Learn to Speak Dreamish in Five Easy Steps


   By: Dr. Christopher Sowton

   2014-02-13 07:29 AM

The following article is adapted from Chapter 3 of the book The Dreamworking Manual–A Guide to Using Dreams in Health Care by Christopher Sowton, N.D. Both this article and the book are general guides and should not be used as a substitute for consulting a qualified health-care professional. The author and publishers are not responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use of the information in this book. It is the responsibility of the reader to consult a health-care professional regarding any serious issues with his or her health, emotional life, or psychological status.

If you want to become a dreamworker you must dedicate a good chunk of time to learning the language of dreams. The amount of time required is probably roughly equivalent to the time required to learn spoken languages–it will take you months to learn how to get by, and years to become fluent. But–it will be well worth it!


The surface elements of dream language are familiar to everyone—events, visual elements, words and sounds, feelings and emotions—these make up the “top layer” of the dream, obvious and apparent. But this top layer of information on its own does not always give us the meaning of the dream. To gain access to the meaning of many dreams we must do something akin to translating a foreign language.


I do not believe, as Freud did, that these meaning-containing layers of dream information are “disguised” or “latent” or “repressed” or “taboo”. In Freud’s writing there is often a sense that the true meaning of  the dream is hiding itself from the dreamer; it is there, but it requires the analyst to see through its disguise, analyze it, and explain it to the dreamer. This is certainly not my experience; I believe that the dream is trying to communicate with the dreamer as clearly as it possibly can.


Why then are most dreams not more straightforward in what they are trying to say? Many people   wonder: “If a dream wants to give me a message, why doesn’t it just come right out and give me the message, clearly and literally?” I believe that the dreammaker is indeed trying to be clear and direct, but it is speaking in its own native language—the language that is used in the land of the sleeping dreaming mind. Those of us who want to understand dreams must become familiar with this language.


There are five key aspects to the language of dreams:


  1. Dreams use figures to ‘play parts’ (these may be parts of the dreamer’s psyche or important figures and features of the dreamer’s life).
  2. Dreams use metaphor.
  3. Dreams contain feelings and emotions that correspond to the feelings and emotions we experience in our waking lives.
  4. Dreams often employ exaggeration and heightened urgency.
  5. Dreams use figures of speech, idioms, puns, and wordplay.


Let’s examine each of the aspects in detail, with dream examples. In all the following dream examples the five step Dreamreading Method was used to help the dreamer understand the dream message. The goal of this method is neither to analyze nor interpret, it is simply to facilitate the dreamer to arrive at an “aha!” moment about how the dream connects to his or her life. The method cannot be “used on a dream” without the dreamer being present, participating in the work at every step, and resonating with any insights that may happen. The five steps of this method are:



Step One–the use of figures to ‘play parts’


To loosely paraphrase Shakespeare—“All the dream’s a stage. And we must know what parts the actors play.” Most dreams typically feature the dream ego (the “I” in the dream) and one or more other key figures or entities. One of the most important skills of dreamwork involves being able to determine who these figures are representing. Are they representing parts of the dreamer? They may be, but not always. It is an often-­‐repeated misconception that everything in our dream is a part of us. This is most certainly not true—we can dream about anything, and we often dream about people and things external to us.


Here is an example of a dream that features the dream ego and three other figures; it shows us how important it is to get clear on which figure is playing which part. The dreamer is a 58-­‐year-­‐old woman who was struggling to free herself from a strong web of enmeshment with her family of origin. She felt manipulated and repeatedly disappointed by her father, yet still longed for his love and hoped that he would finally do the right thing and become the father that she wanted. She reported the following   dream:


Dream example—“George, Brittany, Tony, and Me”


“George Clooney was a killer. He was going to kill two people—Brittany Murphy and Tony Soprano. But I knew about this and I grabbed him. I held him upside down over a balcony, threatening to drop him. In the end I decided not to drop him.”


Clearly these three famous actors are not representing themselves here, the dreamer’s psyche has enlisted them to play parts in her dream. Famous people are used in dreams all the time because they have clear and exaggerated attributes.


••• Dreamworking Tip •••


write down 2-­‐3 associations for each key figure in the dream


When a dream features a famous figure or someone the dreamer knows, ask the dreamer to quickly list off two or three descriptive words or associations that they would connect to that person. Write them down and be prepared to quote them back to the dreamer as he or she tries to make the connections. This will help both of you identify what part that figure is playing in the dream.



This dreamer described George Clooney as “handsome and charming, but can be a killer”. Her associations for Brittany Murphy were: “powerless, sensitive, fragile, like a lamb to the slaughter”. Tony Soprano was: “strong, selfish, brutal, but also wounded”.


Now we need to figure out who these actors are standing for in the dream. As we worked on the dream it soon became clear that George Clooney was playing the role of her father (a very charming and seductive figure in waking life). George Clooney’s intent to kill the two other figures at the beginning of the dream represented two ways that the dreamer felt her father was harming her. First, he was harming her sensitive and fragile Brittany Murphy-­‐like part, constantly raising her expectations and then wounding her with disappointment and grief. Second, he was harming her strong and self-­‐assertive Tony Soprano-­‐like part, a part of her that was able to function very well in most areas of her life but was weakened and wounded when it came to her father.


Through hard personal work she has recently come to understand that she must protect herself from her father’s repeated pattern of seducing then harming. This is depicted in the dream as her (the dream   ego’s) ability to grab the father and hang him upside down over the balcony. The dreammaker is showing her that she is now stronger than he is (or we could say, she is now stronger in relation to her father complex, which had not been the case previously). The dream is also posing a very important question— should she drop him? This would mean, metaphorically and psychologically, that she would be ‘killing’ her susceptibility to being repeatedly seduced and hurt by her father through closing off some inner door that she still keeps open for him in hopes that he will finally come through as the good father she longs for.


So, in this dream we have four players on stage: the dream ego, one figure playing an outer part (Clooney as her father), and two figures playing inner parts. A dream like this cannot be understood and connected to the dreamer’s life in a satisfactory way until all the role-­‐playing is clarified. For example–if we were to take George Clooney as an inner figure, an aspect of herself, it would lead us to considering her own seductive nature and the possible damage that it was doing to other parts of herself. We could try this  on, but if it does not resonate as true with the dreamer (and with the facilitator) it will get confusing and eventually bog down and end up going nowhere in particular. When this happens (which it often does in dreamwork) simply use the inner/outer guideline—switch your orientation form inner to outer and try again.


Step two–the use of metaphor

As dreamworkers we must always be on the lookout for anything that may “stand for” something else. Most (but not all) things that appear in a dream stand for something else; they are metaphors. Almost everything in a dream that is not ‘realistic’ (ie: a seemingly realistic depiction of someone or something in the dreamer’s waking reality) is likely to be making an appearance as a metaphor. If, for example, we dream about an elephant it will almost always be appearing as a metaphor for something. If we recently saw an elephant at the zoo (or if we are an elephant keeper who actually works with elephants) we could be dreaming about a ‘real’ (non-­‐metaphorical) elephant whose plight we may be concerned about. But in most instances our dreammaker will be ‘using’ the elephant to stand for something in us or in our world.


Having surmised that the dream elephant is a metaphor for something, we still do not know if the metaphor is pointing inward (standing for an aspect of the dreamer that is elephant-­‐like) or outward (standing for something or someone in the dreamer’s life that is elephant-­‐like). Thus the dreamworker must perform a quick mental operation for every key figure that appears in the dream that goes something like this:

  • Is the elephant referring to a real elephant, or is it a metaphor? Or might it be functioning as both?
  • If it is a metaphor, is it an inward-­‐pointing metaphor, standing for an aspect of the dreamer?
  • Or is it an outward-­‐pointing metaphor, standing for someone or something in the dreamer’s life?
  • Or might it be both inner and outer?


The dream metaphor is precisely chosen for its qualities and associations


The dream object or figure that is functioning as a metaphor is not chosen randomly. The dreammaker will make its choice for a very precise reason that has to do with the outstanding qualities of that object or figure. An elephant, for most people, would carry associations of great size and power, but also gentleness, dignity and wisdom. Of course it is always the dreamer’s associations that are most relevant, and the facilitator must ask what those associations are for every key dream figure if they are not spontaneously  given.


Here is a dream that a 35-­‐year-­‐old woman had about a big loon (a duck-­‐like water bird of the northern   lake country). Upon hearing the dream we immediately suspect that the loon is appearing as a metaphor, probably an inward-­‐pointing metaphor that stands for some aspect of the dreamer. Thus it becomes important to find out what qualities the dreamer associates with the loon, and this will help us know what emerging qualities in her are being spotlighted. In this instance the dreamer gives us her loon associations freely and spontaneously, she does not need to be asked.


Dream example—“The Big Loon”


I’m driving in my car, and I notice something off with the steering. I try to turn left, and it’s going right and it’s almost like there’s no proper steering connection; there’s something not right. So I decide to park the car. I don’t bump into anything. I’m safe. I’m able to park. Then I get out of the car and this older woman comes running down the road, and she says to me that I can’t park there. She says it’s blocking her driveway and there’s no way I can park. So then I notice this younger woman who’s next to my car, who’s being a little more cooperative. We exchange numbers and I tell her I’ll be back for the car. I just have to make sure it’s safe before I get into it again.


Then I see a lake and there’s a loon, an oversized loon. It’s definitely a loon but it’s huge. I think WOW, it’s beautiful! It’s looking at me, trying to get my attention somehow. I don’t know what it wants. All I know is  I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of it, the size of it, the colors, the rich colors, the calmness of it, the grace of it. It was so graceful and so big.”


This is a wonderful dream. It is a good example of an Inspiring Contact Dream in which the dreammaker presents a numinous image to the dreamer that has the power to move and inspire. In this case the dream seems to be saying that if the dreamer can slow down the dangerous pace of her life and ‘park’ herself for a moment she will experience something very special. She will experience something very large, very rich, very colorful, very beautiful; something peaceful, calm and graceful.


If we look at this dream through a metaphor-­‐exposing lens we see that there are multiple metaphors at work here, as there are in almost every coherent dream:


The car is a metaphor for how she drives herself (pushes herself relentlessly), even when she should stop and do something different.


The problem with her car’s steering is a metaphor for the fact that she is not in control of where her life is going at this time, therefore it is not a time to be driving.


Parking is a metaphor for being able to slow down and stop herself.


The old woman who tells her she cannot park there is a metaphor for an old (long standing) part of her that believes she cannot slow down and stop.


The younger, more co-­‐operative woman is a metaphor for a newer part of her that has recently learned how to be more internally self-­‐caring and self-­‐supporting, making it possible for her to stop, at least for a short time.

Exchanging numbers is a metaphor for being in better communication with this new part of herself. The loon is a metaphor (here we could call it a symbol) for the wondrous part of her that she will encounter if she can slow down and stop over-­‐working.


The over-­‐sized stature of the loon is a metaphor for its huge importance in her psyche.


None of these metaphors are hidden, or disguised, locked, or buried; they are fully exposed and open to being seen, requiring only some effort of recognition and translation.


The facilitator has three tasks in working with this dream: first, to recognize the loon metaphor; second, to help the dreamer consider that this dream is speaking about an emerging aspect of herself; and third, to stress the importance of this development. To use the language of the dream this would mean encouraging her to park her car as soon as possible and make the encounter with the loon her top priority. Previous experience working with such dreams tells us that if she can encounter the loon and ‘take it in’ to her sense of who she is and what she is like, she may experience a very positive change.


Step three–the use of feelings and emotions


Dreams are typically laden with feelings and emotions. Strangely, the feeling content is often the first aspect of the dream that is forgotten upon waking in the morning. Many people will report a dream as if they are telling a story to which they have no emotional attachment; they remember the events and the characters but they have forgotten the feelings. This is why it is so important to encourage your clients (and yourself) to make a special point to remember and record the feeling tones that were present in every part of the dream. The correspondence between the feeling tones of the dream and the feeling tones of that person’s waking life is often very close; so much so that one of the most effective way to help a person connect a dream to their life is through the feeling tones. We dream about what concerns us, worries us, what moves us, what frightens us, what saddens us—the concerns and experiences of our emotional body are shared by the waking ego and the dream ego.


Here is an example of a series of dreams where there is a close correspondence between the feelings of the dream and the feelings of waking life. The dreamer is a 34-­‐year-­‐old woman is struggling with serious health concerns. Her family is very supportive, but she often feels they are over-­‐supportive, too close, too quick to offer help, and too much in her life. She had the following sequence of dreams:


Dream example—“Can’t Find a Private Bathroom to Use!”


I had four dreams in a row about toilets! What the heck does that mean? I need to pee in my dream, so I’m looking for a toilet to use. I find some, but I can never use them because there is no privacy. They are out in the open. In one dream I was holding two cracked eggs in my hands, trying to get into a toilet. I had


to make sure I didn’t drip the egg on the floor. When I finally found the bathroom someone went right in before me! She was just standing there the whole time by the door, then when she saw me coming she went in. I got so angry at her that I started to hit her!”


In working with these dreams the woman soon made the connection that the inability to find a private toilet had the very same feeling that she often felt with her family, particularly her mother. When she needed some personal space to explore and express difficult emotions her family members would often jump in and offer to help at the very time when she most needed to be alone. She found it intrusive but felt she couldn’t tell them to back off because they were, after all, trying to be helpful. The dream brought her to realize just how angry she had become about this issue, and she resolved to address it in a more proactive way.



Step four–the use of exaggeration and heightened urgency


There is often a sense in a dream that the unconscious is exaggerating the urgency of its message, in order to try to get the attention of the ego and make sure that it takes the dream message seriously. This is particularly the case when a dream theme has been repeating for a while. Subsequent variations on the repeating theme tend to become more and more urgent, as if to say: “Why are you not getting this message? Okay then! If you refuse to listen I will send the message in an even more urgent way!”


Consider the following dream of a 34-­‐year-­‐old woman who was caught up in a relationship in which she had been repeatedly lied to, cheated on, and deeply hurt. She was aware that she should try to leave the relationship. Many friends had urged her to get out, but she was unable to. She kept hoping that her partner E would finally realize what he was doing, change his ways and redeem himself, and that everything would be okay. She had the following dream:


Dream example—“E Shooting Me Again and Again”


I’m in our kitchen with E. He is across the room shooting me, again and again. I can feel the pain of the bullets going in to me. I’m bleeding from everywhere, dozens of bullet wounds. I don’t think it will kill me, although I am very badly hurt. I keep thinking that this will be the last shot. He will stop soon, I’ll go to hospital and get patched up, and I’ll recover….”


This dream gave a stark and accurate depiction of her situation, clearly very exaggerated, but accurate nevertheless. The dream delivered a clear, simple, unambiguous and urgent message to her—you must get out of this situation, there is no sign that it is going to get any better and you cannot keep exposing yourself to this. She finally got the message and ended the relationship shortly after having this dream.


Step five–the use of figures of speech, idioms, puns, and wordplay


The dreammaker will stop at nothing to get its message across. It will stoop to using the most outrageous puns and double meanings. Figures of speech and colloquialisms are used constantly; they are so much a part of dream language that they are often completely overlooked. The dreamworker should be constantly on the lookout for this kind of thing, because it can crack open the meaning of a dream in an instant when a figure of speech or a play on words is spotted.


Here’s a little quiz for you—see if you can spot the figure of speech in the following three dreams. The ‘answers’ are given at the end of the chapter (of course there may be more than one answer, but the answers given here are the figures of speech that, once recognized by the dreamer, helped them to arrive at a resonant understanding of the dream message).


-­‐-­‐-­‐ Spot the Figure of Speech Quiz -­‐-­‐-­‐


1.     “Face Down in the Pool”

“There was a couple (a man and a woman) in a pool, and they were floating on top of the water. They were facing down. I was looking at them. The guy’s arm was around the woman. I realized that they cannot possibly be breathing...not in a conventional way. I noticed the way they were breathing— at least the guy—he stuck out the sole of his foot out of the water, facing the ceiling (she gestures palm upwards), and I thought that was the way he was breathing. I thought—Oh, how unconventional! That must be a breathing technique I didn’t know about. Then I looked over and I realized that the girl was not doing the same thing. Then I had the horrible feeling that he’s pulled her into this position, and he’s holding her  there and she’s actually suffocating...she was actually dying. I woke up, and I knew right away that was a reference to my relationship.”


2.     “Flying Paper Ride”

In the dream my partner M and I are on two pieces of paper, just big enough for a person to be sitting on with our legs folded and we’re floating along, a couple of inches off the ground. We’re moving with pretty good velocity and we’re travelling down a road in a pastoral setting, there are beautiful rolling hills and nice properties. It’s a beautiful summer day and we’re just enjoying the scenery as it goes by…”(dream continues) [clue—the dreamer and his partner have recently experienced a great strain on their relationship, in part due to the fact that one of them started to feel the desire to have children and the other was not so keen}


3.     “Pit Bull Kills My Cat”

In the dream I have a cat and a pit bull (in real life I just have a cat). The cat is at the top of the stairs; it’s looking at the pit bull, kind of apprehensive. The pit bull is starting to shake with energy and jingle its collar, looking at the cat. Suddenly the cat gets scared and runs down the stairs. In a flash the pit bull is after it, catches it and bites its head off. I’m stunned and feel completely helpless. My dog just killed my cat. It was so fast I couldn’t do anything…”




Learning any language requires both study and practice. Dreamish, the language of dreams, is no exception to this rule. The study part involves learning about how the language works—attuning yourself to the five elements of Dreamish: parts, metaphor, feelings, exaggeration, and wordplay.


But of course the study part isn’t enough–you can’t learn a language without practicing it. How can you get enough practice with Dreamish to become fluent? You would need to work through dozens and dozens of dreams until things start to feel familiar, and repeating motifs and patterns become readily recognizable. I recommend that you start by practicing with your own dreams. Divide yourself into two– you the dreamer and you the facilitator. Use a consistent method. Work through a dream once a week if you can.


Then, when you start to get good at it with your own dreams, find yourself a ‘guinea pig’ who is willing to let you play the role of dream facilitator. Imagine that they are paying you to be their professional dream helper; this will inspire you to do your very best job. Who knows–if you really have an aptitude for it you might want to get some serious training and consider a career as a dreamworker! Always remember–you shouldn’t interpret or analyze a dream without checking in with the dreamer at every step of the way to make sure you’re on the right track. Imagine yourself to be a facilitator rather than an analyst; this will help you stay on course. After several months of working in this way…you will be a Dreamish speaker!


Answers to quiz


Dream 1-­‐-­her soul cannot breathe in her current relationshipthe sole/soul wordplay is quite common in dreams. Always consider it whenever a dream features either the bottom of a foot or the bottom of a shoe.


Dream 2—not on the same page—the dream points out that even in the early halcyon days of their relationship when things were rolling along nicely the dreamer and his partner were not on the same page about some key issues.


Dream 3—biting someone’s head off—this dreamer had a great deal of trouble controlling his temper and his intense need to convince other people of his point of view. The dream was pointing out to him that he had a pit bull-­‐like part of his personality that, when unleashed, would make people want to defend themselves and say: “Don’t bite my head off!” This dream contained another wordplay—the dreamer’s girlfriend at the time, the most frequent victim of his pit bull attacks, was a woman named Catherine, Cat for short. As is usually the case, the dreamer did not notice either of these wordplays until they were pointed out for him to consider. Once they were pointed out they seemed blatantly obvious and he could not believe he had missed them; and they immediately and poignantly helped him understand the message of the dream.

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