To understand a dream, start by considering your first feelings on waking from it. When I say “feelings”, I would include body sensations and general energy level. Let your heart and your gut guide you on what was going on in the dream, before you start analyzing on a head level. They will tell you whether your dream was positive or negative. They will reflect whether the dream message is urgent, and whether it requires immediate action. Your first feelings will reflect the degree of your personal engagement with the dream material, for example whether that dream drama is one that could be played out in your regular life, or one involving people and situations at a distance from you that your dream self was looking in on.

I really don’t want to hear any dream report unless I can ask the dreamer, right away, “How did you feel right after the dream?” Sometimes dreamers have a hard time responding to that question. They start talking about what they are thinking rather than what they were feeling. This provides an opportunity for us to learn to help each other to express what we need to say. Learning to say what we feel, in a sheltered and supportive conversation, can be cathartic and healing in itself.

Feelings on waking tend to reveal more of what we need to do with a dream than the feelings during the dream itself. You met a cave bear in your dream and he tore you limb from limb and devoured your heart, but you woke up feeling fit and ready for the day, even elated. Clearly this is not a “bad” dream and it is not a nightmare since (in my lexicon) a nightmare is a broken or unfinished dream; you ran away because you couldn’t take any more, leaving an important issue unresolved. The dream of being dismembered by the cave bear (and I have heard many such dreams, and experienced some myself) may have been a gift, amounting full-blown shamanic initiation during the night.

On the other hand, you dream of a humdrum scene at the office but wake with a crawling sense of dread. Those feelings would prompt me to go over every detail of the dream – including some details that may have gone missing in the first recollection – in order to see whether there is a practical advisory here on the work day ahead, or some other day at the office. In dreams, we are constantly rehearsing for situations that lie in the future. If it seems, after careful study, that the dream is not previewing a specific crisis, then the feelings of dread may be screaming that it’s time to get out of a job that you hate or – if that’s not possible – to use your creativity to make that job more interesting and rewarding.

Quite often we have no strong feelings around a dream. We feel nothing beyond some mild curiosity, or feel quite neutral or detached. These, too, are feelings to be considered in evaluating a dream and reading its message. We get around in our dreams. Dreaming is traveling; we visit other people and places, and receive visitors. Sometimes we see into other people’s situations and into events unfolding – now or in the future, or in a parallel reality – that are quite remote from our present lives. A sense of detachment after a dream may indicate that our dream self was in a witness role, seeing things that do not relate to our personal circumstances and do not require any specific action. At the same time, if I am involved in a dream situation that is emotionally charged and wake feeling detached, I may ask myself where in my regular life I tend to remain detached from situations where my help or active involvement might be appropriate.

Here’s something to do with your dreams to mobilize what Eugene Gendlin called your “felt sense” of things. Take your sense of the dream into your body and see how your body responds when you call back the images. Let your body talk; move as you tell the dream to yourself or to others. Notice the further feelings and sensations that come to you as you dwell with the dream and let more of its energy return to you. As you come closer to the truth of a dream, you’ll find your body responding more strongly. You know, in your body, that you’re getting “hot” getting “cold”. You may get a tingle of confirmation when you get to where the dream wants to take you. Truth comes with goose bumps.

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