The meaning of our dreams reveals more than we think.

In our culture, for the most part, people consider dreams to be meaningless and barely pay attention to them, at most a curiosity when we wake up that fades by the time we brush our teeth.But throughout history and in other cultures, people have found their dreams to be meaningful whether as sources of creativity and inspiration, healing or warnings. Elias Howe, the inventor of the modern sewing machine, for example, hit a wall when it came to figuring out how the needle would work.

elias-howe

Innovation of the Sewing Needle

He then had a dream where he was captured by cannibals who gave him an ultimatum to produce the sewing machine or face death. He couldn’t do it, so they stabbed him with spears. As the spears went in and out, he noticed that the tips had holes in it. He woke up and had his Eureka moment, realizing that the solution to his dilemma was to put a hole in the point of the needle.

 

Breakthrough in The Science of Time

The 19th century German chemist August Kekule had an image in a dream of a snake biting its tale (which is actually an ancient symbol called the ouroboros). This image, he said, led him to discover the ring structure of Benzene, a breakthrough in the science of the time.

 

benzene

 

Dreams Have a Purpose

From a Jungian psychological perspective, dreams are meaningful and functional. Our tendency is to see dreams as irrational because we typically do not understand their language which is pre-verbal (for the most part) and symbolic and our current state of consciousness is removed from that more primitive way of thinking, though a picture is worth a thousand words. Dreams have a purpose – they tend to compensate for our conscious attitude. That is, they tell us what we don’t know about ourselves.

Dreams have a purpose – they tend to compensate for our conscious attitude.

In his book, The Way of the Image: The Orientational Approach to the Psyche, Jungian analyst Yoram Kaufmann tells us of a person who dreams that they are scuba diving and sees a shark and is fascinated by it and, in their excitement, swims even closer. He contrasts this with a dream of someone who scuba dives and comes upon an octopus and freaks out, the opposite of the first dreamer’s response.

yorman-kaufmann

The Language of a Dream

An understanding of the language of dreams enables us to see that these dreams depict two very different attitudes towards life. The first dream describes someone who gets themselves into precarious situations and is excited by them. A shark is a dangerous creature – that’s the objective reality to that image. The dreamer may tell you that it was a friendly or beautiful shark, but that only speaks to the extent to which they are not able to recognize danger. The second dream tells us that the dreamer is afraid of what is alien to them even though the situation is not harmful.

Paying attention to our dreams and being able to understand their language offers us the possibility of a deeper relationship with ourselves and the chance to enlarge our experience of life.

Octopi are weird and strange, but they are not dangerous, so there is nothing for the dreamer to be afraid of. Paying attention to our dreams and being able to understand their language offers us the possibility of a deeper relationship with ourselves and the chance to enlarge our experience of life. Tending to dreams can also save us from a lot of very hard lessons.

Unveiling the Significance of a Dream

On the eve of his attack on Rome, Hannibal, the 3rd century BCE Carthaginian general had a dream where the god Jupiter sent a messenger to tell him to attack Italy; that a great army would be defeated. To him, that meant all systems go. The next morning, he launched the attack and true to the dream, a great army was defeated – only it was his. Hannibal failed to recognize that Jupiter was the god of Rome. His hubris rendered him incapable of recognizing this fact, so in a sense, the dream was a portent of his defeat and a commentary on his arrogance. Recognizing the significance of the dream may have been a defeat for his ego but his army may have remained intact.

Battle-of-Zama

About the Author

Michael Marsman is an Licensed Therapist (LCSW) at Well Clinic in San Francisco. In his words, “My approach is to work with you in a way that is collaborative and geared to who you are.”

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