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Ask the Dream Specialist

by Ken Kaplan

This will be my last column for a while due to some personal circumstances. I would like to focus in this issue on what I think is the greatest problem confronting people in attempting to understand their dreams, the mistake of taking them literally. I cannot tell you how often this mistake comes up. Dreams are often very powerful. They put us in contact with emotions and energies that are not only especially strong and vivid, but they contact and bring up those feelings in an extraordinarily visceral manner.

Thus many times I have had dreams recounted to me where someone swears that a spirit, a demon, or entity has attacked them. Although I would not rule out the possibility of “psychic assault”, I find it very rare that this is the case. In nearly every instance the “assault” has turned out to be some denied aspect of self strongly demanding attention. I find it almost a universal rule that if something or someone in a dream is after you or menacing you, it means there is a part seeking integration. One could actually welcome nightmares because they alert us so well to these parts of self that need inspection.

I met a woman who dreamt that a giant cross in the sky appeared glowing with light and told her in a great voice that the “end of the world was coming”. She talked to someone who unfortunately was not versed in dreams and was mistakenly given the advice that this was a premonition. She walked around in a depression for two months. When she shared with me her dream because another friend was concerned about her, it became clear that the meaning was symbolic, not literal. Because this person had a very distinct Christian upbringing, these types of religious images were very prominent in her personal symbolic landscape. After we worked on it a little bit, we saw that the cross had nothing to do with world prophecy. Instead, her own higher self energy had taken this form to encourage her that she was on the verge of completing a cycle in her life (“end of the world”) and had the opportunity to move to another, new level in her growth. Her depression had been wasted time due to bad advice and misunderstanding. In this way I have seen the harmful effects of literalism regarding dreams.

Death in dreams is a particularly touchy area regarding this issue. People all too often believe they are having a premonition. (There are a few who do have this gift, but it is rare, and the validity of the gift is verified by the continued heightened nature of the dreams as they occur and their constant manifestation into reality-they come true!) Most of the time death is a symbolic representation of a feeling of loss that happens.

To illustrate this more clearly, (in a somewhat semi-humorous way), I ran into someone who dreamt her father died. Obviously this was upsetting. Was this some form of precognition? A warning? I asked her what her relationship with her father was. She replied it was very close and they had a particular bond regarding watching sports together, and were huge Eagle’s fans. Aha! Remember, earlier I emphasized the fact that dreams are not free floating, but are commentaries on events, feelings, etc from waking life. I asked her when she had the dream. Her answer was “Monday Night”. I said,” And what happened Monday night.” The Eagles that year had lost a heartbreaking game that night to the Washington Redskins. I said that the dream had nothing to do with her father in waking life but that he was a primary symbol for the closeness, comfort and feeling of safety that she felt usually about life and some of her deepest interests and experiences.. That feeling was “betrayed” by the Eagle’s defeat. In that sense, a very deep emotion at that moment was that the team’s defeat was felt as a keen loss, a loss strong enough to appear in the dream as a death. One may believe this verges on the preposterous, but my experience is that this is how the dreaming mind works, and translates strong feelings into the closest approximation symbolically, which for her was her father. The Eagles defeat had been like a death, and her mind chose that route to go to demonstrate the true level of upset she had felt at that time.

Similarly, a close friend of mine had a dream before the Pennsylvania primary that Obama was assassinated. This upset her, she believed it might be a premonition and switched her vote to Clinton. After talking with her, again it became clear that the dream had nothing to do with Obama. My friend had begun a new business venture, one that brought up very strong feelings, some from past personal issues that involved a sense of danger and threat at becoming more independent. Her dreaming mind used Obama, who at that time was a powerful symbol for change, (like the change she was undergoing) as the representative of her ambitions and fears and the possibility of harm in moving forward. (Psychologists call this annihilation anxiety). Her vote change did not alter the election but was a misguided behavior arising from not knowing how dreams work. Some people I talked to about this still insisted that it might be precognitive. Given the context of the dream’s appearance, I try to assure them it is 99/99% not the case. But, again, I get concerned when people cling to this type of literalism.

One note. As we have discussed, dreams generally are providing expression and feedback in the moment. Thus the pang of a football’s team loss which translates that night to a sense of loss expressed as death most likely will not have the same intensity a week later. If, however, one has a highly invested relationship, let’s say, with the front office and coaching of a team, and gets deeply invested in how they do, then the images of those people and motifs surrounding those feelings might interplay with other, deeper and more formative issues quite often. Recurring dreams bring us unfinished business to the surface incessantly, demanding attention to something the psyche truly feels needs resolution.

The manner in which taking dreams too literally can be harmful presented itself to me in a very haunting way one evening. At a local library, a woman talked of dreams in which her youngest son was constantly being killed in various accidents. This actually led her to modify and curtail his and her behavior, limiting activities for fear of his getting harmed. When we dealt with her life circumstance, again it became clear the dreams were not directly about her child, much less his health or any danger. She revealed he had come unexpectedly at a time in her life when she was looking forward to releasing parental obligations and fulfilling personal dreams. Having to raise a child “from scratch” again, as much as she genuinely loved him, caused her a not small amount of anguish. We saw that the dreams were telling her that in some fashion, psychologically, she was “killing herself” and the child was the representation of all the energies surrounding the emotions, events and circumstances. Knowing that, I encouraged her to think about ways to lighten her load, bring more family members and supports into her life and take some of the pressure off to attend to her aspirations. By not knowing the metaphorical and symbolic nature of dreams, this parent had literally gotten her child and self into a way of life that had it been continued for a long time, could have had very destructive consequences.

This is a stark example of the depth of problems that misunderstanding dreams can cause. Over and over I have seen this crop up, sometimes with little consequence, but as we have seen, often with the potential for really taking us off track in our lives. If there is one thing I wish to leave everyone with, it is to reiterate the enormous power, knowledge and value of understanding how our dreams work and to use them as a vital tool for growth and empowerment. Above all, do not take them literally, they are operating symbolically at many layers simultaneously and at a depth most of us are not familiar with. Learn their language, and your own personal symbolic landscape, and you will be far richer for the time spent.

Ken Kaplan is a dream specialist, intuitive counselor, and presenter on spiritual topics. If you wish to inquire about his services, or especially if you desire to work with him on a dream you have had, he can be contacted at kenstories@comcast.net

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