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.
The symbolism of a setting can be derived from its function or use as well as how it connects to you personally. Consider the following examples of dream settings and how they can be used to tell a story:
- 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, or a pattern started. It can show how the structure of your personality (your “home”) is built upon the foundation of your childhood. In a dream, looking for your childhood home can symbolize looking for the feeling of home.
- Hospital: Can symbolize a subject such as health, especially the need for help with it, or needing help in general. The symbolism is derived from the function of hospitals as places we go for help, especially help with health. Hospitals are associated with emergencies, so a hospital can be used as a setting to tell a story about an emergency of any kind. Also consider the potential for wordplay with the word hospitality. You feel exceptionally welcomed and cared for by someone that day, then dream about a friendly hospital staff that night. You’re dreaming about hospitality.
- Mental hospital: Similar to a hospital setting, but focused on mental and emotional 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. How bad? So bad, it’s like a concentration camp.
The setting is symbolism. It’s part of the story and fits into a picture. In it is the meaning and intent of the dream. Of course, the examples above have other possibilities for use as dream symbolism. We’re only scratching the surface, getting across the basic idea.
- Does the setting evoke 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 something was first believed, planned, or desired.
- Have you been in that setting or one like it recently? Because dreams process recent memories, you know that a dream setting that replicates a place you’ve been to recently is likely to connect with those memories. For example, you come back from vacation in Hawaii and dream about beaches and palm trees. It’s not to say that the dream can’t use the imagery to address something unrelated to Hawaii, but you begin your interpretation process with your memories of Hawaii.
Follow Your Feelings
Feelings are central to most dreams and can be used to interpret story elements such as settings. Take note 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 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.
Note the Use of Storytelling Devices
Dreams exaggerate. For example, no, your workplace isn’t a post-apocalyptic battlefield, but in the dream below it is.
To make symbolism that tells the story, they compare and contrast.
Understand a Dream Setting in Context
Context provides definition to the symbolism — both the story context and your life context. Settings provide clues, and the interpretation is made by connecting the dots with other details from the dream.
Sometimes the setting really is the story. It’s the thread that ties together all the dream 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, aka precognitive dreaming. Or it’s a place seen in the mind’s eye, not drawn from memory like most dream imagery. Some people dream about actual places that they’ve neither seen nor heard of and see details accurately — details about places they’ve never actually been to. Such journeys of the mind while dreaming could be common occurrences, but most people don’t remember their dreams well enough to know it happens for them, too.
Some settings don’t have specific or separate symbolism. They set the scene for the story. For example, you dream about a tiger in a cage and might expect to see it at a zoo. Voila! Dream puts you in a zoo, but it’s not as important to the story as the tiger and the cage. The cage is where the story takes place so that’s where to focus, at least initially. A setting is important to the meaning of a dream if it’s important to the story or feels like an important detail.
Incongruity of a setting must be deliberate, and it must be symbolism. The discrepancy could be the key for decoding the rest of the dream. The caged tiger in the above example is in your bedroom, not a zoo. The dream deliberately places it in that setting. Could mean you are fiercely protective of your private life — bedrooms are private places, and tigers are fiercely protective — 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. A tiger in a bedroom screams “sensual!” But a tiger in a cage in a bedroom says something else.
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 purposefully places you in France, the detail helps tell the story.
Think like a storyteller. Question every detail. A dream has a reason for everything, so whether it’s 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 consider possibilities for symbolism related to cars and the actions that take place in them such 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.
Say that you dream about flying over France — the dream specifically notes that you’re in France — and noticing a spectacular tree. Next thing you know you are in your family home talking with your grandfather about wine-making, which makes no sense initially because neither you nor your grandfather make wine or have any real interest in it. The two settings — France and your family home — appear unrelated, but they’re related symbolically and run together to continue the story from one scene to the next.
To understand how they interconnect, imagine you’re the dreamer in the above example. Your family has roots in France. You have lived in America for generations but you’re still “French.” You see how your family home in the dream connects with France even though it’s actually in Florida (or wherever, just not in France). The tree symbolizes your family tree, and your grandfather connects with your heritage because his side of family hails from France. 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. That’s why you can’t find the airport. Airports are places of transition, and dreams can use them to mean transition in your life or yourself. My Dream Interpretation Dictionary is loaded A-Z with entries for settings, everything from Airport to Zoo.
Check out how the afterlife can be used as a setting:
In-depth look at a dream 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 to grow flowers, and others as places for peace and contemplation, i.e. a Zen garden. Your dream storyteller has a lot to work with in just this one type of setting.
As a basis for symbolism, a dream can use a garden’s purpose for growing food. What’s comparable to planting, tending, and growing? To providing for yourself? To what nourishes you? To what starts as a seed and with care grows to nourish you? Friendships begin as seeds of mutual interest and romantic relationships begin as seed of mutual attraction. Friendships and relationships grow that are tended. A backyard garden full of weeds, on the other hand, is a picture of a neglected relationship.
My Dream Garden
I went through a phase in my dream life with recurring dreams about my father gardening in my backyard. On one level it symbolizes steps to repair our relationship after some years of emotional distance. A slow process of pulling weeds (hard feelings), planting ideas (we could have a better relationship) and nurturing a new rapport. Most of all, letting time take its course. Gardens require care and time to make things grow, and so do relationships. The comparison to tending a relationship is obvious to me now, but wasn’t at the time.
On another level it symbolizes learning how to be my own parent, to run my own life. Gardening is inner work in the soil of your being. The seeds planted today sprout later.
Dreams reach from one association to the next and the next to chain together ideas. A popular association down the chain from garden 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. Reach further out for associations and you find the parable of the seeds that land on fertile ground or not. It’s a way of saying that in a crowd of people who all hear new teachings, some people will apply them, causing new life and understanding to grow within them, and some won’t. In them, the teachings don’t “take root,” eventually the person will go back to their old ways. A garden is a great stage to enact that parable and any story about what takes root in you and what doesn’t. What you put your time and care into that pays off over the long run.
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 is when he returns home after a harrowing scene of confrontation with his manager from work in a post-apocalyptic setting, 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. The garden is what really defines the symbolism, though. The garden does not exist in the dreamer’s waking life, an important personal context to consider, though the rest of the details about the space match it. That discrepancy with reality is a place to focus to understand the dream. The garden is raised, a way of saying that something is raised in importance. In this case, it’s the dreamer’s yoga practice. To raise in a dream can also mean make something more noticeable, and the dream is trying to bring something to the dreamer’s attention.
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 it. He decided to get advanced training. 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.
Personal associations come into play, too, when considering the many ways garden can be used as dream symbolism. Once you get the idea for how dreams tell stories, you will be able to cycle through the options quickly.