During graduate school I had a series of nightmares in which people I knew and loved turned on me and tried to kill me. I didn’t understand the dreams until much later, but for the first time it dawned on me that a message was struggling to get through, and that I needed to take it seriously.

So I committed myself to learn the language of my dreams. I discovered my “dream director” has a wicked sense of humor, a taste for groaner puns and an eye for vivid metaphors. I also learned that if I ignore her, she will send a nightmare to get my attention.

But she never wastes my time. Even dreams that appear fragmented, trivial, or irrelevant contain useful insights once I figure out how to interpret them. My dreams have become a prized source of wisdom and guidance.

Do you understand the language of your dreams? If you are a vivid dreamer, like most HSP’s, but don’t know how to tap this source of wisdom, I strongly encourage you learn more. This article will give you a solid start.

7 steps to tap the wisdom of your dreams

To understand my dream symbols, I rely on my battered copy of Wilda B. Tanner’s superb, goofily titled book, The Mystical Magical Marvelous World of Dreams. I highly recommend it for its thoughtful and thorough approach to dream analysis, its discussion of lucid dreaming (yes, you can teach yourself to enter your own dreams and influence their outcome) and its extensive dictionary of dream symbols. It’s out of print so if you want a copy, grab a used one while you still can.

Wilda offers in-depth steps, from which I’ve distilled this sequence. I start with step two if I wake up remembering a dream.  I start with step seven if I need guidance, then loop back to step two.

  1. I keep a dedicated dream journal by my bed.
  2. Within 5 minutes of waking up, I write down my dreams and capture the overall feeling. Then I schedule time later that day to analyze the dreams.
  3. I pull out and list the key words, symbols, people, actions, and events in the dream, asking with each one, “What significance does this symbol have for me personally, at this time?” Then I  look up the symbol to see if the book’s definition adds clarity and depth.
  4. I summarize the meaning of the dream and identify the theme. The theme becomes the title. (I do this in colored marker so I can easily see it: skimming through the book, I can see patterns over time.)
  5. I ask myself, “Is there action I need to take, given what this dream is showing me?”
  6. I take action if needed.
  7. If more questions arise, I write them down in my dream journal the next night before I go to sleep.

3 real-life dreams

What does this process actually look like? Here are three dreams I had last spring during a two-week period when my stress level was through the roof. I was finalizing registration and new materials for a new weekly Focusing course scheduled to start in two weeks and had committed to create a 1500-word article each week for eight weeks for a program for DailyOm (an online course site)—in addition to writing my weekly Listening Post article and working with clients.

My dream director got my attention with a nightmare. Then she settled back into her more typical vivid metaphors and visual puns.

Dream #1: I’m driving on a highway, going 80 miles an hour. The road curves. I lose control and drive off a cliff.

Dream #2: I’m sitting in a meeting for my co-op grocery. I haven’t done what I was supposed to do to prepare for the meeting, and I’m struggling to focus on the meeting because there is a concert going on right outside the door. The performers are a trio, two women and a man so tiny that he has to lie his violin on the floor on its side and reach up to turn the pegs. In the meeting, I’m upset to realize I am wearing a bright red watch that is not mine. I’m afraid the owner will think I have stolen it.

Dream #3: I’m starting my first class at a college located in a house. I’m trying to figure out an intricate puzzle and have to take it out of its clear plastic box to be able to manipulate it properly. I can’t find my phone anywhere.

With each dream, I followed the seven steps above. Here’s how the process unfolded over the two weeks. The symbols sound very clear written down like this, but they didn’t start out clear like that: I had to sit with each one, look it up, sense for resonance with the different shades of meaning each could have.

Interpreting

Dream #1: I lose control on a highway curve going 80 miles an hour and go over a cliff.

Key symbols: The car is mine, indicating my own body; going off the road indicates a pace that felt out of control to me. “80 miles an hour” is an expression I’ve always used to indicate an overwhelming pace: it reinforces the “out of control” message.
Application: I am indeed feeling very stressed trying simultaneously to do all these projects at once.
Summary: I’m  driving myself dangerously hard. I feel out of control.
Action: I will try to cut back over the coming days. (I couldn’t see where I could cut back, and my stress was still high. So I asked for more guidance and got Dream #2.)

Dream #2: I’m sitting in a meeting for my co-op grocery. I haven’t done what I was supposed to do to prepare for the meeting, and I’m struggling to focus on the meeting because there is a concert going on right outside the door. The performers are a trio, two women and a man so tiny that he has to lie his violin on the floor on its side and reach up to tune the pegs. In the meeting, I’m upset to realize I am wearing a bright red watch that is not mine. I’m afraid the owner will think I have stolen it.

Key symbols: The co-op meeting represents a venture requiring many people to cooperate. The color red is about doing and taking action: a red watch that is not mine seems to indicate the time is not right for something I’m doing. I’m not sure what that something is. The concert symbolizes some kind of harmony, a performance that is happening; I’m not sure what it, or the very small violinist, represents.
Application: I’m not sure what the two conflicting things are, and I don’t get the full significance of the trio or the small violinist.
Summary: I feel conflicted between two things (the meeting and the concert), and the timing is wrong in some way.
Action: I will ask my dream director for more answers: where is the conflict? What is the trio about? What does the violinist symbolize? (Dream #3 came in answer to these questions.)

Dream #3: I’m starting my first class at a college located in a house. I’m trying to figure out an intricate puzzle and have to take it out of its clear plastic box to be able to manipulate it properly. I can’t find my phone anywhere.

Key symbols: The house represents my consciousness or mind state. The college means this is an issue if higher-level meaning or understanding. The intricate puzzle is my dilemma about all these projects, and the box symbolizes some kind of thinking that is boxing me in. The phone holds messages, but I can’t hear them because I can’t find it.
Application: I’m boxed in by the belief I can and must do all these projects at once. I need to let go of that to be able to solve this dilemma. I’m still not “getting the message” that I’m going to have to take something off my plate here.
Summary: Putting this together with the earlier dreams, I realize I’ve been telling myself I should give priority to creating the DailyOm course, but that this is putting me in a box. Now the meaning of the co-op grocery dream becomes clear to me:

  • The DailyOm course is part of a larger, complex plan which to succeed would require a major investment of time on my part and the cooperation of many people, all for uncertain return
  • I can’t find time to do the work for it and am really stressed about that
  • It has to happen on someone else’s timeline, and that timing is wrong for me
  • I am already performance-ready with the Focusing class I’m about to teach
  • I’m thinking too small about that (the tiny violinist!)
  • Instead of seeing the Focusing class as a distraction, I need to focus on it and think way bigger.

Action: I will contact the course development specialist at DailyOm and postpone creation of the course for them until 2017…or perhaps indefinitely.

Getting the message = relief from stress

I had finally “gotten the message:” I accepted I simply couldn’t do all these things at once. I wrote the email right away bowing out of the online course creation, and my stress level dropped instantly.

My investment in developing dream literacy has paid dividends of calm and of physical health.  I used to be accident-prone when under stress: I’d fall or cut myself while chopping onions and end up in the emergency room. Or I’d get sick. It was the only way my body/mind could get me to slow down. I much prefer receiving guidance through dreams!

Do you have vivid dreams? What tools do you use to tap their wisdom?