A symbol is a thing that stands for something else, a material object representing something abstract. For example, a limousine is a symbol of wealth and power. A cross is the symbol of the Christian faith. As long as you know the association between the symbol and the idea, you immediately recognize the underlying meaning. Symbols usually take the form of images, words, or gestures.
Symbols are an important part of dream interpretation, but they receive too much emphasis in pop culture. More important to understanding dreams is symbolism. The difference between a symbol and symbolism is a symbol is static. It’s a snapshot, action frozen in time. Symbolism is like a video. You don’t have to guess at what’s going on in a video, but the context and meaning are not always apparent in a snapshot. If you see a snapshot of a limo with a beggar in the background, you might take it as a symbol of excess. But if you see a video of the same scene and the limo passes by the beggar and rolls up in front of the White House, it’s more likely to be a symbol of power.
A Symbol + Action = Symbolism
In dreams, symbols (or symbolism) are often expressed through actions. For example, the action of crashing your car in a dream can symbolize something that impacts your ability to move your life forward. The car symbolizes your life. The action of crashing it defines the symbolism.
A symbol in the context of an action is symbolism. The action defines the meaning of the symbol.
Every symbols has various possibilities for meaning. It’s up to you to apply dream interpretation techniques to narrow down the possibilities and discover what the symbols in your dreams mean specifically to you.
Some symbols are specific to certain cultures, time periods, and places. For example, to an Eskimo a frozen lake is something common to their environment and might symbolize thoughts related to fishing for food or change of seasons. To someone who lives in a place where frozen lakes are uncommon, that image in a dream might symbolize depression or frozen emotions. To members of some Native American tribes, a snake is almost always interpreted in terms of God and Spirit, a positive image. But to other people a snake might be a phallic symbol. The way the symbol is used depends a lot on one’s culture and background. However, consider that everyone knows that snakes can be dangerous and therefore can symbolize something a person fears.
Put Symbols Into Context of the Dream-Story
The meaning of a symbol is defined by other details or associations from a dream. Rarely is a symbol interpreted by itself. Say that you dream about a giant eye just floating like an asteroid in outer space. Nothing else happens in the dream. It would appear that the dream isn’t giving any clues to the meaning of the symbol, and it has to be interpreted by itself. However, you can ask yourself how you feel, what you notice, and what you associate with the eye. Do you feel like you are being observed or watched, or is there something you should be seeing or noticing? Do you notice a speck in the eye? Is it clouded over like a cataract? Do you associate the color or shape of the eye with someone you know or something you’ve seen?
If you feel like you are being watched by a giant eye, maybe you really are being watched. Maybe spyware is on your computer, or a neighbor is peaking in your windows, or someone is keeping an eye on you. If you feel like the eye is related to seeing something, maybe you should be more observant of what’s going on presently in your life, or take a hard look at yourself. Or maybe the eye is related to insight. The Third Eye is a symbol from mystical and esoteric traditions related to seeing through illusion, revealing truth, gaining insight, and acquiring knowledge.
If you notice a speck in the eye, maybe it’s related to the scripture, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Maybe you notice other people’s flaws but not your own. If the eye is clouded over, it could be an early warning about a cataract developing, or perhaps your thinking is cloudy and it’s preventing you from seeing something that otherwise would be obvious. If the eye reminds you of someone you know, the dream could be related to that person. Or if it reminds you of one of the eyes of the Mona Lisa, maybe it’s a symbol for having an eye for art, or a reminder that your grandparents had a replica picture of the Mona Lisa in their home. In which case, the dream somehow be related to them.
The process I just took you through is called making associations. It is one of the most important tools for dream interpretation, and it is covered in detail in Step Two. Association is simply thinking about a subject and noting whatever comes to mind. If I say “mom,” what do you say? I say “tree,” you say? I say “tiger,” you say? The meaning of the symbols in your dreams are based on your associations. You collect associations through experience. So when you are puzzling over what a symbol in your dreams means, begin generating possibilities by making associations.
Keep in mind that the possibilities for the meaning of a symbol are only possibilities. Every person has a personal dictionary of symbols and symbolism accrued throughout a lifetime, and each culture has its own meanings and associations with symbols. Some symbols are universally known. Others are specific to certain cultures, times, places, people, or groups. The specific meaning of some symbols might only be known to the kids who grew up in your neighborhood, or among people who play a particular game or sport, or who possess a particular skill. For example, computer programmers have specialized knowledge and language that their dreams can use to create symbols and symbolism.
Common associations can be given for dream symbols, but there is no way to cover all possibilities. There are too many, and during your lifetime you will accumulate thousands of personal references that your dreams can use as symbolism, some so personal that no dream dictionary could possibly tell you what they mean.
For example, you dream about rummaging in a dumpster and finding a bugle. You blow on the bugle and smoke comes out the end. You look up “bugle” in a dream dictionary and it says it’s a symbol for “tooting your horn,” or a reference to service in the military. But you don’t feel like you have been tooting your horn, were never in the military, and besides, in the dream there are no supporting details that suggest the bugle has anything to do with tooting your horn or the military. What does it mean?
To figure out the personal meaning, you think about what the word bugle reminds you of, and “bugler” comes to mind. A bugler is someone who plays a bugle. Plus it’s a brand of loose tobacco. You remember that when you were younger you smoked Bugler when you couldn’t afford anything better. The smoke coming out of the bugle reminds you of a cigarette. Next you consider that you found the bugle while rummaging in a dumpster. That implies being poor. You put the details together and realize that you have been low on money and scrimping to buy the necessities in life. It’s been 20 years since you smoked a Bugler, but your dreaming mind didn’t forget and used the symbol to tell a story about your financial situation.
The dream could just show you at the bank and being told there is no money in your account to withdraw, but that would be too easy. Dreams like to turn your thoughts and feelings into stories and make you think about them.
With time and practice you will build your own dictionary of dream symbolism, and as you do, your dreams will become easier to decipher because you will recognize certain landmarks right away. It’s like if you see the Eiffel Tower, you immediately know it is in Paris (unless it’s the Las Vegas replica of the Eiffel Tower). Your dream landmarks tell you where you are in a dream. Build on this dream dictionary by adding your personal meanings to the entries and including your own entries that aren’t listed. Thousands of symbols are listed here, but they only scratch the surface of all the possibilities.
Interpreting a symbol from your dreams begins by thinking of everything you associate with it, your experiences with it in your waking life, the figures of speech you’ve heard, and references in media and everyday life. Then you look at the symbol in the context of the action and the overall story. If you have an idea about what a symbol from a dream might mean, look at the rest of the dream for supporting information.
Let’s say that you dream about the Eiffel Tower and think it might represent the desire to travel and see the world. To confirm the hunch, look for other travel-related details like hotels, airports, luggage, cameras, passports, money and maps. Search your feelings, and ask yourself if thoughts related to travel have crossed your mind recently. Perhaps in the dream a friend is with you who has gone on many trips overseas and returned with fantastic stories that sparked your imagination. A supporting detail like that backs the hypothesis that the dream is related to the desire to travel and have your own adventures.
Above all, have fun with it. Decoding your dreams is the journey of a lifetime, a fascinating process that will lead you to unexpected places. When I began interpreting my dreams more than two decades ago, I would wake from a dream, write it down, then use the index in dream books to look up the symbols. Gradually I began to get ideas about what the symbols meant to me and notice some that appeared repeatedly. This led to more research and discovery, and as my knowledge and experience grew, my dreams became more understandable. It led to healing old wounds and resolving issues from the past, realizing how to live better in the present, and creating the future I wanted. I learned how to live my dreams, and you can too. That is the point of dream interpretation. It’s fun, but there is a point to it, and the point is to improve yourself and your life, become a better person, and realize your potential.
For a more in-depth exploration of dream symbolism, grab a copy of Dreams 1-2-3: Remember, Interpret, and Live Your Dreams.