Absurdity of Dream Symbolism
As a dream worker and moderator of a dreams forum, I hear frequently from people who insist that dreams are just a random mishmash of imagery. No meaning. They point out absurd, irrational dreams to make their case. The following dream is an example. [Link to original post.]
Last night I dreamed that I am walking down a sidewalk alongside a human-sized banana with legs. We walk by a man who yells, “Hey, are you sure that’s the way you want to go?” I respond by saying, “No, it’s not.” I turn around and start walking in the direction I came from, and the banana continues on.
A giant, walking banana is pretty absurd, right? It’s the sort of imagery cited when arguing that dreams are meaningless, but to me it looks like symbolism. This dream has meaning, and the dreamer figured it out simply by using an old trick for dream interpretation: association.
Association is basically just brainstorming ideas based on the dream imagery. You think off the top of your head and see where it leads. The guy who dreamed about the walking banana first made an association with his lunch. He said he packed a banana everyday but sometimes didn’t eat it, in which case it would get brown and mushy.
That association didn’t resonate with him, so he came up with another one. Yellow skin tone is associated with Asians. He said, “I have a lot of Asian friends, and at times I get drawn into their circle. They have high expectations for how to act and behave. Sometimes I feel like I am getting in too deep, especially in instances where romance seems to be potentially blooming. If romance develops, these high expectations will be a daily way of life for me, which I am apprehensive about.”
Now look at that observation in light of the man in the dream who yells, “Are you sure that’s the way you want to go?” He is really asking, “Are you sure you want to get involved romantically with an Asian girl, knowing what it entails?” The answer is seen in his reaction. He says no and walks the other direction. It means he is walking away from the possibility. The dream gave him a way of thinking through the situation symbolically and making a decision about it.
The association between Asian and yellow is not racist or bigoted. It’s simply an observation and unfortunately, a stereotype. It doesn’t mean the dreamer supports it, only that he is aware of it.
Some dream imagery is meaningless in the sense that it is not used to tell a story. Some dreams don’t have meaning, but that’s not to say that all dreams don’t have meaning. You can start to dream soon after closing your eyes to go to sleep. That imagery is basically just your brain spitting out day residue and visualizing processes in the body. But after a full sleep cycle or two, the dreaming mind weaves the imagery together into stories that are memorable and emotionally involving. Those dreams have meaning.
Think of meaningless dream imagery as a musician preparing for a show by playing scales. It’s not “music,” it’s just warming up.
The dreamer raised a point about the symbolism in his walking banana dream. He asked, “Why was the banana reference necessary? Why not just use one of my Asian friends in the dream? When I think about going a different direction in real life (away from those friends or potential romances) it is disheartening.”
The answer is three-fold.
One, the dreaming mind uses symbolism to communicate. Asking why is like asking a cat why it meows: Because it’s a cat! My theory is that the unconscious mind (where dreams originate) developed during the early days of the human species when we communicated more with signs, sounds, and gestures than with words, and the dreaming part of the mind still speaks that way.
Two, symbolism is efficient. A dream is a picture that says a thousand words, and your dreaming mind has an agenda and only so much to accomplish it.
Three, when told with symbolism, dream-stories make you ponder the points they make, instead of just handing you the information. Think about it this way: When Jesus was asked difficult questions or had an important point to make, he often used parables––little stories with a moral to them. He made his audience really think about the answer and put themselves in the scene. For thousands of years humans have used stories to express complex ideas. For the same reason, dreams tell stories instead of give lectures.
Four, Sigmund Freud proposed that dreams use symbolism to avoid arousing the dreamer and disturbing sleep. Dreams bring up emotionally-charged subjects. In the walking banana dream, the dreamer is thinking through an important situation. He feels strongly about it. If the dream used an Asian friend to make the meaning more obvious, it might disturb him. He might jerk awake or become conscious of the situation before the dream ran its course.
But more importantly, a literal representation wouldn’t give him the same opportunity to see his honest, emotional reaction. If it is obvious that the dream is showing him a story about his possibilities for romance with Asian girls and the depth of his involvement with his Asian friends, he might answer with his head instead of his heart.
This brings up an important point about symbolism, perhaps the most important one so far: You already know subconsciously what the symbolism means and react to it, not to the overt story.
When the dreamer sees himself walking down the street with a banana and is asked if that’s really the direction he wants to go, he knows what it means. But because the meaning is disguised from the conscious side of his mind through symbolism, he reacts from his gut. It’s his true, unvarnished answer. He knows deep inside that he has to go another direction romantically, despite how it disheartens him.