Remember Your Dreams: A Practical Guide

I sometimes hear people say, “I don’t dream.” Everyone dreams, but not everyone remembers them. There are several things you can do to help you remember. They fall into the categories of priming your unconscious, how to fall asleep, and recording.

Priming Yourself

If you do not remember your dreams at all, during the day, idly think about things you would like to dream about. Actually, just start daydreaming in general. If you can remember some images, let thoughts of them flit through your conscious mind. Either way, don’t dwell too much on details.

The type of thinking you need to engage in is like daydreaming about something pleasant you will be doing soon such as taking a vacation. This is not actual planning. It’s easy to fall into that trap. If you find yourself thinking specifics such as, “And on Tuesday, we’ll drive over to the canyon before eating dinner at that restaurant I found on Zagat … oh, I’d better make reservations,” stop that kind of thinking. Relax and start again. The exercise is about letting your mind wander: thinking about things like how much fun it will be and picturing and feeling the kind of weather you want.

Here’s an example of daydreaming to prime your dreams. Let’s say you remember the image of a child’s knitted hat. The image brings a wonderful sense of happiness, but that’s all you can remember from the dream. That’s okay. Picture the hat. Maybe try it on. Don’t fall into the trap of styling your hair or thinking how could a hat for a kid fit me. Those thoughts are like planning your vacation. Instead, make up a story about wearing the hat while sledding or walking in the woods. Again, stay away from too many specifics. Picture possible colors. Give it a pompom or a tassel. Just enjoy the daydream. Kind of float with it. Enjoy the happiness it brings.

Here’s another example. You wake up in the morning with the vague sense of having dreamed about a wallet, or when you pay for coffee, you realize you dreamed about one. You’d like to know what the dream might symbolize in your waking life. You look up the symbolism on the internet, but the meanings offered don’t seem to fit.

Think about possible meanings and how you feel about them, but do so gently—like you’d think about a choice you don’t particularly care about. Think about what is in your actual wallet. Don’t dwell on any one thought or feeling. Picture what the dream wallet looked like. If you can’t picture it, don’t force it. Move on to thinking about the wallet you use now or the kind of wallet you’d like to use. In other words, idly daydream about it. Let the thoughts and feelings come and go.

Be aware that you can encourage the unconscious in certain directions, but you cannot dictate to it. You might dream about wallets the night you prime yourself to do so, or you might never dream about them again. When a dream leaves, you have an opportunity during the day to reflect on the reasons. Ask yourself how not dreaming about something can connect to your waking life. If you do not dream about wallets after priming yourself to do so, it could be you found the solution to that problem during the day. Maybe a friend or colleague said something that made you think, “That’s it.”

Here’s an example. After a number of dreams about driving round and round a parking garage and not finding the exit, a therapist asked the dreamer if he felt stuck in his life. The dreamer said, “Yes, absolutely.” He never had that dream again even though he only had the realization. He had not yet made changes in his life, but he now had defined the problem.

Falling asleep

When you were little, someone might have read to you. As you got older, you probably got busy with your waking life. Maybe you read a few pages yourself, or maybe homework and chores took their place. As an adult, daily life seems to take over. We often rush around trying to get everything done, and then at the end of the day, we fall into bed hoping for instant sleep so we can get up and do it all again.

Sleep doesn’t happen because you want it to. It certainly doesn’t happen by processing the day you just lived through or by planning tomorrow. A better way to fall asleep is to put your daily existence aside and to invite your unconscious to take over. You have all day to worry, plan, and review. Set aside times during your day to do these things. When you get ready for bed, prepare yourself for sleep. Relax your body, stretch your muscles, clear your mind. If you practice yoga, you are already becoming successful at clearing.

For many people, clearing the mind is more difficult than stretching muscles. Both activities are similar though. We just don’t think of them as being so. Let go, and let your mind relax and let go of your waking life. If you start rehashing an unpleasant encounter or worrying about a problem, tell yourself, “Stop. You set aside time in the day to rehash and worry. Now, back to gently clearing your thoughts.”

Mentally, go somewhere you like, either a real place or one you invent. I like decorating imaginary properties. Some people like beaches. As with priming, resist getting too involved in the details. Just let images flow. Make unpleasant ones leave. Ignore them. This usually takes some practice.

If you are working on encouraging a dream motif (i.e., theme, image, story), gently think about its aspects. You are not trying to direct the motif. You are simply letting thoughts about it flit through your conscious mind to tempt your unconscious to take it up later. This is called free association. 

Recording

Unless you have a very good memory, you will need to write down something when you first wake up. Recording dreams in a journal can be extremely helpful. Some people love doing this and look forward to setting aside time to write. Unfortunately, many people are overly busy. Write enough in the morning to jog your memory later. You may find that you get better at remembering as you get more practice doing it, which means you will need to spend less time writing.

Some people write down everything from the dream. Others jot down the main points. The more you write, the more ways you can use the material, but it takes a time commitment many people don’t have. Do what works for you. Anything you record will have some use (unless, of course, you write in indecipherable abbreviations). A dream journal gives you a record that shows dream motifs over a period of time. You can look back to the person you were and to who you are now.

A dream journal can track how a theme intensifies. Sometimes the action gets more dramatic. Sometimes, you just feel more strongly about the content, especially if the dream repeats. The following is an example of the dream I had in a series while I was writing my dissertation. I wanted to graduate at a certain time and knew the timeline I had to follow to make that happen. The first few dreams I had gently prodded me into not procrastinating. The dream that got me into high gear is the following:

I am flying a tiny twin engine plane through a neighborhood. I hear the engines purr and can see houses below. I’m flying low and hope I don’t hit trees. I then notice that I can no longer see out the windows. Now, I’m worried I might hit a person. I feel that I still have control of the plane, but then I realize I no longer hear the engines. I feel as if I’m hanging in midair barely in control.

I woke up and decided I needed to finish that dissertation as quickly as possible. I really did not relish the thought of what the next dream might be!

Final Thoughts

Dreams are shy creatures. Too much analysis and sharing can rob them of their potency. Treat them like wild creatures you are trying to glimpse in the woods. You can’t dash after them. You have to move slowly and quietly. If you tame them, them will no longer be wild creatures, no longer as useful.

Do jot down the main points of your dreams so you can revisit them, but do not discuss too much of a dream with people in general. It can be helpful to share parts of dreams with someone you trust and whom you feel can help you tease out their meaning.

Resources

There are many really good sites on the internet. I listed several of my favorites in my January 21,2017, post. Mainstream bookstores and Amazon carry symbolism and dream-interpretation books. Most sites/books are basically trustworthy. The best sites/books make a point of telling the reader that the reader holds the key to his or her meaning and that the site/book is a general guide. Look through sites/books until you find ones that resonates with you. I like to use ideas from multiple sites/books to gain a richer, broader perspective.

It is important to look through sites/books and to read interpretations for several symbols because all sites and books lean different directions: general and inclusive interpretation, Jungian theory, esoteric Buddhist thought, classical mythology, Christian ideology, etc. There is only one class of book/site I would advise staying clear of and those are the ones that are negative and prey on people’s fears and lean heavily towards doom and destruction.

Your life is a journey and the only one you get this round. Make the most of it.