If mining your dreams for meaning leaves you feeling mystified, try a playful approach to engaging your nighttime mind.

Closed eyes illustration by Olaf Hajek

Illustration © Olaf Hajek, excerpted from Joy in Every Moment

I love dreams. I love them so much that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about them. But while I look forward each night to climbing into bed to see what my dreams have in store for me, many other people face their dreams with dread or indifference. Either they are afraid of having nightmares, or more commonly, they find dreams so mystifying, confusing, and seemingly nonsensical that they shrug them off as reflexively as they wipe sleep from their eyes each morning.

And that’s easy enough to do. Dreams are hard to define — and don’t expect the dictionary to be of much help. While Webster’s tells us that dreams are “a series of thoughts, visions, or feelings experienced during sleep,” and science tells us a dream is mere mentation — a series of random neurochemical creations — such neat explanations hardly capture the vivid cinematic nature of dreams that alternately mystify, entrance, captivate, frustrate, illuminate and confound us. Dreams arrive in packages of image and emotion that deftly defy simple description. And without conscious attention, holding on to them can be like trying to catch fish with your bare hands. They are weightless but weighty. They can’t be measured, but some can’t be shaken off.

Like the dream that we look to for meaning, so too the etymology of the word “dream” leads us on a labyrinthine and amazing journey.

Perhaps the reason so many people are afraid of their dreams is that the word itself has scary origins. The Sanskrit root druh means “to seek harm or to injure.” The Proto-Germanic origin of “dream” is drachmas, meaning “deception, illusion, or phantasm.” Look to the Old Norse and you’ll find dream’s linguistic ancestor fraught, meaning “a ghost or apparition”—not exactly something you want to welcome into your bedroom at night with the lights out. Square all of this with dream’s alternate lineage: The Old English or Old Saxon root drom, which grew up to be dream, is the distant relative of words like “joy,” “mirth,” and “merriment.”

In my personal history, dreams are companions, teachers, gurus, and guides. They wake me up frightened or happy, but over time, their wisdom has given me courage, compassion, and a solid foundation for growth, discovery, and connection— not to mention whispered hints of destiny.

The practice of exploring dreams and doing dreamwork, including dream analysis and sharing dreams with a counselor or loved one, has been shown to improve relationships, heal post-traumatic stress disorder, reduce stress, and amp up creativity. To encourage dream-filled sleep and to use your dreams as a resources for increased happiness and meaning in your life, consider these exercises:

Dream Play

People work with dreams to mine them for meaning, but that can start to feel like drudgery. Don’t forget to have fun with your dreams, too. Try drawing your dream with colored pencils, making a collage based on its themes, imagery, colors, and mood, or dance or sing the stories from your dreams.

The Experience Is Enough

Before you rush to analyze or interpret your dream, enjoy it. Think of your dream as a bird’s nest woven of whimsical bits of memory, imagination, hope, and fear. First, admire what your dreaming mind has delivered, before trying to understand its messages.

Dream Poem

Write down a dream — one from yesterday or even one from weeks, months, or years ago. Give it a title. Now take out any unnecessary words, whittling the dream down to its essential images and actions. See if you can make a poem, or even a brief haiku, from your dream.

Dream Jokes

The dreaming mind is endlessly creative. Look for puns and plays on words in your dreams.

Beautiful Dreamer

In dreams, as in life, where we put our attention matters. For the next week or two, look for beauty in your dreams. As you focus on finding more beauty, see whether your dreams respond in kind, delivering more beautiful images, emotions, or themes.

Tzivia Gover

Tzivia Gover is the author of The Mindful Way to a Good Night’s Sleep and Joy in Every Moment. She is a writer, educator, and certified dream therapist… See Bio

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