A scary dream brings all the fears that a scary real situation can, and a happy dream can make us feel truly happy. But what are dreams?
Most of the people reading this will have been in lockdown for weeks now. For many people, this has taken a psychological toll. Some of us have been trying to manage the impossible tasks of working from home with home-schooling and childcare. Others have felt themselves enclosed in a bubble of boredom, and have resorted to jigsaw puzzles and binge-watching television to get some relief. Still others have taken advantage of the slowed-down pace of life to learn a new skill—to make sourdough bread, to tackle a new language, or to become musically proficient. Some of us are enduring the isolation alone, without the comfort of a partner or family, and are paralyzed with anxiety or wrestling with reawakened memories of past traumas. All of us, I imagine, feel suspended in uncertainty about what the future holds.
I want to recommend something else to do during these precarious times—something that is both personally and philosophically enriching and which can ease the burden of existential anxiety that the pandemic has thrust upon us. I want to encourage you to take this opportunity to attend to and learn from your own dreams, and explain how to do this.
Dreams have become more salient for many of us. COVID-19 has not only infected our waking lives. It has seeped into our sleeping lives as well. Researchers report that people’s sleep has been disrupted, and that there has been an apparent increase in vivid, powerful and disturbing dreams. I’ve experienced both, and have also noticed an uptick of friends reporting their dreams on social media. This is often done in a jokey “Wasn’t that weird!” spirit, often concluding with the half-serious statement “I wonder what that could have meant!” Comments are similarly lighthearted—often offering intentionally outlandish interpretations of the dream. My social media friends strike me as having mixed feelings about their dreams. They’re fascinated by their dreams, but treat them as curiosities to be kept at arms’ length.
Under normal circumstances, we are largely oblivious to our nighttime adventures. But now, the heightened awareness of our dreaming life provides a wonderful opportunity to fulfill the ancient philosophical injunction to “Know thyself!” Freud taught us how to find self-knowledge in our dreams more than a century ago, and the procedure is much simpler, more useful, and its results are vastly more compelling, than you might imagine. It’s been immensely valuable to me, I want to share it with you.
Some readers may be repelled by this suggestion, either because they assume that anything associated with the name Sigmund Freud smacks of charlatanry, or because they’ve been exposed to silly portrayals of Freudian dream analysis in which every elongated object is interpreted as a penis and every concave object a vagina. If you’re such a person, I invite you to set your suspicions aside for the moment and give me a chance to explain how the method really works. Then, if you’re interested, you can test-drive it yourself and draw your own conclusions.
The first thing is to have an attitude to the dream that will allow you to discern its meaning. To use the Freudian method, you’ve got to begin with a kind of radical agnosticism. Drop any assumptions that you might have about what the dream means, even if it seems to wear its meaning on its sleeve. And you’ve also got to resist the temptation to see the dream as a puzzle to be solved or a message to be decoded. Furthermore, if you think of dreams as puzzles or coded messages you’re likely to attend to the dream as a coherent whole. But one of Freud’s most valuable lessons is that the dream is a patchwork of fragments loosely strung together as a narrative. The narrative is just superstructure: it’s the individual components that really matter. And finally forget about the whole idea of dream symbolism—the notion that dream images “stand for” other things. Although symbol interpretation sometimes plays a role in psychoanalytic dream interpretation, it is a very minor one, and can be ignored.
Now, on to the procedure. When you analyze a dream (that is, when you analyze yourself through the medium of a dream, which is what’s really going on) you take each element of the dream, one by one, and see what springs to mind when you think of them, with no assumptions about which details are important and which ones aren’t. Don’t “analyze” the dream. Instead, let your mind wander off from each of its components. Just let your consciousness off the leash and see where it goes. Freud called this process freier Einfall, which is somewhat misleadingly translated “free association.”
When you do this, you’re likely to notice that the individual pieces of the dream are like snapshots of impressions from the day (or two) before the dream. The dream is like a collage that’s concocted from these snippets of experience. Continue to let your mind wander from these components, seeing what they evoke for you, and you’ll notice that most or all of them are connected, and that this web of connections seems to cluster around raw, emotionally significant concerns—the hopes, dreads, shames, and longings that you’ve placed on the psychological back burner.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve understood the dream and have come to know yourself a little bit better. And you’ve also had a glimpse—perhaps, a startling one—of the complex mental processes lying behind the curtain of consciousness that compose powerful visual poetry while you are sound asleep.