Free time to indulge in daily self-care practices is a luxury not all of us share, at least not to the same degree. I want to acknowledge that right up front, and underscore that it’s fine and dandy to adapt your practices to your own unique resources and needs. Journaling every day helps unlock dream recall for a lot of people, but it might not be possible or beneficial for you, and that’s okay.
Dreams fade fast, so visit your journal ASAP after waking. It’s fine to freshen up and get a cup of coffee first, but ideally, dream journaling should happen within the first half hour of your day. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget even the most beautiful and powerful dreams! Catch them while you can.
If you don’t have alone time in your morning routine, or spoons to write first thing, don’t worry. Bullet a few quick key words in a notebook, or record a 30 second voice memo on your phone to jog your memory later. Come back to these notes at the earliest time in your day that you can sit down to write.
2. Record First, Interpret Second, Research Last
Memories of dreams are easily altered by our feelings about them. It’s best to record dreams as accurately as possible to get the full benefit of reviewing them in hindsight. Try to keep your descriptions as impartial and specific as possible. That means record first and interpret second.
Once you’ve outlined the details of your dream to the best of your recollection, add a few notes on what, if anything, you think the dream means. Dreams are personal, and symbolic language varies between individuals. Resist the urge to google a dream symbol right away. Take a shot at your own interpretations first, without outside influences. Oftentimes, we best understand what our dreams mean on our own. It can take a moment for understanding to gel, so sit with your dream imagery for at least an hour before looking for external input.
Sometimes it does help to get an outside perspective, and sometimes we need to verify information we encounter in dreams but don’t consciously understand or remember. In these cases, it’s helpful to hear others’ opinions or research particular imagery. Once you’ve got a good record of your dream and a few guesses as to what it means, you can seek guidance from friends, family, or other sources.
The interpretation and research steps here are optional. Recording is the most important part. Not every dream will catch your interest in the moment, and some won’t ever catch enough interest to justify digging deeper. If you’re crunched for time, prioritize the recording stage of your dream journal as a daily practice. Take extra time once a week to review your latest daily entries, and interpret only the most intriguing and sticky ones.
You have a narrow window to capture your dreams before you forget them, but you can interpret them any time after. Sometimes it’s easier to interpret a dream after sitting with it for a few days.
3. Starting Out, Record (Almost) Everything
If you’re new to dream journaling, or it’s been a while, odds are your dream recall is fuzzy ‘round the edges. The quickest way to remember your dreams accurately is to record as much as you possibly can about them.
These entries don’t have to be long, but they should match what you can remember.
If you don’t remember anything, make an entry anyway saying “can’t remember anything,” with some notes about how you slept. If all you get is a single word, phrase, color, mood, image, or place, write down that one thing. Scraps count, no matter how small or disjointed.
The more you remember, the more you should record. You will remember more in time! Note every detail you possibly can. It takes practice to get a feel for what details are significant and what details are noise. Scraps of dreams you might dismiss as meaningless can pop back up in waking life in uncanny little ways, so don’t dismiss anything until you have a good sense of how your subconscious/dreaming mind communicates with your conscious/waking self. This rapport can take months to years to build, so be patient.
There are some exceptions to the record-everything rule, which I’ll cover more thoroughly in my next post on navigating tricky and disturbing content. For now, know that it’s fine to leave things out or use coded shorthand with triggers, or dreams that your intuition says to leave alone. The point of recording as much as possible is to develop strong overall dream recall and to better understand how your dreaming mind speaks to your waking mind. These skills can blossom just fine without suffering. You’ll know where that line is for you in practice.
4. Pare Down As You Go
Once the floodgates are open and you can recall multiple detailed dreams each night, you will have to find ways to pare it down. It can take well over an hour to fully record your dreams at this point. If you have the time that’s rad, but most of us don’t.
You’ll have to get things down efficiently to preserve everything you want to revisit, without letting your dreams eat more than their fair share of time. Mindful dreaming can be a wonderful source of wisdom and inspiration, but always remember that living your waking life comes first!
Here are some helpful techniques to try: Use bullet points and shorthand for all but your most interesting dreams. Develop personalized shorthand phrases for recurring dreams. At this stage, you should have a good sense of what dreams are meaningful to you, and what dreams process run of the mill anxieties and daily routines, so keep your descriptions of those dreams short and sweet.
For example, in one sitting, I might write three long paragraphs on a particularly surreal, beautiful, and evocative dream, but limit the rest to super quick and dirty bullets like this:
- Work/anxiety nonsense. Folding clothes forever @ mall.
- Media Mashup Buffy fights vamp politicians. (Netflix binge + read news before bed.)
- Paint studio. Deadline time-loop, kept re-doing. Interesting comp., might use. Weird clouds thing. H2O cad red + indigo, lt. wash. See sketchbook thumbnail, spring ’18 p.7.
(For the record, this is not a real excerpt. I made these up as a demo, but they’re like dreams I might actually have.) Note that the painting dream includes specific color notes and a cross-reference to a pencil sketch. If you art the art, little details like this come in handy.
5. Make It A Ritual
As with any daily practice, integrating your dream journal into a steady routine and building ritual around it can help you remember to show up every day, and make it more enjoyable.
Ritual doesn’t have to be fancy, strenuous, precious, or magical to be effective. It simply has to be repetitive and pleasant, and either engage multiple aesthetic senses, or engage a personal sense of symbolic meaning. For one person, that might look like journaling out on the porch with a fresh cup of coffee. For another person, it might look like lighting a candle and coupling their dream journal with a daily tarot draw or a meditation.
The specifics are entirely up to you. Nailing this step comes down to pleasure and consistency. Good things.