“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, flittering hither and thither, to all interested purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”

What Is A Dream?
“Our lives in sleep are some like streams that glide
’twixt flesh an’ sperrit boundin’ on each side,
Where both shores’ shadders kind o’ mix an’ mingle
In sunthin’ thet ain’t like either single.”

— James Russell Lowell

“The dream is an existential message. It is more than an unfinished situation; it is more than an unfulfilled wish; it is more than a prophecy. It is a message of yourself to yourself, to whatever part of you is listening. The dream is probably the most spontaneous expression of the human being, a piece of art that we chisel out of our lives. And every part, every situation in the dream is a creation of the dreamer him(her)self . . . Every aspect of it is a part of the dreamer, but a part to some extent that is disowned and projected onto other objects.”

— Fritz Perls


We all dream. Research begun in the 1950s shows that all people dream — even people who remember no dreams. “Non-dreamers” will recall dreams if they are awakened during periods of rapid eye movement (REM). These occur during periods of light sleep when the eyeballs move rapidly back and forth under closed lids, and the brain is very active. We usually have three or four REM periods a night. Our deepest sleep occurs during the first half of the night, with REM periods occurring about every ninety minutes and lasting only a few minutes at a time. During this time, the contents of a dream are most difficult to recall, although we may retain the feeling or knowledge of dreaming. As our sleep progresses, the REM periods become longer, and during our last REM period, we may dream for over an hour. We dream during our deep sleep (non-REM periods), but during these times our brain is much less active, and our dreams seem more vague.

Dreams are predominantly visual experiences, although we experience a variety of sensations. People blind from birth dream entirely in different modalities. Dreams are an extremely personal experience. We determine what we remember from our dreams. The greater the interest in remembering, the greater the recall. I believe that the function of dreams is to help us grow in self awareness and understanding. My belief in the value of my dreams helps them to be valuable to me.

“The most effective of all stimulants to dream recall is the practical discovery of how valuable dreams can be in life . . . Many cases of chronic nonrecallers turn into vivid recallers after a dream workshop.”

— Ann Faraday

Understanding Dreams

“Dreams are the true interpreters of our inclinations, but art is required to sort and understand them.”

— Montaigne

“Dreams are mere productions of the brain
And fools consult interpreters in vain.”

— Jonathan Swift


Pharaoh, the ruler of ancient Egypt, brought Joseph from the dungeon to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream of seven lean ill calves eating seven fat healthy calves (Book of Genesis, Old Testament). According to Biblical history, Joseph (or God speaking through Joseph), forewarned seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. This knowledge was used to save grain during the bountiful years for later consumption.

Throughout history, scientists, soldiers, rulers, healers, and religious people have “received” messages from their dreams that have had vast effects on humanity. Constantine was told, “In this sign conquer.” He went into battle bearing the Christian cross and became the Roman Emperor. A dream of snakes in a circle biting each others’ tails provided the missing link in modern atomic theory. Abraham Lincoln dreamed of being at his funeral three days before John Wilkes Booth assassinated him. In dreams and dream-like trances, Edgar Cayce was able to diagnose illness and recommend cures. Dreams that seem to reveal the future or give undiscovered “universal” information are rare for most people (Michio Kushi calls these “true” dreams as contrasted to “fragmented illusional dreams that evidence our sickness”). This type of dreaming is similar to what Don Juan calls dreaming, where the dreamer can “. . . have power; you can change things; you may find out countless concealed facts; you can control whatever you want.” According to Ann Faraday: “lucid dreaming [in which we know we are dreaming] . . . can be the means of attaining higher states of consciousness, but my own researches show it cannot be forced to appear before its time, and that the lucid state begins to occur naturally after the dreamer learns to use his ordinary dreams to clear up his life problems.”

People have long sought to understand and decode dreams through symbolic interpretation of the dream’s contents. Numerous symbol systems have developed — some very similar, some giving antithetical meaning to identical symbols. In the early part of this century, Sigmund Freud developed an elaborate symbol system based on the belief that the function of dreams is wish-fulfillment, and this wish-fulfillment arises primarily from early childhood experiences. Most Freudian psychoanalytic symbols are familial or sexual in meaning. Examples of this are the representation of balloons, airplanes, and flying for male erection (defying the laws of gravity) and snails, mussels, jewel cases, and slippers for female genital organs.

Carl Jung, once a student of Freud, found this approach too limited. He told his students: “Learn as much as you can about symbolism; then forget it all when you are analyzing a dream.” Jung believed that the dreamer could make the necessary associations to understand a dream in “ordinary cases” (not repetitive or highly emotional dreams). Jung ascertained that we have a “history” based on the mind’s biological, prehistoric, and unconscious development in ancient people, and that the “archaic remnants” are present in us as “archetypes.” Archetypes are symbols or patterns that all human beings have in their minds, much as other animals have instincts. Jung’s belief in the “collective unconscious” was based on his comparison of the psyche of people of different cultures — their dreams, mythology, art, and so on. An archetype for transcendence, transition, or the process of self realization can be a bird, a lonely journey, an ancient plant, or an animal.

In the past twenty years, Fritz Perls (Gestalt Therapy) has influenced many theorists to view dreams from a vastly different perspective than Freudian psychoanalytic symbolism or Jungian archetypes. Perls makes no interpretations, believing that every part of a dream is a part of the dreamer who knows him/herself better than anyone else. These parts have been, at least partially, disowned by the dreamer and projected onto other objects. Gestalt dream work is done by having the dreamer act out different aspects of the dream (people, animals, things) as if the dreamer were that particular aspect. What is avoided in the dream can be as important as what is there. I have used this method of dream understanding for helping other people and myself experience our dream messages. I think it is usually much more realistic and effective than guessing at symbols that might fit. The Gestalt approach allows the same being who created the dream to use his or her resources, with some help, to discover its meaning. The “meaning” may not be that “this means this,” but may be perceived on an emotional level.

Ann Faraday, a dream psychologist, has synthesized and expanded the work of Perls and others to simplify dream understanding. She always looks for the literal meaning in dreams first. She says that dreams often serve as messages, warnings, reminders that we do not perceive or properly value with our conscious minds. Look for the symbolic meaning only when no objective literal truth can be found. Dreams tell us about that which is on our minds and in our hearts at the present time. A dream does not tell us that which we already know. Our feelings during a dream may be the key to understanding the symbolic meaning. Faraday also suggests that if we know or have read of symbol meanings, then consider these meanings as a possibility, for our dreams utilize any symbols to get their message across.

If you do not remember your dreams, ask your dreams where they are or why they are hiding. Let your dreams know that they are important to you. I have recalled many more dreams since I have begun asking my dreams to let me remember them. I sleep either with a tape recorder or pencil and paper next to my bed. As soon as I awake from a dream I try to record it. I have discovered that if I do not record the dream, it will disappear, often forever, within a few moments.

Dreams can be a powerful tool in self awareness, understanding, and growth. By consciously using dreams, we accelerate this process.

— Leaf



Castaneda, Carlos. Journey to Ixtlan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Faraday, Ann. The Dream Game. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Garden City: Permabooks, 1956.

Hall, Calvin and Van de Castle, Robert. The Content Analysis of Dreams. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966.

Jung, Carl G. Man and His Symbols. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1964.

Kushi, Michio. Seminar Report: The Interpretation of Dreams. Boston: East West Foundation, 1975.

Perls, Frederick S. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.