From Chapter 16. Symbols: Keys to the Unconscious
Humans interact with the world through symbols. We use them to communicate, to define and study life, to interact with our own minds. Symbols are not only the intentional representations of concepts, such as language; they are also the meaning we imbue objects with. An owl can represent wisdom, winter represents dormancy and death, red means danger or stop, green means go. Even characters--in fiction and in dreams--function on a symbolic level as they personify qualities in the dream world and in ourselves, allowing us to describe something that is unconscious. We are able to navigate our communications and thoughts at lightning speed thanks to symbols.
You could make the argument that the dream world is all symbols. When we are dreaming, the unconscious expresses its desires to us through symbols. Though we may not immediately understand what our dream imagery means to us, noticing it and thinking about why it holds personal meaning can open us up to lessons and wisdom from the unconscious, both collective and personal. Building a personal vocabulary of dream symbols can make our dreaming practice more fluent and rewarding.
. . . When we receive information from the unconscious through symbols, we can bring those symbols from the dreamscape into the 3D world. We can also communicate to the unconscious through understanding those symbols. This deep conversation is where the magic of lucid dreaming happens.
Bringing Dream Symbols to Life
One powerful way to work with dream symbols is to introduce them into your waking environment. An item from a dream that keeps you company during the day goes from being a fleeting image to a presence in your life, giving you the physical time and space to contemplate it and for the symbol to work in your unconscious.
I’ll give you an example of how this works from my own practice. I once dreamed there was a panda in my room. Since I don’t typically encounter pandas in my room, it felt significant, as if that panda--whatever it symbolized--had some reason to be there. So I made a clay panda and set it on my bedside table. A few days later, I had a lucid dream in which a man showed up. He had a dark patch around his eye, as if he’d been in a fight, and dark and light patches of hair. I asked: “Are you a panda?” He said he was, and I proceeded to ask him some questions about dreams and reality.
To do this for yourself, simply notice in your dreams which symbols feel significant. You don’t need to be able to explain them right away--in fact, things that feel puzzling or intriguing, that inspire curiosity or that just seem odd, may be ripe for the kind of slow unfolding that can happen with this practice.
The next step is to give it a physical form. The options here are nearly endless, but here are some ideas:
• Write a word from your dream in lettering and colors that feel relevant. Make it big and put it on a wall or the fridge, or make it small and carry it in your pocket.
• Draw or paint a picture, or take a photograph. Keep it by your bedside, or hang it on a wall.
• Make a representation of your dream image with clay, paper, or other material.
• Find a toy or modela boat, a car, a spaceship, a doll--that resembles your dream symbol.
• Make use of ordinary objects that have been elevated to a place of significance by imitating their dream context. For example, if a pencil or coffee cup was floating in air in a dream, you might hang its real-world counterpart from a string or a hook.
• Collect objects you find in nature: rocks, leaves, sand. Place them in a display case or place of honor in your bedroom.
Physical items don’t necessarily have to be handmade, but there does seem to be something about the physical creative act that strengthens the symbol’s connections between conscious and unconscious. Whatever you choose, the important thing is to raise your awareness that the symbol holds a part of you that has its own consciousness, and to invite that symbol to communicate with you.
You can also introduce symbols and concepts from the waking world that you want to explore in lucid dreams. The technique for this is similar to working with physical symbols that originate in dreams, but now the symbols come from the conscious awake you. Some possibilities for generating symbols:
• If there’s an idea you want to work with, distill it into one or two words, such as creativity or life purpose. Recite it as a mantra, write it several times in a journal each day, or make it into a poster to meditate on.
• Find or create an image or object that symbolizes a significant event, idea, or feeling. Meditate on it and invite your unconscious to help you discern its meaning for you.
• Decide that the sound of a bell in your dream will cue an important insight or feeling that you need. Select a bell (or chime or bicycle ringer or another instrument) and keep it in a designated place. Before starting your lucid dreaming practice each night, ring the bell.
• Follow your intuition. This may be the most important and most effective technique. Simply notice what objects or images call to you, and then welcome them into your space, no matter how incongruous or random. When you prepare to lucid dream, ask it to come with you into your dreams, and ask your unconscious what it has to tell you about it.