The following essay is excerpted from Dreaming on Both Sides of the Brain: Discover the Secret Language of the Night by Doris E. Cohen, PhD, recently published by Hampton Roads Publishing, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser.
Interpreting dreams is really very simple. We tend to make it seem more complex simply because we do not know how to go about it. When I told one publisher about my commitment to write this book, he said: “It will never sell.” It was as if someone had slapped me in the face. But I was determined to find a way around the obstacle. The simplest thing would have been to consider calling the book something that didn’t directly relate to dream analysis. The reason such books do not sell is that none of them actually help people to understand their dreams, and certainly not in a simple, direct way that they can use every day. The books may be interesting, but they do not teach.
On the other hand, I wanted my book to be like a workshop, a teaching manual that could enable and encourage the practice of dreamwork centered on dreamers themselves—on what your dreams mean to you, not my ideas or anyone else’s ideas about what a given symbol does or should mean to you. And even dream books that are somewhat helpful describe methods that are just too complicated. Who is going to sit down and meditate for twenty minutes every day and then write for another twenty minutes about each dream they have? It’s too much to ask of people and too hard to stick with. My many years working as a therapist have shown me that, when we make processes too complex, people simply give up or just don’t continue to practice them.
True, the left brain is where 1 + 1 is always 2, whether you see it in space or in a mathematics book, whether you are playing with marbles or eating cookies. But the language of the unconscious determines 95 percent of our behavior and that’s controlled by the right brain, which is not logical at all. Logic is not the main dynamic in the language of symbols, dreams, art, or the unconscious. The world of symbols is where 1 + 1, and what it represents, depends entirely on context, feeling, color, and setting. Symbols are only hard to understand because we never learn their language. I have been fortunate. I was exposed to many different languages throughout my life, so I have had to exercise both sides of my brain. Hebrew and Arabic are read and written from right to left; English and Spanish from left to right. But they all make sense to their own speakers.
This is why people who grow up speaking Chinese and Japanese have an advantage over Westerners when it comes to understanding the language of symbols. Their languages are conveyed in characters and pictures. Pictures access the right brain; words access the left. Languages like Chinese and Japanese combine the two. The Divine gave us brains with two sides so we could use both. So, in a sense, when we ignore our dreams, we are ignoring God’s messages to us. Not in a prophetic sense, of course, but in a symbolic sense. I often hear people saying that God spoke to them. Although these experiences may seem very real to them and they may feel a real sense of connection to the Divine, this is really about the language of symbols expressing whatever is important to that individual personally. God communicates with us through the language of symbols all the time. But so do our dreams. And understanding what is going on in your dreams can help you understand this language—and make your waking life so much richer.
Life can be defined as movement. And, as we said before, everything in life occurs in waves or cycles. Music is measured in waves, as are light, sound, and vibration. When you are depressed or feeling down, you can always think of the analogy of the wave and reassure yourself that you will soon start to come back up again. And when you understand the language of the unconscious, you can accomplish this in your dreams as well as in your conscious life.
It’s All About You
The language of symbols is specific to both personal experience and to historical and cultural context. There are a number of dream books that discuss, for instance, how Native Americans interpret dreams. This may be very interesting and a rich source of historical context, but how does it help me in my life? I live in the current day and I am not, myself, Native American. So how is this relevant to me? In some tribes, it was a morning tradition to share dreams among their families or groups. In these tribes, the shaman—the one who had the best connection with the unconscious—was described as “going underground” to interpret dreams. By symbolically going underground, he was accessing darker places of awareness, places in the unconscious. Now, if I were part of that tribe or lived in a Native American culture, this method of dream interpretation would be directly applicable to my dreams and therefore to my life. But I’m not; and I don’t; and therefore it is not.
When you begin to work on your dreams, you make sense of them by making connections between your own unconscious and your own conscious world. Think of your conscious life as today’s newspaper— The Daily Dreamer. When you begin to make connections to it by interpreting your dreams, you give your dream a title—a headline— and then determine what is going on right this very instant in your life that relates to that headline. After you’ve read the article, so to speak, and learned what it is about, it is time to editorialize. What are you going to do about what you have learned? When you begin to pay attention to dreams and use what you learn in them to make changes in your waking life, your dreams become less insistent and you may actually begin to recall fewer dreams. People who have done rigorous dreamwork often become perturbed because they suddenly cannot remember their dreams. But this is a positive sign! It means that they are working actively on their unconscious by working on their conscious lives.
According to one tradition—the Jewish Kabbalah— if you want to ask a question of someone who has died, you go to the cemetery, ask your question, and later receive the answer in a dream. When you think about it, this makes sense, because, in a cemetery, everyone is dead; they’ve already crossed over into the realm of the unconscious. To elicit a dream there draws on an energy divorced from conscious life. The symbolism behind the tradition is thus grounded in the difference between the conscious world and the unconscious. When you are in a cemetery, you are surrounded by the unconscious. And that helps to elicit messages from your own unconscious.
When you go to the tomb of someone you love, you connect with them. Perhaps you go there to ask a question. Or perhaps you go there just to pay your respects and to mourn. You may cry. Why is this important? Because crying is an expression of emotions. Crying helps you release your emotions. And emotion is itself a life force. In fact, the only thing that doesn’t have emotion is a corpse. You may feel emotionless; you may not be expressing your emotions at certain times. Nonetheless, as long as there is life, there is emotion. E-motion is energy in motion.
Learning the Language of Dreams
The language of dreams is the language of symbols, and the world needs to start learning that language. Dreams may be messages about your everyday life; but they can also be warnings or guidance. The Bible tells of the Pharaoh who dreamed of seven skinny cows eating up seven fat cows; then he dreamed of seven overflowing bags of wheat being gobbled up by seven nearly empty bags. Nobody could interpret his dreams until Joseph, a prisoner unjustly detained, came along, listened to the dreams, and told the Pharaoh that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. This warning prompted the Pharaoh to store as much food as possible during the years of plenty to prepare for the years of famine. Moreover, this dream of warning also provided a solution for the problem—the overflowing bags of wheat being consumed by the empty ones. All it took was someone conversant in the language of symbols to figure it out. That’s the richness of dreams.
How do we determine what is simply symbolic, what is a warning, what is guidance, and what is prophecy? We learn it over time, just as when we learn a new language. You learn a new language in your conscious life through practice. You learn simple words first, then more complicated words, and then phrases. And then you put the phrases together into sentences. You become more and more familiar with the meaning of the words and the phrases by practicing them and applying them to the world you see around you. The same is true as you begin to learn the language of the unconscious—the language of symbols.
If you’ve never worked with dreams before, it can all seem very strange. But there are some simple steps that can guide you to greater clarity. The first order of business is to record your dreams. Practice recording them every morning when you awaken, whether you use a tape recorder or notebook. In fact, start by saying aloud three times as you fall asleep: “I’ll remember my dreams clearly and well.” This can trigger your unconscious to prompt you to record your dreams faithfully.
When a friend of mine turned sixteen and got her license, her father decided to teach her how to drive safely in the snow. After a hefty snowfall, he took her to an empty parking lot and told her: “You have to make the car go out of control so that you can learn to control it.” By facing the terrifying feeling of losing control in a safe, supportive environment, my friend learned how to respond to that feeling in a way that was effective. This is a wonderful metaphor for working with your dreams. By facing situations and feelings in the unconscious, where you are safe from physical harm, you learn to respond to your fears and worries more calmly and effectively in your conscious life. So don’t be afraid. Go out of control in a safe environment; learn how to manage it. Then go forward with confidence, because you will have acquired the tools that can help you move beyond the fear.
It is very difficult to learn anything effectively when you are nervous or excited. When you are stressed, you act from your midbrain responses—you are in fight-or-flight mode. That is not the time to learn; it’s the time to survive. The time to learn is when you are calm and safe, when your mind is clear and open. Learning occurs when information comes into your awareness. But how can you take information in when you’re thinking only about survival, or focused only on how you can escape a situation?
Dreams as Stories
We are all instinctive storytellers—perhaps a vestige of a time when we sat around fires in caves or huts and told stories as a way of sharing our experiences. And the process of storytelling remains very important as a means of conveying information. If you want to teach a principle, tell a story. Our brains have been conditioned by evolution to take in information in this way. Stories, rich as they are in symbols and metaphors, are an effective way to access the unconscious, because they, in fact, emerge from the unconscious. This is why children respond so fully when you tell them stories, even if they don’t know exactly what the story means. The story of the Wizard of Oz has enthralled children for generations not because they understand its deeper symbolic meaning, but because they relate it to their own life experiences.
When you begin to explore your dreams, you don’t have to tell a wonderful story. Your dream story may be as simple as: “There is a bottle on the sink and it is filled with soap.” The point is that, when you tell the story, the information it contains travels into your unconscious, where you can learn from it.
The language of symbols forms a bridge that can carry you from the world of your everyday waking life into the timeless and limitless world of the unconscious—and back again.