Introduction to understanding dreams in context
Dreams use context to define symbolism. Otherwise, pinning down the meaning without context is a tall order. See the example of the many possibilities for the symbolism of a cross, given under the subheading “King Context” in the Associate Chapter. It can symbolize everything from church and Christianity to sin and death. The possibilities for meaning narrow quickly, though, when viewed within the context of a dream-story.
Picture a limousine cruising down Wall Street. In that context, it suggests wealth and power. Wealthy and powerful people ride in limos on Wall Street. The setting provides the context that defines the symbolism. A limo in a ghetto is a sharp contrast to its surroundings. It could symbolize excess, class divide, or “urban ingenuity.” A limo at a wedding is a different context and might symbolize something like a happy married life, or getting “carried away” with excitement about a relationship or commitment.
As another example, consider, what is a wall? At its simplest, it’s a divider or barrier. But if used in the context of holding up a structure, a wall is a support.
Biting usually carries unpleasant associations, but in an erotic context, biting can be quite welcome. The dream’s story context gives you the clues you need to tell the difference. For example, the difference between being bitten by a venomous snake or a lover. Being bitten by a snake is generally to be avoided. Bitten by a lover, well, we’ll just leave it depends on your tastes.
A symbol with no context doesn’t tell you as much. In fact, it can obscure the true meaning and intent of a symbol, same as taking a statement out of context can be misleading. In the Dream Symbols chapter we explore these teachings more under the subheading “Symbols in Context.”
Some symbols only makes sense when viewed within the context of your life. The context is personal, and it provides the information needed to define the symbolism and understand the meaning of the dream.
For example, a woman dreams about folding laundry in her home when a scary, skinless creature comes at her with a knife. They battle and end up outside in the street. A city bus runs over the creature, and she’s detained for it. It’s a story about her life. She’s embroiled in a lawsuit with a former employer and recently found out that her former manager is spreading rumors about her, saying she’s a bad person and bad employee, and it’s preventing her from getting another job. With that in mind, look at the dream again. It’s understandable in that context.
- It starts off with the dreamer folding laundry. Clothing is associated with outward identity and persona, and the action of folding clothing — especially freshly laundered clothing — can mean putting your life and personal presentation in order. The phrases “straighten up my life” and “fresh start” come to mind.
- The creature is skinless, and skin is associated with outward identity. Outward identity could be a theme of the dream. It gives us a clue to investigate as we connect together the other details and ask if the dream is about something happening in the dreamer’s life related to her outward identity and how she’s viewed publicly.
- Skin is protection, and it’s sensitive, so being skinless is a picture of feeling “exposed” and “rubbed raw.” Dream symbols capture the dynamics of a situation and how the dreamer feels. In this case, a picture emerges of damage to outer identity combined with feeling raw about it.
- The dreamer battles the creature, and it comes at her with a knife, a weapon for close combat, implying a close and personal conflict.
- Then the creature is hit by a city bus and the dreamer is detained for it, symbolizing the beating she’s taken in the battle with her former employer. Her battle is a public matter, symbolized by the city bus, and it continues to impact her life. She’s detained at the end because she feels like she’s paying a heavy price for something that’s not her fault. Her life is on hold as the lawsuit presses forward. She can’t get a new job.
The context is the bridge between the dream symbolism, the dream-story, and the dreamer’s life. The dreamer’s external life gives us the context we need, but more often than not, you find the context in inner life. In the last example, the context helps us:
- Understand the story and how the dots (details) connect.
- See how it connects with the dreamer’s outer life — the lawsuit and job situation.
- See how it affects her inner life — feeling raw and wrongly blamed.
When you interpret dreams, keep in mind what’s happening in your life. Most dreams connect with memories from the past day or two, including memories of when you think ahead to what’s coming up such as an event that’s scheduled, or to what you hope will materialize.
Actions in Context
Actions in dreams tell the story and are a primary way of giving context. Directly or indirectly, dream symbols usually have actions involving them, and through actions the meaning is revealed.
- Cross a bridge. A bridge is a route over an obstacle, so crossing a bridge can mean finding a route over an obstacle. It can symbolize closing the gap between you and something else such as a goal or person. However, in the context of a dentist’s office, a bridge can symbolize dental work (a dental bridge). It doesn’t symbolize getting over an obstacle or closing personal distance.
- Climb a mountain. It’s a popular metaphor used to describe getting to the top of something, such as the “top of the heap,” feeling “on top of the world,” or reaching a major goal that requires diligence and effort. The mountain is a metaphor for something huge, and climbing to the top is your effort to conquer it. However, a mountain range could symbolize an impassable obstacle, and trying to climb it can symbolize trying to do the impossible. In the context of living on a mountain, it can symbolize desire for isolation or privacy.
- Run away. The obvious questions are, “what am I running from in the figurative sense, escaping from, or avoiding? What can’t I face? What don’t I want to know?” The answers are found by looking at what you run away from and figuring out its symbolic connections with yourself and your life. Answering those questions gives you the context to understand the symbolism.
- Hide a body. It’s one thing to hide, and another thing to hide a body. That context gives new meaning to “hide” and points toward the possibility the action symbolizes something that you don’t like about yourself, that embarrasses you, that you don’t want anyone to know. For example, you speak ill of a person and don’t want it to get back to that person. Or the body represents a personal habit you hide. Something embarrassing or shameful. A personal defect. The idiom “know where the bodies are buried” comes to mind, which means “knowledge of something secret, criminal, or scandalous.”
Eat a steak. Eating is a physical representation for taking something into yourself, making it part of you. Or it can mean “eat your words” or “chew on a thought.” Steak is a specific food and every detail is used for a reason in the dream story. Steak is commonly associated with substance, “all steak and no sizzle,” or “the meat of the matter.” However, say that you dream you’re about to eat juicy steak and notice it’s covered in maggots. In that context, it could symbolize the dark side of what otherwise appears to be an enticing situation. It can mean that something isn’t what it appears to be.
You have story context and personal context to consider. That’s a lot! However, bear in mind that dreams usual address the recent past or near future. You can simply reflect on your life, on what’s been happening in your outer and inner life and what’s coming up, and find the context there that you need to understand the dream. That’s the last substep of Step 3 of D3 (that lesson is coming up after we learn how to connect the dots).