In our dreams, we experience many of our thoughts and feelings concretely, which usually means visually, although any of our senses may be involved. An overwhelming emotion becomes a force of nature; a concept becomes a solid object that can be handled and manipulated. This movement from the abstract to the concrete is at the heart of metaphors as well as dreams: “My love is like a red, red rose*,” for instance, or “The internet is a series of tubes”. This is why it’s often helpful to read dream-imagery as metaphors for some aspect of our current state. It’s as if we experience our internal facts as external when we’re inside our own heads.
But this isn’t a topic that lends itself to broad generalities, so I will do as the dreaming mind does and keep things concrete. Here’s a dream from my journal:
I was inside a building on a school campus. There was a machine in the room where I was, a tall pole that lit up with color as an indicator of morality, like something out of a video game. When I stood in front of it, it lit up, past the area where it had been for me before, all the way up to the top. I was astonished—what had I done since yesterday that could warrant this? There was nothing I could point to as a clear cause. After hovering around the top for a little, it hit its max, and gave me a glass ukulele as a prize. I took it with me as I went to my first class, wondering about the significance of these events. (2014)
To this day, I’m still not sure about the significance of those events, but the way they’re presented in this dream still makes me laugh. To me, that is the most memorable part of it: its absurd quality. There are dreams in my collection that seem to express a genuine concern over conduct, morality, and so on—but this one serves as a reminder that the results of our conduct are often inexplicable.**
This dream of mine includes two visual metaphors. The obvious one is the machine, which not only reifies an abstraction but color-codes it and rates it on a 120-point scale, which I didn’t include in the account above because it was appallingly pedantic. The other is the glass ukulele. I didn’t figure that one out until a few days after the dream, when it occurred to me that when you pronounce the first letters of “glass” and “ukulele” together you get “Glück”—the German word for happiness.
It’s commonly claimed that dreams clue us into subtle yet important details we have observed during our waking hours, but failed to consciously register. In most recorded instances of this, the detail is one that could endanger the dreamer if not attended to, and the dream takes the form of a warning or dire premonition. If my dream is indeed bringing my attention to an event of the previous day, it is something different: not a danger, but a cause for happiness that passed unnoticed.
A Jungian interpreter might infer that the fact that my dream seems to be encouraging me to feel good about something I did is significant in itself—that is, that my subconscious judged that I needed the encouragement at the time of the dream. It isn’t just telling me about something that happened—that may have happened—but orienting me towards personal wholeness. A Freudian would probably take one look at the machine and say—well, I’ll leave that one to your imagination.
As for the academic setting: I dreamed this during the summer, when I wasn’t enrolled in any classes. That could indicate that the events it is connected with are from further back than my dream-self supposes—or else it could signify a situation where I’m learning something.
Since the dream is explicitly about learning something new, the latter explanation seems more likely. The fragmentary dream that I recorded right before the glass ukulele dream also seems to confirm it:
Something with music—learning more, figuring out that it made more sense for me to start with the key of F than C in some situation.
This dream, with its lack of definite imagery and thought-like structure, almost certainly took place during nREM sleep. On the surface, the themes of learning and music provide the only connection between the two, but on closer examination I discovered a deeper connection. It would be a stretch to call this dream a metaphor—but it is a metaphorically expressed thought.
A musician usually transposes a piece from one key to another to accommodate the range of their instrument, or the range of someone else’s instrument or voice. Since I play the piano, a keyboard instrument, the former is unlikely to be a concern for me. A piano is a complete instrument— it can be played in any key— so the only reason to transpose is for somebody else’s sake. This gives me a hint as to what event may have triggered the dream that came after it: I probably made a small adjustment in how I go about something for somebody else’s sake. (It would be small because the key of F is closely related to the key of C.)
I still can’t say what that adjustment might have been—but I don’t need to know to be happy about it. Anyway, it’s better not to over-think these things.
This is where a dream analysis would end for a dreamer whose main concern is the practical implications of a dream for their life—but for me, it is also of theoretical interest.
There is a passage of The Interpretation of Dreams stating that one dream following another may imply a causal relationship between dream-thoughts—something too abstract for dreams to be able to represent more directly. This seems to be the case with these two dreams: the first dream hints at a cause, the latter the effect. It’s a kind of involuntary post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
I might also take note of where I had to go to find the interpretations of the key change and the ukulele: the former is a mix of subjective and objective associations, but mostly objective, and the latter is verbal and objective. They both require specialized factual knowledge to interpret, but not much knowledge about me. Without this knowledge, the glass ukulele appears to be exactly the kind of kaleidoscopic nonsense dreams are notorious for.
If I had continued to associate, I might have been able to connect the dream to the patterns of my life in a much more comprehensive way. Perhaps I would have found that it reminded me of one video game or one classroom more than others; perhaps Cinderella and her glass slipper are in there somewhere. But this process is best done as soon after the dream as possible; a year after the fact, any additional conclusions I could draw would be very tenuous.
I did not need to examine the dream from an emotional standpoint to understand it. The first, fragmented part was thought without much emotional flavor. The second was dominated by surprise, puzzlement and happiness on the part of my dream-self, but the emotions do not seem to have contributed to the image of the machine— which was self-evident, an interesting fact in its own right— or the ukulele. The dream contains both thought and emotion, but the former seems to be the creative element, while the latter is purely reactive. This might indicate that I’m a person who finds it easier to grasp things by the cognitive side than the emotional side, which I can confirm. Or it might just follow from what the dream was representing.
Of course, as the saying goes, sometimes a glass ukulele is only a glass ukulele.
*Yes, I know this one’s actually a simile. I just wanted to quote Robert Burns.
**Since I’m a Buddhist,*** the notion of karma is probably implicit here—and it goes some way towards explaining why my dream is representing morality in such an impersonal way—but it isn’t necessary to go into details about that to understand the dream. My lineage does not encourage thinking too much about karma—or, for that matter, having anything to do with ukuleles.
***Note: this doesn’t mean I can’t engage in a bit of gratuitous Latin every now and then.