It’s the tone, not the content

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The car was skidding sideways now, for me in slow motion, and I remember having time to decide what to do. I felt the wheels beneath me leave the road’s edge, into the air above the ditch and I knew we were dead. Time stretched even wider, and I put my hands calmly over my face and waited.

There was no impact, just silence and softness and the feeling of tiny bits of glass scattering over the backs of my hands. It felt good.

***

I don’t talk about the meaning of dreams here much because it’s one of those topics that seems to attract over-reaching interpretations. Dream dictionaries rattle off one-to-one meanings as if they could possibly be the same for everyone. Dreaming about a lizard means you have anxiety about your libido, didn’t you know? Somehow it’s not supposed to matter who you are.

Not that what we dream about can’t tell us anything about what’s happening in our lives, even if we’re not conscious of it while we’re awake. They give us pretty strong clues sometimes, if a little general. We tend to dream about what we’ve been thinking about during waking life. This can include hopes and anxieties that only happen in the background normally, and which come to light when we’re asleep.

As random as they seem to be, if you look at what you tend to dream about over time you can get an idea of what might be occupying your subconscious in your day-to-day life, even over years. I’ve had thousands of dreams and certain specific themes and images have recurred consistently for long stretches of my life:

It’s the first day of school and I don’t know where my class is.

There is an exciting field trip about to happen and I miss the bus or it gets canceled.

My teeth become brittle and crumble in my mouth.

I lose my laptop and my heart’s in my throat until I find it.

I meet my dream girl and she disappears or turns into someone else.

I lose a body part violently, but rather than panic I just get kind of sad that it’s gone.

These aren’t all of them, but it’s amazing to me how consistently these themes have visited me over the last ten or fifteen years. You probably have your own, and looking at my own short list I can’t help but wonder what they have to do with me specifically. Why don’t I dream about laying comfortably on beaches or playing in the Superbowl?

It’s not that all my dreams are anxious or filled with the fear of loss. Some are euphoric, some are horrific. But the overall consistency of emotional themes seems to suggest that when my mind is left to its own, to create an experience without any external sense data defining the world for it — which seems to be the only difference between waking life and dreaming — that world is usually an anxious one. 

For years now I’ve been running into an aphorism about dreams, attributed to Emerson:

“Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams.”

[If anyone knows the context of this quote let me know, I can’t find it. -D.]

I always hated that quote because I couldn’t help but agree with it, and I knew it meant that my character was defined primarily by my anxiousness. Ever since my forehead-smacking moment two years ago, in which I realized I was and had always been a pessimist, that thought doesn’t seem too off the mark. Historically, my defacto emotion has been the fear of loss and pain, and my dreams have been reflecting that all this time.

It was comforting to learn that studies done on dream content show that overwhelmingly, people experience negative emotions in dreams more often than they experience positive ones.

In waking life, we’re surrounded by external stimuli all the time, and we can manipulate it physically, so we get a chance to position ourselves in ways that minimize or placate negative emotions. If we feel deprived, we can eat something or buy something. If we feel lonely we can call someone. If nothing else works we can go buy beer.

While we’re awake do a lot of this kind of emotional “mood maintenance,” without even realizing why we’re doing it. In dreams, though, the world around us is created by raw thought and emotion, and in a non-lucid dream we have no control over that experience. And so certain themes naturally emerge. They are your mind’s emotional background tone — what it does when you can’t get it to do anything else.

I think that emotional vibe of our dreams says more about our personalities than what actually happens in the dreams. The emotion comes first, and the mind comes up with whatever events and images represent that in your mind. The tone creates the content.

So I still agree with Emerson. It seems that dreams, over time, can be a reliable barometer of the dominant emotions in your life.

What I didn’t know is that the “natural character” that Emerson is talking about is something that can change. It might seem intrinsic because our emotions are habitual and self-perpetuating. They can stay the same for long stretches of our lives. But it’s not an intrinsic part of our identity, it’s just the dominant emotion in our lives. Dreams give us a way of gauging what that dominant emotion is without the external distractions of waking life.

My last Raptitude experiment was on visualization — sitting down just to think about what I want in life, to address my lifelong pessimistic habit of thinking primarily about what I don’t want to happen. The experiment was kind of a disaster. I came to hate my visualization ritual because it became an obligation.

So I aborted it as an official experiment and almost right away it became appealing again, and something finally clicked. I know how to do it now. Don’t focus on the physical details of the vision, as in what it looks like specifically, but instead focus on what specifically it would feel like, emotionally, if it were real.

The tone, not the content.

In the last two months I have been thinking about what I want far more often than I ever have, and I’m noticing a dramatic change in my “background” emotional state. Before, whenever my mind wasn’t absorbed in something, it would default back to some kind of low-level worry — about an annoying to-do, tomorrow’s workday, the cleanliness of my bathroom, whatever.

My default seems to be shifting, away from worry and towards gratitude, and I can see this change manifesting itself most conspicuously in my dreams. The tone of them was so consistently anxious for so, so long, and now in most of them I’m relaxed and curious. I’m having a lot more lucid dreams.

Every September I have at least one back-to-school dream, even though I haven’t attended any kind of school for six years. The tone of these dreams has always been very consistently anxious. I had one again last week.

This time I had all the same problems as previous back-to-school dreams — I couldn’t find my class, I was missing certain mandatory supplies, I didn’t know anybody, I was late, and for some reason I was entering high school at age 27 — yet I stayed relaxed and curious and confident through the whole thing. Same situation, totally different tone.

The difference was so stark that I’m convinced now that this background emotional tone of our lives is the greatest determining factor in a person’s quality of life.

There is no question that it feels much better to be myself than it did even a few months ago. I’m more relaxed, more present. I see way more possibilities now. Social interactions are getting smoother and deeper. Negative thoughts aren’t very persistent. I don’t read bad news into every little thing that happens much any more.

It’s such a different feel, a different tone, and I can see that different tone leading me to a pretty different life than the old one. The predominantly anxious tone I carried all that time led to vain efforts to try and control the details of the content in my life to make it into what I wanted.

It seems obvious now the way to do it is the other way around. Get the tone right, and better content will emerge naturally. Just like in dreams, the tone creates the content, and I was always trying to control the content so that I would finally get a tone I like.

And so that’s where I want to exert my energy from now on: shifting the default emotions from worry to gratitude, by dedicating time daily to thinking about what I want. In upcoming posts I’ll talk more about how to do that consciously, but for now I’d like to know: What’s the dominant emotion in your dreams? Do you think it reflects the dominant emotion in your life?

***

On cue, a crow brought me back, squawking outside my window. It was really early and it took me a minute to realize it was a Saturday. I didn’t have to work and it was sunny.

 

Photo by Kema Keur


blooski September 24, 2012 at 12:43 am

I too have a recurring back to school bad dream. I am supposed to start but I haven’t registered for classes yet, or I forget which classes I am supposed to be in and miss them.

Thanks for sharing you observations and feelings on your journey. I share many of the perspectives and experiences you mention, in my own fashion. I too am fascinated by the dream state and in fact was just reading Stephen LaBerge’s book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. I have also recently been looking more seriously at what I *really* want to do. Perhaps it is the times. Perhaps its that cycle of change that is supposed to happen by the end of 2012. But whatever the cause, it is somehow comforting to know fellow travelers are out there with similar experiences.

David September 24, 2012 at 7:23 pm

I find the more relaxed I get, the more often my dreams become lucid. Maybe it has something to do with being in the habit of acting consciously rather than reacting, in waking life.

lalit September 24, 2012 at 1:40 am

great post as always! i’ve read all your posts…. i’m 19 years old and you are my favorite writer….m from india, been reading your post from 5 or 6 months and can honestly say that your writings gave me a great perspective towards life…i liked your analogy about dreams that how they reflect our viewpoint towards life. when we are sleeping our subconcious still works shows us what we been really feeding our minds, after all the disguises we use in our waking hours, and our true anxities. cant wait for checking out your upcoming enhancement of your current post. thank you.

David September 24, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Thanks Lalit

David Ashton September 24, 2012 at 2:25 am

Great post – I like your experiments. Just in case you were wondering, school dreams never seem to stop (I’m 63 and I still get dreams about taking exams after not having studied all year).

The Emerson quote is from his Journals (March 23, 1833). It was made after visiting Heraculaneum and Pompeii. The whole quote is “Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams. If you yield to temptation there, I am afraid you will, awake. If you are a coward then, I jalouse of your courage by day.” Here’s a link to that journal: http://www.perfectidius.com/Volume_3_1833-1835.pdf

David September 24, 2012 at 7:18 pm

Excellent thank you!

Looking forward to many more decades of school dreams

Vilx- September 24, 2012 at 5:47 am

I almost never remember my dreams, and almost always they are emotionally neutral. Guess I’m boring. XD A quote from a movie comes to mind though:

Listen to the music, not the song. – Ambassador Kosh.

Donna September 24, 2012 at 6:00 am

At 51 my school anxiety dreams have only recently faded into nothing…..
I have a lot of crazy driving dreams but then I have been in two crashes this year, both where I was driven into and my car written off….so that is not hard to understand.
My default anxiety dream, with variations, is that the plane/train is leaving in 20 minutes and I am about to start packing…..and the dream hovers around that moment just before you have to accept that it’s a lost cause – I’m always at the point where I believe if I really, really try I can still make it in time. There is never resolution, or fallout. So perhaps this is reflecting a general feeling of inadequacy, but not hopelessness – if I find the strength/courage I CAN make the changes I want. It’s up to me.
Jeez that’s scary…

brenthaff@gmail.com September 24, 2012 at 7:50 am

Awesome again……

meg September 24, 2012 at 8:15 am

For many years in my recurring dreams I’ve usually just been an observer of what is going on, or walking through the setting, a heavily visual experience as opposed to interactive, much like my waking life as a deaf person. There are recurring locales, the places where I’ve lived in the past, or a pastiche of them. The tone? It varies between neutral and frustrated. When I did interact with others in my dreams, I was often defensive, felt misunderstood. Then when I started getting more sleep and better sleep (after four years of maybe 2-3 hours of sleep per night), the dreams shifted in tone–if I remembered them at all–to just going about my business. And one day I woke up and realized I didn’t feel like a victim anymore, which in turn made me realize a whole lot of other things about my life, my family, and my work. Since then, the tone of life has completely changed for the better.

I think you’re on to something.

David September 24, 2012 at 7:26 pm

>after four years of maybe 2-3 hours of sleep per night

Wow. I start to get waking hallucinations when I have even two nights with less than 4 or 5 hours. People’s faces turn into zombie faces before my eyes.

I know everyone’s different but I notice a clear difference in my waking mood between getting 6 hours and 8 hours.

LunaJune September 24, 2012 at 8:44 am

Amazing when that happens eh :~)
I read dream books to laugh… like comic strips because truly what goes on inside our dreams can only truly be interpreted by ourselves… we know the emotions we have… the thoughts we think… the beliefs will fill our waking minds with, and truly no one else can experience this.

I’m so happy you found the truth about dreams… yes the tone of our lives resonates throughout everything.

Because we spend nearly 1/3 of our lives asleep I have explored the places my dream body can go with such excitement every night of my life… the last bad dream I had was when I was 4 or 5 .. I am now 50… and diving into dreams ah… full of excitement always…. I am grateful in a way to the serious shit I lived through as a child for it taught me really fast… no one can come inside my head… I could go anywhere , do anything in there… and bring it back to share when I wanted…. peaceful sleep… wild and wonderful dreams… right up there with water and food in my mind :~)

can’t wait to see where your new dreams will take you :~)

Peace

Lisa September 24, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I so needed this post today. Thanks! I just watched the documentary “Happy” and this post makes it all seem tangible and attainable. Hugs.

Scott October 8, 2012 at 4:22 am

I literally watched “Happy” four days ago, and just happened to jump on Raptitude for the first time in probably a month or two to read this post. What a coincidence!

P.s. I also needed this post today :)

Kirby September 24, 2012 at 1:54 pm

It’s “the tone, not the content.” I actually really like this and I think you are 100% correct. A way it was once put to me was, “life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” I’m actually a very happy and grateful individual but I’d love to hear more about how you visualize how you want to be. What I’ve been trying to work on lately is to remain in a state where I appreciate how miraculous each day is, and all the details that fill them. I know it is a human competitive advantage to adapt to your environment, but I’ve been trying to take a few moments each day where I stop what I’m doing to appreciate all that is around me, no matter how seemingly mundane, and think how lucky I am.

I just started reading your blog and I just wanted to say thank you. There is so much wisdom in here and I feel refreshed and energized at reading your content (which is massively influenced by your tone ;) ).

David September 24, 2012 at 7:27 pm

I will write more about how I’ve been visualizing in the future, after I’ve had more time to experiment with it on my own.

Marilyn September 28, 2012 at 6:53 pm

“Just like in dreams, the tone creates the content, and I was always trying to control the content so that I would finally get a tone I like.” Wow. This is just such a potent and powerful statement–thank you for this. It resonated with me deeply. I’m also experimenting with what Kirby is doing–taking a few minutes every day to practice gratitude. It’s ironic to me how these sorts of practices–which are so straightforward and in which I believe–aren’t accepted widely in our culture. I love wit and intelligent–not snarky–sarcasm. But so many of the smart people I know are skeptics who turn their noses up at at visualization…. I think that’s why I love your writing. You are wise, witty and yet, not afraid to appear vulnerable in your writing. You are so authentic–thank you.

Louise@The Intentional Workplace September 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Very interesting post.
In my work and writing, I’m always asking the question – what is your default emotion (especially at work) but never ask about dreams – which I am sure is related. And is related to early stuck places from childhood, although it is often very complex to make the connections. It is where we do much of our “shadow or so-called dark work.”
I hope you will write more about the conscious thought work you are doing on shifting emotional states (in your case you mention going from anxiety more toward gratitude.) I think that gratitude is a rich and often neutral emotion state to work with. I also believe it is one of the healing emotions – well in my book, they’re all healers of one sort or another – but gratitude is usually an easier one for most of us to work with.
Good points – enjoyed this post
PS a wonderful book is Healing through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan

Rick September 24, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Jesus, man, you are a genius. This one really resonated with me. And at the same time created a “duh!” response. How simple, and yet I hadn’t noticed it quite this way before. Thanks for opening up a new window in my mind!

Oh, and btw… my latest dream tone seems to be hurry or anxiety over what’s next.

Bob B. September 24, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Yeah. Just … yeah! That’s a take-home lesson for me.

Nitya September 24, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Once again, you’ve managed to tap into a very real emotional state. As with many, perhaps most people, my default position is one of anxiety and insecurity. Maybe everyone is beset with anxiety, it just manifests itself differently with different personality types?I know and understand the way anxiety expresses itself in my particular case, but I’m sure that it has as many modes of expression as there are people on the planet.
What I’ve never thought of in the past, is the fact that our dreams reflect the general tone of our style of thinking. This is somewhat of a revelation to me and I appreciate the added insight.
Training my mind to see past those fearful , intrusive thoughts, should be a very positive action to take, though someone wise once said that those with a predisposition to anxiety cope better in times of an actual ordeal because they have rehearsed it so often.

David September 24, 2012 at 7:31 pm

>What I’ve never thought of in the past, is the fact that our dreams reflect the general tone of our style of thinking.

It was specifically the shift in the tone of my dream that made me realize my default waking tone had changed. The emotion was just so consistent in my dreams that it became obvious something had shifted in my waking life when my annual school dream went totally differently.

>though someone wise once said that those with a predisposition to anxiety cope better in times of an actual ordeal because they have rehearsed it so often.

I have rationalized a lot of fretting this way, by convincing myself that it will help when things really do go wrong. But it mostly led me to create negative expectations as a default, which has probably been my biggest hindrance in life.

Tyler Gress September 24, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Hello David and the Raptitiude community!
Another great post, I profoundly touched by this one, because this idea you stumbled upon was very similar to Buddhism ideals such as mindfulness and the concept of happiness as merely an emotion, not a result of something. This I could relate to, however, to dreams I have little relation. See, I cannot for the life of me remember my dreams. I try to keep dream journals, or orchestrate a lucid dream the night before, but as always I wake up with nothing. Now, I do not know if not remembering my dreams says something about my repressed and inner emotions or whether it just means my body reacts to sleep differently. I liked to know if anyone has an answer to this, thanks!
Once more, well written article. I must say, you shape my life in positive ways, David.
Cheers.

Chris October 1, 2012 at 9:40 am

I am with you on this Tyler….some dreams i can wake up and see fairly vividly in my minds eye, but others, i just draw a blank. Would love to hear any suggestions for dealing with this, as i would truly like to work with my dreams much more.

Rusty Southwick September 24, 2012 at 10:53 pm

The dominant emotion for me in my dreams is anxiety, which would fit many of my moods. I don’t believe it’s the dominant emotion in my life. Probably the dominant unresolved negative emotion.

A few common themes for me:
• As a baseball outfielder, when the ball is hit to me I go to throw and my arms don’t work. I haven’t been able to make a throw in my dreams for many years.
• Driving while sitting in the back seat (I’m the only one in the car), and I’m quickly approaching a red light and I realize I won’t be able to get in the front seat in time to step on the pedals. And it’s always a clutch.
• Driving around blind corners, with an odd twist — my self is in two places: my body is in the car, but my eyes and my consciousness are a few hundred feet behind the car, so when I turn around the blind curve, I can’t see where I need to steer. A very helpless feeling of “now what?”
• I get stuck in stairwells because there’s not enough room to squeeze through. Sometimes I’m trying to find my way out of a building, and the stairwells all look like dead ends where I will get stuck.
• I’m involved in an elaborate escape from an evil empire, and I realize I’m being monitored the whole time. I make it through all the obstacles and finally escape to freedom.
• I escape from an indoctrination camp in a large building.
• At nighttime, I go to lock the front door and back door of the house, and the doors won’t latch.
• When I’m sick, I dream the same monotonous sequence of something unfinished over and over and over, for the entire night.
• On a giant elevator (about 50′ x 50′) with no doors, everything’s open around it, and the elevator goes extremely fast. I’m afraid of trying to get off the elevator without getting smushed.
• Arrive for the first time for class at college on the last day of the semester and I haven’t done any of the assignments or tests. (probably stopped having those about 25 years after college)
• I used to have dreams where I was the only person who knew how to either fly or float a few feet above the ground.

Dipesh September 24, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Hi David,

I am an avid reader of your blogs. I have read some of it numerous times.
Your blogs are always mind blowing and gives news perspective to life.
Whenever I am stuck emotionally, I always come back to your site and reread some of the posts.

You are my inspiration and really like to thank you so much for sharing your thoughts & feelings. I never had courage to comment here. But today, I am gathering all my courage.

This post really tuned with what I had been facing all these years.
I always had (have) recurring dreams of being late. Being late for bus, plane, and deadlines. I was always worried and anxious in those dreams. I never really gave any importance to these dreams.

Curious enough, I started to note the patterns of my dreams and got a clue about my real character in life. Since then, I have been trying not to get worried about deadlines & time. I have been trying to stay more relaxed & more aware of my worries.
Result: These days I find confronting myself in dreams saying “Relax, Don’t worry”.

Thank you for an awesome post.

Karen September 24, 2012 at 11:54 pm

I dreamed a lot for years about trying to get home after a disaster, anxiety type stuff. Now that I’m older and I journal and try to be kinder to myself in general, I find curiosity is the new tone of my dreams. I don’t seem to have half the nightmares I used to.
As an aside: I remember when my kids were little and came in to my bed crying after a nightmare, I’d make up a new ending for that dream, preferably a funny one. Like sweeping off the wolf with a broom and making him run for cover etc etc. !! (Gratitude for no babies waking me in the night nowadays!!)

It Calls Me Onanon September 25, 2012 at 12:25 am

Hello, David.

The pattern in my dreams was a juxtaposition of feelings to form this ghostly mixture of questioning, unfulfilled/unresolved, timid, desperate longing. It was usually a reaction to the unresponsiveness of something that might redeem me despite having expressed myself.

I’ve been reflecting on how to communicate a clearly defined meaning to another person through rigorous intellectual effort, and the particular effort that it requires would show up in my dreams with a redemptive quality attached to the idea of getting through to somebody or something.

That habit of forming relationships with things like concepts or people as if they can redefine the condition of one’s being–offering redemption–is something that I recently confronted as the source of discontent and insecurity in me. It’s afforded me a resounding resolve as a natural consequence to its removal, even in my dreams.

Avi September 25, 2012 at 12:34 am

When I was a kid I had dreams about sitting buckled up in the back seat of a car with no driver, accelerating down a steep hill.
Now I have dreams where I’m driving but the brakes don’t work or the car can’t be parked, and I have to drive around a parking lot indefinitely, stuck in the car and trying not to crash.

Ania September 26, 2012 at 8:22 am

Thanks for the nice post. It made me analyze my dreams from a new point of view. On the whole, my dreams are usually calm and I feel much like an observer. Though I had some times when I clearly felt sad/happy in my dreams and that corresponded with my real life. Now I can use my dreams whenever I want to check my subconscious emotional state, thanks for this idea.

I also have from time to time an interesting experience with nightmares. They’re usually resemble horror movies: I am in a building full of aliens or attacked by criminal gang. I usually try to escape them or fight and escape. The interesting thing for me is that I never scared during the dream: I think and act rationally, though I don’t realize this is only a dream. And I suppose in reality I would never be so calm in a similar extreme situation :)

Julie September 27, 2012 at 5:34 am

Thank you for another helpful insight.

Chris September 27, 2012 at 10:47 am

I’m really, really, really looking forward to your follow up post(s) on how you’ve accomplished this change in tone. Please drop everything and write it now!!! :-)

Gemma J September 28, 2012 at 10:31 am

I’m generally a quite anxious person, and one theme I’ve had since I was younger was being unable to walk at a normal pace, to the point where I would end up at a 45-degree angle to the ground, trying my hardest to push off my toes, but barely gaining an inch. This was even combined with a school-anxiety dream once, in that I walked so slowly to my first day that I only reached school as the last bell was ringing. I never thought to interpret this theme by how I was feeling in waking life at the time, but I bet you anything they correspond to moments when I’ve felt stuck in some way, and struggling to move on.
Recently my nightmares have taken a bad turn, where I’m betrayed by someone or caught in a bad place and then killed (usually stabbed). This is the only time in my dreams where I become lucid now, as my mind starts yelling ‘It’s okay, it’s just a dream!’ the moment I feel the knife in my body. Given that my life is good at the moment, if a little boring and frustrating, I have no idea what emotion these could be conveying.
(As a side note, occasionally my dreams involve beautiful natural vistas, and I always wish I could stay longer and just gawp at them :) )

Lanie September 28, 2012 at 4:35 pm

The emotions in my dreams most definitely reflect the dominant emotion in my life at the time. When I am anxious and stressed in waking life, I usually end up with dreams where someone is chasing me, my teeth are falling out, or I am trying to run and my legs feel like jello. When I am peaceful in my waking life, my dreams are beautiful and extremely vivid in color.
People say that you dream every night, but sometimes don’t remember it. That is quite puzzling to me. If that is true, why do you remember your dreams sometimes and not others? I dont’ mean remembering that you dreamt and not remembering the dream, I mean, not remembering dreaming at all. I wonder what is going on in the subconscious then.

Gemma J, maybe you’re subsconsciously afraid that someone will betray you, hence the stabbing in the back dreams?

Chelsea September 28, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Wonder.

And it’s funny, because I’ve had a lot of anxiety problems in my waking life (debilitating shyness until a few years ago, panic attacks still occasionally), but my dreams have always been the opposite — beautiful and magical, places of exploration and curiosity and awe. There’s a city I’ve been exploring pieces of since I was a kid, lots of flying dreams, travels to other worlds where the colors are brighter, lots of whales and tigers and dolphins and the ocean. It’s part of what’s refreshing about sleep for me. I guess escapism is an obvious interpretation. But it’s also sort of interesting to wonder whether perhaps they’re emotional experiences that are more core to who I am, trying to break through the false noise. A possible other side of the coin to the kind of process you’re writing about. Nature trying to combat negative nurture.

Either way, that Emerson quote is going to stick with me for days. One of the things I love about this site — you keep me thinking from different angles. Thank you. Excited for your next post.

Mads Singers September 30, 2012 at 4:49 am

I very rarely if ever remember my dreams, but it’s fascinating to me what the mind is capable off – I always enjoy getting to hear good stories ;)

Kind Regards
Mads

Emmet O Sullivan October 1, 2012 at 4:31 am

This makes a lot of sense. I’ve had experiences where I’ve come across the same symbol in different dreams and interpreted it completely differently depending on how I was feeling when I woke up. It’s usually then that the disparity of the different interpretations makes you examine your life and realise that you have made some sort of realisation or grown in some way. I think it’s interpreting how you react to the same symbols that really shows where you’re going.

As re. your visualization I think you are on the right track. I know thinking about goals can send you round and round in circles forever -they can ebb and flow and change depending on your mood. I guess once you sit down and try and feel it you realise what really matters. And the pleasurable feeling can create a physical impetus, like an addiction, which obviously provides more natural motivation for fulfilment than any idea. I’m reading Anthony Robbins book “Awakening the giant within” at the moment. He talks about our basic and only real motivation (regardless of our ideals) being the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, and how to harness that power, and align your natural drives with your ideals, it seems pretty cool.

Jeff Bronson October 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm

“And so that’s where I want to exert my energy from now on: shifting the default emotions from worry to gratitude, by dedicating time daily to thinking about what I want.”

A wise move. Most of the time, our worry is unfounded, and ultimately unable to prevent nor remedy events that occur. Focusing on what you want, will help bring about situations conducive to you accomplishing those things.

Per lucid dreaming, setting a trigger during the day is helpful. Meaning, do something like pulling your finger several times during the day. After a while, in the dream you will continue this action, however chances are you will notice your finger stretches, or something is off. This type of trigger can help wake you within a lucid dream. I’ve been having lucid dreams in OBE’s my whole life.

Sarah October 1, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Your experiences sound strikingly similar to what happened to me when I started meditating. (Echoes of what Tyler mentioned above). For my whole life, I have mainly dreamed of obstacles, anxiety, failure. Now I dream of exploration, adventure, joy, silliness. The correlation is very fine-grained– on days I skip meditation, my dreams are worse. My hypothesis is that mediation serves sort of the same purpose of dreaming (you shut off thinking, and all this crazy stuff comes up), so I “clear out the cobwebs” with my evening mediation and then have a lovely night’s dreaming. Of course, that’s just a ‘side effect’ of meditation… the main effect being that I am just less fear-driven in general. Sounds like that is happening to you, too. Yay!

Jan October 7, 2012 at 6:31 pm

I just realized, after years of painstakingly trying to discern the meaning of my dreams, that it is very strange that each and every one of my dreams stars me in some way.

Does everyone dream only in the first person? Or as a starring second person role? Does anyone dream from other than their own perspective?

How completely self-centered my subconscious is. I think I have to work on that.

David October 7, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Heh…I had never thought of that, but it’s true. Why are our dreams all so self-absorbed? I could dream about anything in the world, but I always dream about being me.

Zs. November 2, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Well, they use to say that in our dreams we solve those problems from our waking life that our subconscious cannot deal with. (That’s why I think it is quite obvious why we see it in first person – those are our problems. :)) Or at least we try to solve those… when a dream is coming back, it usually shows a problem that is not so easy to digest. It might help us to realize what the real problem is that we need to solve in our waking life. So that’s why I do believe in finding the meaning of our dreams, but not in the manner you mentioned – that one is more a superstitious old habit. :) But there are people who have a strange sense or talent and when you tell them your dream they can exactly explain the frustration you must be facing in your waking life – without knowing you at all. And after that it all makes sense somehow.
Kids have nightmares much more often. I am so glad I can’t remember all the fear we have to face while we grow up. Realizing that we are not one with our mother (the famous separation anxiety), when we are alone, that the world is so huge and full of things we do not know and do not understand… This must have been an amazing amount of frustration, that our subconscious mind digested while we were sleeping.
I dream very seldom, or at least I usually don’t remember it. But I have a strange dream that comes back sometimes. That I fall in love to someone, and the scary thing is: that guy usually have a face I don’t know. I know I must have seen them on the street and my brain captured their face… still it is such a strange experience seeing a face in my dream I don’t know. It happened to me many-many times already. Maybe I should think about it the next time it happens. Maybe this is the sign of my subconscious mind showing me when I am ready to fall in love to a new person again. :)
And my school-dream? I usually get to know in the last minute that there is an exam and I need to take it without studying. Horrible! :)

Vanessa October 15, 2012 at 12:42 pm

My dreams, as of late, have been conjuring up feelings of awkward humiliation or, basically, hurt feelings. In one, my mom was present at a meeting at my school, watching me while I tried to express during a personal group discussion my emotions about her and about our relationship. I felt awkward with her watching me and felt ashamed for expressing the fact that our relationship is on the rocks and that she and I don’t see eye to eye.

The second dream involved me going over my boyfriend’s house to find his brother and his brother’s friend ignoring me and talking about me behind my back and yet I was standing right there watching them as they tried to convince my boyfriend that he could do better than to be with me.

Very different dreams but I felt the same awkward humiliation as in one case I was being watched and judged for my feelings and in the other I was watching others judge me.

It’s an anxiety, but a complicated one as it’s all about how other people are perceiving me and the negative emotions that I immerse myself in whenever I feel judged or on the spot.

Alison Foxall November 4, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Stumbled upon your blog when searching for how to deal with people who annoy you. Great writings!

I am very anxious in my dreams and also dream about school related settings. Though, I am usually on my last year of high school, and unsure that I will have enough credits to graduate. I skip classes because I forget about them and then later don’t remember where they are or when I last went or if I should or should not email the teacher for a copy of what I missed. Surely I would have failed anyway!

I look forward to reading more of your posts. Thanks!

arhcamt November 26, 2012 at 6:40 am

i’m not sure about the recurring them of my dream but i’ve noticed that when that dream involves a lot of people i recognize in real life and absurd events follow, i would wake up with a vivid detail of what happened there. i could even remember what people were saying there. it’s almost like watching a movie.

i don’t know what that says about my dominant emotion in my life. however, like you, i’ve been trying to focus more on the positive rather than the negative. life is definitely so much better when i’m not so angry or disappointed about things happening.

Amanda November 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm

From since I can remember, early teens, I’ve have recurring dreams of the world turning into an apocalyptic state. I wake up one morning and half of apartment building is completely gone, looks to be blown up by a bombing, and perhaps a war has started? (in Canada of all places) I’ve had hundreds of tornado dreams, them ripping through the fields at the outskirts of town, slowly building in size as they approach us, tearing everything to shreds. I’ve had a few where meteors start plummeting to the earth, destroying everything. But I’ve never felt fear in these dreams. I’m always standing there, looking out of the window, or off of the balcony, with amazement and awe, unafraid. It’s excitement I feel and a kind of release… of stress perhaps? It’s weird, I’m always with someone I know, and sometimes, the knowledge of us being possibly killed is present but regardless… It’s usually beautiful looking and silent, peaceful. And what follows is usually a thrill, a rush, as we try to reach safety. I suppose the fact that most of these dreams are lucid, and I control the outcome, has a helping hand in relinquishing the fear aspect. But I really enjoy these dreams and the idea that comes with them. That everyone must start over their lives from scratch, whoever survives, and rebuild a better life, getting a second chance. My perspective of them has always been positive, but every time I explain these dreams to my friends, they think I’m nuts !

Ma'at January 8, 2013 at 6:48 pm

I see much insight in what you write. It seems you’re determined to actively get to know yourself. If so, we share a similar path. Allow me to share something I’ve come across that path.

Interpreting dreams has been a kind of a big deal for mankind for a long time now. After all, we spend quite a huge portion of our life in this almost magical state of being, which seems quite real until the moment we wake up. Seeing that dreams are a product of our own minds, and not of those who write dream interpretation books, makes the interpretations given by these books often seem a bit absurd. It’s a rational point.

The modern world embraces rational thought. There seems to be somewhat of a consensus that there must be a rational explanation for everything even if such an explanation is not yet found. Furthermore, this consensus seems to imply that any explanation which is not strictly based on rationality is undesirable.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against rational thought, quite the contrary. It is a tool which has brought mankind things which could only be described as magic by someone from just a hundred years ago.

However, it’s not the only tool in the box.

Another thing we ever so often choose to believe in is causality. If something happens, it is in a way or another caused by something that happened before it. Things which have not yet happened, cannot cause something else to happen before they have happened. This is based on the idea that time is a one-way street, that it flows constantly and that nothing can escape beyond it.

Yet we sometimes experience things which seem to violate causality, if only a little bit. Maybe we’re thinking of calling an old friend, just to experience them calling us at that very same moment. A meaningful coincidence, or synchronicity, if you may.

So what’s this nonsense about synchronicity and what the hell does it have to do with interpreting dreams? one might ask.
Carl Jung. That’s what.
Pretty much any dream dictionary is more or less based on the work of this psychiatrist who researched this very field of psychology, which for a modern mind often might seem pretty unconventional. Jung had this idea of a collective unconscious – a part of the unconscious mind, of which we all share certain archetypes and representations.
So when we read a dream dictionary in an attempt to decipher why our teeth fell off last night while we were sleeping and the book tells us we have anxieties about our appearance, it’s probably based on what Jung wrote about that particular archetype of dreams. Maybe that explanation doesn’t make much sense by itself, but if we think about the history of dental hygiene, it’s only in the past few decades men have gotten to keep their teeth almost until the twilight years of their lives.
Lizards are a bit more difficult, especially for those of us who live in cities where daily encounters with these creatures just don’t happen. To give a hint of how lizards relate to libido, consider how many of them shed their skin to regain an appearance of youth.

Of course, the collective unconscious vocabulary of archetypes is far from the only part dreams are made of. The rational mind, the personal unconscious and a few other parts which make up our full consciousness certainly give their parts to what we experience in our dreams. So if you dream of losing your wallet a few days after coming back from an unlucky trip to Vegas, there probably is no need to look up what the archetype of a wallet represents.

So what about this synchronicity part? That too is something very much researched by Jung. He had the probably awesome opportunity to exchange thoughts with another rather famous man, Albert Einstein. And of course they also discussed quantum mechanics, specifically in the context of events which seem to violate causality. Events a bit like the hypothetical cat of Erwin Schrödinger, whose state of wellbeing (the cat’s, not Erwin’s) would be determined only after it had been observed, due to the acausal nature of collapsing quantum superpositions.
The current consensus regarding these weird quantum effects is, that they only apply to events which happen at a quantum scale. But of course [citation needed] this is mainly due to the fact that such events at a macroscopic scale are seemingly rare and close to impossible to measure.

To be fair, my knowledge of quantum physics is limited at best. I lack much of the mathematical and physics-related vocabulary to fully understand most of the research done in this field. Yet, even in the light of this critical shortcoming, I dare to propose that the events within our universe are NOT fundamentally causal, that there are critical parts of existence HIDDEN by the veil of rationalism and that there is much to gain from dismissal of the dogma of objectivism.

I’ve only begun to use the other tools in my box, and the results so far impede me from closing that door anytime soon.

But don’t believe what I say. Don’t believe what Jung said either. This overly long and rambling regurgitation is not worth anything in itself. I can only show you the door.

Sandy March 18, 2013 at 4:13 am

I never really thought about dream meanings, because everyone talks about specific detail, and what this or that specific thing could mean, and mostly it seems like bull crap. But this, this sounds right. And thinking back, in many dreams, I have felt fear. Never to the point where I’d call it a nightmare, and almost every time I can find it silly and laugh at myself very shortly after waking up. But yes, I have this constant anxiety about assignments and work, this constant fear that my life is going to be useless and I won’t live the life or have the career I want, or that it’ll turn out badly or something. But I don’t think about that fear, mostly I try to ignore it.
So thank you, for something to ponder in the long moments before I sleep

Steve March 20, 2013 at 4:12 pm

The dominant emotion in my dreams has always been anticipation. I’d say about 80% of the dreams I can remember have a constant feeling of building toward something, and often I don’t know what the climax will be but I’m usually eager, excited, and a bit nervous, but ultimately I just want to find out what will happen. And it seems like I always wake up just before the climax happens. Sometimes it’s no doubt that I’m just so excited I wake myself up. But often, so often that it seems like more than coincidence, I get woken up by some outside force like my alarm or someone making noise outside. I started to wonder if the entirety of these dreams takes place in the split second between the outside stimulus and when I wake up, or simply that as the external noise slowly creeps into my unconscious mind, I begin to feel anxious as I know on some level I’m being disturbed, and then I assume that my whole dream carried this anxious feeling with it. I don’t know what to make of the fact that I’m always looking ahead, looking forward to unknown in my future, excited but frustrated they’re not here yet. Maybe it has to do with my tendency to plan ahead, often with excruciating detail. If I know I’m going on a trip, I’ll make a packing list weeks in advance. I’ll research everything there is to know about what I’ll be doing, rather than just dive in and surprise myself. It goes beyond the point of preparation. Maybe I focus on the future to distract myself from the present?

marian June 30, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Holy cow, David! I read this post a couple of weeks ago, and I don’t think I’ve completely turned around my conscious perspective (I’ve been working on that bit by bit for years), but since I read your post, my dreams *have* started to change. Last night I had the classic one of showing up for an exam and realizing I hadn’t gone to a single class all semester (always a math class), except this time I realized it the night before the exam, and I just busted out laughing. I thought, “This is the way it always is in my dreams, but why do I get upset? That’s one less exam for me to take and I’m just going to sleep in that day.” I did briefly reconsider whether I should show up and see if there was anything I could answer on the test so I didn’t get a complete zero, but then I thought, “Nah, it doesn’t matter. Even if a zero in this class brings my average way down, I don’t need grades to tell me I’m smart.” And then I wondered why I was caring about these classes so much in the first place. I also had a milder version of my nightmare of driving up steep bridges and flipping over backwards–this time I was walking instead of driving, with friends instead of by myself, and talking to them about my fear, and then it didn’t come to pass.

So my question is this: I’m pretty sure you planted the idea in my subconscious that I could react differently in these dreams. Your idea was that you get a better perspective in conscious life and it will change the tone of your dreams. What if you get a better perspective in your dreams? Might that change the tone of your conscious life?

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