Discovering the true meaning of dreams

Teeth falling out? Giving a speech naked? Should I be taking more notice of what these dreams could mean?
Loading the player...

There is a joke, attributed to Oscar Wilde, that the most frightening sentence in the English language is “I had a very interesting dream last night”.

A man sliced off half his foot with a buzzsaw for fun; I fell off a ferry into polluted water in Kuala Lumpur; I had lunch at SPQR with Jeremy Wells and he was reading the paper and there was a story on the front page saying I was a slut. See? No one wants to hear your dreams.

I don’t like dream sequences in films (cheating) or books (boring) and the word ‘dreamwork’ fits into the dirty-hippy cate-gory with pet rocks and pottery dragons.

But now I’m studying psychotherapy and we have to write an essay about a dream. Help. Turns out it’s not just repressed English toffs who are terrified of the wild desires of their unconscious that come out at night. If, as Freud said, our dreams are the fulfilment of unconscious wishes, no wonder we don’t want to flop those out.

Making a joke is a defence against the who-farted awkwardness of acknowledging we spend half of our life not engaging in the wide awake reality of achieving and acquiring and putting out the recycling, but in an eyes-closed fantasy where we can fly, our teeth fall out and we have sex with John Key. Yes, my subconscious once went there.

Some of us have a strong attachment to the normative culture’s comforting consensus about what’s real and what’s not.

Having to do my GST? Real. Jacinda Ardern coming to visit my house and falling into a sinkhole in the garden and me trying to rescue her mudwrestling-style while Shapeshifter play? Not so much.

Sorted. Dusts off hands. It’s so much easier when you can keep things in tidy compartments rather than admit reality and imagination are all mooshed up.

That stirrer Nabokov said, “There is no science without fancy and no art without fact.”

Truth has always been a contested idea. Doris Lessing said, “There’s no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” Maybe dreams do too but to find out, we have to let go of the tyranny of literal meaning and accept we all live in a bit of a dream world.

The process of opening to my dreams – why so many dirty dreams about prime ministers? – has made me wonder whether reality is even a very particular thing, an unarguable series of things that are so, which needs to be defended against the attacks of the things that are not so.

Dreams are productions of our mind revealing parts of our personality that are rejected, feared or unknown. They offer a glimpse into a darkness we can’t approach head on; we have to sidle up to it. As Auden said: “Truth, like love and sleep, resents approaches that are too intense.”

So, assuming you’re brave enough to have a go, how do you interpret dreams? The idea that there’s a handbook (a shoe is a vagina, spiders mean adultery, blah blah) seemed to me to belong to the school of howling-at-the-moon therapy, about as feeble-minded as the idea there’s a soulmate for each of us. (Mine’s in Ulaanbaatar.)

Fortunately, I discovered the ideas of the wonderful Wilfred Bion, who followed on from Freud, and cared more about the way we dream than the symbolic meaning of a dream snake or a dream sausage.

Bion’s ideas opened me to ‘dreamwork’ by making it a rigorous form of truth seeking. He believes the driving force of human development is the search for truth and that the mind is developed through dreaming as we strive to discover what’s real about our experience. Perhaps to know what is real, we need to know what is not?

Essentially, our dreams allow us to think the thoughts that cannot be thought. Bion called these beta elements, like undigested splinters that will usually appear in the form of acting out or as a psychosis.

They can also be held in our collective unconscious and are especially dangerous to society in times of threat, tension and uncertainty. Maybe the world would be a better place if Trump dreamed a little more? As writer Toni Morrison said: “As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”

Perhaps as a dreamy, sensitive child, I was required to relinquish my fantasy life before I was ready (my parents wanted me to be aware of the evils of apartheid aged five). As an adult I often find real-world concerns – paying bills, social niceties – problematic. I found it painful to look at the emotional content of my night-time dreams; so maybe as a result I lived partly in a dream-world while awake as well.

Bion’s idea was that the dream is a form of unconscious thinking. That we dream by day and by night in order to process mental experience.

After this experience, I may be going back to my therapist saying “I had a very interesting dream last night”. But this time, it will not be a joke.

Related stories