In school, we learn that a metaphor is a literary device like a simile, “a figure of speech in which one thing is spoken of as if it were another.” (Definition from Webster’s New World Dictionary.) In other words, a symbol. It’s not a great leap to go from the literary definition to interpreting dream symbols in metaphorical ways, and yet this step can be difficult for those of us raised in a rationalist society. It’s hard to grasp that when I dream of death, the dream does not (usually) indicate a portent of literal death, but rather a profound transformation. Death stands as a symbol for some part of my psyche or being that is changing so dramatically that only death serves as an adequate metaphor. Dreams speak in the language of symbols because symbols have many meanings, and so a dream can carry several messages for the dreamer that would be lost if the only level of understanding is a literal one. Not that dreams can’t be literal, or obvious, but even literal dreams have layers of symbolic meanings.
I’ve studied dream symbols and explored their meanings for most of my life, but more seriously for the last eleven years. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that dream symbols have universal meanings. I practice a style of dream work that was pioneered and popularized by Jeremy Taylor, which is commonly known as Projective Dream Work. A better name might be Consciously Projective Dream Work, because people consciously own their projections onto other people’s dreams. For example, if Nancy tells me a dream about wrestling a snake, when I hear the dream I can’t help but imagine the scenes and situations for myself. Then the only things that I can suggest about the meanings of the dream will be those that are true for me. “In my imagined version of this dream,” I might say, “the snake represents transformation, because snakes are known for shedding their skins. Since I’m wrestling with the snake, I’m struggling with a transformation that I’m undergoing.” For Nancy, this may or may not have resonance; if she has an “aha” moment, or chills, or a strong emotional reaction, these are good signs that my projection has touched the truth of the dream for her.
Dreamers I’ve worked with have often been blown away by the accuracy of the projections they hear from others in a group. While it’s true that some dream workers have more experience and a deeper understanding of symbolic language than others, it’s also true that the accuracy arises precisely because symbols carry universal meanings. Even when the native tongues differ, the symbols resonate in similar ways.
The universality of metaphor and symbolic language is what made me realize that dream work is a spiritual practice. By speaking in this common language, we discover the ways in which we are alike. By consciously owning my projections on someone else’s dream, I admit to myself that there are parts of my psyche that look very much like the parts of someone else’s psyche. That admission creates compassion. Not pity, which takes a superior attitude, but true compassion, in which I can truly understand how someone else feels, or why they acted the way they did, or that there are parts in each of us that feel too scary to look at, much less own.
In addition to the dreams we experience while sleeping, we use metaphor to wrap our thoughts around concepts and ideas that are difficult to grasp, like God, or creation, or profound emotion. Sometimes the metaphor takes the shape of spoken and written language, but other times it speaks through music, or art. When a photographer frames the perfect shot, we say he or she has a good eye, meaning that the photograph evokes an emotional or spiritual reaction that is hard to put into words. The best art is art we can hang our own projections on, thereby understanding something, or even just experiencing something, of ourselves that we hadn’t known before.
We aren’t, as a rule, raised to think in symbolic terms. Modern society tends toward rationalistic, scientific thinking, dismissing experiences that can’t be replicated and studied, such as intuitive knowledge and spiritual connection. The appellation of “dreamer” is not generally a compliment. And yet, by adhering strictly to this literal, scientific view, we run the risk of losing touch with an essential part of our being. Our dreams come to help us find that connection again, if only we pay attention and make an effort to speak the language.