Dream Actions | The Narrative Component that Tells the Story
The action of a dream tells the story. It’s how meaning is conveyed and definition is given to symbols.
Focusing just on dream symbols is a mistake because it misses out on the true meaning. Besides, a dream symbol by itself doesn’t tell us much. It’s like a snapshot compared to a video. Take a snapshot of a scene and show it to someone, and they have to guess at what is really going on in the scene. Show them a video of the scene and they see the action, so guesses aren’t needed.
For example, you see a snapshot of an athlete with a pie pan full of whipped cream right below his face, and you might presume he is about to get smashed in the face with the pan. It’s a common prank, especially among baseball players. But a video of the scene shows in the next instant the athlete lathers his beard with the cream and starts shaving. The action tells the story. A snapshot can be deceptive.
When analyzing a dream, ask yourself what happens in it. What is the plot, the action? Break it down to simplest terms then compare that with your life.
Actions Narrow Down the Possibilities
The actions you or other characters take in a dream is the key to understanding it. In many dreams I help interpret, the action is the most important part to analyze because it narrows down the possible meanings for the symbolism. When you identify a symbol in your dream, the next step is to figure out which one of its possible meanings is being used. Once you have that information it is like a master key in your hand that unlocks other doors.
For example, let’s say that you dream about a horse. You wake up and search a dream dictionary for what a horse means. The dictionary says that a horse in a dream symbolizes strength, endurance, speed, and virility. But the horse in your dream has a bad back, and when you try to ride it the poor thing falls flat on the ground. That is not an image of strength. It’s the opposite.
If this was my dream I would wonder if I lack the strength or confidence to shoulder a burden or complete a task, because the back area is where burdens or loads are carried. Plus, horses are beasts of burden. When domesticated, they carry riders and haul loads. Picture the classic image of a cowboy riding through a prairie or desert on his horse, or the farmer using a horse to haul a cart-load of produce to the market.
The Action Itself Is Symbolism
The action itself can be, and often is, symbolism.
I begin analyzing a dream by describing it in simplest terms. The method applies to all dream symbolism, including the action. With any scene in a dream, ask yourself, what is the essence of the action(s) portrayed? For example:
- You’re in a restaurant ordering from a menu. The essence of what is going on is you’re making a choice from among possibilities.
- You lock the doors of your house. The essence of that action is you’re protecting yourself from intrusion or trying to keep something out.
- You watch your father cross a bridge over a raging river. The essence of that action is you are observing your father pass over an obstacle.
Once you describe the essence of the action, compare it to your recent life. What kind of choices are you making; what are your possibilities (dream 1)?
What are you trying to protect yourself from or keep out of your life (dream 2)?
What obstacle is your father getting passed? Or what obstacle in your life are you getting passed that’s related to being a father, either in the literal sense or the figurative sense (dream 3)? Oftentimes the characters in our dreams are projections of ourselves, so the image of your father in a dream can be a projection of something about him that you also see in yourself.
As with all symbolism, you don’t look at any single detail to make your interpretation and draw your conclusions. The details all fit together to form a picture. The actions are viewed together with the settings, characters, and other symbolism, like putting together a puzzle.
Here is an example to illustrate what I mean. The dreamer is a female in high school:
I walk in a line with my female peers. One at a time we walk across a platform, like a plank, that spans a dark pit. The platform is tricky and can suddenly flip over. Some of my peers fall off into the pit. I walk across and make it to the other side. I enter a room with a sign overhead that says “PROM.” Inside is a group of bored teens and a picked-over food buffet.
This dream says so much in a couple of simple scenes. The meaning is found in the actions. First, the dreamer walks in a line with her female peers. The essence of that action is she is participating in something that other girls her age are also doing, like a rite of passage. The phrase ‘rite of passage’ is enacted by the girls walking over a dark pit and passing to the other side. More meaning is enacted when the platform flips over and dumps some of the girls into the dark pit.
The scene at the end gives away the meaning when the dreamer walks into the room and finds bored teens and a picked-over foot buffet. Along with other clues, other pieces of the puzzle, it tells us what walking over the pit means. But let’s start from the beginning with the knowledge that becoming sexually active is the rite of passage this female teen is dreaming about.
The dream compares becoming sexually active to walking in a line with her peers. One at a time they all “take the plunge.” It’s an experience filled with potential for peril. One wrong move and a girl could get pregnant, catch a disease, or ruin her reputation. That’s the meaning of falling off the platform into the dark pit. The dreamer avoids those pitfalls when she becomes sexually active, but apparently the experience does not live up to her expectations. She gets to the other side of the pit and enters a room marked by the word “PROM.” Prom is the big event when some of her peers lose their virginity. The bored teens and picked-over food buffet express her feelings about it. It was nothing to be excited about.
In my dream everything is dark, like it is nighttime. My mother hands me a bottle and explains why I have to poison my dog. I don’t remember the reason, but it eventually makes sense to me in my dream. I pour the poison in with my dog’s kibble. She eats it. A few minutes later she starts walking slowly, becoming tired. So I sit down on the floor and hold her in my lap with both arms, waiting for her to die. Her body immediately becomes limp, heavy, and cold. I start hyperventilating and screaming.
I storm out of the room and my family, in an uncaring way, asks why I am hysterical. I explain that my mother convinced me to kill my dog and I don’t know why I did it. My mother starts laughing. I grab her by her collar and repeatedly punch her in the face. I feel the resistance in my knuckles, the smacking and cracking of bones in her face, the weight of her head snapping back. No matter how much I punch her she doesn’t seem fazed. No one stops me, they just step back and say the way I am acting is disappointing.
The main action in this dream is the dreamer poisons her dog. She is convinced by her mother to do it. To understand the dream, first we must understand what poisoning her dog means.
Dogs are man’s best friend, and in dreams they can symbolize friends or the subject of friendship. Poisoning a friend could symbolize poisoning a relationship. The question to ask is, what is going on in this dreamer’s life that would poison a friendship, and how is her mother involved?
The dreamer was being pushed by her family—her mother, especially—to marry her best friend. It led to having a huge argument with her friend that almost ended the relationship. Her mother is a manipulative narcissist, according to the dreamer, who tries to convince her to do things she doesn’t want to do. This background information explains the scene where she is convinced by her mother to poison her dog.
The second scene enacts the dreamer’s feelings about the situation. Punching someone in the face is a way of expressing hot anger or frustration. This dreamer is both angry and frustrated with her mother, and nothing she does changes the dynamics of the situation. Her mother will continue being a manipulative bitch no matter what.
Next is another example of the action in a dream telling the story.
I dream that I am a single dad with two daughters (I don’t actually have kids). Never wanted kids before, but I feel sick when one of them leaves and her sister tells me that she went back to our home (we were traveling). I run after her to try to catch up before she gets too far.
The essence of this story is that something important gets away from the dreamer and he is trying to retrieve it. Getting away is the important action. So the question to ask is, what is something important to the dreamer that is getting away from him?
The possibilities can be narrowed down by considering the symbolism of a child. A child is a creation. A creation of the dreamer is getting away from him. Because two of his children are in the scene, it could be a creation that’s tied in with another one. Or the second child could just be a character that helps tell the story. It doesn’t necessarily have the same symbolism as the child that gets away. Another clue is found in his reaction. When he finds out the child left to go back home he feels sick and run after her.
Turns out, the dreamer had a short film project that was getting away from him, symbolized in the dream as his child (a child that is obviously symbolism since he doesn’t actually have children). He said he was “watching it dissolve around me right now.” Filming a movie usually requires travel to locations, so that could explain why the dreamer is away from home when the child gets away. And the child going back home could symbolize the idea of going back to the drawing board. Home in one sense means the place where something originates from. If the movie project falls apart, the dreamer has to start over.
When a dreamer voluntarily does something dangerous, it’s a clue that the action symbolizes something the dreamer is doing in waking life that is consciously decided. It’s done voluntarily, although voluntary might not be the best word to describe it. Perhaps “compelled” or “obligated” or a similar word might fit better, as in the next example.
I am somewhere in the Arctic with snow blustering around me and my party. I am saddled with the heart wrenching and undeniable knowledge that one of us is going to have to die in order to save the others. In a noble gesture I can’t say I’d repeat in real life, I jump into what looks like an ice fishing hole and am immediately satisfied to know that I’ve saved all my peoples’ lives.
I start sinking down into the blackness, waiting for panic, fear, freezing pain and my eventual drowning death. I realize then that I’m not getting cold and I can breathe, but I’m still sinking and it’s getting darker. And I’m wildly afraid of the ocean so I decide that if I’m clearly not dying today, I better start swimming. So I begin struggling back up to the surface of the water.
The action of this dream tells the story. The dreamer jumps into an icy hole that he thinks will spell death, but he’s willing to do to save the lives of his friends. That detail defines why he risks his life.
After breaking the symbolism and thinking about how the action connects with his life, the dreamer connects with the theme of sacrificing himself for his friends. The dream shows it in exaggerated form—indeed, he admits if confronted with such a situation in waking life he might not be so heroic—but it’s an apt way of describing how he sacrifices himself for his friends.
The second scene, after he jumps into the water, shows that the dreamer is coming to terms with his impulse to sacrifice himself for his friends. The dream appears to say that it’s not always necessary.
When figuring out the meaning of a dream, take special note of the actions. Connect them with your life. See if they help define the symbols.