of metaphors and visual symbols that can be quite consistent, although the significance can shift over time, and new experiences can transform the story. This is what your personal mythology looks like at the ground level.

In my own dreams, the metaphor “televisions are doorways” has shifted dramatically over the decades. At first, I was afraid of televisions that showed up in my dreams as they reminded me of the movie Poltergeist which I saw as a child (accidently—that’s another story for another time). It terrified me and made for many sleepless nights. Many subsequent nightmares involved monsters that would spring out of the TV. Over time, the metaphor shifted as I gained confidence and control over my fears, finally viewing televisions not as an unwanted opening where I was attacked, but as a portal I could use to move into new dream locales. (Notice how there is another metaphor underneath: “dreams are locations.”)

Our personal mythology builds upon metaphors like this. The metaphors stitch together to create a central narrative in which we play a defined role, even if we don’t know consciously what that role is. Often, we have several mythologies at the same time, which can conflict and cause crises of faith during stressful times in life.

The work of personal mythology is about making our stories conscious so we can play our roles actively, rather than being played by them. It’s also about preventing us from falling into old stories that no longer do us justice. Myths aren’t destinies, after all. As Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have said, “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

Another example from my own life: a lucid flying dream that featured my then-girlfriend—now my wife—Wendy.

I am flying over forests and rivers, quite high about half a mile up, but still close enough that I can see the individual trees. The moon is up and it is about half full—the sky is a bright blue. I then notice I am holding Wendy in front of me. I’m excited and tell her, “Fly with me, Wendy.”

What may be obvious now took me months to realize: I was playing the role of Peter Pan in this dream (and many others). Peter Pan is a figure that uses the power of imagination to transport trapped and bored children to a magical world, but he also refuses to grow up.

To my embarrassment, the theme was showing up in waking life too. At the time of these dreams, I was finishing graduate school, and about to re-enter the working world. I had a lot of resistance to this transition, to be honest, because I loved my life of reading, writing, and thinking about dreams and consciousness, all while working in the university library. It was a time of rediscovery, a childlike time of learning, mystery, and new discoveries. But what was childlike was becoming childish. The playfulness of Peter Pan—named after the Greek mythological trickster figure Pan, a forest faun—was becoming imbalanced in my life. This way of life had to end. The Peter Pan dreams brought to my awareness that it was time to take a new role.

Repetitive dreams can also alert you to your health if it’s moving out of balance. The accounts of this phenomenon have been documented for thousands of years. Aristotle wrote that the “beginnings of diseases and other distempers which are about to visit the body . . . must be more evident in the sleeping than the waking state.” Known as prodromal dreams, these warnings come insistently and with increasing nightmarish levels of intensity when not paid attention to.

In fact, Larry Burke, MD recently wrote about dreams warning of breast cancer here on Reality Sandwich.

When I was a young adult, I had numerous, repetitive dreams of my teeth falling out. In each dream, I would look into the mirror and find rotting teeth, or loose teeth and bloody gums. If you look into dream dictionary meanings of these dreams, you will find a host of meanings, including a death in the family around the corner. Well, my whole family would be gone by now if this were the case.

One night, after awakening from one such dream, my jaw hurt and I realized I had been clamping my teeth in my sleep. Not too long after that, my dentist confirmed that my teeth showed excessive signs of wear, and he asked me if I grind my teeth. I told him not that I know of, but then I mentioned the sore jaw at night. “Classic bruxism,” he told me, which is the name of the condition for repetitive—and often unconscious—teeth grinding. He gave me a retainer to wear at night to prevent me from wearing my teeth down to nubs when I sleep. Years later, I have come to notice that I only grind my teeth at certain times, usually when my life is unusually stressful. This is also precisely when the teeth-falling-out dreams occur.

So, having a nasty toothy mess in a dream is one of my recurrent myths—I didn’t choose it, but I have learned to track it and take action when the theme shows up. Now when I have the dream, I recognize it as a sign to slow down, drink less coffee, and make sure I am taking care of myself emotionally. In this way, the dream is a red flag that is expressing an unhealthy pattern that can be corrected quickly.

Personal mythology work is a deep practice that really cannot be done justice in a few pages.6 The work involves identifying old myths and stepping into new ones. Rituals and goals in waking life can solidify this movement into habitual behavior. It all starts with remembering your dreams and recording them so you can start to see the patterns. By connecting with the stories of our lives, dreaming becomes a powerful venue for rediscovering lost power and tapping new reserves.

This article was adapted from Dream Like a Boss (Book 1): Sleep Better, Dream More, and Wake Up to What Matters Most. The book will be available August 20. You can sign up for updates about the book launch here.

1. O'Carroll, E. (June 8, 2011). "Titanic II Embarks on Maiden Voyage, Lives Up to Its Name," Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved online at http://www.csmonitor.com/World/2011/0608/Titanic-II-embarks-on-maiden-voyage-lives-up-to-its-name
2. Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Basic Books, p.19.
3. Tedlock, B. (2001). "The New Anthropology of Dreaming," in Kelly Bulkeley (Ed.) Dreams: A Reader on Religious, Cultural and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming,  pp. 249-264. New York: Palgrave Press.
4. Bulkeley 1994, p. 145.
5. Bulkeley, K. and Bulkley, P. (2006). Dreaming Beyond Death: a guide to pre-death dreams and visions. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 58.
6. I heartily recommend reading Personal Mythology: Using Ritual, Dreams, and Imagination to Discover Your Inner Story, by David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner, 2009, Energy Psychology Press. 

Teaser image by ezhikoff, courtesy of Creative Commons license.