There Are Too Many Metaphors in this Mixed Drink, Part 3


In the dream, it was as if I were watching a movie and simultaneously playing a part in it. The movie starred a Swedish man who was in charge of running a movie theater. He wasn’t a very pleasant person to be around. At one point, I had to deliver a message to him, but when I was about to say it, I started laughing and couldn’t stop. It was my real reaction, but it fit into the movie that was being filmed, too. I was on the way back to my seat when I asked him, “What distinguishes a Byronic hero from the regular sort?” which wasn’t in the script. He answered me in a way consistent with his character, and I responded, “Is it always so clear?” This tied into some events that would take place later. (May, 2010)

No two people dream in exactly the same way. We all have our quirks, our individual patterns that, while typical for us, may strike other people as unusual— even un-dream-like or downright aberrant, if your dreams don’t match their prototype very well. It is hard even to know what’s typical for dreams, especially for matters of form, like sudden transitions and inconsistencies. They don’t lend themselves as well to statistical analysis as dream-content does.

When I look through my own dream records, it’s actually quite difficult to find instances of sudden transitions and inconsistencies, especially after the first couple years. Why might that be?

Could it be that this phenomenon—the sudden shift in settings, characters, points of view, etc—is not as common as we believe? Many of the features we think of as characteristic of dreams—dreams of flying, falling, finding new rooms in your house, etc— actually aren’t statistically common. They’re just notable departures from the logic of waking life, which makes it surprising to us that they happen to the extent that they do.

But there is another possibility: looking in my journal around that time, I find dreams with a shift of that type—but my dream self notices the gap in time, the gap where memories would be if it were waking life, and is puzzled or alarmed by it. This is definitely uncommon. Filling the gaps of memory with imagination isn’t something our dreaming selves usually have trouble with. Or our waking selves, for that matter.

This is something that people who train themselves to notice when they’re dreaming learn to catch in progress, but I wasn’t doing that at the time—which is why the conclusion I came to was not the right one, that I was dreaming. Perhaps these unpleasant experiences led to a kind of negative conditioning, and so the dreams began, of their own accord, to take on a less disturbing form. The gaps began to behave like narrative cuts between scenes—and perhaps by fitting that paradigm so well, they don’t stick out to my dreaming self as much as the others did. (And perhaps mixed metaphors, enacted or otherwise, just weren’t to my taste.)

My first efforts at interpretation were inspired more by literary analysis than by dream theorists or dream dictionaries, and so I found it easier to understand my dreams when they behaved like coherent narratives—and they did so more and more as I gained experience. What might otherwise have been disjunctions into something unrealistic became excursions into the realm of art. The dreams became increasingly layered and complex, and my dreaming self was, as often as not, in the curious position of knowing that my surroundings were unreal without being aware that they were a dream. I was simultaneously actor and observer. How is that even possible? I don’t know. Maybe my brain just runs on parallel circuits—whatever that metaphor means.

But once I did take up lucid dreaming, I did sometimes manage to catch the shift in progress—though I get the impression that it was harder for me than it would have been for someone with a less convoluted inner life. But at any rate, a junction can be a place for a lucid dreamer to board as well as an interpreter, if they’re timely about it.

I was in a car with my old friends Katya and Nina, and a man who was a friend of ours in the dream, though nobody I knew in waking life. It was late out, and it was snowing so hard that we could barely see the road in front of us. We could only drive at a very slow pace. After a while, I got out to make sure we were still on the road. I continued to walk in front as the car drove, indicating where it was safe to go as the snowstorm blew around us.

But suddenly, the snow and the car vanish, and I’m standing alone on the road on what looks like a beautiful spring morning. For a moment, I feel surprised—then threatened. I think: someone is trying to separate me from my friends.

But no sooner have I thought that that I realize: no, that makes no sense. I’m dreaming. That’s what’s happening.

I keep on walking in the direction we had been driving before. Maybe I’ll find out where we were going.

Off to my right, down a short incline, are gently rolling fields covered in mist. I see a couple of large, manor-type house out there, in the distance. It’s all incredibly beautiful, almost like an impressionist painting— colorful, blurred, with intense touches here and there.

I’ll make some fireflies, I decide, just like I used to do. I wave one hand over towards the fields, and little lights appear—not at all like the yellow-green of fireflies, curiously, but like little golden sparks flashing in midair, like a firework might give off.

Coming up on the right, just off the road I’ve been walking along, is another house, this one much smaller than the ones I had seen before—a narrow but tall building, black in color, with a red tile roof and all kinds of interesting architectural details. Behind a fenced-off area to one side, I can hear children laughing and playing. There’s something about this house—especially about the color, that deep purple-black—that makes it almost viscerally attractive to me—intrinsically inviting. A young girl peers over the fence at me as I walk up the steps…. (April, 2015)

There’s more to the story than that, but suffice it to say that this one has a happy ending—or it would, if there were ever a true ending outside of a story. But the most unrealistic thing about fiction is always that it comes to an end.


Thanks be to God now that the wine-shop door
Is open, since it’s there I’m heading for;

The jars are groaning with fermented wine,
With wine that’s real, and not a metaphor…


Actually, there is one other lesson to be taken from the story this essay opened with, when I answered the teacher’s question: it is possible for something to be a metaphor without being only a metaphor. We should never forget that dreaming— despite the metaphors, wordplay and various verbal associations we can trace back to our waking lives and thoughts— is a living experience in its own right for as long as it lasts. You can call a dream a metaphor, certainly—but if you did, you would be using a metaphor yourself.

(Total Metaphor Count: 50)

There Are Too Many Metaphors in this Mixed Drink, Part 2


This is a good point to take a step back and ask some big questions. To what extent does language influence our dreams? Are all the images in dreams enacted metaphors? If not metaphors, then do other characteristics of dreams that distinguish them from waking life have parallels in language?

We can give the second question, at least, a resounding “no,” for the simple reason that people, places, and actions in dreams may be literal representations as well as figurative ones. The literal representations will mostly be of people, places and actions that would not be out of place in our waking lives. Anything that is impossible or unlikely in waking life, anything that belongs to the distant past or that strikes us as too trivial to be of concern to us in its own right has a good chance of being a metaphor.

Of course, it is also possible to find images that would not be out of place in our waking lives standing in for something else, though these ones tend to be doing double duty:  a representation that is simultaneously metaphorical and literal, like the answer I gave my teacher that was simultaneously definition and example.

But here, we will have to make some further distinctions if we want satisfying answers. In the clearest possible case of dreams enacting metaphors, the dream enacts a familiar figure of speech—for instance, a person who’s having to deal with an excessive workload might dream about being literally “snowed under;” a dreamer may be “walking on thin ice,” or “fanning the flames,” or “floating on air.” I have one early on in my own records where I’m carrying a couple cats in a bag with me and looking for a place to let them out.

One interesting thing about these dreams is that they sometimes happen to people who aren’t very concerned about dreams, and may not ordinarily take the trouble of remembering them, much less interpreting them. They seem to be a natural, spontaneous phenomenon, and they are often transparent to the dreamer. People may infer from such dreams that their other dreams may be meaningful in ways that are less obvious. In this way—to use an irritating mixed metaphor that recently became a figure of speech in its own right—you could call them a gateway drug to dream studies.


So it is clear that some dreams are enacted figures of speech—but it is just as clear that not all of them are. We’re good at recognizing them, and they just don’t happen that often. More common are dreams enacting metaphors that are embedded into our language—dead metaphors.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors we Live By is the text to consult for those who are interested in learning more about how metaphors are built into languages and the conceptual framework that underlies them. Some metaphors are common to many languages, such as “up is good,” and “down is bad,” and can be found underlying numerous expressions, such as “rising above it,” “downfall,” “uplifting,” “weighing me down.” It has been posited that the frequency of dreams of flying and falling in cultures all over the world rests on this shared linguistic basis. A good case could probably be made for other so-called typical dreams as well.

When we employ metaphors like this in our speech and writing, we are using something well-known and concrete to convey information or attitudes about something abstruse or abstract. Every time we talk about the brain processing data, or being programmed for such-and such, or getting its wires crossed, we’re using conceptual metaphors with technological origins. This class of metaphors is growing all the time as technology changes. I found a new one just the other day, in Wade’s Before the Dawn:  “…Pääbo was able to fix a date, though rather roughly, for the time that all humans acquired the latest upgrade of the FOXP2 gene.”

As we might expect, these metaphors may easily find their way into dreams. On one night, for instance, I recorded two dreams within an hour of each other. In the first, I was installing some new software on my computer, and in the second, I had just finished having a surgery done. It’s a good bet that dreams recorded on the same night are influenced by the same set of concerns, and in this case, the connection between them is easy to see:  I am both performing the procedure and having it done on me; only the point of view and the metaphor have changed.

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson are very clear that the metaphors they are concerned with run deeper than language:  they structure the way we think, they guide our actions as well as our words. This raises a new possibility:  what we are seeing in our dreams is not the influence of language, exactly, but an expression of this deeper substratum.

But there is no question that dreams may show the direct influence of language in other ways. Dreams are perfectly capable of incorporating puns, rebuses, references to etymology—the origins of words are usually more concrete than the uses we put them to— and neologisms. Here, we start to run into processes that are more associative than metaphorical; the focus shifts from the concept represented by the word to the word itself.

Besides conceptual metaphors, there are also metaphors in dreams akin to those used by poets and other artists. Unlike those we have discussed so far, these do not necessarily involve language. What critics call the pathetic fallacy is a prime example of this type of metaphor. To convey the mood you want with the least possible expenditure of creative effort, just use the weather. Happy scene? Sunny day. Romance?  Make it a moonlit night. Instant drama?  Just add thunderstorm.

In our dreams, we are endowed with a sort of natural pathetic fallacy that automatically provides a suitable atmosphere. Since all human concerns are to some degree emotional concerns, there is probably a little of this in all dreams—and a metaphor may be both conceptual and emotionally expressive, although those that have been firmly established as conceptual tend to lose their evocative force along with their association with a particular image.

I recall an old dream where I was looking for a hawk, but could find nothing but ravens. Both birds are rich in symbolism; both have made their mark in literature; a hawk has even become a metaphor for a certain type of person, though in conjunction with doves rather than ravens; but the dream seems to have more to do with the general emotional associations with both birds. I’m sure that if I were to write a poem using the image, it would be clear enough to where I could be accused of unoriginality.

Emotional metaphors are easiest to spot in the dreams of trauma victims, whose emotions are at their most extreme. These dreams abound in disasters both natural and manmade, usually with no connection to the cause of the trauma other than the emotion evoked by it. Fires, floods and train wrecks seem to be the most common. Dream researcher Ernest Hartmann has done many studies involving such dreams, and he argues that expressive metaphors of this kind are the mechanism behind all dreaming. I would assign them a more limited role, although for some dreamers they may very well be as central as he claims.

Dream-formation is not one process, but the free combination of any number of them, some linguistic, some metaphorical, some both, some neither. The general rule does indeed seem to be as Freud stated it:  the dreaming mind will use any means available to make something abstract into a concrete representation, independent of any attempts to disguise meaning. And, we might add, independent of any attempts to communicate it, using the word “communicate” in its full, literal sense, implying intent as well as appropriate expression.

But even such a broad generalization- that the dreaming mind makes abstract things concrete- is inadequate. Emotions are not abstract—we can form abstract concepts of them just as we can of everything else, but the emotions we experience are always immediate and particular— and dreams may still enact them imagistically. Things that are already quite concrete may be expressed in a metaphorical fashion. And then there are those thoughts in dreams that we don’t experience any differently than we would in waking life. I really don’t think an all-encompassing generalization is possible.

This is not meant to be a definitive statement on how dream-imagery is formed— rather, it shows the inadequacy of the easy answers that rightly fail to satisfy skeptics. I am afraid that, as most people pose the question to themselves—newcomers to dream studies, theorists and dream-skeptics alike— dreaming must do one thing only or else nothing at all. But there is absolutely no reason to assume such a dichotomy. Given that dreams themselves exemplify ‘both/and’ thinking and  rarely incorporate ‘either/or’ at all, we even have good grounds to be suspicious of it. The task of the interpreter is not so much an analytic one as it is learning to be as flexible and original in your waking thought as you were while you were dreaming.

Running metaphor count:  42, give or take a few.

To be continued….

A Difficult Book

The dream begins in a room with many young people—children, mostly. I seem to be one of the older ones there, although my age in the dream isn’t clear. It’s a location from the past—as the age of the people there suggests, one that’s quite far back for me.

I‘m reading a book of fairy tales. They’re in German, a black-letter font set in colored borders. At the same time, some others nearby are talking, and one of them asks me to see the book. I had been telling her about a certain story I had been reading. I want to show it to her now, but as I flip through the book, I can’t seem to find it. She, too, looks through the book. She finds what looks like the same story in English, in a more modern format—but I’m sure that hadn’t been there before, that what I had read had been different.

Later, I look through the book again, on my own this time, but no matter how much I look, I can’t seem to find the story. There is another I had been reading, but not the one I’m looking for. Then it occurs to me to look at the book’s cover. There, I see its title: Trust. That explains it, then. It all makes sense. That’s why I’ve been having so much trouble with this book.

Everything is taking on a dream-like feeling. I now seem to be the protagonist of the story- the one I’ve been looking for- taking a ferry over a river that runs through a village. There’s something tantalizingly familiar about this place, especially about the way the sunlight sparkles on the dark, swiftly-flowing water. But I just can’t place it.

And now, across the river, I am climbing up a muddy slope. But as I climb, the dream-like feeling begins to resolve itself into a realization: this is a dream. I am dreaming.

I am now in a white-walled, open-air corridor that I recognize as a museum. It’s like a courtyard, walled in, but with no ceiling. I can see trees rising up over the wall of the room ahead of me, and further on, partway up the side of a building, a balcony with a table and chairs. Plenty of open space. There is a room on my left with a sign outside the door labeled PHIL 773. I walk past it, since the room looks rather bare and boring, but then decide to go in after all.

Inside are a chair and a TV, turned on, in one corner, some more chairs over to my left. That seems to be all. But then someone calls out to me. There’s a man sitting in one of the chairs with its back to the doorway. He is an older man, with white hair. I don’t recognize him, but given the sign outside the room, I wonder whether he’s a philosopher, someone whose work I’ve read. I ask him what his name is. “Professor Ziegler,” he tells me. I haven’t heard of him either, then—but I did once know someone by that name. Perhaps he’s a relative of hers?

But then, suddenly, I wake up.

(October, 2015)


Nowadays, it isn’t at all strange for my first thought after awakening to be a question. Often, it is a question starting with “who”. Who was Eucleides? Who was Yuan Xi? Who was King George I, and was he one of the mad ones?

And sometimes, “who” is the wrong question. Eucleides turned out to be significant not because of anyone who had the name, but because it meant “son of Euclid”. But it’s always a good question to ask for names if you know you’re dreaming. It tells you something about the person you’re speaking with, as the sign outside a room tells you what to expect inside—and as the title of a book tells you about its contents.

A book of fairy tales, is it? Are you going to give the odd-looking stranger your hospitality? Believe the person who claims to be someone you know they couldn’t be? Take the apple? It’s rarely an easy answer, but so many times it does seem to be “yes”.

And then there are those names that you can’t trace—names that belong to a forgotten past, perhaps, or to the future. But you just don’t know—and so that’s where the trust comes in.

The Fourth Factor: Dreaming from the Top Down, Part 1

… the fairest
flowers o’ the season
Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.

Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?

For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.

Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

–William Shakespeare, “The Winter’s Tale”

“The contradiction of my theory of dreams on the part of another female patient, the most intelligent of all my dreamers, was solved in a simpler fashion…. I had one day explained to her that a dream is a wish-fulfilment. On the following day she related a dream to the effect that she was travelling with her mother-in- law to the place in which they were both to spend the summer. Now I knew that she had violently protested against spending the summer in the neighbourhood of her mother-in-law…. Was not this a flat contradiction of my theory of wish-fulfilment? One had only to draw the inferences from this dream in order to arrive at its interpretation. According to this dream, I was wrong; but it was her wish that I should be wrong, and this wish the dream showed her as fulfilled.”

–Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams”


Freud’s anecdote, as given above, may be taken as evidence of just how far psychoanalytic theory can bend over backwards to accommodate its failures. But when examined closely, it offers much more than that. Consider: if an analysand can dream in such a way as to contradict her analyst, then could the opposite happen? Do analysands ever dream in compliance with the theories of their analysts? Could it be that theorists dream in compliance with their own theories?

These possibilities don’t seem to have ever occurred to Freud. Few contemporary theorists have seriously considered them either, even those who freely use their own dreams, or their patients’, in support of their theories. They haven’t yet thought far enough to consider that there might be a loop in their chain of reasoning. I intend to demonstrate that a loop is not only there, but that it represents a key to understanding and working with dreams.


There are several ways in which a dream can be meaningful. When I first examined the problem in depth, I divided these ways into two broad categories: meaning from the bottom up and meaning from the top down. Since then, I have discovered that the dream-world is also round, but the categories may still prove useful.

Meaning from the bottom up is what most people are referring to when they ask whether dreams are meaningful, or claim that they are. Here, meaning is conceived of as something buried within a dream, to be teased out by the dreamer or his analyst through various methods of interpretation, such as dream dictionaries, Freud’s method of association, or Jung’s method of amplification.

The other category, meaning from the top down, is less commonly considered. Here, meaning is conceived of as something that arises out of the dreamer’s interaction with the dream while it is happening, or with the memory of the dream after awakening. For many dreamers and theorists, this does not seem to count as meaning. There is something illegitimate about it, possibly because it seems like an admission to people with a materialistic philosophy—i.e., most people in the West nowadays, and almost all scientists—that they are making it all up as they go. It is normally only those who practice lucid dreaming—the art of dreaming while being aware that one is dreaming—who take making it up as they go seriously.

In the series of posts, “To be a Builder of Bridges,” I did not consider the question of how dreams mean, but how we can derive meaning from them, a subtle but important distinction. How dreams mean is more basic, but how we derive meaning from them is where we begin, and so I would recommend reading those posts first.

In those posts, I wrote about three styles of interpretation: cipher, allegorical, and volitional. In practice, people who view meaning from the bottom up tend to prefer the first two, and people who view meaning from the top down prefer the latter, but the divisions are not absolute. Meaning from the top down is in flat contradiction of some individual theories of dreaming, but none of the categories is formally at odds with it. A symbolic or cipher method may recognize that dreaming itself is a process of interpretation, in which case the task of the awakened dreamer is to undo the interpretation of the previous night, like Penelope in reverse— or like an artist examining his newly-finished work and seeing its significance for the first time. Behind the recognition of meaning from the top down is the recognition of dreaming as an art.

It is curious that of the two giants of dream interpretation, Freud and Jung, it is Freud who came closer to understanding this. To Jung, a dream was something belonging to nature, and so opposed to art; to Freud, it was a deception, and so allied with it. But both of them would have done well to consider the argument of Polyxenes.

The Quest for Normality

A friend of mine who is knowledgeable about neuroscience once told me that only one person in 1,000 has a normal brain. In a purely statistical sense, that means that normal is actually weirder than weird: mostly, it just serves as a useful reference point so that all the weird people can articulate the ways in which they’re weird to one another.

But even if you were to find a normal person and ask them what their dreams were like, I doubt they could tell you what a normal dream is. To do that, they would have to be a normal person with normal concerns playing a normal role in a normal society with a normal view on dreams—and at that point, normality becomes totally meaningless. No wonder researchers prefer just taking the average. Does it really matter so much if your ‘normal’ has a little ‘weird’ in it?

This is why the concept of a default, normal dream is such a questionable one: dreams exist in a dynamic relationship with the dreamer’s life, and normality in life is not an easy concept to measure. It is probably also why there is no universally accepted definition of what a dream is: there are many styles of dreaming, potentially as many as there are dreamers.

‘Style’ is a good word to use here: in writing, too, there is no such thing as a normal style, and efforts to define one start to look outdated pretty quickly. As with writing, dreaming style tends to become more pronounced as people take an interest in their dreams. If you tried to determine the average writing style in a society that devalued literacy the way mainstream Western society devalues dreaming, you would probably discover that it was muddled, confused, and not communicating anything worth knowing. If you then created a theory on the nature of writing based on your results—well, I guess you’d end up with the Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis of literature.

Devaluing dreams is typically Western; so is the view of dreaming as an inward-looking state, which is what makes dreaming one of those conversation topics. Everybody knows that other people’s dreams are boring—or else a little too interesting. As private affairs, it is unreasonable to expect strangers or casual acquaintances to take an interest in them.

But the society where the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” was formulated probably took a very different view of dreams. I say ‘probably’ because I haven’t done the research, but I know that the Western view is unusual, possibly even unique. Traditionally, dreaming has been a community affair.

For dreamers to have individual styles—at least, those who care enough about their dreams to pay attention to them— is also characteristic of the westernized world rather than characteristic of dreams in general. Here, too, there is a parallel in art: Western artists tend to have individual styles, but if you look at ancient Egyptian art, or Aztec art, you only see one style.*

This gives a poignancy to the quest for normality, which is also typically Western. We are the weird ones—all together, and each of us alone.

*With exceptions, of course.

A Dialogue on Monsters

Summing up, we can say that a dream shows not only that the dreamer is occupied in the solution of one of his life’s problems, but also how he approaches these problems.

–Alfred Adler

…Then the dream changed. I was in a room with a lot of other kids, including Nina. I walked in and stood with her. Then, a monster came out of a central pillar. It somehow singled me out. I knew I had to fight him. I won. I didn’t know how, but I did. Then we were let into another room exactly the same as the last one, and a monster came out. Everyone looked at me expectantly and we fought. Just when I thought he’d had me beaten, I pressed the button in the central pillar and the monster disappeared. We were let into a third room exactly like the first two. I knew there was another monster I had to defeat. Then I woke up. (2001)

I’m not quite sure how he and I came to be talking about dream-monsters that night. I think the conversation had turned to Kafka and his dream-machines: I had recently been to a museum where I had seen little models of them, built the way Kafka had described them in his stories, and my friend, a surrealist writer, took an interest in anything having to do with the subconscious mind.

It is a bit of a stretch to call him a friend, since we had only met recently and that long walk back to the bus station was the last time I ever saw him. But I’m sure we would have been friends if I hadn’t moved away, or if we had stayed in touch afterwards. I promised I would write him into a poem. I did do that, but I’m not entirely happy with the way it turned out, so this will be a second chance.

My friend, like me, and like most people, had sometimes dreamed of monsters when he was younger. ‘Monster’ is a vague term to use—but I suppose anything can be a monster to a child. Animals, groups of strange men, and large creatures are some of the usual suspects. My friend’s were mainly of the ‘large creature’ variety, if I remember correctly. When they appeared, he would be frozen to the spot, unable to move or fight back until it attacked him and he woke up—a nightmare.

I took a more proactive approach with mine. Whatever kept him frozen didn’t seem to affect me, and so I was not only able to fight back, but to do so very successfully. In retrospect, perhaps a bit too successfully.

Fighting monsters became a habit, which is why I doubt I would find any definite triggers for the dreams even if I had kept a journal of my daily life alongside my dream-journal when I was younger. I could offer some reasons why I had them—but there’s a level at which it doesn’t really matter. When you have a dream-journal that spans years, you can see the patterns of your life written large, while the individual pictures become a bit blurred.

Of course, just looking at someone’s dreams you can’t predict how the attitude you see there manifests in their waking life, or even if it manifests at all—the sole difference between dreaming as continuity and dreaming as compensation. This makes life difficult for dream researchers and other people who like double-blind tests, but again, there’s a level at which that doesn’t matter all that much. Some people write off dreams as mere reflections of waking life, but this is a mistake: rather, dreams reflect attitudes and personality just as a person’s waking life does, although not necessarily in the same way.

Some people and I were on a journey. Conditions were pretty rough. We had to do a lot of fighting, even killing, to survive and set things right…. (2008)

I dreamed that a group of people and I were fighting human-like creatures in and around a place similar to my parents’ house…. Others joined us along the way. We fought for a long time, indoors and out, all kinds of places…. After a while, a great number of our enemies were ganging up on us. Over the balcony, in the room below, were my allies. I wanted them to come help, to prevent us from being overwhelmed, but they didn’t want to—I think they were tired out…. (2010)

I was the captain of a ship, about to do battle with another ship. The other ship’s captain and I stood among the rigging, by our flags. A storm raged, snow or freezing rain. My enemy fought with fear: he made it appear to me that we had hit an iceberg and the ship was sinking fast, and I was rushing towards an icy death below. The ship seemed to plunge downwards— I nearly cried out, but something in the illusion broke and both ships were floating among snowflakes, far from all else. (2010)

…The scene changed—I saw a woman standing in a cemetery as snow fell. (2010)

After a while, something interesting happened to my friend: he began to realize he was dreaming and that his dream-monsters posed no threat to him. When he found himself in such a dream, he would stand still and calmly let the monster kill him, knowing that he wouldn’t actually be harmed. He would just wake up.

You often hear stories like that from lucid dreamers  when they talk about how they first became interested in dreams. It’s facing a threat, a threat that reoccurs and doesn’t seem to go away on its own, that impels the cooperation between their waking and dreaming selves. Threat heightens awareness—and once awareness in dreams becomes a habit, the possibilities are endless.

There are other solutions as well: figuring out that you’re dreaming while the dream is taking place helps the most, but thinking about your dreams while awake and intending to change the way they end has proven effective for many people. Sometimes all it takes is to stop running; sometimes it takes just one moment of clarity, where you look more carefully at what’s pursuing you and see that it isn’t a threat at all. Once you start befriending your dream-enemies, they stop bothering you—or so I hear. I never did much of that myself.

…Once inside, I found a child and told her to tell the others to go down to the basement, where they’d be safer…. My father moved aside, so I aimed the gun and fired, but nothing but a stream of air left the barrel. I immediately gripped the gun by the barrel and attacked the intruder’s head with it. We fought for a while. Mostly, I just used karate. Over near the kitchen table, I had pinned him to the ground, where I hit him many times over…. The other man was still outside—I figured he was waiting for the man I had just killed to report back, and he too might enter when he didn’t. In the meantime, I went to look for another gun down in the basement. An older woman was there, along with many children, who greeted me. I thought about what I had just done—I had killed a man. But they didn’t know that, and treated me just the same as before. I didn’t actually feel all that different…. (2011)

…There were too many enemies to take on, though, at least without a better strategy…. (2012)

Among dream-workers, the consensus seems to be that fighting back is not a constructive response. Some will tell you that victory is impossible, a conclusion derived not from experience—what could any number of defeats ever prove?— but from an understanding of how we acquire dream-enemies. It is our fear that brings our enemies into existence, and reacting to them out of fear will only create more of them. Running away, fighting back, freezing up—all fearful responses.

I have also seen calling on other dream characters for help recommended, but isn’t this too a fearful response? It is better to feel you have someone to rely on than to feel that the whole world is against you, but it would be better still to have no need of allies— or enemies— in the first place.

…There was a stage set up with three holes in a rock face on the right, and a cave over on the left, accessible through the hole closest to the audience. I watched a couple people take turns with the same scene—a zombie apocalypse—and then I found myself waking up there, half-lying in the river. It wasn’t at all like being on a stage, but in an odd way I was aware that I was there the whole time. Another person and I were ‘fighting zombies’. Other people had tried it, but had been overwhelmed—I had had the most success so far. They came onstage until I was surrounded, but they moved slowly, so I was able to beat them using only my hands and feet. I kept expecting others to come on. Seeing a group of three children, I went for them, but one told me that they were playing chairs, not zombies. I asked if they knew where the zombies were. I think we had defeated them all? (2013)

What surprised me the most about my friend’s story was that his response didn’t seem to be a constructive one, either. Mind you, I didn’t set enough store on the advice I had read to actually follow it, but I knew how the story was supposed to end.

My friend’s solution worked for a while: he let his dream-monsters kill him and woke up, just as he knew he would. But then he began to experience false awakenings: time after time, he would dream that he had woken up, but before long there would be another monster, another awakening. Sometimes it would happen half a dozen times in a row. He no longer saw his monsters as a threat, and yet he had only stepped into another nightmare. Where did it go wrong?

Was treating them as nothing but illusions just another kind of running away?

I dreamed I was on vacation with my father and some others at a campsite somewhere in Europe. Something bad was going on, and a group of men had surrounded the site. My father and I ran to the small house they were going to enter through. He went in by a side door. I shouted to him that a man was already running through the front door, but it was too late. He came back out, but the man came with him. I stepped up and told him that I was guarding the camp and wouldn’t let him through. He seemed incredulous, so I told him that I knew magic, and I’d set the air inside his lungs on fire if he tried to come any closer. He didn’t try. Later on, though, more men arrived in a truck. The camp’s owner had ceded to them, so now they had use of the site. My father encouraged me to go off on my own for the rest of the time we were staying there. I was reluctant, saying that I shouldn’t need a vacation from a vacation, but the idea did appeal to me. I could travel freely, the way I had done before…. (2014)

It turns out that victory isn’t impossible—go figure. I won. The monsters vanished.

The monsters vanished—but I was still the person I had had to become to fight them, and the sudden lack of enemies threw me completely off-balance. It was far more bewildering than a defeat would have been, and perhaps it was the only way left for my dreams to truly pull the rug out from under my feet, as my friend’s had done to him.

I am speaking in metaphors and generalities, of course. I wouldn’t want anyone to take this too seriously. But to say that it all means nothing would require superhuman levels of denial. Having made a few spirited attempts myself, I can attest to it.

I dreamed I was playing a video game, a 2D platformer. I played a level of travel followed by a boss battle with a large creature and two smaller ones, then another level of travel that ended with going up into a large, disc-shaped airship. Another boss battle took place there. This one was harder: the big, metallic creature and the two smaller ones were only vulnerable at certain moments. After that, it was as if I was in a different part of the airship, but watching the person I was from 3rd person perspective. The ‘me’ on the ship was very tired, and said to the person I was talking to, “I’m going to sleep now”— then immediately collapsed…. (2015)

…Later, I was lying in a bed, as a doctor wrote at a desk. He may or may not have been a cat—the dream was oddly vague on that point. As I watched, I began to realize I was dreaming. I wanted to ask a question. I asked him: “Why have I been so tired lately?” He paused, as if gathering his thoughts together, then answered me. “First, it’s your sleeping schedule.” The gist of what he said was that I was going to sleep too late and waking up too late. “Second, you’re no longer driven by a reason to live.” I can’t remember the details that came after that, but I was thinking that he was right: I had lost what had been driving me, and I had nothing to replace it with. I had just been trying to pretend that it wasn’t important, that I hadn’t really lost anything…. (2015)

I had gone to a place near a forest where a race was just ending, and people were leaving. On the way back out, I passed through a tavern or restaurant where the staff was cleaning up the remains of a meal. A short flight of stairs led up to the exit. A young woman in a blue and black dress was lying there, asleep or passed out. I stepped through the door, but then turned to ask a man with a broom who was standing nearby, “Will she be all right?” I can’t remember the answer I received. (2015)

“Has it got any drunks in it?” he asked me.

I racked my memory. It had been a long time since 11th grade English, and I hadn’t been paying that much attention to begin with.

“I think so,” I ventured.

“Good,” he said. “I like stories with drunks.”

It was a warm spring evening outside the theater, a few minutes before curtain. Now that the sun had gone down, the flowering trees seemed much more fragrant—one of the first beautiful evenings this year. I was happy that the weather had turned nice before I had to leave.

We spoke about many things that evening—the dreams came later—but I recall that at one point, we were talking about the internet, and he mentioned how people nowadays were using it as a way to get away from reality. It was creating a generation of escapists.

“Nah, people have always done that,” I answered. And as if to confirm what I had said, that turned out to be what “The Glass Menagerie” was all about.

I now tend to think that’s what most things in life are about, when you have the big picture in view. Art is a common way of escaping reality—but it can also bring you closer to it. Becoming too involved in your dream life can easily turn into escapism—but so can ignoring it, and claiming it was just something you ate. Work, relationships, the internet, writing in a journal—name anything you can think of, it’s sure to be a double-edged sword. And I’m sure we all know what happens to those who live by the sword: it is the one reality none of us can ever escape.

To my friend, I say: may your dreams be as surreal as your stories are. Next time we meet, I’ll be fighting for the right reasons. But one doesn’t fight hoping to win.

To be a Builder of Bridges: Part 2

Wunder ist nicht nur im unerklärten
Überstehen der Gefahr;
erst in einer klaren reingewährten
Leistung wird das Wunder wunderbar.

Miracle’s not only in the unexplained
Outlasting of the threat;
Only in the clear, consummate
Achievement is the miracle defined.

–Rainer Maria Rilke


Before moving on, I have an admission to make: I am not really qualified to write this. I am singularly lacking in credentials of every sort, and I would be to a semiotician what a bounty hunter is to a law enforcement officer if anyone were paying me to do this. But for all that, I may still be in the right.

The ultimate test for a system of dream-interpretation is whether it’s useful. A system does not have to be true to be useful: there are 2,000-year old navigation devices that got people where they needed to go, even while the theory behind them was wrong. By this standard, I don’t think any system of dream interpretation would actually fail the test. The reasons why are interesting, but this isn’t the place for them.

However, the subject of this essay is neither truth nor utility, but structure – the shape of our question  and the corresponding array of answers it might yield. I am not concerned with what dreams mean, but with how we can derive meaning from them – the possible structures that the dream, the dreamer and the interpretation make together. Many theories of dreaming assume that the interpretation process must somehow retrace the original dream-formation process, but for the moment, how a dream takes shape is also outside my purview.

It is important to consider structure first because it keeps us from asking stupid questions and then wondering later on why the answers we get make no sense. It also makes the assumptions we bring to our study visible by allowing us to recognize possibilities that we have unconsciously excluded.

A case in point: J. Allan Hobson, the creator of the activation-synthesis hypothesis—considered one of the foremost theories of dreaming for the past few decades— clearly did not consider the full implications of making ‘bizarreness’ one of his defining characteristics of dreams.

Bizarreness, by Hobson’s definition, refers to “unlikely elements in the dream narrative”—but unlikely compared to what? The word implies a comparison that Hobson does not explicitly state. What he probably means is, “unlikely compared to waking life or narratives of waking life”—but why should either one be the standard by which a dream is judged? When you are trying to determine the relationship between the brain dreaming and the brain awake, as Hobson is, this amounts to assuming what you’re trying to prove.

If we begin by assuming that events in dreams that are impossible in waking life are errors—for instance, a human character turning into an animal— we cannot hope to find a perspective in which those ‘errors’ are meaningful in their own right. No literary critic would consider Gregor Samsa turning into an insect in Metamorphosis to be an authorial mistake (although I doubt any two could agree as to what it means). Perhaps dreams can be better compared to novels than to waking life; perhaps they are even more like myths, or poetry, or improvisational theater. But we are not entitled to that ‘better’. We can make all the comparisons we like later on, but we must begin by taking dreams on their own terms.


Interpreting a dream is a retrospective act. When we interpret, we do so from the perspective of waking life, where it is something over and done with; we are not working with a dream itself, but with the memory of a dream. Moreover, even though we call it “dream interpretation,” it is just as fair to say that what we’re doing is using a dream to interpret waking life. Waking life is what matters to us when we interpret – it’s where we are, it’s where we’re interpreting from. If we were to attempt to interpret a dream while dreaming, we would be looking at an entirely different process. There could be no talk of building bridges then.

Since the memory of a dream is the raw material for all interpretation, it is useful to consider what the memory of a dream consists of:

1. sensory impressions: visual and auditory images, tactile sensations, occasionally a smell or taste.

2. feeling-tones: emotions experienced within the dream and moods that seem to characterize the dream in a less defined way.

3. cognitive acts: planning, recognition, internal monologues, assessments of dream-events, settings, characters, etc.

4. changes: the actions, interactions and transformations that take place in a dream.

5. identity: a sense of agency which may or may not be experienced as it is in waking life.

All of these may be remembered as part of a coherent narrative or in a fragmentary way. Often, we seem to recognize people in dreams without being able to recall distinct sensory impressions of them, or we recall our actions without having any insight into our motivations or emotions. Sometimes we may not be actors in our own dreams, but disembodied witnesses.

Mostly, however, the memories of dreams seem comparable to memories of waking-life, though more like distant memories than recent ones. As with distant memories, we have to trust that we have retained something important, while admitting that they are incomplete and probably the result of an unconscious process of selection.

In reading a description of someone else’s dream, we are yet another step removed from the original experience. A dreamer may not always have taken the trouble to record those elements that are hardest to communicate, especially if they weren’t motivated by an interest in dreaming. Participants in dream-lab experiments seldom mention emotions unless they’re specifically asked to, and in order to do justice to mood and emotional atmosphere, you practically have to be a poet. But emotions are too unpredictable to guess at, and too important to ignore. The perceptions in dreams are illusory, and cognition in dreams is often inscrutable to the waking mind – at least on the surface. But emotions in dreams have as much claim to reality as any we experience.

As for waking life, which the dream must somehow be put into relation with, we have the totality of our life experiences—past, present, and future—our hopes, fears, thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and the lives of our family, peers, culture, and others we associate with. I exclude neither one-sided associations like that between an artist and his dead predecessors, or a fan with a celebrity he has never met, nor relations with supernatural beings which, real or not, are felt on an experiential level.

In considering dreams, we are often severely limited by what we can remember, but in considering waking life, we are spoiled for choice. It will often be obvious to a dreamer when a dream concerns the very recent past or an anticipated future, but instincts can be fallible. In practice, a method of interpretation will usually limit the range of life experience to be considered to the dreamer’s present thoughts, feelings, or concerns (a useful umbrella category). An orientation of this kind is necessary if the interpretation is to be useful, even if dreams do not by nature limit themselves in such a way. In any case, the present has a tendency to look a lot like the past, so there’s really no compelling reason to pin a dream down to a specific time except for utility.

A method of interpretation may also limit the dream-elements to be considered, either by formally disqualifying some of them—for example, by considering only visual images— or by ranking them according to the dreamer’s subjective concern. This is an approach that some theorists have tried to justify theoretically, but it can better be understood as a practical necessity. If one element makes a clear point of connection to the dreamer’s life, the rest of the dream will often seem to fall into place around it. If a series of dreams is considered as the basic interpretive unit rather than a dream or a dream-image, one dream may provide the key to understanding the others in a similar way.

One form of dream-interpretation may seem to be an exception to this general structural outline: interpretation using a dream-dictionary, especially one with a spiritual tone. But a translation in a dream-dictionary is best considered a method of interpretation rather than the end-result. The interpretation is not complete until the dream is somehow brought to bear on the dreamer’s life.

A real exception is the interpretation of dreams as events occurring in a reality other than the physical reality we inhabit, or as precognitions of events taking place in physical reality. The dream may be considered as either a literal or a symbolic representation of such events. Dreaming in the West has traditionally been thought of as an inward-looking state, but if we actually interact with supernatural beings or other dreamers in our dreams, then the situation changes. But it may not even be appropriate to consider this a form of interpretation, since the significance of such dreams seems to be experienced in a more direct way than the word ‘interpretation’ implies by those who claim to experience them. In short, it is a whole other kettle of fish, and a can of worms besides.