How to Practice Dream Work (& Decipher Your Psyche)
By: Aletheia Luna
Whimsical, wonderful, bizarre, horrifying, embarrassing, joyous, uncanny … welcome to the mysterium tremendum – or awe-inspiring mystery – of the dream world.
Most of us go to sleep at night and totally take our dreams for granted.
Perhaps we dream of a place from childhood, have a strange nightmare, or some other garden variety dream that keeps re-emerging. But we quickly brush it aside upon waking and continue with our day.
But dreams, in all of their strangeness, are a powerful doorway to the Soul.
If you’re on a path of self-growth, spiritual development, or simply want to know more about who you are, don’t ignore your dreams.
Dream work is one of the most rewarding and profound inner work practices out there. And I’m here to walk you through it, step-by-step.
What is Dream Work?
Dream work is the practice of unpacking and deciphering the meaning of your dreams for the purpose of gaining more self-awareness, spiritual growth, and life direction.
Dreams themselves have been interpreted for thousands of years. But in recent times, dream work has been popularized and further developed by figures such as psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
Dream Work & Spiritual Awakening
In the words of German poet Friedrich Hebbel,
Dreams are the best evidence that we are not as firmly shut in our skins as we believe.
Dreams work helps us to take a step outside of the small and constricted ego self (or false self) and access a larger realm of awareness and understanding. As such, they can be powerful allies on the spiritual awakening journey.
Intense and vivid dreams can even be a sign that a new level of involution (or internal evolution) is about to take place.
And throughout our life journeys, our dreams can guide, warn, and instruct us on the best paths to take.
3 Different Types of Dreams
When thinking about paying more attention to your dreams, it’s crucial to understand that there are different types of dreams – and not all of them offer guidance.
As you journey into the magical world of dream work, you’ll discover that there are:
- Decompression dreams – a weird term, yes. But decompression dreams are essentially just dreams that your brain generates to digest and work through what it has perceived during the previous day. Think of these types of dreams as your brain trying to decompress and unwind. Such dreams have little to no deeper value.
- Psyche dreams – these are dreams that are generated by your internal landscape (or psyche) and they tend to be charged with some kind of emotion. For instance, after having a psyche dream, you might feel excited, scared, unnerved, upset, nostalgic, sexually aroused, or any other kind of emotion. When you have a psyche dream, you’re being called to understand something or work a particular issue out.
- Sacred dreams – these types of dreams are rare and might only occur a handful of times during your life. When we have a sacred dream, there is a feeling that it is “realer than real life.” Such dreams are said to come from the Collective Unconscious or the Akashic Realm and be direct revelations from your Soul.
In dream work, you’ll mostly be dealing with psyche dreams – although when a sacred dream does come along, you’ll most certainly want to unpack that!
Dream Work Approaches
There are also three different ways that psychologists, inner journeyers, and dream interpreters approach dream work. These approaches are:
- Seeing dreams objectively
- Seeing dreams subjectively
- Seeing dreams archetypally
Don’t be intimidated by these approaches. Let me break them down for you plain and simple:
Objective dream work is when we see dreams as like a secret x-ray that reveals to us hidden truths about our waking lives. In this approach, our dreams point to the reality about external events, people, and situations. (Thanks Sigmund Freud!)
Subjective dream work does the opposite of the objective approach, and sees our dreams as pointing back to ourselves. Every person, figure, object, and situation in a dream is thought to represent a part of the ego or self. (Thanks Carl Jung!)
Finally, archetypal dream work builds off the subjective approach in that it sees the contents of a dream as being part of the self. But it also brings in collective patterns, symbols, and myths known as archetypes. An archetypal dream is seen to incorporate universal patterns such as themes of rebirth, quests, and universal motifs like the Mother, Father, Magician, Hero, Lover, etc.
As the dream worker, you can choose which one of these approaches you like the best.
In fact, you might even agree with all approaches – and if that’s the case, you may choose to use them whenever they feel appropriate.
How to Practice Dream Work (9 Paths)
Dreamwork creates a bridge between our conscious, everyday life and the sacred inner world of symbols. Through working with these images we are nourished by their depth of meaning and purpose.– Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
You’ve heard it before: we spend one third of our lives sleeping.
Therefore, it makes sense to use our dream life as a rich and rewarding gateway to access a greater sense of wholeness.
Here are some different approaches to dream work that you might like to experiment with:
1. Understand what type of dream you’ve had + choose which approach you’ll use
As I explained above, there are three types of dreams and three approaches to dream work. Reflect on whether you’ve had a decompression, psyche, or sacred dream.
Then, think about what type of approach (objective, subjective, archetypal) you’d like to make use of to explore the dream. If you need help deciding, you can always enlist the help of a dream working professional (i.e., a Jungian psychotherapist).
2. Dedicate a journal to your dream work
You cannot effectively dream work without a journal. So go find one. Dedicate this journal to recording and decrypting your dreams. You can buy a blank one or a pre-formatted one.
Here are a few dream journal possibilities:
- Celestial dream journal (blank, beautiful cover)
- Dream Journal (pre-formatted)
- The Guided Dream Journal (pre-formatted with questions)
3. No, you don’t need a dream symbol book
Many people wonder whether they need to buy a book full of dream symbols to effectively do dream work. My response is that no, you don’t need to purchase one of these books (and there are many)!
My answer is that dreams are extremely personal and the symbology within them is unique to your own psyche. Unless you’ve had a sacred dream that has a more archetypal quality, it’s not worth buying a dream symbol book. They’re just not accurate!
For instance, one person’s experience of a dog might be totally different from another’s experience. You might have been bitten by a dog when you were little and will associate the dog with danger. I might have grown up being smothered with dog love – and will associate it with safety. Same symbol, two totally different possibilities.
Do you see why buying a book with generalized meanings is pointless?
If you do want to buy a book, get a book like the Signs & Symbols Sourcebook which I personally own and enjoy reading through.
A general symbols book such as this will help you to understand the archetypal meaning behind collective symbols – and how they might shed light on some of your sacred dreams. (Plus you’ll feel like a witch or wizard flipping through it!)
4. Technique #1 – Re-enact of the dream
The first dream work technique is re-enacting a part of the dream in daily life.
For example, if you dreamt of walking down a certain street, go to that street and walk down it in the same manner as your dream character. Repeating parts of your dream in waking life can spark amazing epiphanies that you’d never have otherwise.
Certainly, this dream work technique is not always practical or possible (or ethical). You wouldn’t want to go slap your boss in the face if you dreamt of that – or do something even worse.
So be smart and mindful. This technique is particularly helpful with recurring dreams that you struggle to decipher.
5. Technique #2 – Create a psychodrama
If you have a close and helpful bunch of friends or family members, you’ll benefit from this dream work technique.
The goal is to recreate the dream, similar to the previous technique. But this time, you’ll be assigning roles to your friends/family members.
Make sure that you detail and explain each dream character’s personality and actions clearly so that your friends or family members can stay true to the dream (and not introduce their own theatrical variations).
You’ll play the main role. Let everyone sink into their dream character and let the story play out.
Reflect on what feelings, thoughts, and epiphanies arise. Ask your friends/family members about their own perspective (but ultimately, it’s your dream so you have the last say – but be open to different ideas).
This technique can trigger sudden realizations and discoveries.
6. Technique #3 – Word association
Using your dream journal, note down all the symbols in your dream. Next to each symbol, write a list of spontaneous associations that you have – don’t think about it too much!
Here’s an example:
Mountain: large, majestic, mother, nurturing, protection, milk, danger
Cave: void, shadow, hidden, unknown, lost, scared
Lion: strong, brave, father, angry, teeth, shout, yellow, leo
Then, reflect on the associations you’ve made with the symbols. What stories or patterns emerge?
In the above example, we might interpret that the dream is about one’s mother and father – perhaps a dream from the inner child – about the conflicting feelings of love and fear.
Keep this practice simple and define the top three to five symbols in your dream, then word associate them. Trust your intuition and let your pen flow!
7. Technique #4 – Journey back into the dream
Through visualization, close your eyes and imagine entering the dream again.
This dream work technique is best done shortly after waking up because your mind is still in a fluid and hypnogogic state.
With your half-awake mind, imagine asking your dream character a question to help unravel the dream’s meaning.
For instance, you might ask, “When you said ___ what did you mean?” or “Why did you do ___?”
Make sure the dream character stays true to their dream personality, attitude, agenda, etc. Aka. don’t try to change them!
Journal about what your dream characters say afterward.
8. Technique #5 – Tarot and oracle cards
If you’re familiar with how to use the tarot system or have an oracle deck you like using, incorporate it into your dream work!
Here’s a simple three-card spread:
- What triggered this dream?
- What is this dream trying to tell me?
- How can I apply the advice within this dream?
You can also focus on specific dream characters and pull a card for them. You might choose to ask a question such as, “Who or what does this dream symbol represent?” and “Is there a specific message I’m meant to receive?”
Journal about your findings.
Tarot and oracle cards you might like to check out for dream work include:
- The Mystical Dream Tarot
- Dreamkeepers Tarot
- The Shaman’s Dream Oracle
9. Final advice: keep a relaxed and fluid mind
In the words of Steve Price and David Haynes in their book Dreamworks,
Dreamwork has its best results when we are open to the experience and relaxed, yet have not turned it into another task to be accomplished.
When we step into the left, yang, or task-oriented mind, dream work can become confusing, frustrating, and ultimately fruitless.
To enjoy and reap the benefits of this awe-inspiring inner work practice, you need to keep a yin and open mind. Carry the dream with you, pay attention to synchronicity, and let it work its magic in the background.
The answer won’t always be obvious and that’s okay. Sometimes the answer is meant to be revealed across a series of months or even years! I know this has happened to me, and it will almost certainly happen with you.
Dreams are one of the main ways your Soul speaks to and guides you. So approach them with gentleness, reverence, and an open mind – this is the key to powerful dream work.
What is your experience with dream work? Do you have any advice or tips to share?
About the Author
Aletheia Luna is an influential spiritual writer whose work has touched the lives of millions worldwide. After escaping the religious cult she was raised in, Luna experienced a profound existential crisis that led to her spiritual awakening. As a spiritual counselor and author, Luna’s mission is to help others find love, strength, and inner light in even the darkest of places.