Dreams are the guiding words of the soul. Why should I henceforth not love my dreams and not make their riddling images into objects of my daily consideration?
Last weekend, I had a dream that mystified me so much that I had to analyze it.
This article describes a step-by-step process in dream interpretation based on Carl Jung’s work. If you’ve ever wanted to understand your dreams, I recommend a good book to get you started.
But first, I want to tell you about the dream.
I’m at work in an open-concept office where cubicles are in an assembly line formation. Each cubicle shares a middle partition with a mirror-cubicle on the other side. In this dream, I’m sitting on one side, while my co-worker Phillip is sitting opposite me on the other side.
“Hey Jonah, do you want to sit beside me, or do you want to stay where you are on your side?” Phillip asks.
As I’m debating the pros/cons of where I should sit, Reid, my boss, comes over and says, “Jonah, can I see you in my office?”
So, I walk into his office, and I see a leather club chair. As I walk closer, I realize that the chair is teeming with ants and some sticky substance like honey or tree sap. I couldn’t tell which.
“How am I going to sit on that? I would have to clean that off first.” I said to myself.
Then, I woke up.
I usually don’t remember my dreams, but this one was so vivid that I excitedly recounted it to my partner that Sunday morning. Later in the day, we walked around the Baltimore Inner Harbor, stopped at the newly opened Whole Foods at Harbor East, and decided to sit by the water for a bit. Picking a spot, I sat down on a wood bench. I looked down and couldn’t believe my eyes. Ants. I saw the ants from my dream.
Where Do Dreams Come From?
In my research for this article, I was surprised that even in the 21st century, the “why” and “how” of dreams are largely undeveloped from the time of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Of the two, I was attracted to Carl Jung’s theory. He considered dreams to be messages from the unconscious:
“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.”
Carl Jung, CW 10:317
This is an exciting finding as I’m already curious about synchronicity and mythology. Now I can add dreams and the unconscious to the mix of mysteries.
If dreams are messages from the unconscious, then what was my unconscious trying to say?
A Warning about Dream Analysis
But before we begin, a word of caution. Dream analysis engages the unconscious, and it might bring up contents you don’t want to face. It’s not a game. Here’s what Jung had to say about it:
We are greatly mistaken if we think that the unconscious is something harmless that could be made into an object of entertainment, a parlour game. Certainly the unconscious is not always and in all circumstances dangerous, but as soon as a neurosis is present it is a sign of a special heaping up of energy in the unconscious, like a charge that may explode. Here caution is indicated. One never knows what one may be releasing when one begins to analyse dreams. Something deeply buried and invisible may thereby be set in motion, very probably something that would have come to light sooner or later anyway—but again, it might not. It is as if one were digging an artesian well and ran the risk of stumbling on a volcano. When neurotic symptoms are present one must proceed very carefully.
Carl Jung, CW 7:192
In other words, please be careful. Stop if you sense that something is wrong. And if you are still interested in exploring dream interpretation, why not see a Jungian analyst in your area? That would be a good idea.
Step-by-Step Process for Interpreting Dreams
The steps below are from a Jungian psychotherapist, Robert Johnson, who wrote Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth (affiliate link). I read this book four years ago but had no interest in writing about it until now.
- Write the Dream in Detail
- Make Associations
- Connect Dream Images to What’s Happening Internally
- Interpret the Dream
- Do a Ritual to Make the Dream Concrete
Step 1 Write the Dream in Detail
Write your dream immediately after waking up. Otherwise, you will forget. In the article Follow Your Bliss, I recommend keeping a journal. Dreams would be a great addition to that journal.
Write down all the dream details even if they appear unimportant: setting, people, objects, dialogue, smells, sounds, color, and your “internal talk” and emotions while dreaming the dream.
Step 2 Make Associations
The next step is to make associations. Think of the dream image and then write down everything that comes to mind. For example, in my dream, the “work setting” symbolized drudgery, stress, and competition. Do this for every dream detail you wrote down in your journal.
Don’t consult a dream dictionary. Dream symbols are unique to you, so there is no sense in asking other people or reading about it. The only exception is if the dream contains archetypal motifs common to the human race. These would include characters like father, mother, child, wise old man, hero, maiden, or trickster. With archetypes, it doesn’t matter whether you are white, black, or brown. We come from the same ground and live and die under the same blue sky, so the meaning of archetypes will be the same.
Step 3 Connect Dream Images to What’s Happening Internally
Just like when reading mythology, dreams are not meant to be interpreted literally. The language of dreams and the unconscious is the symbolic image. Therefore, the unconscious borrows images from your external environment to symbolize things in the dream. For example, in my dream, the characters Phillip and Reid do not actually refer to the real counterparts. Each character represents something else. Thus, dreams are usually about the interior world rather than the external one.
Step 4 Interpret the Dream
Taking all the things you wrote before, interpret the dream. Remember that a dream is a coherent message from the unconscious cloaked in symbolism. When you interpret the dream and arrive at an interpretation that “clicks” or makes you say “a-ha,” then you’re on the right path. A couple of caveats:
- Your unconscious will not send you a message that you already know or are conscious of. Thus the dream’s message should be a surprise to you.
- If you arrive at a dream interpretation that is self-congratulatory and self-inflating, then that interpretation is probably incorrect.
- If you arrive at an interpretation that blames others, then that interpretation is also incorrect. Dreams are about you and not others. Remember that all the characters in your dream represent aspects of yourself, even if they look like somebody you know.
Step 5 Do a Ritual to Make the Dream Concrete
After interpreting the dream, honor it by doing something physical (and not just thinking about it). By doing something physical, you integrate the dream, which was unconscious, into your conscious waking life. The ritual is a way to send the message to your unconscious that you heard it. Write in your journal, pray, light a candle, or make art out of it. The physical act should not be loud or expensive. The smaller and the more intimate, the better.
My Dream Interpretation
Now, I’m going to apply these steps to my dream. I cover a number of symbols from my dream: the work setting, the mirror-cubicle setup, my co-worker Phillip, my boss Reid, the leather club chair, the ants, and honey/tree sap. This is a work in progress, so the final interpretation may change the more I think about the dream in the coming days.
The Symbol of Work Setting
The work setting confused me for a long time. I associated it with my accounting job, but I quit that last October to be a full-time artist. So, why did this dream show that I was back at my accounting job? That didn’t make any sense to me. Then it hit me: the work setting was a symbol. My unconscious borrowed the image of my former accounting job to symbolize my current job as an artist. Once I realized what the work setting meant, some of the other associations fell into place.
The Symbol of Mirror-Cubicle Setup
I wrote down many associations for the mirror-cubicle setup but none clicked, so I set it aside and focused on my co-worker Phillip.
The Symbol of Phillip
What did Phillip represent? After going over many associations, the following clicked. Phillip is a real person, and a long time ago as part of a get-to-know session at a company retreat, he shared with everyone that he was related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of Sherlock Holmes. Suddenly, the mirror-cubicle setup made sense! Phillip represented the writer side of my psyche. Phillip sat directly opposite me. What the dream was really asking was, “Hey Jonah, do you want to be a writer, or do you want to stay where you are on your side?”
The Symbol of Reid
This “writer” interpretation solidified when I considered Reid. Reid is also a very real person, but not my real boss. Reid Callanan is the director of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. I’ve never met Reid, and yet here he was in my dream personifying photography.
The Symbol of the Leather Club Chair
I associate the leather club chair with comfort, luxury, wealth, or a man-cave. The association that resonated the most was luxury. That luxurious leather chair invited me to sink into and be enveloped by it. It occurred to me that it was like the snake that appears in many mythologies around the world. The leather club chair was a trickster or troublemaker. This is the only dream detail that feels archetypal. Is this the definitive interpretation? I’m not feeling a click or an a-ha yet, but it feels very close.
The Symbol of the Ants
I tried many associations for the ants and honey/tree sap, separately and together. I was stumped on this one. I took a break and walked outside. I think I was afraid of what I might discover if I continued interpreting the dream. I wanted the dream to have a positive outcome, I have to admit that.
I wrote about the associations in my journal over a couple of days after the dream. In the end, the following strangely resonated:
- The leather club chair is in Reid’s office and, therefore, represents the photography world.
- The leather chair is like the archetypal snake as temptation inviting me to sit down, BUT
- I can’t sit on the chair because it was overflowing with ants that bite.
- In addition, the sticky tree sap could trap me like a Venus flytrap, and I would be unable to get up from the chair.
What Does this Dream Mean?
Taking all the above into account, I now believe that this dream is sending a message that there is a tug-of-war between photography and writing in the interior landscape of my unconscious. I was not aware of this, but I sense that this conclusion is true. The dream seems to be saying that I should not sit on the photography chair because of the biting ants and the sticky tree sap. I hesitated moving to the writer chair, so that appears out as well. The dream is saying that I have to find my own path: it’s not photography, and it’s not writing.
What is interesting about the dream is that it actually had three chairs: the chair I was sitting on at the beginning of the dream, the writer chair, and the photographer chair. The question now is, what did the first chair represent? I don’t know. No other characters spoke during the dream. I will have to think about it in the coming days. Usually in dream interpretation, the unconscious leaves a little clue as to what the solution is, but it’s escaping me at the moment.
In the meantime, I completed a ritual to acknowledge this dream. I created cyanotype art from it.
Interested in Analyzing Your Dream?
I hope you found this article helpful in describing how to interpret a dream. This article barely scratches the surface of Carl Jung dream analysis approach. To know more, I highly recommend reading Johnson’s Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth (affiliate link). Good luck!
Update: The Symbol of The Third Chair!
I had another dream on August 6, 2020, that clarified the meaning of the third chair. Read The Dream That Changed My Life.