How dream analysts tap into a higher — or deeper — relationship with the unconscious.
A dream analyst named Bob Hoss tells me that very few people actually dream about flying. He’s studied the 20,000+ dreams held in DreamBank, a project by UC Santa Cruz, and has concluded that supposedly common dream images like soaring through the air — or showing up somewhere naked, or losing teeth — are actually much rarer than we think. Far more people dream about circles instead; almost 30% of the dreams in the database feature circular shapes or motions.
Why our collective unconscious obsession with the spherical? According to Carl Jung, the circle symbolizes the unified self, when both consciousness and unconsciousness come together as a perfect whole. A dream in which circles appear just might be your unconscious self urging you to slow down and pay more attention to your dreams.
Hoss himself dreams of boats. His dream-boats represent his creative life, so if the boat is zooming across the water, his creative practice is buoyant. “If I’m under too much stress or ignoring that creative side, my boat will be taking on water, or the engine won’t run,” he says. But other than this boat imagery, Hoss rarely experiences the phenomenon of the recurring dream. He has this in common with many other dream analysts; as a group, they rarely dream in copies, because they’ve figured out how to unlock the nagging messages that recurrent dreams come bearing. “As soon as I do my dreamwork on [the recurring dream], it goes away instantly,” Hoss says. The rest of us might be haunted for years by some pestering missive from the unconscious world — a dream where we can’t find our shoes, a dream where it rains on our wedding day. But the dream analysts have managed to catch their dreams and pin them down, like so many butterflies. And they’re much happier for it.
You know that Family Guy clip where Stewie yells “Mom, mom, mom” for a good 30 seconds? That’s how I imagine our recurring dreams. They’re little psychic nags from our unconscious, begging us to pay sharp attention to something or to finally resolve some sticky issue. Recurring dreams might feel annoying — I often wake up exhausted from yet another round of my Trying to Throw a Party and Everyone Arrives Too Early dreamscape — but they’re actually trying to help us. “There can be some unresolved emotional issue that your dream is trying to get you to face,” says Hoss. Dream analyst Jane Teresa Anderson believes you can rewire your very brain by attempting to analyze these sorts of dreams:
“When you analyze a recurring dream, you identify the issue and the underlying mindset patterns that are keeping you stuck in the pattern. You can then change the patterns through a combination of awareness and…reimagin[ing] the dream to change the outcome. It’s an art and a science, and what this process does is reprogram the unconscious mind for better outcomes.”
It should go without saying that any dream analyst worth their salt already knows how to do this for themselves. And so by and large, their recurrent dreams are safely in their past. In fact, many of them look back at particular recurring dreams as the Xs that marked a dark epoch in their life — an epoch from which their own self-analysis rescued them.
Lauri Loewenberg, a dream analyst who remembers her dreams from the age of two onward and always recites them to her husband over morning coffee, used to dream every week — for years! — that she was walking through her childhood bedroom and discovering aquariums full of dead fish. In the dream, she knew that the aquariums had been there all along, but realized that she’d forgotten about them until that moment.
“The dream was about something in my real life that I’d neglected: my art,” she says. “I’d put my art aside in order to build my career as a dream analyst. My subconscious didn’t like that at all and it nagged me to death.” The issue came to a head when Loewenberg had a lucid dream about a woman with no face — her neglected artist self, she believes — who told Loewenberg, “You need to paint, and I need to sow.” These days, Loewenberg has a thriving pin-up art business in addition to her dream work. “I finally listened to the dream. And I haven’t dreamed of dying fish ever since,” she says.
Another dream analyst, Layne Dalfen, used the message inside her recurring dream to save herself from making a huge mistake. In the dreams, Dalfen was always alone in a shaky freight elevator, unable to touch the sides. The dreams started 44 years ago, a few months after she gave birth to her first child, Tina, who was born with Down Syndrome. Her doctor advised Dalfen to place Tina in a home and “forget you had her.” Dalfen listened to him — in those days, she says, it was a fairly common practice. “Three months later I woke up crying and couldn’t stop,” she says. Shortly after that, the dreams started.
Her trick as an analyst is to take the problem presented in the dream and ask herself what she’d do if it were happening in real life. If she were alone in a freight elevator in real life, she says, she’d “bring people into the elevator to put weight on the floor so it stops wobbling. And now you’re not in this huge space alone. You’re not flailing by yourself.” Dalfen realize that the dream was begging her to ask her parents for help — to bring them into the elevator, so to speak — so that they could all attempt to find Tina again. (Not coincidentally, Dalfen used to play in the freight elevator at her father’s workplace when she was a child.) She acted on the dream, and Tina ended up being a joyful part of her family’s life for the next four decades.
“I never had a freight elevator dream again,” Dalfen says. “Once your conscious understands what your subconscious is trying to say to you, the dream ends. You’re just having a discussion with yourself, but you’re speaking another language.”
It’s not that only dream analysts can cure themselves of their recurring dreams, but it’s mainly dream analysts who have the tools to do so. Many of the analysts I spoke to expressed a great sense of relief at having figured out the insistent dreams of their younger days. “I used to have a lot of recurring dreams, as a child and young adult, until I learned to understand them and pay attention to them,” says Anderson. “The only recurring dream I sometimes have now is looking for a public toilet and, at first, seeming like I’ve got to walk a long way to find one…suddenly I see a perfect toilet close by and I can empty my full bladder in peace and quiet.” She says that when she dreams this, it’s a nudging reminder from her unconscious to take time for self-care.
Another thing dream analysts have in common? Many of them know how to lucid dream. More importantly, they know exactly what to do when they find themselves dreaming lucidly. They know that these dreams are not the time to gorge on an entire dream pizza or fly above Kilimanjaro. That’s low-level stuff, they say. Lucid dreams are for learning the secrets of the universe, or at least exploring the nooks and crannies of your own wild mind. “The real fun is exploring the wisdom behind the dream,” says Hoss, who advises lucid dreamers to stop what they’re doing and tell the dream, Show me something I need to know. These dreams are like therapy on steroids — a (possibly) once-in-a-lifetime chance to discover something major about yourself.
When dream analysts are lucid dreaming, they will often look for a person or animal within the dream and interrogate them, as dream characters tend to have all the wisdom. “If you ever get a lucid dream, ask a question, because you’ll get a really cool answer,” says Loewenberg. Says Hoss, “I’ll ask a dream character, ‘Who are you? Where did you come from?’ They’ll usually say, ‘I’m a higher level of consciousness.’” Just don’t expect them to pat your head and explain the meaning of dreaming itself. “They don’t think they’re characters,” says Hoss. “They think they’re dreaming you.”
Get a bunch of dream analysts talking about their lucid dreams and you’ll find that things get extremely meta. Hoss once lucid-dreamed that he was lecturing a bunch of dream characters about what it’s like to be in a dream. Loewenberg will often analyze her dreams while she’s still in them, and says that when she wakes up from a lucid dream, she’ll sometimes fall back asleep and dream that she’s telling someone about the dream she just had. Dream analyst Craig Webb has even had lucid dreams that seem to mysteriously reflect his clients’ waking reality. “I often dream with and even ‘for’ my clients,” he says. This can lead to strange parallels: One night, Webb dreamed he was swimming and frightened by nebulous shapes around him that seemed to be sharks. He purposefully shook off the fear and swam toward one terrifying shape, finding out that it was simply a log. He later learned that around the same time he was dreaming, a student of his was panicking underwater in Hawaii, sure she was swimming next to sharks. “She said she then remembered our class discussions about being able to lucidly choose her emotional state and mental focus,” says Webb, “and so she decided to continue snorkeling.” Shifting her perception of her waking reality, the student swam toward the mysterious shapes, just as Webb was doing in his dream. It worked: They weren’t sharks, either.
“Even with upsetting dreams…I know that I can turn them around and bring a better ending if I can become more lucid next time,” says Webb. “So I am never afraid to dream.”
It feels a bit mystical to say that dream analysts have tapped into a higher — or deeper — relationship with the unconscious, but their stories of dreaming seem to support that theory. After all, they work with their own unconscious mind every night, poke around it in, play with it like clay. Dreams may feel as personal as a fingerprint, but they have rhyme and reason, if you know where to look. “Since I began to study dreams, my relationship with them has changed…my dreams have become a partner to me,” says Loewenberg. “We work together, me and my subconscious mind, to make my life better in every possible way.
It’s a partnership not to be taken lightly, though. Angie Banicki, who reads tarot for celebrities like Jamie Chung and Sophia Bush and occasionally does dream analysis, has found herself slipping into a new sort of dream lately. She’s had an intense and fairly psychic dream life for a while now — a friend who works at NASA has an email from Banicki hanging above her desk in which Banicki correctly predicted her NASA job — but her latest dreams are something different. Something darker.
Dreams may feel as personal as a fingerprint, but they have rhyme and reason, if you know where to look. Click To Tweet
It happened last year, when she did a tarot reading at Paltrow’s house and came home buzzing with intense energy from the party guests. That night, she had a dream about death. In it, her friend Dan — who’d died on Mount Everest — acted as her spiritual guide, and the dream itself involved two women and a man who were near a forest, dead. Something in the dream had to do with drugs.
The next morning, as Banicki drove along a highway that she rarely drives down, she saw a cluster of 10 police cars, and learned that two women and a man had been hit by a girl on drugs who lost control of her car. The three victims had gotten out of their car to take a closer look at the nearby forest, and the accident happened at the exact time that Banicki woke up. “I cried all the way home,” she says. “This is a whole new level of dreaming that I don’t know if I’m ready for.” The hills and valleys of the dreamscape may contain the sort of guidance we’re searching for in our waking life, but perhaps it’s best that not all of us know how to access those shadowy realms.