Simply put, dreams are created by your subconscious talking to itself. When you go to sleep, your conscious gets a chance to shutdown and reboot. After it shuts down, it transfers all of the data files it collected while you were awake over to the subconscious. The subconscious then reviews the new data and files your memories away into its massive mental archives. How accessible a memory will be when you wake up depends on where the subconscious stored it. Files containing urgent or upsetting information are kept readily accessible, while files that seem neutral or unimportant get buried deeper into the archives.
Your subconscious’ personal priorities affect how it assesses and organizes your memories. The safety of your overall being (mind, body & soul) is a top concern for your subconscious, so any files that contain information about danger are flagged as important.
At the same time that it analyzes and files new information, your subconscious also reviews it’s personal list of unresolved issues. Upsetting memories from your past that it hasn’t found a good way to resolve and current threats to your safety (such as your dangerous job or your abusive spouse) remain pinned on your subconscious’ priority board. Every night, the priority board is reviewed, rearranged, and potentially added to depending on what new information has been collected by your conscious.
As your subconscious muses over new and ongoing problems, it creates dreams. Dreams are short, metaphorical films that your subconscious writes, directs, and produces all on its own. These are original works which your subconscious considers to be quite clever and creative. But dreams are more than just an artistic hobby–they have a practical purpose as well. Just as you will examine your fridge from every angle if it’s making a funny noise, your subconscious uses dreams to give itself a fresh perspective of pending problems. Dreams are an important analytical tool to your subconscious.
Looking for Answers
Now when your subconscious is trying to solve a problem, it turns to its massive archive of memories. Your body, mind and soul rely on their past experiences to show them how to deal with present problems. What your subconscious does in dreams is blend memories. It rifles through your memories searching for past situations that have similar aspects to the current problem. Then it cobbles together fragments of different memories until it feels that it has accurately described the current dilemma.
Imagine that you are trying to complete a 20 piece jigsaw puzzle. When you open the box, there are only 10 pieces. You put them together as best you can, but now what you have are a bunch of gaps that can only be filled by very specific shapes. So now what? Well, suppose you have a closet full of other puzzles that you’ve done in the past. You could go to that closet, take out a pile of puzzle boxes, and start rifling through them all for pieces that will fit into the holes of your new puzzle. By the time you manage to find the 10 shapes you needed, you have borrowed pieces from 8 different puzzles. The end result looks very bizarre, since the pieces are all from puzzles with different pictures and scenes. Yet even though the picture doesn’t make sense, it is quite satisfying to have filled in all of the gaps.
Now suppose you just found out that your wife was fired from her job two months ago, yet for the last two months, she’s continued to go to work, business as usual. If she hasn’t been spending 8 hours a day at her office, then what has she been up to? And why has she been lying to you? You’ve been trying to come up with answers all day, and none of them have been good. When you go to sleep, your subconscious continues to work on this unsolved problem.
It’s very upsetting to your subconscious that your wife is being deceptive because she is in a position to really hurt you with her choices. As your subconscious analyzes the situation, it rifles through its memory files for other times when you felt like you were about to have a nasty surprise dropped on you. It finds the memory of when you got lost in the woods as a child and ran into a snarling bear. Your subconscious takes a piece of that memory and starts to form a dream in which you are an adult, wandering through woods, feeling the same fearful apprehension that you felt as a child.
Now suppose your wife is cheating on you? Is there a past experience that can give your subconscious information on what that kind of situation is like? Yes, there’s that nasty memory of your fiancee Emma announcing that she’d fallen in love with another man and was cancelling your wedding. Suddenly in the dream you’re having, Emma steps out of the trees and confronts you. “I’m cancelling our marriage,” she says.
Your subconscious finds the idea of your wife betraying you the way Emma did to be extremely upsetting. When Emma left you, you were so devastated you wanted to kill yourself. Your mind pulls up the memory of you almost blowing your brains out. Suddenly, in the dream, you look down and see a loaded gun in your hand.
But then again, why should you be the one to suffer when your wife is the aggressor? You haven’t done anything to her, just as you didn’t do anything to that nasty bear who roared at you for no reason. Suddenly, in the dream, Emma morphs into a huge bear that is standing up on its hind legs, roaring at you.
When you were a child, you couldn’t defend yourself. But you’re a man now–a man with options. What if you eliminated your wife before she could trash you? In the dream, you raise your gun and fire at the bear over and over again. It falls to the ground, gasping its last. You feel satisfied.
But wait–you really love your wife. You need her. It would be horrible to lose her, wouldn’t it? Have you lost someone you loved before? Well, yes, there’s that memory of the dog you had as a child. You loved that dog so much. You cried your eyes out when she was dying in your arms after being hit by a car. In the dream, the huge bear suddenly morphs into your dog. You drop your gun and rush to hold your dog. You apologize over and over for shooting her.
After creating this dream using fragments from memories that it feels were all relevant to your current situation, your subconscious concludes that killing your wife isn’t going to be a wise strategy. You wake up feeling emotionally drained and depressed. But while you try to shove the memory of your dream out of your conscious mind, your subconscious continues to rifle through your memory files, looking for clues on how to deal with your wife.
While dreams are a vital part of your subconscious’ analytical process, your conscious often finds them confusing and upsetting. Because your conscious doesn’t have access to your subconscious’ memory archives, and it often finds the mishmash of memory fragments bewildering. Trying to consciously figure out what each one of your dreams means is not only tiresome, but it’s unnecessary. The only time you should bother with trying to analyze your dreams is when you have one that really strikes you as significant. These are the dreams that either keep recurring, or that greatly upset you, or that can’t be easily pushed out of your conscious mind when you wake up.
Once you understand that your dreams are primarily your subconscious mulling over current, unresolved problems, interpreting dreams gets a lot easier. The first step is to pay attention to the emotions of the dream. Try to summarize to yourself how the emotions shifted as the dream unfolded. The man who dreamed about the bear in the woods could say, “First I felt confused and nervous–like something bad was going to happen. Then I felt afraid, then enraged, then I felt heartbroken and really regretted what I had done.” Just using the emotional description, the man can try to look for current stresses that seem to fit that description. He can ask himself, “Is there some kind of problem in my life right now that is making me nervous? Is there something I’m dreading?” By just focusing on the emotions, he will have an easier time seeing the similarity between the dream and his current worries about what his wife is up to.
Once you understand that your subconscious pulls most of its imagery from your memory archives–and that includes imagery from movies you’ve watched and books you’ve read–you can start trying to identify the significance of specific images in the dream. For example, our man might think to himself, “The dog in the dream looked like the dog I had as a kid. And she died in the dream just like she died in real life. What did she represent? Is there something or someone that I feel very bonded to who I’m afraid of losing?” He might also think, “The only other time I’ve seen a bear was that time when I was a kid and it sprang out at me. It seems to represent a powerful threat. What do I feel threatened by today? Is there someone in my life who seems to have great power to harm me?”
Interpreting dreams gets easier with practice. The key is realizing that they are usually going to be focused on issues that your subconscious is having trouble resolving. As you have the chance to resolve problems, your subconscious can also create happy dreams that express its relief over feeling less stressed. In any case, focusing on the emotions first is often much more helpful than starting with the imagery.
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