Have you ever wondered what a dream means, or are you worried that a frightening dream could be a warning you don’t understand? Dreams can be amusing, intriguing, or disturbing. They can always be educational if you are willing to work with them and learn from them. Using techniques from shamanism, Jungian psychology, and my own experiences working with clients, I’ve developed these seven keys to dream interpretation that can guide you in working effectively with dreams for personal transformation.

Pay attention to recurrent, vivid, or scary dreams. If a dream is memorable because it feels especially real, seems important even if you don’t know why, reoccurs, or is particularly disturbing or frightening, your unconscious mind is trying to tell you something important. If the unconscious mind doesn’t get its message through to you in a dream, it will try again. This urgency benefits you because it makes it more likely that you will pay attention to a message from your unconscious mind, which holds wisdom and insights your conscious mind can’t always access easily. By choosing to take a closer look at your dreams and begin to interpret them, you can learn things about yourself and the situations you’re in that can be very helpful.

Remember your dreams. There are several tricks for remembering your dreams, which tend to quickly fade out of your consciousness as soon as you awaken. The first is to go to bed at night with the intention of remembering your dreams. When you wake up, immediately record your dreams on paper or a recording device kept on your nightstand. Let the images flow out and don’t stop to try to interpret the dream or dreams. Turning on the parts of your mind that are analytical quiets the part of your mind that is irrational and remembers the images and symbols you encountered in your dreams along with the plotlines and the emotions you experienced.

Choose to dream a helpful dream. If you’re facing a difficult dilemma or decision, or trying to better understand a situation, set the intention of having a dream that will provide you with insights. As your head hits the pillow, tell yourself that you intend to have a dream that will help you. This technique doesn’t always work the first time, but keep trying. It’s common to be in the habit of forgetting dreams upon awakening, so if you open your eyes and feel disappointment as you remember your intention and realize you didn’t have a helpful dream after all, don’t give up. Lie there for a moment to see if a dream comes back to you, and if it does, record it. If it doesn’t, try again another night.

Keep in mind that while dream symbols can be universal, they may have a special meaning for you. Often, the temptation is to reach for a dream interpretation dictionary or look up a particular symbol online to see what it means. A better strategy is to sit and hold the symbol in your mind, and see if any emotions, words, or images come up for you. Move beyond the most common interpretation of a dream symbol and consider what it means to you. For example, dominoes in a dream could symbolize the domino effect of one thing leading to another. However, if you always played dominoes with your grandmother and you stopped playing after she moved away when you were a child, the symbol of dominoes could have a different meaning for you that is very personal.

Don’t be afraid of death in a dream. If you dream of death, it’s probably not a literal death you’re dreaming of but an ending or death to a situation. If you died in the dream, it could be that your unconscious mind is telling you that your role in a situation is coming to an end, or that the person you have always been has to change so that you can move forward into better opportunities and circumstances. A dream about the death of others could be about changes they will make, or about your relationship to them changing, or about some aspect of yourself that is like the people you’re dreaming about.

Pay attention to your emotions within your dream. Your emotional response to events, symbols, or figures in your dream may not make sense at first, but they may well make sense when you discover what the dream is about. Unusual emotional responses within a dream can be a clue to look more closely at what the dream images mean. If in a dream you were laughing and feeling excited when the moon was shining in the night sky, explore that. Don’t dismiss odd emotions you experienced within a dream. They can hold the key to understanding the dream’s message. Sometimes we don’t really know how we feel, and the unconscious mind will use dreams to alert us to hidden emotions. 

Dialogue with the symbols and figures in your dreams. Have you ever wished you could return to a dream and ask questions of the symbols or figures to try to make sense of it? You can do this either by going to sleep and intending to revisit the dream or by dialoguing with it, which is a technique in which you ask it questions and allow your unconscious mind to suggest the answers. Good questions to ask the symbol would be, “What message do you have for me, what do you want from me, and what can I do for you?” You may receive an insight or energy that can help you in your everyday life. Dream interpretation, especially if it includes dialoguing with what you encounter in the dream, can be remarkably helpful for enacting positive change in your life.