Far, far away, there is a beautiful Country which no human eye has ever seen in waking hours. Under the Sunset it lies, where the distant horizon bounds the day, and where the clouds, splendid with light and colour, give a promise of the glory and beauty which encompass it. Sometimes it is given to us to see it in dreams.
A dream’s setting sets the scene. It’s the stage on which the story unfolds. Without a setting, the story is not anchored to time and place such as where you are at right now in your life, have been, or want to be. It speaks to areas and times of life. it provides a starting point for understanding what a dream is about.
Settings can show the subject of a dream. Quick examples:
- Childhood home: Can refer to that time of life in relation to something’s that’s relevant in the present, such as where a formative event occurred, a belief took root, a pattern started. It can mean looking for the feeling of home, or connecting with it.
- Hospital: Can symbolize a subject such as health. Can symbolize needing help with health, or in general. Hospitals are associated with emergencies, so they can be used as a setting to tell a story about an emergency. If you have spent time in a hospital you know how slowly it can seem to pass and how sad the environment can be, personal associations that can also be used to create symbolism.
- Mental hospital. Similar to Hospital but focus on mental health and the need for help with it.
- Concentration camp. Can symbolize a place to concentrate, or amplify the symbolism of a prison to capture how bad a situation is. So bad, it’s a concentration camp.
See how it works? The setting is symbolism. It’s part of the story, a big picture. In it is the meaning and intent.
- Does the setting bring out a particular feeling in you?
- Can you relate that feeling (or feelings) to your life — especially your recent life?
- Does it connect with a time of life, such as something in the past that’s ongoing or still influencing the present? That can be a dream’s way of showing where something started, where patterns formed and habits developed. Where something was first believed, planned, or desired.
Feelings are central to most dreams and can be used to interpret story elements such as settings. Take note of when your feelings contrast with the setting. For instance, you feel sad at an amusement park while everyone else is happy. There’s a reason tied to subconscious knowledge of the meaning of the symbolism. For example, and amusement park reminds you of the fun you DON’T get to have.
A setting can represent your inner landscape, especially your emotional landscape. Or it can be a snapshot of your life — past, present, or future. For example, a scarred battlefield can represent the devastation to your life caused by fighting or stress. A meadow full of butterflies can symbolize feeling hopeful or peaceful. They’re great metaphors that capture all the dynamics in one image.
Apply Dream Interpretation Techniques
The meaning of a dream setting can be found by using techniques such as simplify and amplify and looking for storytelling devices such as metaphors. Start off by thinking of words and ideas associated with the setting.
Setting the Scene
Some settings don’t have specific or separate symbolism. They set the scene for the story. For example, if you dream about a tiger in a cage, you might expect to see it at a zoo, and the zoo is not as important to the story as the tiger and the cage. The setting is only important if it’s a focus of the story. Sometimes the setting really is the story. It’s the thread that ties together all the other details. And sometimes — rarely for most people on most nights — a setting is a direct portrayal of a place you have been or will be in the future. Or it’s a place seen psychically in the mind’s eye, not drawn from memory like most dream imagery. Some people dream about places that exist that they’ve neither seen nor heard of and see details with perfect accuracy. It could be a common occurrence
Settings that are incongruous with the rest of the story must be deliberate, and it must be symbolism. It could be the key for decoding the rest of the dream. The tiger and cage in the above example are in your bedroom, not a zoo. The dream deliberately places them in that setting. It could mean you are fiercely protective of your private life — bedrooms are private places for some people, and tigers are fierce — so much so that it hampers you, symbolized as the cage. Or you heavily restrain your sensuality. Tigers are sensual beasts, and bedrooms are sensual places.
In some dreams, you know where you are without being told. For example, you fly over a landscape and know it’s France without seeing identifiable landmarks. When the dream places you in France instead of just a random landscape, the detail helps tell the story.
Think like a storyteller. Question every detail. You know a dream has a reason for everything in it. Nothing is random, so whether your dream is set in your childhood home, inside a box, or on the moon, it means something.
Even if the story takes place inside a car, you still possibilities for symbolism related to cars and the actions that take place: turning, braking, accelerating, crashing and so forth.
Every dream has at least one setting, sometimes several settings. Dreams can shift settings on the fly and they appear separate but actually continue the story. For example, you dream about flying over France and noticing a spectacular tree, and next thing you know you are in your family home talking with your grandfather about wine-making. The two scenes appear unrelated, but they’re related symbolically and run together to continue the story. Imagine you’re the dreamer in the above example whose family has roots in France. You see how your family home in the dream connects with France even though it’s actually in Montana. The tree symbolizes your family tree, and your grandfather connects with your heritage because his family hails from France, and France is famous for its wine. All the details connect symbolically to create a big picture.
A dream setting is still part of the story even if it’s only referred to and not actually shown. For example, you dream about trying to find the airport and never do, symbolizing wanting to leave behind a time of life and move on to new adventures, but can’t figure out how.
In-depth look at a dream setting | garden setting
Garden: Think about what a garden is in the most basic sense. It’s a place where plants grow. They start as seeds or saplings and grow to maturity. Some gardens are used to grow food, others grow flowers, and others are places for peace and contemplation. For example, a Zen garden.
First consider a garden for growing food. How could that sort of garden relate to a person’s life? What is comparable to planting, tending, and growing? What starts as a seed and with care grows into something nourishing?
To answer, there are many situations in life comparable to a garden. For example: relationships. They begin as a seed. In friendships the seed is mutual interest, things in common, a basic sense of liking each other. In romance the seed is mutual attraction. If a relationship isn’t nourished it will probably whither. Weeds take over the garden. But tended with care, a relationship grows. The care is the time, effort, and thoughtfulness put into a relationship.
In my dream life, during my mid twenties, I went through a phase with recurring dreams about my father gardening in my backyard. On one level it symbolized that he had taken steps to repair our relationship after some years of emotional distance. It was a slow process of pulling weeds (hard feelings), planting ideas (we could have a good father-son relationship) and nurturing a new rapport. Gardens require care and time to make things grow. The comparison to tending a relationship is obvious to me now, but wasn’t at the time.
On another level it symbolized a process going on within myself as I learned how to be my own parent, not just in taking care of myself physically, but in ordering my life. I found a good father within myself who praised my talents and efforts while tempering my childish impulses.
Dreams reach for associations, and one that’s popular with gardens is, to plant a seed. From there a dream can use a garden to symbolize planting ideas or thoughts in the soil of the mind. It can symbolize future plans for supporting yourself or your family. Keep reaching further out and you find the parable of the seeds that land on fertile ground. It was Jesus’s way of saying that in a crowd of people who all hear his teachings, some people will apply them, causing new life and understanding to grow within them. Others will be excited or intrigued at first, but if the teachings don’t “take root,” eventually the person will go back to their old ways and fail to “take root.”
Gardens can symbolize peace and relaxation. In a dream detailed in my book Dreams 1-2-3, a guy’s trouble at his work place plays out in his sleep as a dramatic story, the details of which are too involved to get into right now. The part of the dream that applies to this discussion came when he returns home after a harrowing scene of confrontation with his manager, goes to his garden, and is so angry he can’t speak. In this dream the garden symbolizes his need to relax after work, a place to find peace of mind, but he is bringing his work troubles home and it’s disturbing his peace. If you can’t relax in a garden, something’s wrong!
On the other end of the spectrum is this dream:
I find myself in my backyard. Everything seems accurate to waking life; however, there is more yard behind my fence that belongs to me. I had not given it any attention or landscaping. There is a raised garden of marble blocks, nicely shaded. I realize I can renovate this space and turn it into an outdoor yoga/meditation practice area, to hold classes and invite other yogis to join me. I decide I would begin working on this as soon as I get home from work.
The setting of this dream is a backyard, which can symbolize the background of your life or thoughts, but the garden is what really defines the symbolism. Notice that the garden does not exist in the dreamer’s waking life, though the rest of the details about the space match it. This is a sign of symbolism. The garden is raised, a way of saying that something is trying to get the dreamer’s attention or is raised in importance.
The dreamer took the suggestion and started acting on it the next day. An IT professional by day, he taught yoga at night and decided he would focus more on teaching yoga. He decided to get advanced training as a yoga instructor. He did not literally build a yoga space in his backyard; that wasn’t what the dream meant. The suggestion of the dream is to raise his yoga practice to have more prominence in his life.
Next: Examples. Many examples of dreams analyzed with a special eye on the setting’s meaning and symbolism.