Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Getting The Wrong Idea: What The Dream Is Not About

Sometimes it takes a mistake to point us in the right direction. This is especially true with dreamwork. When I’m trying to unfold the many meanings of a dream, I often get the clearest sense of what is truly significant by testing “false leads” and taking “wrong turns.”

Dreams offer multiple (and sometimes contradictory) truths, and it’s possible to find truth in unexpected places, yet it is still quite evident that some interpretations seem off track or “wrong.” Some ways of looking at the dream obviously don’t fit. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of trying on those ill-fitting garments, because when we’re wearing them and we look in the mirror, it is immediately apparent just how and why this outfit is not right. Obviously, the sleeves are too long, or the material is too scratchy, or the colors clash. And then, we can go back to the rack and find an alternative with shorter sleeves, or softer fabric, or better colors. In other words, when we know what a dream isn’t we have a much clearer idea what it is.

Sometimes, if a dreamer is sharing a dream and having difficulty remembering the details, I’ll just throw out random suggestions that might or might not fit. While the suggestions that happen to be “hits” are helpful, the ones that are obvious “misses” often spark an even clearer sense of the dream.

For instance, if the dreamer mentions that there’s a man standing beside her in this dream, but says she doesn’t remember anything about the man, I might ask things like: “Was he very old? Was he tall? Did he have a beard?” These specific questions are much more likely to evoke a deeper memory of the dream figure than the usual, more open-ended questions such as “How old was he? How tall was he? Did he have any distinguishing features?” I think this is because the more specific questions actually create an image in the dreamer’s mind, and when she compares this image (a tall, bearded, or old man) to the vague impression of the man in her dream, she can tell that it’s not a match, and therefore the dream figure’s actual presence begins to emerge more distinctly.

Occasionally, if I’m not sure how to approach a dream that someone shares with me, I’ll intentionally “try on” some possibilities that I sense probably won’t fit. If someone has a dream about a cow, and we aren’t sure what to make of it, I might say, “Hmm. Well, cows are often associated with motherhood (because they give milk)…” when, even though it’s true that cows can be associated with motherhood, I suspect that the cow in this dream has a more immediate significance for the dreamer. When I make a suggestion that seems to lead further away from his direct experience of the dream, the dreamer shakes his head and begins to tell me how this particular dream cow reminds him of a family car trip when a cow blocked the road and wouldn’t budge. It’s possible, of course, that this dream-cow had something to do with the dreamer’s mother, but the dreamer is much more engaged by his memory of the cow as an obstacle which led to a family dispute—and other aspects of the dream are consistent with this insight whereas the “motherhood” association is, at best, remote.

Of course, if I made a lot of these off-base suggestions, the dreamer would begin to doubt that I was really listening to the dream itself, and could even feel uncomfortable with such an insensitive, heavy-handed approach. So, ordinarily, I’ll offer these bad ideas as bad ideas, saying, “Well, this probably has nothing to do with your dream, but…” Still, just having an image or idea to place in juxtaposition with the actual experience of the dream is often enough to initiate the dreamer’s own insights.

Another commonly used “compare and contrast” trick is to ask the dreamer how the dream would be different if the cow were, for instance, a moose. Even if the dream cow was a pretty vague image, most dreamers would immediately respond that the cow must be a cow—a moose would be all wrong. One dreamer might say that a cow is more mild-mannered and domestic than a moose; another dreamer might say that this cow, unlike any moose, had a face that reminded him of Donald Trump, or a way of chewing her cud that reminded him of a kid chewing bubblegum. This tells us a lot about how a dreamer feels about cows in general and this cow in particular, and often evokes associations relevant to other images in the dream.

I regularly play the “wrong idea” game with myself and my own dreams. While working with a recent dream where I was trying to carry a fox pup in one arm and a fawn in the other, I thought of the grim old story of the “brave Spartan boy,” where a boy hides a fox under his tunic, stoically holding on while walking for miles, only to drop dead when he reaches his destination because the fox has been gnawing at his belly, trying to escape. Yes, that’s a vivid, disturbing image, and could possibly have something to do with my dream… But, more importantly, it contradicts the dream’s essential feeling. The “wrongness” of the story makes me shake my head and remind myself: “But the fox in this dream is not hurting me. This fox is playful, wiggling and batting at the fawn. The fox and the fawn are both youngsters, and my main concern is how I’m going to keep from dropping them as they wake up and start getting curious about each other and the world.”

Contrasting the dream with the awful story makes me more aware of the dream’s gentleness, and my concern for these two shy forest creatures. One may be a predator, and the other may be prey—yet they are both in my care, and the fox shows no sign of any instinct to harm the fawn, or me. On some level, the dream may indeed relate to my “bravery” and endurance in carrying something difficult to carry, but this takes a very different form from the story of the Spartan boy. Specifically, I notice that, in my dream, I’m holding onto a paradox: two opposing forces that are innocently trying to play together. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t first thought of the Greek story, and how it doesn’t match my dream experience.

I hope that when you’re exploring your own dreams or the dreams of others, you can invite the ideas that don’t fit as well as the ideas that do. Like playing dress-up—putting on costumes (or trying out dream theories) that seem wildly inappropriate can be fun, and can make it clearer who we really are or could be.

Incidentally, with this kind of no-holds-barred approach to dreamwork, we’ll occasionally stumble upon a wildly unlikely dream insight that fits perfectly. While trying on the crazy costumes and laughing at how silly they look, you might discover that, in fact, the weird space alien outfit really suits you! Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. All the best discoveries happen when we drop our resistance to the unlikely, the uncomfortable, the unexpected—especially with dreams.

8 Comments

  1. Excellent article and great reminder to be daring and stretch. My dream groups start up in a couple of weeks and will be sure to share this. Good seeing you in Scottsdale. So enjoyed that. Be well.

  2. Wonderful! Thank you.

  3. Velda Metelmann The dream of the kestrels reminded me of this verse, so I thought to share it.

    August 21, 2018 at 11:52 am

    I love your idea of “going wrong” in interpretation. Last night I was knitting and found that I had dropped stitches two inches from my place. I worked hard to pick those stitches up before waking and am batting around several ideas as to their meaning. I’ll try a wrong tack and see……

    • This reminds me of the famous line from a Leonard Cohen song: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Thanks, Velda!

  4. Meghan O'Flaherty

    August 21, 2018 at 10:11 am

    Funny you should mention wearing colors that clash – I had a dream last night where I kept wearing clashing colors.

    • Perfect! Either you notice that the clashing colors are “wrong,” or you decide to embrace the colorful dissonance and wear them anyway. Both possibilities can open up new questions and options… Thank you, Meghan!

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