When I teach dreamwork someone invariably asks why dreams are so difficult to understand. If dreams mean something, in other words, why aren’t the meanings obvious?

One reason is that a single dream can address various areas of life at once. Each dream scene, therefore, has multiple layers of meaning.

There are many opposing perspectives on why we dream and whether or not dream images hold symbolic or literal meaning. In this article I discuss a multitude of perspectives because I believe they can all be true – at the same time.

For example, one dream can comment on the state of your

  • past, present and future
  • physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing
  • family dynamics
  • interpersonal relationships
  • work life
  • general life direction
  • etc.

And just like in movies, myths, and stories, dreams come in a variety of genres or moods, each carefully designed to make you feel something. There are

  • comedies
  • action filled adventures
  • thrillers
  • romantic dramas
  • spiritual tales
  • fantasies
  • science fiction
  • horror flicks
  • and some are even X-rated!

A nightmare, perhaps in the guise of a horror movie type dream, has an entirely different feel than a romantic comedy. Connecting with the type of dream can help you explore the various layers of meaning.

For instance, imagine you dream of a rose. The type of your dream, whether nightmare or romantic comedy, may inform the deeper implications of the meaning of the rose. On top of this layer, the rose may be viewed from any of the following perspectives:

Simile: my love is like a red, red rose

Metaphoric: my love is a rose

Puns: He rose from death and was resurrected

Archetypal: The archetype of the rose is the “original model” for all roses. The rose archetype is a universal, energetic blueprint for all roses.

Literal: a rose by any other name is still a rose, or a rose is a rose is a rose

Lucid: While sleeping I see the rose and realize I am dreaming

Prophetic: Dreaming of receiving a rose and later receiving one in waking life (or receiving something in waking life that the rose symbolizes, like a new relationship or love)

Recurring: Dreaming of a rose over and over again, either in identical dream scenarios, or similar scenarios that involve roses

Diagnostic: Having a rose that is infested with bugs may indicate physical or emotional dis-ease

By speaking in symbols and through literal imagery, our dreams can more easily convey multiple messages at once. This is why it’s helpful to explore your dream with other people. We are all limited in our abilities to see many layers of meaning in one dream. We are limited by our experience and blind spots. Working a dream with another person or a group helps us view a dream from a perspective we may not have encountered on our own.

Read Next: A Plethora of Dream Exploration Techniques