Back in 2018, I spent a few weeks keeping a “dream journal.” For those who don’t know what a dream journal is, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a place where you write down your dreams.
Why do this? Well, I did it mostly as a lark after interviewing a therapist, back when I was working as a content writer for a rehab company. (The recap of that interview can be found here.) But what I found was that, even if you regard dreams as entirely random, and therefore any interpretation of a dream as so much touchy-feely nonsense, it’s still interesting to think about. As my therapist friend said at the time, many, many cultures have examined dreams for life guidance. The Bible, for instance, contains a slew of stories wherein people reach life-or-death decisions based on their dreams.
I’ll leave it to my past self to expound further:
Jungian (pronounced Young-ian) dream work stems from the theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who maintained that dreams are… creations of the unconscious mind to challenge the assumptions, values, and habits of the conscious mind. These challenges are presented in the dream as symbols that can be recognized, examined, and interpreted. In other words, no matter how much you might deny it to friends, family, or yourself, your dreams will let you know when something ain’t right.
Boy, was I hot on Oxford commas back then! In any event, what I like about Jungian dream work is that it allows for you to interpret your own dreams, and your interpretation has as much, if not more, validity as that of anybody else.
(And yes, I am aware that Carl Jung’s ideas have not aged well, that he was more of a mystic than any kind of psychiatrist. It bears repeating I kept a dream journal for all of two months, tops, years ago.)
Now, if you’re willing to entertain the idea that dreams can offer guidance on how to live your waking life, then you’re probably willing to entertain the idea that dreams really only offer this guidance via symbols. Some of these symbols will only feel symbolic to you, through past associations (“I had a goldfish when I was little and the goldfish died, so whenever I think of goldfish I think of death”) while others will feel more universal, meaning similar things across cultures (“water equals cleansing/rebirth/transformation/change”). If nothing else, this can be a fun way of thinking about symbols and symbology—always a good thing for writers of fiction. I should probably mention that Juan Eduardo Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols is an essential text for those who like to write and read serious fiction, and I have found over the years that it can help quite a bit with interpreting dreams.
As for life guidance, I’m not so sure. But I will say this: In the couple of months or so that I took the trouble to describe my dreams in writing, I noticed I was having the same dream over and over.
(Oh, God, he’s not actually going to talk about his dreams, is he? Doesn’t he realize how boring that is?)
I dream of going back to college. I don’t know if I’m the age I am now or if I’m in my younger body, but either way I am super-excited about being back on campus and seeing all my old college friends again. Better yet, I come back with all the experience and maturity I didn’t have back when I was in college, and so now I’ve got an opportunity to do things over again, to get everything right this time.
The problem is, I can’t find my friends. I know they’re there, I know they’re around, and I’m sure I’ll see them sooner or later, but for some reason I keep missing them. If I’m in the cafeteria, they’re all back at the dorm. If I’m at the library, they’re in the gym. And so I walk all over my old college campus, alone, my excitement dwindling as I wonder where the Hell my friends could have gone.
This is the weirdest part, at least for me: Before keeping a dream journal, I would have figured I had that dream once every couple of months. But as it turned out, I was having that dream three or four times per week.
The most readily apparent interpretation of this dream is that I miss college and I miss my friends. Fine. But why not just dream about being back in college with all my friends? Ah, now it gets tricky. Abandonment feelings come into play. But I don’t consider myself particularly abandonment-fearful or abandonment-obsessed; in fact I’m kind of an introvert who does just fine with no one around.
So how else might I interpret this regularly recurring dream?
Well, for as much fun as I had in college, I tend to look back on the whole experience with a strong whiff of regret. To start, I wonder what might have happened if I went to a bigger school, or maybe one farther away from home. I regret not casting a wider net.
And I didn’t work very hard. You might even say that I skulked through college, graduating with a mediocre GPA that I’m not always comfortable sharing. I regret not working harder, or, barring that, dropping out of school so I could at least stop torching my parents’ money while I figure out what to do.
I was also kind of crummy toward some people. No need to get into a whole thing here, but looking back I see I was immature and selfish and not nearly as slick as I assumed myself to be. Sometimes I find myself wincing at what a Basic Bitch I was, with my fitted baseball cap and my grunge-nodding flannel button-downs and my Marlboros. I’d say there are at least three or four people I knew in college who, if I ran into them on the street tomorrow, I think I would physically disintegrate with embarrassment. I regret not being different.
So that explains the being super-excited for a do-over part. But again, why the absent friends? What’s that about? I wonder if that’s me telling me that what’s past is past and I can’t change it, so I need to cut out all this regret and just come to terms with everything. Or maybe I should reach out to those old friends…
Which I did, not long after interpreting this recurring dream. And it worked! Kind of! After engaging in a couple of catch-up conversations with these friends from college, the dream didn’t go away, but it changed.
Nowadays it goes like this: I am back at college, still super-excited, but when I meet up with my friends, none of us are doing any of the fun stuff we used to do. We’re on our phones with our spouses, asking about our kids, trying to figure out how we can cover the mortgage this month since for some stupid reason we’re all back at college.