How Stagnant Water Saved My Sanity: Or, an Exercise in Dream Interpretation

For this entry, I would like to chat about how to interpret dreams.  First, I would like to give you an example from my own dreams, because seeing the process makes it easier to do.

A while back, I was having recurring dreams about water. The water was always deep, stagnant, and oily. In one dream, I was on a yacht made out of paper trash.  When the yacht started to sink slightly, water lapped against my foot, and I panicked.  Using willpower, I forced the yacht to become more buoyant, raising it out of the water.

In my other dream about water, I was inside a boat garage, which is basically what you’d think: a garage on stilts, with a door the owner could open to drive the boat in. The garage was out in the middle of a large body of water. Any light that came in came in through cracks in the moldy, gray walls. The water was dead still and tarry. As I lay on the dock inside the garage, some of my hair trailed in the water, and I flinched away from it.  Paper floated on top of the water. There was a tiny raft outside the garage.  I remember not knowing what to do–I didn’t know how to open the garage door, and I wasn’t sure whether to wait for another big boat to come, or just take the raft.  I didn’t know if there was any land nearby.

In my waking life, the image of that dark, stagnant, oily water disturbed me. It was undoubtedly menacing, but I wanted to know why.  Why was my subconscious showing me the same image? There was nothing obviously frightening about the water, at least not in the sense of a great white shark’s dorsal fin slicing its way through the waves. There were no basketball sized giant squid eyes peering up and taking me by surprise.  The water wasn’t even rough.  It was eerily calm.

I decided to do a little subconscious spelunkin’ and figure out what the heck was going on.  The exercise that would help me with this was first told to me by a wonderful man named Ray Myers.  Almost ten years later, Martha Beck would also recommend this exercise, in her book Steering by Starlight.

1) First of all, write down your dream. It’s best to do this first thing. I can’t tell you how many times I told myself I would write a dream down and then forgot it. Write as many details as you can.

2) Second, pick an aspect of your dream that sticks out to you. For me, it was the water.

2) Third, imagine yourself as the aspect of your dream. What do you look like? What is your motivation? What are you feeling?  In my case, I had to pretend I was the water.  “Well, I know how you felt when you were water,” you’re saying. “You felt insane, because you are.”

Be that as it may, read on.

This is my water monologue (or waterlogue. Get it?) from my journal.

I am the water. I am deep. I am dark.  I am oily. I’m stagnant. There are probably unwholesome things swimming down there [insert dirty joke here].  

I feel…I don’t know.

After some minutes of frustration, I decided to come back later.  Finally, there was a clue.

I am the water. I am cold. I am numb. I feel nothing.  

Then I realized what the water symbolized.  It was clinical depression, something that I have been struggling with since I was about eight years old.  My subconscious was telling me that so far I had been able to keep from sinking into it again, but it may be only a matter of time.

This was a very sad and terrifying revelation for me.  I am grateful that my subconscious was able to send me warning signs so I could take action.

This is why it is a good thing to learn the language of our dreams, what Caroline Myss calls symbolic language. Symbolic language is how our minds give us knowledge about ourselves. You may wake up and think, consciously, I am depressed, but your subconscious mind may be giving you hints long before hand through your dreams, just as mine was.

Learning to understand your dreams also helps hone your intuition. One of the most arresting I’ve read is about a woman named Tricia Coburn, who kept having a recurring dream of people standing behind a barbed wire fence. The people looked like they were in a concentration camp. They were wasting away, and they were staring at the woman with imploring eyes. Sometimes, they would shout at her.

Something told Coburn to go to the doctor. They examined her, and found nothing wrong. The dreams continued.

Finally, she dreamed of the barbed wire fence, only there was nobody there. A voice said, “look deeper.”

Coburn went to the doctor and had a colonoscopy. She had colon cancer, fast moving colon cancer. They had gotten it just in time.

It is very enlightening, and simple, but sometimes not easy.  The meanings behind symbols sometimes leap out at you, and sometimes they play peek-a-boo until you understand, and sometimes they’re very maddening sphinxes. Any way they show up, have fun, and have an open mind.

If anyone needs help translating a dream, please drop me a line at  I can walk you through a more in-depth dialogue, by e-mail, or, if you prefer, by Skype or phone. Also, please share some of your memorable dream stories in the comments.


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