Let’s start with some reasons to keep a dream journal in the first place. This post is peppered with tips to get you started if this is new terrain. My next post in February will include more general tips both for novices and folks who already have a dream practice.
Why Dream Journal?
Even if you think you don’t dream at all, you probably do and just don’t remember. Sitting down the next morning to write about your non-dreams can unlock memories of dreams you’ve never been able to recall before. Start by writing something as simple as “don’t remember anything.” Describe your sleep in a few phrases: “slept okay, 6 hours, 11 PM-5 AM, woke up and fell back asleep twice.” If nothing else, jot down a single word like blackness, warmth, anxiety, heavy, or peaceful. Words, songs, emotions, or memories stuck in your head just after waking count, too. Do this a few days in a row, and you might start getting scraps like a more complex emotion, a color, a person, or a sense of place. Keep going and you’ll remember full plots before you know it, and eventually multiple dreams each night.
You may find that you recall dreams unevenly, remembering several one morning and nothing the next. This is normal, even after years. If you can, keep showing up every day. If you don’t have anything to write about that day, make a “can’t remember” entry, or record whatever scraps you have. You may find that you remember something just as you’re typing “can’t remember.”
It’s not necessary to remember our dreams, but it can be fun and rewarding. If we get enough sleep, we spend a lot of time dreaming. It’s nice to recall some of our sleeping adventures.
In my experience, the recall trick works both ways, almost like turning on and off a faucet. The less I’m able to record my dreams, the less I remember. So if for some reason you don’t enjoy your dreaming practice, stopping your journal and even going to bed with the intention not to dream, or not to remember anything when you wake up, can help quiet your recall. You might find, for example, that during a stressful period at work most of your dreams are anxiety dreams set in the workplace, or back-to-school nightmares, and that it makes you feel worse to dwell on them. If you’re experiencing high stress or emotional turmoil, it may be helpful to consult a therapist before starting a dream journal, or to process some of your dreams with the help of a qualified counsellor.
Not all dreams are equally meaningful. Some dreams can read like profound revelations about something deep, hidden, wonderful, or terrible in our nature. Other dreams will be mash-ups of news articles and Netflix binges, anxiety loops of bad workdays, poorly-timed chili-cheese-dog-induced nightmares, and unintelligible nonsense. A regular journaling practice over time can help give you a sense of what’s meaningful and what’s noise. A good therapist, spiritual advisor, or trusted friend or family member who’s into dreaming may be able to help you reckon with disturbing subconscious imagery.
When a dream motif feels particularly significant, odd, poetic, or moving, it may hold a valuable message for you, especially if it recurs several times. Dreams can encourage us to embrace needs, desires, and talents that aren’t on our list of waking priorities. They can answer questions about ourselves, and they can nudge us in fresh new directions.
Dreams are a creative goldmine. They can prompt stories, poems, songs, paintings, illustrations, you name it. So many wonderful artists, scientists, musicians, and thinkers have pulled ideas from dreams throughout history, and so can you. You might not get full downloads of completed works in your sleep, although that can happen. Paul McCartney famously dreamed the tune to Yesterday and jotted the whole thing down when he woke up. The working lyric was “scrambled eggs.” And here’s Paul singing a fleshed-out, updated version of Scrambled Eggs with Jimmy Fallon. (You’re welcome.)
Lightning doesn’t strike like that every night, but you can certainly use dream scraps and images as jumping-off points and creative prompts. Over the years, I’ve dreamed of song melodies, painting techniques, and many small images and fragments of text that I’ve altered and woven into writings and illustrations. Creative fodder is my single favorite reason to keep a dream journal.
I’ve heard others say that by asking a question or meditating on a problem right before falling asleep, with the intention to dream a solution and remember it clearly the next morning, they can get a relevant if symbolic answer to that question. Some even use this technique to predict the future. There’s a word for divining through dreams: oneiromancy, from the Greek word for dream, oneiros.
I can only recall one instance over the last fifteen years where I posed a question to a dream and got a direct, immediate, useful answer the same day. It was during college and it was a homework emergency. I had a research paper proposal due for a theatre history class the next day, and for weeks before, I’d been unable to think of a good topic within the time period. I was desperate, and decided to take a nap on it with the expectation that I would dream of a good topic. Combing through scripts and J-STOR searches had already failed, so why not? I set my alarm for two hours, and woke up with the name Hildegard Von Bingen stuck in my head. At the time, I didn’t know who she was, couldn’t recall ever hearing her name before, and didn’t know what, if anything, she had to do with theatre. A quick Google search revealed that she was a 12th century German abbess, mystic, scholar, writer, composer, artist, herbalist, healer, and Catholic saint, and one of her choral works, the Ordo Virtutum technically counts as a medieval morality play. Jackpot. I went with it, my proposal got approved, and the research was fascinating. I discovered later that she’d composed a sheet of choral music I’d had tucked at the back of a folder, but hadn’t practiced yet. I must have seen her name printed at a glance when I got the sheet music, but I didn’t remember it, and knew nothing about her, nor that she’d had anything to do with theater history.
My dream trick worked out great that day, but I’ve never been able to duplicate it! Clearly it’s not one of my regular talents. I’ve noticed that sometimes I’ll dream solutions to questions I’ve had floating at the back of my mind for some time, but never directly posed to my dreams. A few times, I’ve gotten an answer to a question I’ve asked before falling asleep, but with a delay of several days or weeks, after I’ve given up on or forgotten about the question. If you try this technique, jot down your question and the date you ask it in your journal before you fall asleep, so if you get a delayed answer, you’ll be able to look back and recognize it for what it is. I might give that a whirl and see if I get better results.
My questions have always been about immediate issues, of the personal variety that my subconscious mind might plausibly have a good answer to. I’ve never tried to predict the future through dreaming, so I can’t speak to how or whether that works.
As always, thanks so much for reading, and be well!