Problem Solving While You Sleep

Wondering what to do about something that’s bothering you? Life is filled with decisions– our own, others’, and even those others telling us what decisions to make! But the fact is, deep down inside, we usually know exactly what we should do. The trick is getting in there to access that wisdom.

Working with dreams is a wonderful and very simple way to get to that deep-down place and consult our inner advisor for solutions to waking-life dilemmas. It’s not that dreams have some magical wisdom about the absolute right or wrong thing to do in any given situation. Rather, they let us know what we are most comfortable doing, what we really feel or need or want. Dreams give us the opportunity to tap into our intuition and to be in touch with our whole selves when making decisions.

Although dreams can sometimes present very literal solutions to waking-life problems, they often illuminate aspects of ourselves that we need to develop in order to solve those problems. Meaning, sometimes, dreams shine a spotlight on other people as a way to pinpoint a behavior that is missing in our response to a current situation.

For example, that screaming child in your dream, may be telling you that you need to speak up more about your concerns at work. Do you get it? In this way, dreams show us different possibilities for thinking, acting, and reacting that are unimaginable in our waking lives and provide us with a safe place to practice these new behaviors. Eventually we can bring the new behavior out of the dream scenes and into waking life.

No one ever said that change is easy, but I am here to tell you, it most certainly is possible. All those behaviors you wish you’d possess are there for the taking! Shy and wish you were assertive? So accommodating you can’t say no? Your dreams are here for you every single morning giving you behaviors you can practice. Oh yes, I’m quite serious!

You are in the powerful position to choose how you would like to respond to every situation in your life. Dream decoding is a great way to rid yourself of your habitual reactions to issues that come up in your life, and learn to replace them with new ones.

By practicing the following simple techniques for decoding your dreams, you can learn how to access your own deep wisdom, and also how to become more flexible and more imaginative in your responses to the predicaments that life tosses your way.

Here goes…

Decoding The Dream

Write the dream down!

When you wake up with a dream in your mind, write down the dream story, double-spaced and with wide margins, on a sheet of paper—anything that gives you lots of room for jotting down notes and associations.

Isolate your Feelings.

After you’ve written a description of the dream, write down the feelings you had during the dream on the left side of the page, alongside the scenes where those feelings occurred. Pay particular attention to any changes in your feelings over the course of the dream, asking yourself how you felt at the beginning of the dream, as different characters appeared and events passed, and then at the end.

Identify the Symbols.

Now isolate and circle each symbol that appears in your dream description. Basically, any thing in a dream can be a symbol, including objects, animals, and people. This task is to discover what the symbol means to you, in your own unique and ever-evolving personal dictionary.

And the key to discovering your personal definitions of these symbols is to pay attention to the feelings that they conjure up in you. Take the common dream image of teeth falling out. For one person, this dream might signify a concern over growing older or entering a new phase in life. But for another, it may symbolize the inability to control her feelings in a love relationship. For a third it might be encouraging her to speak up… as the metaphor is in itself a rehearsal for something coming out of your mouth!

After circling the symbols in the dream description, ask yourself a few things that come to mind about each symbol, jotting these down next to the appropriate one. Describe the image in detail, as if to a child or a person who has never seen it, noting what it looks like and what it does in the dream.

If the symbol is a person, ask yourself for two or three things that come to mind when you think about that person. Is she shy or straightforward, or especially kind or selfish? Sometimes a person brings to mind an incident, such as a shopping trip or an argument, rather than an adjective. Write everything down uncensored, and do not try too hard to figure out the symbol’s meaning if it does not come to you right away—stick to describing the object and your feelings about it.

Play on Words and Puns

Though dream decoding can be done alone, you may find it helpful to work with a partner because describing things aloud can help you click more easily on a dream’s meaning. (For this reason, even if you are working alone, you may find it helpful to talk out loud.) The same as we do in our waking life, we constantly use play on words and puns in our dreaming minds. So if in conversation you use language like, “I was so embarrassed I thought I was going to die,” you might dream that you are dying and it won’t be that you are actually dying! It will simply be a case of our words appearing in the form of a metaphor. I often hear clients, in describing their dream say something like, “I was in a bathroom and I was stuck in a stall.” This description from a dreamer begs the question from me, “Is there anything you are stalling about in your current situation?”

The Action

Notice what actually happens in the dream, putting a square around each action—or non-action—that takes place. I started running and I felt stuck and couldn’t move are examples of actions/non-actions. What are you, the dreamer, doing in the dream–are you in the action, or outside the action, observing? What are other dream-characters doing? Write any comments or associations you have about the actions in a side column or alongside the action noted.

The Plot

If the points of entry so far haven’t helped you click on the situation the dream is mirroring, try the plot. This is exactly the same as what we learned in English class back in high school. What is the story behind the story? Look at what actually happens in the dream and see what situation in your waking life this week is similar.


Remember read it, write it, recite it? It’s one way we learn. We get it when it’s repeated. The unconscious mind uses repetition all the time in dreams. That way if we didn’t get the message the first time, we see it again, but it comes to us in a different way each time.

There are many ways our dreams repeat things to make sure we get the message. This happened to me when my first book came out and I was invited to appear on TV in New York. While I had plenty of experience speaking on radio, television was new for me. One night shortly before my trip to New York, I dreamed of a ghost. What does that mean in my personal vocabulary of associations? It means I am scared. Later in the same dream, I was standing on the abyss of a cliff. What does that mean in my personal vocabulary of associations? It also means I am scared! And close to morning as I was waking I dreamed about my grade five teacher. What does this sight mean to me? It means I am scared!! The three completely different symbols, once decoded, are an example of repetition. It is my saying to myself, “I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.” And the question I was able to ask myself upon decoding the images was, “What am I feeling frightened about?”


Decoding and Analyzing the Dream

After you map the dream, you can begin to analyze it. The way the dream story mirrors your current life situation is what I refer to as the first layer of meaning. The first step is to try and see what specific situation the dream is mirroring. Dreams offer us suggestions and solutions to specific problems we are attempting to come to a conclusion about, and your solution will come to you regardless of whether you “incubate” a dream asking for a solution.

Twenty years ago, I wanted help in deciding whether or not to sell my house, and so I incubated a dream on this question. I closed my eyes and let the feeling of confusion, dashed with a fear of the unknown, surround me. Then I wrote out my query: Is this a good time to sell the house? Do I really feel right about selling? Am I comfortable moving on to a new space? Am I ready? Please give me a dream that helps me find the answer to these questions.

Soon after, I dreamed that I was in the office of my (real-life) financial advisor, but he was not there. Instead, there was a man wearing a cowboy hat that was way too big for him. The hat kept falling over his eyes, and the man looked and talked like a buffoon. I was very frustrated at having to deal with this stupid man, and I asked repeatedly to see the man I usually deal with. Finally I told the man I was leaving, and walked out of the room.

Looking at the first layer of the dream, I see that it took place in the office of the person who invests my money in the stock market. In my personal symbolism, a market is a market, whether it be the real estate market or the stock market, and so this dreamscape was reflecting my current concerns about selling my house.

Discovering the Solution

Sometimes the solutions are so blatant and simple they smack you in the face. Other times, though, a dream’s wisdom is not so easy to find, and we have to delve into what I call the second layer of a dream, in which we look at each part of the dream as representing a different part of ourselves.

Using this approach, we can sometimes discover the solution in the dream by taking on the behavior of someone else who appears in the dream, and applying it in our waking-life situation. The solution, however, was hidden in the second layer of the dream, in which the other people embody different aspects of ourselves. Stay with me.

The man I wanted to see is someone I consider to be a smart investor. I could not find him in the dream because I could not find the part of myself that is a smart investor. In my waking life, I was acting like the buffoon in the cowboy hat, because I was too emotional about the house and unable to think about it logically. Realistically, the house (like the man’s cowboy hat) was too big for my husband and myself. By then only two of our daughters were still home with us, and one soon to leave. The dream gave me an answer to my dilemma when it showed me walking out of the room. Looking at the action I took in the dream, symbolically, I was walking away from the side of me that was stopping myself from making the appropriate decision. I was also walking out of my home. We sold the house soon after, and have never regretted it.

The most daunting part of dream work comes when we face those particularly strange dreams that we all have from time to time, dreams with a surreal jumble of locations, characters, and time periods. But I believe that by moving away from the dream itself, and focusing on our feelings about the people, places, objects and actions that appear in it, we can break through to the answers the dream holds for us. Dreams allow us get off the fence and improve our lives.

It is our emotions that provide our dreams with both power and wisdom. Feelings don’t just disappear, after all, and if we don’t let them out in our waking life, then they are bound to show up while we sleep. Fortunately, our dreams give us the chance to acknowledge these feelings, feel their power, and learn from their wisdom.

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