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REAMS can be baffling and mysterious. Throughout history
dreams have been associated with sacred revelation
and prophecy. Moreover, it was a dream that revealed to a scientist the molecular
structure of carbon atoms in the benzene
ring. All this mystery can leave us wondering what a particular
dream means to the dreamer, and we can argue about what causes dreams in
the first place.
Yet, in spite
of modern science, dreams still remain mysterious. Science can offer some
explanation of how dreams are related to brain functioning, but only
a psychological understanding of the unconscious can
explain why a dream happens at a particular time of your life and
what it all means psychologically.
Because I make
dream interpretation a key part of my psychotherapeutic work, Ill offer
some comments here about this work.
Sigmund Freud once called dreams the royal road
to . . . the unconscious, and I think that statement
will remain true in psychology forever. Freuds classic text, The
Interpretation of Dreams, contains some of his finest
wont even try to summarize Freuds work here, but I will point
out that Freud believed every dream is a wish fulfillment, and he kept this
theory to the end, even though he gave up his initial idea that all dreams
have an underlying sexual content.
For Freud, the
concept of wish fulfillment didnt necessarily imply that a pleasure
was sought, because a person could just as well have a wish to be
Nevertheless, this idea of a secret wish being masked by a dream
remains central to classical Freudian
Of course, there are other ideas about dreams besides Freudian
believe that dreams have certain fixed meanings. If you dream about
oranges, it means good health; if you dream about onions, it means hard
work, and so on. You can even buy dictionaries of dream
Then there are
modern scientists who claim that dreams are nothing more than images resulting
from random electrical activity in the brain as it housecleans
itself during the night.
And then there
are those such as myself who accept the
importance of dreams and yet see them as more than wish fulfillment; I find
dreams to be valuable hints about how to improve our livesand perhaps
even keep us from foolish
To use dream material clinicallythat is, in
psychotherapyit is important to realize that
you never use the dream itself. That might sound strange, but think about
it. When you tell someone about a dream, its impossible to depict the
jumble of images that you perceived while you were sleeping. All you can
do is put the dream into words in an imperfect attempt to describe what you
experienced. So, in the end, to talk about the dream you really talk about
the text of your perception of the dream.
The text, of
course, is language, and, as such, its already a form of interpretation
of the raw experience. So does it even matter if the images came to you because
of random electrical activity in the brain or because of that greasy pizza
you ate before going to bed? Your attempt to make sense of those images,
wherever they came from, can still reveal something very important about
your current psychological process.
The clinical work of dream interpretation, therefore, involves
the dream story must be put into language. It’s
best if you write down the details of the dream immediately after you wake up
from the dream. But sometimes it’s possible to remember the story of a dream—or
a dream fragment—even if you don’t write it down. Really important dreams will
stay with you even if you try to forget them.
you have to describe thoroughly and understand your psychological associations
to the various dream images. These associations
must come from your personal life, not from a dictionary of fixed
meanings. Essentially, this amounts to asking, When you think of this
particular dream image, what other things come to mind? Dreaming of
Mrs. Smith from your childhood, for example, doesnt necessarily
mean anything, but what you thought about Mrs. Smith when you
were a childin essence, what her life, behaviors, and values suggested
to you thenmight have something to say about the problems you struggle
you have to discover the links between all these
associations. This process is a bit like
those connect the dots puzzles that reveal a hidden picture.
Psychologically, you simply need to understand what this net of associations
from the dream is telling you specifically, at this precise time of your
life, about your current
and conflicts. Quite often, these associations are purely emotional;
that is, you can take a particularly graphic dream image, examine your emotional
reactions to it, look back into your past for times when you felt the same
emotions, and then ask yourself in what way those
situations from the past have any bearing on what is happening in your life
Here are some helpful points about dream
dont have to interpret your dreams in order to solve your
problems. But just as there is the saying
that Death cures cigarette smoking, you might find that listening
to your dreams may help you solve your problems before you run out of time.
Similarly, although dream analysis does not necessarily have to be a part
of psychotherapy, your psychotherapy will be enhanced
if you make the effort to interpret your dreams in the
are always trueits just that what they mean isnt
always what we think they mean. Sometimes
a dream gives a warning of danger, but if you pay attention to the dream
and change your ways the danger wont necessarily happen. And most often
a dreams meaning will be metaphorical, not literal. For example, a
woman may dream that her husband is having a sexual affair, but it would
be a mistake to conclude that her husband is really having an affair. The
dream is simply providing the woman graphic evidence that she somehow
feels betrayed by her husband. Once she acknowledges that feeling,
she can then start examining her life consciouslyand
honestlyto find out why she feels
betrayed and what she needs to do about it.
often mean the opposite of what they seem to
mean. The technical, psychoanalytic explanation
for this is complicated, but it has to do with the fact that we often see
our own desires as they are reflected (and mirror-reversed) through others.
For example, if you dream that youre embarrassed for being in public
without clothes, it likely means that you have an
unconscious desire for some hidden aspect of your life
to be shown to others in its naked truth.
of sexuality are rarely, if ever, expressions of
love. To the body, sexuality
is simply an aspect of the biological process of reproduction and therefore
has nothing to do with what we commonly call love.
Therefore, in the unconscious—and in dreams—sexual images
and feelings do not signify a yearning for real love, but instead they signify
a narcissistic need to “reproduce” feelings of being seen or of being noticed,
as a way to compensate for the fear of being abandoned or ignored.
I dont dream, you might say.
Well, thats not exactly true. Scientific studies have shown that
everyone ever studied dreams, and so its generally accepted
that everyone dreams.
have shown that we go through several cycles of light to very deep sleep
each night. One phase of each cycle is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.
Whenever a researcher woke up a sleeper in REM sleep and asked what was
happening, the sleeper always said, I was dreaming. In fact,
even animals experience REM sleep, so we surmise that they, too, dreambut
we cannot communicate with them to find out anything about the nature of
easy to forget your dreams. In order to
interpret your dreams you have to remember them, so forgetting them is a
real problem. In fact, those who chronically forget their dreams tend to
claim that they dont dream. You will remember your dreams only if you
wake up during, or just at the end of, a dream, but if you don’t wake up, or
if you wake up just enough to turn over and fall asleep again, you’re not likely
to remember a thing in the morning. To ensure that you remember a dream you can
write it down as soon as you wake up from it; keep a note pad and a pen by your
bed—and tell yourself, before you fall asleep, that you want to remember your
dreams that night.
several dreams each night. Because we go
through several cycles of REM sleep each night, we have many dreams each
night, and at times you may be able to remember several of them each night.
Sometimes, in the morning, as you review your notes of a dream from the previous
night, you might remember other dreams that happened before or after the
dream you transcribed.
worry about being unable to remember a seemingly important
dream. If its really important the
message will eventually get communicated in other ways or in other
every psychotherapist is skilled at, let alone trained in, dream
interpretation. Freud, with good sense,
suggested that, in order to work properly with the
a psychotherapist should be well-educated in literature, history, art, music,
and religion, besides having specific psychological training. You have a
to ask about your psychotherapists training and education. If your
psychotherapist is interested only in TV sit-coms, well, good
dreams essentially tell us one important thing: Wake
up! That is, just as you must wake
up from a dream to remember it, the dream itself is telling you to wake
up to the truth that you try to hide from
othersand from yourself.
dreams indicate that you are continuing to miss the point about the meaning
of the dream. If you dont wake
up to the unconscious meaning of the dream but instead persist in seeing
it through your own wish-fulfillment needs, you will remain stuck in your
own self-deception. The psychoanalytic concept of repetition can be
difficult to understand; my web page Deathand
the Seduction of Despair on this website provides more explanation.
For help with resolving repetitive nightmares, see the explanation of the
technique called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy immediately
Our modern word nightmare derives from the Middle
English nihtmare (from niht, night, and mare, demon),
an evil spirit believed to haunt and suffocate sleeping people. Therefore,
in todays world, when we speak of a nightmare we mean a frightening
dream accompanied by a sensation of oppression and
the oppressive aspect of the nihtmare can give a good clue about
nightmares in general, for in psychodynamic terms nightmares are graphic
depictions of raw, primitive emotions such as aggression and rage that have
not been incorporated into the conscious psyche. Thus we tend to encounter
these ugly aspects of our unconscious lives
as terrifying dream images in whose presence we feel completely
are quite common in childhood because this is a time of our emotional development
when we all have to come to terms with, well, raw, primitive emotions such
as aggression and rage. Once these raw emotions become incorporated into
the psyche through socialization and language, nightmares tend to dissipate
nightmares, however, can also occur as one of the many symptoms of
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Repetitive,
intrusive nightmares following a trauma often contain symbolic themes that
mirror the original trauma and relate to threat to life, threat
of abandonment or death, or loss of identity. Although exploration
of these themes in psychotherapy can promote improved
personal adjustment, the nightmares may continue to persist despite any symbolic
traumatic nightmares need to be treated
differently than other dreams. Its
not enough just to know intellectually the psychological reasons
why you have these nightmares. An event is traumatic because it disrupts
your previously secureand illusorysense of self.
And so, to heal from a trauma, you must take the initiative to make conscious
changes in your life to accommodate the traumatic shattering of your illusions
about life and
desensitization, for example, as part of a multidimensional treatment
for PTSD, may be of special help in reducing traumatic
reenactment. An even more effective way to sow the seeds
of new ways of thinking and acting is Imagery Rehearsal
The raw emotions
of repetitive, intrusive nightmares can be tamed by a
simple, easily learned technique called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT).
If you have multiple recurring nightmares, select just one for the IRT process
and use the process every night until the nightmare has been resolved; when
that nightmare has been resolved, repeat the process for other
the text of the nightmare. Tell the story, no
matter how frightening, in as much detail as you can
a new ending for the nightmare story and write it out.
Be careful, however, to make the new ending
peaceful. Remember that the nightmare is grounded in emotions such as raw
anger that have been provoked by a trauma. The point of a new ending is to
tame the emotions, not merely vent them in violence and
A woman had been
raped. She had a recurring nightmare of being pursued by a dark figure. In
the nightmare, she ran and ran, and, each each time the nightmare recurred,
she always woke up, sweating and gasping for breath, at the same point. So
she decided, as a new ending, to stop running and confront the figure. In
a subsequent dream, when the pursuing figure appeared, she turned to him
and said, Who are you and what do you want? And heres where
her unconscious surprised her. The man replied, very politely, You
dropped this, and I have been trying to give it back to you. He handed
her a package. She asked what it was. Its your faith in human
goodness, he said. She woke up. And the nightmare never
the new version of the story in your imagination each night just before going
to sleep. Do this as close as possible to your
falling asleep without any other activity between the rehearsal and
a relaxation exercise. Do this immediately after
the rehearsal, as a way to fall asleep peacefully. You may use any technique
with which you are familiar. If you need to learn a relaxation technique,
try Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Or just use the
Breathing Warm-up from the Autogenics Training
if you need to get started as soon as possible and dont have the time
to learn something more complex.
Have you ever had the experience of waking up during the
night because you feel a terrifying external presence around you, a mysterious eerie
presence that feels like it is smothering and devouring you, and all the while you
cant move or protect yourself because your body feels completely
One component of a
night terror such as this is called
sleep paralysis; modern science attributes
the physiological mechanism of such paralysis to a natural
protective function of the brain which prevents the body from thrashing around
during periods of sleep, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when dreams
Nevertheless, a scientific explanation of sleep paralysis does not offer any insight
into the symbolic meaning of such an experience. Why would a person “wake up” just
at a moment of paralysis? Why should the experience feel smothering and terrifying?
And sometimes the whole paralysis experience is all a dream in itself—so why would a
person dream of waking up to a feeling of paralysis, helplessness, and
In medieval folklore
this experience was attributed to an incubus, a demon said to lie
on and seduce sleeping women. A demon causing a corresponding experience for a man
was called a succubus.
Now, a modern
psychological explanation of these experiences begins with a close look at
two meaningful words: smothering and seduction.
this examination by considering how every human infant, being completely
helpless at birth, needs to be nursed and protected in order to survive.
The infant needs to be enveloped, so to speak, in a mothers loveand
this whole experience can have the quality of an idyllic, intoxicating bliss.
Nevertheless, every infant is destined to become an independently functioning
adult, and to achieve this independence the growing child must be
separated from the mother. So right here
we have a fundamental tension: the bliss of envelopment in another, if it
isnt eventually stopped, can actually stifle and smother the
attainment of independence.
adultsespecially if we have been forced into independence rather than
initiated into it through proper parental
guidancewe can feel a nostalgic yearning
for the bliss of an infantile envelopment in a mother. And so we will create
fantasies of being enveloped by another
person. But because contemporary culture invariably
confuses sexuality with love, these fantasies
of envelopment become fantasies of sexual seduction.
where things get psychologically complicated. Just as infantile
envelopment in a mother can also be stifling and smothering, adult
seduction has its own dark side of smothering. Sexual seduction,
at its psychological core, really is a matter of manipulation by the desire
of another. And when seen in its raw reality, manipulation is far from being
blissful. In fact, its downright terrifying.
Imagine a place
where there is no justice and no truth, only unbridled hedonism, a preoccupation
with personal satisfaction even to the point of causing pain to others. Imagine
being vulnerable to being seized and used by any other being who stumbles
upon you. Scream all you want and no one will hear you because everyone else
is screaming too. So you cant really scream at all.
Hmmm . . . Mardi Gras in Rio? Well, not exactly. This horrifying place is
the place of the demonic.
you unconsciously direct your life desire to being
seduced, you enter the place of the demonic. At first it might seem exciting
and intoxicating. But sooner or later, before youre totally lost, your
unconscious might wake you up to the sheer terror of the paralyzing danger
in which you have placed yourself.
So, how do you
fight off the demonic? You change your attitude. Turn away from the intoxicating
abandonment to self-serving illusions of ecstasy and then learn how to sacrifice
yourself in service to others through real love.
Its that simple.
Sometimes people complain of having disturbing dreams with
unpleasant images, despite leading a seemingly peaceful waking life. And
so they wonder, What is my unconscious mind trying to tell
be several reasons for such dreams.
the dreams could be unconscious advice.
Maybe in some way you are betraying yourself, forgetting something, or not
fulfilling a potential. For example, persons on the edge of a midlife career
change may have dreams about being in school and searching for a missing
classroom, or they may find themselves in a class about to take a final exam
while realizing that they completely forgot to attend the class all year.
Thus the feeling of panic in the dream points to the real feeling of panic
in their current life about something being neglected or
the dreams could be an admonition, based in
guilt. Imagine, for example, that you are
embezzling the bank for which you work. Then you start having dreams about
burglars breaking into your home. Well, the dreams are simply a depiction
of something happening to you that is similar to the hurt or moral injury
you are inflicting on someone else. This same dynamic often occurs in
childrens nightmares: in waking life, children often experience angry
feelings toward their parents and yet lack the cognitive capacity to express
these feelings openly; so, in unconscious guilt, the
anger becomes turned against themselves as threatening
the dreams could be hints of a repressed
trauma. As I say above, nightmares often
accompany the emotional pain of a traumatic event experienced in adulthood.
But if a trauma in childhood is repressed, dreams
reflecting the emotional intensity of the trauma can persist throughout
lifeas a repetition compulsionuntil the
trauma is eventually brought to conscious awareness and
the dreams could be psychic premonitions.
This is a rare phenomenon, but it does happen to some persons. In fact, it
happened to me at least once. Nevertheless, my advice here is to ignore these
dreams. After all, if they dont provide sufficient details about
when, where, and to whom the event will happen, so that
the event might be prevented, then what good are such
In the dream,
which I still remembered vividly when I woke up, I saw several persons in
a small river canyon playing in the shallow water and even sliding over a
small waterfall. Suddenly a huge surge of water came down the river and carried
everyone away with it. The next morning, at breakfast, a headline in a newspaper
caught my attention. As I read the article, I must have stopped breathing.
Several adventurers, on an excursion in the Swiss mountains to body
surf in river rapids and waterfalls the previous day, had been killed
when a sudden storm surge rushed down a canyon and swept them
Psychology from the
The Spiritual Depth of Clinical Psychology
A collection of
texts from the writings of
Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
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The scientist was Friedrich August Kekulé. The particular arrangement
of the carbon atoms in the benzene ring, consisting of a ring of six
atoms of carbon, had been a mystery until 1865 when Kekulé had a dream
in which he saw a chain of carbon atoms rotating in a circle, like a snake
chasing its own tail.
2. Orner, R. J.,
& Stolz, P. (2002). Making sense of repetition phenomena by integrating
psychotraumatology and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Journal of Traumatic
Stress, 15(6), 465471.
3. Shalev, A. Y.,
Bonne, O., & Eth, S. (1996). Treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder:
A review. Psychosomatic Medicine, 58, 165182.
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