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Merry dreaming!

Updated on February 1, 2012

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the old folk song:

Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.

It’s a very pretty little song, often sung as round, and with a simple lilting melody that becomes quite hypnotic as more rounds are sung. I can (just) remember it being sung to me as a child, and can definitely recall singing it to my daughter. It holds nothing but happy memories for me. But I rather puzzle at the implied association of ‘merrily’ with ‘dream.’

Dreams are often strange, bizarre, puzzling, intriguing, disturbing and occasionally downright terrifying.

I’m at home (it doesn’t look like any home I’ve ever had, but it feels like home), then somebody walks in and says something, and the next thing I know I’m in a strange town and everyone is wearing yellow coats, but I’m naked and desperately need to find a particular store because I must find my grandmother’s coffee-pot; I try to ask for directions but the first person I approach is my old schoolteacher who reprimands me for something (which I can’t quite catch), and then suddenly I’m falling off a bridge over a deep river and… jerk myself awake.

Even if you haven’t had that particular dream (which, by the way, is a complete fabrication), I’m sure you’ll recognise elements of it.

But merry? I don’t think I have ever heard someone say that they had a merry dream. I don’t doubt that such dreams occur, and certainly I have read of people laughing themselves awake, but nobody has personally told me of such an experience.

People throughout history have been fascinated by dreams, and despite millennia of speculation and much modern research, we still don’t know why we dream.

Are they instructions or warnings from the gods? Glimpses into the future? Messages from the unconscious? Or simply the mind doing routine overnight house-keeping: sifting through all our experiences of the day, filing some, putting others in the bin, cross-referencing and indexing? Perhaps it is all of these, or something completely different.

As a therapist with a long-standing interest in personal development, I divide dreams into two main categories: those that have an emotional impact upon us and those that do not. My focus and interest lies on those that have a significant impact upon us, either because we wake from them with a definite emotional reaction (such as anxiety, fear or sadness) or because they stick in the mind.

The other kind may puzzle us; we may on waking wonder “What on earth was that about?” and even tell our partner – but within a few hours, maybe minutes, we forget all about them. I’ll leave this category to the neuroscientists to explore!

But when we have an emotional reaction to a dream or if we feel that somehow they are significant, then, as a therapist, I am interested. Such dreams often provide an insight into the deep inner workings of our psyche, and frequently can highlight matters that we are not aware of or feelings that we don’t which to consciously admit. Dreams can be the way in which some aspect of ourselves grab our attention and yell “You’re not paying attention to me!”

Interpreting dream is an art, not a science. There are hundreds if not thousands of books and websites that will explain dream symbolism, but these are bound to be somewhat simplistic. While there may be common symbols, how these should be interpreted depends on so many other factors: location, colour, position, our reaction to them, the presence or absence of other characters, the context in which they appear, what we associate with the symbol and above all our own beliefs, values and attitudes.

Say you dream about a snake. There are many possible associations; it is an ancient fertility symbol, and also one of healing (it is often found on medical symbols); but many people associate with evil because of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. What is your immediate reaction? How big is the snake, what colour is it – and what do you associate with that colour? Where was it: on the ground or up a tree, in your home? Did you feel distressed or threatened by it?

There are so many factors involved that it is impossible to say that dreaming about a snake means this.

There are two aspects that I think it is worth highlighting. Our unconscious mind frequently seems to have a sense of humour when it comes to dreams. Often there are puns or other forms of word-play involved. So, for example, a dream that is about some aspect of time (maybe you are procrastinating about something or worried about ageing) may have a scene where you are in a herb-garden where thyme is growing. A dream where you are struggling to walk up a grassy bank may reveal worries about financial security. These little details, so easy to overlook, can provide a great deal of useful information. Sometimes they seem to be present because we cannot face the real truth and so a pun is an indirect way of expressing the message; at other times they appear to be reinforcers, humourous ways of underlining the point.

Another important consideration is that the characters in dreams generally represent you yourself. This may be directly, in that they represent some aspect of yourself; or indirectly by representing how you feel about something.

So, a young child in your dream probably represents some part of your child-self that has not been fully integrated into your adult self. In some aspect of your life you are operating more on an immature, child level than a mature adult one.

Movie stars are common characters in dreams. Sorry, but that isn’t actually Johnny Depp there and it’s unlikely that it’s a prediction that he’s going to come calling on you! More likely is that he represents your feelings about self-expression, admiration, your visibility in the world. If you are frequently dreaming about movie stars or other powerful people, then perhaps you are frustrated in not finding a way to achieve your potential?

Some people say they never dream. They almost certainly do, but simply transition very well from dream-sleep into wakefulness. If you want to remember your dreams – or to explore them more – there’s an easy way to do get started. Simply keep a notebook and pen by the side of your bed, and first thing on waking jot down anything you remember, however vague. Just getting into this routine can prompt you to remember your dreams with greater clarity, and the more you do it the easier it gets.

There’s a great deal of fascinating material in your mind, so get exploring.

Merry dreaming!

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