DREAMS 1-2-3 (D3) Dream Interpretation System
I can’t offer you a way of decoding the meaning of every dream, but I can give you three steps to follow that lead to the meaning of the majority of dreams. I’ll show you how I do it gained from 25 years of study and practice. Learned from nearly a decade heading up the largest online forum for dreams, Reddit Dreams, where I’m known as RadOwl. The readers of my books know me as J.M. DeBord.
My teachings have reached millions of people worldwide and I’ve worked directly with thousands of people to help them understand their dreams. I’ve been a media guest as a dream expert on numerous media shows including Coast to Coast AM.
I know dreams. I teach. I lecture and give workshops on dream interpretation. Everything I offer is distilled into these three steps to interpret the meaning and significance of your dreams:
- Break down the dream into story elements and narrative components.
- Apply interpretation techniques to analyze the symbolism and the story.
- Connect the dream to you and your life.
Begin with some basic facts about dreams and why you dream. See your dreams as stories. Learn to decode symbolism. Then we’ll cover the three steps of dream interpretation.
Summary of D3:
You dream to process memories. That much everyone can agree on who studies the subject. They help you learn. Academic and medical studies focus mostly on how dreaming facilitate learning in the academic sense, but most of what you learn daily is about yourself, your life, people, and the world. You continually take in new information and have new experiences that you assimilate with what you already know. Your dreams help you process it all and fit it into the big picture of who and what you are.
Beyond that, you dream to clear your memory banks and release emotions. In the long run, dreams help you become a whole and complete person. They connect into mysterious deeper layers of consciousness and serve essential functions.
Begin with why you dream:
Dreams Are Stories
We are all familiar with stories in novels, movies, TV shows, and plays. We are exposed to them daily … and nightly. Most of us learn better through stories than through lectures, especially when there’s a moral or point to the story. The stories dreams tell are about you and your life and can be analyzed like stories. Literature 101.
We’ll dive into that pool down below. First, a very important fact:
You Know What Your Dreams Mean
You create your dreams. It’s obvious, but dreams can seem so foreign and disconnected from waking reality it’s like they’re beamed into your head from outer space. Some people really believe that! Somewhere deep inside yourself you already know what your dreams mean because you create them. Dream interpretation is largely a process of reminding yourself what you already know. Dream interpretation techniques and exploring your feeling openly and honestly help you to get around your conscious filters and tap into your innate knowledge of the meaning.
Limit where you look for the source of a dream, at least initially
Dreams usually relate to what happened the previous day or two in your life, or anticipate what’s coming up. This fact narrows down the possibilities. The meaning of most dreams can be understood by reflecting on your recent life — the events, circumstances, and what you think, feel, and perceive. Even dreams that refer to the more distant past do so because something in the present is relevant to it. Some pattern, notion, or idea started back then that still affects you in the present. Or something recently reminded you of the past and it could be subconscious. For example, you drive past a sign that says “Springfield” and that happens to be the name of the town where you grew up. That night you dream about Springfield or something related to it such as your old friends or where you went to school or what you used to do.
Dreams also anticipate what’s coming up soon in your life — the test you will take, the meeting at work, the gathering of friends or family, the vacation that’s planned, the big talk your significant other wants to have.
Dreams Use Symbolism
Dream symbolism is a deep subject. You can get the basic idea of how it works then spend a lifetime learning the intricacies.
Symbolism is defined as:
The practice of giving special meaning to objects, things, relationships or events. An example of symbolism is Christians making the cross a representation of Jesus.
— Source: yourdictionary.com
A symbol is a shorthand way of expressing an idea. A symbol used in a story to convey meaning is symbolism.
Dreams create symbolism by making comparisons and contrasts, using storytelling devices such as metaphors and wordplays, and dramatizing your life into powerful stories full of meaning and significance. Everything in dreams is symbolism, except in rare cases when they communicate directly and literally. Dreams pull from the library of symbolism in your head built from your culture and personal experience.
Symbolism is understood in the context of the dream-story.
The language of symbolism is a picture language. Your dreams show you scenes that evoke your response, especially emotional response. Your response or reaction is a big clue to what the symbolism means (see: Reaction below).
Decoding symbolism is like a game of Charades. Your dreams give you mostly nonverbal clues, and you guess at what it means. You know when you make the right guess because it feels right. Something inside you clicks. You recognize correct answers. It’s like the feeling when a word is on the tip of your tongue and you suddenly think of it. You already know what the dream means, you just have to be reminded.
Symbolism is figurative instead of literal. A dream shows you driving at high speed and the car’s brakes don’t work, and it symbolizes feeling like your life is going too fast and you can’t slow down. It’s figurative and a lot less likely to be a literal warning about your car’s brakes failing, though dreams can be precognitive:
Four More Things to Know
The Universal Translator
Think of your dreaming mind as a translator. It translates input from the mind and body while sleeping — thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, bodily messages, etc. — and spits out symbols, which are then strung together as symbolism in meaningful dreams. Dreams that aren’t meaningful can be full of symbols which don’t string together into narratives. It’s mostly memory dump.
Most Dreams Are Meaningful — Some Aren’t
This fact clears up a lot of potential confusion. Some dreams don’t have meaning, which is not to say that no dreams have meaning. In my experience, the most memorable dreams are the most meaningful. Dreams that lack personal significance use symbolism same as meaningful dreams, but there is no message, lesson, moral, or point. In fact, most dreams from the first half of the typical sleep night are messages from the body about its physical condition and status, or visualizations of bodily processes such as digestion and cell renewal. Most dreams from the second half of the sleep night focus on mind, heart, and spirit.
You dream in REM stage (rapid eye movement, when dreams are the most vivid) for 25%of the time you are sleep, on average. In eight hours of sleep, that’s two hours of dreaming. The most meaningful dreams will stand out among all that dream content.
Dreams Are Simulations
Dreams are simulated environments to test yourself and drive home lessons. If you are like most people, the majority of your meaningful dreams are dress rehearsals, or threat rehearsals, or problem-solving, or life review. People who play a lot of video games, for example, are shown to have better reflexes and feel more empowered to handle threats than non-gamers. Gamers practice dealing with threat scenarios and solving problems in simulated environments. So do dreamers. Dreams help you feel more empowered to deal with life.
Learning simulation dreams are also common for people practicing skills, such as musicians and athletes. You play an instrument or practice a movement by day, then dream about it by night — directly or indirectly. Next day, you wake up and whatever you were practicing the previous day comes a little easier because dreams help drive it home, mostly by making connections with multiple areas of the brain so you can think less and get into the flow. For example, music is mostly processed through the auditory centers of the brain, but other centers of the brain are involved too, such as manual dexterity and pattern recognition. The more a skill can be cross-referenced in the mind, the more brain power can be applied to it.
Feelings and Emotions Are Central
Many dreams can be interpreted simply by looking at the feelings and emotions you experience while dreaming. They tie to something in your waking life — a direct relationship. A central purpose of dreaming is to process emotions. The symbols in your dream trigger your emotions as well as capture the dynamics of a situation, event, or circumstance — like a coin, they have two sides. You already know subconsciously what the symbols represent. That’s why they trigger your emotions and other responses in the body and mind.
Now you’re ready to explore the three steps of dream interpretation.
Step 1: Break down the dream into story elements and narrative components
Settings set the stage for the story. They are symbolic, just like the rest of a dream. The symbolism is often derived from a setting’s function in everyday life. For example, a dream can use a library setting to symbolize gaining information or knowledge. A restaurant setting is a natural choice to say something about your decisions and choices. A home improvement store is a great stage to tell a story about getting in shape, developing your mind, or some other self-improvement.
With dream symbolism, nothing is automatic. A setting in a dream can relate to recent events in the same setting or one similar to it. For example, if you spend a lot of time at work or school you are bound to dream about it. The setting might look the same as the place from your waking life, or it might not, in which case you know the discrepancy with reality is symbolism and a good place to focus your interpretation efforts.
Characters help tell the story. They are like actors on stage following a script. Most dream characters represent something about you, and some are direct representations of people you know. But here’s the rub. Even when a dream character portrays someone you know, they are still likely to represent something about you.
You might recognize a personality trait or quality in someone you know that you also see in yourself. In which case, the dream character that looks like that person represents something about you, not them. For example, you have a friend who tends to get grouchy when fatigued. You dream about the friend running around your house threatening your family, and really the dream is an exaggeration of you acting grouchy after a hard day.
Dreams can make observations about people you know. You can dream about events, situations, or circumstances that involve those people. In which case, the character is a pretty direct representation. However, the portrayal of the person is still based on your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. It’s subjective, not objective. Also, surrogate characters can be used to represent people you know, so you won’t recognize the person portrayed by appearance, but instead by how they act and other clues.
Analyze your dream characters the same way you analyze other dream symbolism.
Some symbols are specific to certain cultures, times, and places. Other symbols are universal and part of what the famous dream psychologist Dr. Carl Jung calls the “collective unconscious.” These symbols are recognized by everyone, everywhere, and you are born with their meaning imprinted in your mind. For example, everyone understands the sun as a symbol of life. It’s ingrained in people everywhere because the sun sustains life everywhere. No sun, no people.
Symbols are the words that dreams string together into sentences and paragraphs to create more complex ideas with symbolism. However, a picture can say a thousand word and just one symbol in a dream can be loaded with meaning.
Action is the main component that tells a dream-story. It’s what makes a story “move” and turns symbols into symbolism, because a symbol in action is symbolism. It’s metaphor in motion. The plot of a story can often be summed up by the actions that take place. The actions of a dream are often the main source of clues to figure out the meaning.
When analyzing the actions of a dream, think of it as telling a friend about a movie you watched. Sum up the plot. Give the dream a title, same as a movie has a title that sums up what it’s about. You know that dreams are almost entirely symbolic, so the actions are symbolic, too. What do you see of yourself in the action? How does it describe your life? What can it be compared to? Think figuratively.
For example, consider these scenarios that involve driving and what they can symbolize.
- Driving in reverse….Going the wrong direction in life.
- Driving out of control….Losing control of yourself or your life.
- Driving on a narrow road….Feeling restricted or confined.
- Spinning your wheels….Going nowhere despite effort.
Your reactions during a dream reveal how you really feel. They reveal the underlying symbolism, because you react based on your subconscious knowledge of what the symbolism means, not as much to the overt story. This helps explain why you sometimes react inexplicably in a dream. Your reactions are raw and honest … and symbolic.
For example, a dreamer watches people drown and does nothing about it. If you look at it superficially, you might think the person is heartless. The dream is actually about the dreamer being tired of rescuing people in the figurative sense, and watching people drown is a way of saying he wants to let people in his life solve their own problems rather than dumping them on him. Once you understand the symbolism and know the dreamer’s situation, his reaction makes sense.
Here is another dramatic example. A woman dreams that she is driving and needs directions. She pulls into a parking lot to bring up a map on her phone. A man reaches through the window and snatches her phone. She chases him down and very deliberately shoves a knife through his heart. Seems like an overreaction, but if you know that the man symbolizes her ex-boyfriend who stole her sense of direction in life and she is really angry about it, her reaction makes sense.
Your reactions also determine what happens next in a dream. In the last example, the dreamer is presented with a choice after the man snatched her phone. She could say “oh well.” She could report it to the police. But instead she chose to chase him down. Sometimes you are carried along in a dream-story and don’t have much choice about what happens, but other times your dreams are like a Choose Your Own Adventure.
Resolution is often the hardest part of a dream to decipher because it’s not always present in the story. Instead, the resolution is up to you to figure out while awake. A dream presents a question, an issue, a problem, a situation. Question is, how to resolve it? Dreams can present a resolution as part of the story, but usually not. It’s up to you to be proactive about owning what a dream shows you. The resolution is a call to action. Do something with the information!
- Example 1: A dream puts you in a scenario where you are on a toilet in a bathroom and you are concerned because the door is missing. You realize the dream is about privacy and feeling exposed. The resolution is to do more to protect your privacy. Perhaps you reveal too much about yourself to people you don’t really know, or you rarely give yourself private time, or someone is constantly looking over your shoulder. These are situations that you have at least some power to change.
- Example 2: A dream puts you in a scenario where you show up to class and have to take a big test and you are unprepared. You realize the dream is about feeling unprepared to meet the challenges and tests of life. To resolve the dream you look at the ways you feel unprepared and what you can do to change that.
- Example 3: A dream puts you in a scenario where you are in the basement of your childhood home and a young child is down there, scared and alone. The child runs up to you seeking comfort and protection. You realize that your childhood home had a lot of instability and, even though you are older now, a young part of yourself is still seeking comfort and protection. You resolve to take better care of yourself, recognizing that your “inner child” is down in the “basement” of your mind. It needs you to be a good parent to yourself, and now that you are older you have the power to do that.
Step 2: Use Interpretation Techniques to Analyze the Symbolism and the Story
Association is really quite simple. You associate by asking yourself what are the first thoughts that come to mind when thinking about a detail of a dream. The details are found mostly in the story elements and narrative components. Your associations can reveal the personal meaning of the symbolism. It works like this:
- Detail: A bird.
- Associations: Flying, freedom, feathers, singing.
- Detail: A shopping mall.
- Associations: Buying stuff, making choices, Christmas, commercialism.
Associations are places to begin interpreting dream symbolism. Think of it as brainstorming, or throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks. To show how associations are used in dream interpretation, let’s put the above associations into context. After all, rarely does a single detail reveal the meaning of a dream. Dreams are interpreted by connecting the dots. Usually it takes supporting details to reach a conclusion. We pick up with the previous details and put them into context by adding more details and making more associations. Then I’ll show what the dream scenarios can mean.
Detail: A bird. The bird is in a cage. It is quiet.
Associations with a cage: confinement, restriction, punishment.
Interpretation: One of the associations with a bird is freedom, but a bird in a cage is not free. Another association with a bird is singing, and singing is a form of expression. A bird in a cage could symbolize that the dreamer does not feel free to express herself, or is restricted or confined in some other way. A caged bird could symbolize feeling like you can’t show your true self, can’t make your own decisions, or are being punished for wanting your freedom.
Detail: A shopping mall. Looking for a particular store in the mall but can’t locate it.
Associations with being unable to find a particular store: lost, confused, frustrated.
Interpretation: A shopping mall is a place where you have options about where to shop. Shopping involves decisions and choices. As symbolism that can relate to anything in life that involves choosing among several options. For example, picking an employer to work for, a college to attend, or person to date. Now combine that idea with being unable to find a store. It can mean you can’t make a decision, or you want more options than you have.
Simplify the Dream
Keep it simple, at least initially. Dreams are built around a core idea or subject. Simplifying a dream down to a sentence, phrase, or word helps you discover what’s at the core. Dreams can appear complex and yeah, they can be, but by simplifying you make even the most complex dreams manageable.
The Biggest Secret about Dreams
A shortcut that can lead to the meaning of a dream is to describe a dream in its essence and see if it fits what is going on in your life. Dreams can have many details that point toward the meaning. Sometimes it’s not necessary to analyze all of them. For example:
Dream: Someone tempts the dreamer to use cocaine. After going back and forth with himself he decides to try it and likes it. In waking life he has never done cocaine.
Essence of the story: temptation.
I ask the dreamer if he’s been tempted by anything lately, and he remembers being in a store and seeing a powdered doughnut. He walks by it a few times before finally buying and eating it. The doughnut is the temptation symbolized by cocaine in the dream. The fact that it’s a powdered doughnut is a supporting detail, because cocaine often comes as a white powder. Plus, sugar can produce a pleasurable rush.
Dream: The dreamer is in the passenger seat of his mom’s truck as she drives on a snowy road. She misses a bridge and drives onto a frozen lake. The ice breaks and the dreamer has to rescue her. He admonishes her for bad driving.
Essence: Mom is bad at leading / makes bad decisions
I ask the dreamer if his mom makes bad decisions and he has to rescue her, and he says yes, she has a habit of getting herself into predicaments and he has to bail her out. As her teenage son his life is affected by his mom’s bad leadership. She is “in the driver’s seat.”
Step back and observe. Simplify. That’s how I interpreted this dream:
Around half of your brain power at any given moment is used to process sensory input, mostly visual input. The other half tends to be used up by the train of thought rolling through your head. That means a lot happens during the average day that doesn’t get consciously processed, especially the subtle stuff such as the vibes you pick up from people and the feelings and emotions that get pushed aside because you are preoccupied. However, it all registers subconsciously, and your dreams sort through that unprocessed material and pull out the most important stuff.
Dreams amplify so you can hear what’s really being said inside you and notice what might otherwise go overlooked. So you can understand your life as the drama it really is and relate it to the dramas we are told in myth and legend.
Most people look at the surface story told by their dreams and can’t relate it to their lives because it’s so dramatic, exaggerated and amplified. For example:
- You have an argument with your SO and dream about a boxing match.
- A friend says something mean about you behind your back and you dream about being stabbed in the back.
- You feel like your workplace is dreary and dream about being trapped in a dungeon. Each of these scenarios is an exaggeration of something in your waking life.
Dreams Use Metaphors
Not just metaphors we all know. Dreams create metaphors on the fly. Dreams are metaphor in motion.
Dreams Compare and Contrast
Comparison is at the heart of most symbolism, and contrast is a way of showing you something important in stark relief.
Dreams Use Storytelling Devices and Tricks of Language
Step 3: Connect the Dream with You and Your Life
Dream symbolism is understood within the context of the story in which it appears. Dream-stories are understood in the context of the dreamer’s life. Without context, you can’t interpret a dream.
For example, teeth falling out is a common dream symbol. It presents several possibilities for meaning. Ask yourself, how does teeth falling out fit into the larger story of a dream? Do they fall out while you are talking? That can symbolize nervousness about your speaking skills or lack of confidence in what you say. Do they fall out when you look in a mirror? That can symbolize anxiety about your appearance or social presentation. Are they front teeth or back teeth? The loss of front teeth can symbolize something related to your appearance or how you think people perceive you, whereas the loss of back teeth like molars can symbolize an alternate definition of loss, such as loss of health, loss of a loved one, or loss of prestige. In which case, loss of a tooth is a wordplay and dramatization.
Every dream symbol has multiple possibilities for meaning. Context narrows down the possibilities and ultimately defines which meaning is applied to a particular symbol.
Connect the Dots
The dream paints a picture. In the big picture is the meaning of the entire dream recognizable at a glance. Smaller pictures within the big one connect symbolically. Connect the dots and you get the picture.
The meaning is the thread that connects together the story. Multiple dreams in the same night can be about the same subject yet appear unrelated.
Reflect on Your Life
Most dreams connect with the recent past or look ahead to the near future. Simply be reflecting on your life and noting how dream imagery pulls from your recent memories, you can trace a dream back to its source.
Physical causes of dreams
Dreams can translate physical sensations into symbolism. These dreams are not meaningful in the traditional sense. They can be suggestive that they have deeper meaning, but the symbolism can be traced back to physical causes. For example:
Dream that a snake wraps around your head….Wake up with your arm wrapped around your head.
Dream about hearing a gunshot….A book falls off a table and makes a loud sound.
Dream that you suffocate in outer space….Airway is cutoff while sleeping.
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