Learning The Language of Dreams

read time: 17 minutes


Have you noticed The Shimmer today?

We’re in it.

It’s been a little over two weeks since I’ve noticed it. It’s been humbling to observe that noticing it doesn’t do much to diminish the Attentional Fusion Blindness effect. I can go long stretches of time forgetting that I forgot.

But I’m writing to you from a lucid moment.

And with this moment, I want to share what I know about dream tracking.

It’ll help you navigate the Shimmer.

The Discovery of The Unconscious

The greatest discovery of the 21st century was the discovery of the unconscious.

The moment humanity invented the atomic bomb, understanding the unconscious became the most important task of our time.

What is the unconscious?

To answer that, let’s start with what it’s not.

Jung used the latin word ‘ego’ to describe the conscious mind.

In latin, ego means ‘I.’ The ego is simply the part of the psyche that has a conscious perspective. Whatever this perspective is, we think of it as who we are. The Ego is the part that sees as an ‘I.’

Modern cognitive science has done a lot of good work fleshing out the details of the ego. Cognitive research has found that the ego has three specific attentional systems. Each has its own neurocircuitry, and develops independently. They then come together around the age of 3 to produce the phenomenon we call the ego. It is the birth of the Identity.

These three systems are:

  1. The Alerting System
  2. The Orienting System
  3. The Executive System

The alerting system comes with us into our first moments of emergence from the womb and fully develops around three months. This system detects cues that indicate something important is happening, and this mobilizes the neonates attention to ‘pay attention.’

You’re using this system to read these words.

The next system is the Orienting System. The Orienting system detects surprises, or phenomenon that breaks expectations. When a surprise is detected, like a loud noise behind the baby, the orienting response attempts to locate the source of the sound, and then activates the alerting system to pay attention to whatever the surprise is.

This system fully develops around 7 months, and interestingly; becomes the process through which we discover ‘the ego.’

You used this system the last time you unconsciously swiveled your head to look in the direction of something that caught your attention.

The orienting response is a kind of biological radar system, scanning the exterior world for interesting phenomenon. It is this capacity that eventually points inward and begins to illuminate our inner worlds.

This process, called Endogenous Orienting, eventually produces what cognitive psychologists call ‘The Executive Attentional System.’ This is the part of the ego that can self-regulated its impulses. It is the part that can begin to plan, consider different actions, and choose.

The biological foundation of the executive function begins coming online around age 4 and fully lays its circuitry around age 11.

You’re using this system to keep your attention on this essay instead of clicking over to instagram or youtube.

Why is this important?

These three systems make up what we call ‘Attention,’ and your attention is the bridge required to enter The Shimmer.

The Shimmer wants your attention, because your attention is the gateway to your psyche.

If you don’t know how to manage your attention in The Shimmer, this place will destroy you.

But if you learn how to manage your attention in The Shimmer, this place can become an Archimedes lever that can change the course of your life, and the lives of everyone who knows you.

The Unconscious is everything else that is happening in your psyche outside your conscious awareness. But before we begin exploring the Unconscious, we gotta talk about getting lost.

Attentional Fusion Blindness

Before we start spelunking into the Unconscious, we gotta talk about what cognitive psychologists call ‘Attentional Fusion.’

Attentional Fusion is when our attentional systems fuses with the contents of consciousness.

To understand this, we have to introduce a second major aspect of the Ego; Awareness.

If attention is the ‘flashlight,’ awareness is the field in which the flashlight can move.

Awareness and Attention combine to comprise The Ego.

Think of awareness as a circle, and attention as a kind of pac-man that can move within that circle.

Attentional Fusion is when the pac-man of attention notices a thought, let’s say, and gets absorbed in the thought.

This is a natural process. In fact, if I’m doing a good job as a writer, you’re experiencing attentional fusion while you read this.

One of the reasons we love movies so much is because it fuses our attention into an epic story for a few hours. For that brief time, we forgot about our emails and our inevitable death.

However, The Buddha pointed out that the root of all suffering is when we fuse our attention with what he called ‘dukka.’

Dukka can be translated as the set of our unconscious habits that produce suffering.

For example, the average American checks their phone between 120 and 220 times a day.

How many times do you check your phone consciously, and perform only the intended action you sought to perform before you opened your phone?

If you’re honest, its humbling rare.

If you’re brave, you’ll notice that almost every time you check your phone (in hindsight), it came from a subtle compulsion. When you did open your phone, you likely ended up doing something (or many different things) that you didn’t intend to do.

What compelled you?

Who compelled you is the kind of question that starts arising when you begin exploring the unconscious.

This is one of the effects of the Shimmer, it amplifies our already pervasive tendency to fuse our attention with the contents of consciousness.

Research estimates somewhere between 49% and 91% of our waking life, we are completely attentional fused with what we are doing; while driving, while getting dressed, while brushing our teeth, etc.

This is to say; the majority of our waking life, we are acting unconsciously.

Again, attentional fusion is normal. It’s not only normal, it’s excellent when our unconscious habits are properly designed for the context and the intended outcome we desire.

For example; to be excellent at any sport that requires quick reaction time, you can only be great if your attention is fused with the activity.

However, (and this is one of the most important things to understand about yourself);

if the current totality of your daily unconscious programming produces a net negative result, this will compound over weeks, months, and years, to produce a life that begs the religious label ‘hell.’

But if your current totality of daily unconscious programming produces a net positive, you feel a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose, a sense of hope. To say another way, you’re thriving.

The beauty of dreams; they’re course correctors.

Dreams, if you learn to track them, will point out your dukka.

They will reveal to you your blindspots.

Here’s a quick list of some of benefits learning to communicate with your dreams generate:

  • Dreams are a divine compass
  • Dreams call you out
  • Dreams teach you things you don’t know
  • Dreams teach you that you’re a multiplicity
  • Dreams teach you the language of symbol
  • Dreams are the bridge to your greatest mentor, guide, and spiritual advisor
  • Dreams attune us to our dharma
  • Dreams teach us how to trust ‘the other’
  • Dreams are the only way to actually do shadow work without another person reflecting for you
  • Jung believed dreams are the best way to deal with psychological issues
  • Jung believed dreams are the best path to manifest our ‘inner wholeness’ aka Dharma
  • Dreams can deliver civilization changing insights (Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, The double helix structure of DNA, the ‘accidental’ discovery of LSD, etc

The Elephant Path

In order to do dreamwork, a preliminary training of the mind is required for most people.

This is because the profundity of the modern mind’s tendency to fuse its attention to the exterior world is the most exaggerated it has ever been (because of The Shimmer).

As an example, the fundamental skill required to begin to do dream work is to record them upon waking.

However, if you’re like most people, when you wake up, you fuse your attention to whatever thoughts first pop into your head so quickly and unconsciously, that you find yourself two hours into your day before you remember that you had the intention to record your dream this morning.

The Elephant Path is protocol created and honed through generations of buddhist monks. Its intention is to cultivate concentration, which to put in simple terms, means, training the capacity to place attention where you want it, and to keep it there as long as you want to.

Buddhism claims clearly; anyone with a mind can train their mind so that they can choose where they place their attention, and they can keep attention there as long as they need to.


To the average modern western mind, the claim that it is possible to place one’s attention where they want to, and to sustain it for as long as they want to, appears so foreign that most of us don't really even understand what is being said.

They are saying, that if you wanted to, you could sit in meditation all day and keep your attention anchored to your breath. Or teach yourself mathematics, or experience radical presence while washing the dishes or picking up dog shit.

You can play a little game to see how radical this claim is. Imagine everyone you love will be executed if you are unable to keep your attention on the rise and fall of your breath for 1 minute without getting lost in thought. You are maximally motivated. All you have to do is not let your mind fuse to any thought for the 1 minute. Go ahead, set a timer for one minute, close your eyes, and give it your best shot.

The truth is, you probably didn’t try that. It’s okay.

If you did try it, hopefully you can laugh at yourself when you notice how completely incapable you are at doing this (I can’t do it).

And if you do think you did it; you are likely so blind to your attentional fusion that you didn’t notice you couldn’t do it.

That is to be thinking without noticing you’re thinking.

We are a profoundly distracted people.

We are a people who believe ADHD is a kind of fixed description of a mind; that people who meet the criteria for ADHD will always have an ADHD mind.

The Elephant Path, and the lineage of Buddha, offer a different perspective;

Everyone can do what the Buddha did; everyone can become what the Buddha became.

The Elephant Path is a protocol to get you there.

If you struggle to remember to write down your dreams when you wake up, start meditating.

A great resource to help you: The Mind Illuminated

Learning The Language of the Unconscious

First, lemme share my favorite quote from Jung attempting to describe the unconscious:

“If it were possible to personify the unconscious, we might think of it as a collective human being combining the characteristics of both sexes, transcending youth and age, birth and death, and, from having at its command a human experience of one or two million years, practically immortal. If such a being existed, it would be exalted above all temporal change; the present would mean neither more nor less to it than any year in the hundredth millennium before Christ; it would be a dreamer of age-old dreams and, owing to its limitless experience, an incomparable prognosticator. It would have lived countless times over again; the life of the individual, the family, the tribe, and the nation, and it would possess a living sense of the rhythm of growth, flowering, and decay Unfortunately — or rather let us say, fortunately — this being dreams…”

God I love that quote so much.

This is the being inside you that sends you dreams.

The language of dreams are symbols.

Symbols are energy-charged images.

To unlock the messages of your dreams, you’ll need to learn how to work with symbols.

In ‘Man and his Symbols’ Jung begins the book describing the difference between a sign and a symbol. He placed it at the beginning because he knew it was the most important misunderstanding to clear up in the modern mind.

A sign is consciously created by the conscious mind to express a specific message.

Example: A stop sign is an intentional creation intended to express a specific message: stop moving.

Example: Mathematics is the greatest achievement of the language of signs.

Symbols are not signs.

Symbols are spontaneously generated energy-charged images that represent something beyond comprehension.

Signs are how the mind navigate known territory.

Symbols are how the mind attempts to contend with anomalies; with unknown territory.

A powerful example of a spontaneous symbol is the Dragon.

At some point in our evolutionary history, humanity began to notice our inescapable mortality. At some point in our evolutionary history, we discovered death.

Death as a guarantee.

How does a mind comprehend that?

Do you know what the four most common causes of death were for our ancestors that still lived in and around trees a hundred thousand years ago?

  1. Snakes
  2. Large predatory cats
  3. Birds of Prey
  4. Fire

Tens of thousands of deaths eventually produced a symbol that merged them all together; the dragon.

The dragon has the scales and length of a snake, the limbs of a predatory cat, the wings of a bird of prey, and breathes fire.

The dragon is a symbol for something beyond language.

The important point to remember:

A sign’s meaning is exhaustive, a symbol’s meaning is inexhaustive.

Signs mean one particular thing; symbols mean multiple things.

With that prelude, we can begin to explore the first step of Dream Working: Associations

Step 1: Associations

It’s assumed you have enough concentration power to remember to write your dreams down when you wake up (if you’re struggling with this, start meditating).

Step one is to write down each dream symbol that stands out to you.


I had a dream a few years ago where I was running behind a girl into a festival, then I noticed the beach to my right, and was blown away by the gorgeousness of the setting sun. As I stood in awe, I saw a body begin to rise out of the water about 300 yards from me. He was silhouetted by the sun.

It was one of the most powerful dreams I’ve had.

So, the dream symbols that stand out:

  1. The girl I’m chasing
  2. The festival I can see in the distance
  3. The sunset
  4. The body rising out of the water

Now that we have the dream symbols; we’re going to practice a type of game that actually helps heal attentional fusion.

Lemme repeat: learning to track your spontaneous associations will help heal your attentional fusion blindness.

How? Because it mimics the same technique the elephant path teaches.

Instead of the breath being the object of concentration, the dream symbol becomes the object of concentration.

In buddhism, when you notice your mind has wandered, you practice noticing the chain of unconscious thoughts that brought you away from the breath and into the moment of realizing your mind was wondering.

They call this noting, and it trains meta-cognition.

In dream work, the first step is to map your spontaneous associations to each dream symbol.


I bring to mind the girl I’m chasing in the dream. I see the dream image and wait to notice the first spontaneous next thought.

  • athletic and playful
  • primal desire to fuck
  • guide into a new game
  • Shame-inducing self-awareness

Here is what I did; I held the image in my mind, and then I allowed the next spontaneous thought to arise then wrote it down.

Pay attention here;

Once I write down the first association, I bring my attention back to the symbol, and wait for the next spontaneous thought that arises.

What to avoid doing is to allow the first spontaneous thought to become the base from which the next spontaneous thought arises.


If I had allowed ‘athletic and playful’ to become the base of the next thought, my second thought might be ‘basketball,’ then after that it might be ‘I need to get new shoes.’

If you don’t bring your attention back to the dream symbol, your associations can spiral far away from the living pulse of the dream image.

If you remember to return to the dream image before each knew association, you’re doing a kind of meditation that trains your capacity to direct your attention.

Which is just an awesome byproduct of what happens when you start learning the language of your dreams.

The goal of the first step of dream work is to:

  1. write down 3 to 5 dream symbols
  2. write down 3 to 5 associations to each image
  3. note in some way the association that most surprised or triggered you
    • This tends to be the 4th or 5th association

Example: the highest charged association for me in the above example is ‘shame-inducing self-awareness.’

Once you have that, we can go to the next step…

Step 2: Discovering Your Multiplicity

One of the most uncanny revelations exploring the unconscious reveals is that you are not alone in the house of your psyche.

In fact, Jung says the ego is to the unconscious what a cork is to the ocean.

Let that sink in (pun intended).

The unconscious is huge compared to the ego.

In that ocean lives many different creatures. The class of creatures we’re going to focus on are what Jung called Complexes.

Complexes are best thought of as ‘autonomous personalities’ within you.

The popular modern term for this is ‘inner family system.’

What IFS refers to as Parts is the same as what Jung referred to as Complexes.

You have other people inside of you.

Put another way, you have fragmented coping strategies that still think they need to protect you.

Have you ever been overwhelmed with anger or sadness and later described it as ‘something came over me’ or ‘that wasn’t me, I don’t know what happened?’

Do you have addictions? Do you find yourself compelled to do, say, or consume things that you know hurt you or people you love in the long-term?

Do you find yourself at the end of the day lamenting how you spent your day; that somehow you didn’t do anything you intended to do?

These are examples of Complexes seizing the Attentional System and using it to fulfill their desires.

The second step of dream work is to ask yourself; “what part of me does this dream symbol represent?”

Ask this question begins to reveal the complexes that lurk in the unconscious waters.

Let’s go over a quick list of dream working rules to help make this more clear:

Some Dream Guidelines:

  • Dreams are attempts by the unconscious to communicate with you
  • Dreams are not literal, they are symbolic.
  • No dream is too little, if you take the effort to listen to it, it has something for you
    • aka: your unconscious isn’t wasting your time
  • You have many different personalities in you and they will populate your dreams as people, animals, insects, weather events, or monsters.
  • Each part has it’s own ‘center of consciousness’ that is, they are autonomous
    • desires
    • values
    • point of view
  • The Psyche is androgynous - composed of masculine and feminine qualities
    • the opposite gender in dreams tends to represent energies furthest from our ego
    • the most important opposite gender image is the psychopomp, the inner guide (anima/animus)
  • Every dream is made of a series of images
  • Dreams don’t have a single exclusive meaning (they are symbols)

The guideline we’re going to focus on in this section is that every character in your dream represents some complex or part inside of you.

Do you have dreams of being chased? That which is chasing you is a part of you.

Do you have dreams where someone is hurt, injured, or sick? That which is sick in the dream is a part of you.

Do you have dreams where you kill or injury someone? That which you killed is a part of you.

Step two of dream working is to have the discipline to not project your dream onto other people or the external world. The gold of the dream comes when you ask yourself ‘what part of me does this represent.’

When we ask this question, we continue to practice the technique we used in the first step: notice the first spontaneous thought that arises.

Do this until you get 3 to 5 possible answers.

What people normally experience when they do this is that one of the answers ‘clicks.’

This ‘clicking’ sensation is gnosis. It is the instantaneous somatic feeling of ‘this is true.’

The answer that clicks is almost always the answer that is most surprising and most uncomfortable.

Maybe you discover that the thing chasing you in your dream is actually the part of you that is telling you it is time to end your marriage. The reason his part feels like a monster is because your current ego structure views this voice as the heralder of the death of your life.

“What will my mom say?”

“What will my friends think?”

“How will I support myself?”

“Divorce is a sin, I can’t do that.”

I had a dream recently that clearly conveyed to me that I have an immature childish part that exaggerates to get attention.

That’s an uncomfortable truth to accept; but the only way to integrate it is to notice it.

One of Carl Jung’s most powerful lines sums up step 2:

Until the unconscious is made conscious, it will control your life and you will call it fate.

Step 2 is complete when you have identified the parts of you that the dream symbols represent.

Step 3: The Interpretation

Dream Dictionaries are bullshit.

Googling “what does it mean when my teeth fall out in a dream?” is a waste of time.

Jung writes:

“It is plain foolishness to believe in ready-made, systematic guides to dream interpretation, as if one could simply reference a book and look up a particular symbol. No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it…Each individual varies so much in the way that his unconscious contemplates or compensates his conscious mind that it is impossible to be sure how far dreams and their symbols can be classified at all… It is true that there are dream motifs that are typical and often occur…But I must stress again that these are motifs that must be considered in the context of the dream itself, not as self-explanatory ciphers.”

The being inside of you that creates your dreams uses symbols specifically for you. There are archetypes and common motifs shared both universally and culturally, but looking to dream dictionaries robs you of cultivating a personal living relationship with your symbols.

The interpretation is naturally arise when you put in the work step 1 and 2 ask of you.


My first recurring nightmare was me sitting in the passenger seat of a car driving up a mountain road. I look over to the driver seat expecting to see my dad, but there is no one there. I wake with dread in my gut.

After tracking my associations and asking what parts of me they represent; the message of the dream forms in my awareness.

My parents had gotten divorced and my dad had moved out.

My psyche was reflecting to me that we were now without guidance. That I needed to accept the absence of my father to begin the process of steering my own life.

Some guidelines on interpretations:

  1. Hold them lightly
  2. Resist projecting; the message of the dream is for you, not about others
  3. Your dreamer is paying attention to your interpretation, if it’s meaningfully wrong, you will get following dreams that will correct you; so you can trust it’s okay to ‘get it wrong.’
  4. Notice if the interpretation is inflationary or ‘mean-spirited.’ Your unconscious will not inflate your ego or punish you. That is not how it works.
  5. If the interpretation didn’t surprise you, that is to say, if you didn’t learn something you didn’t already know, you’re missing some gold from the dream

This last point is the main point:

The message contained in your dream will almost always reveal something surprising and uncomfortable. That is the gold.

The Final Step: The Ritual

This is the part that I didn’t start doing until I read Robert Johnson’s incredible book “Inner Work.”

Once you complete step 1, 2, and 3; the final step is to ask yourself:

What can I do to show my unconscious that I am listening?

This step requires a physical act.

Maybe it’s as simple as paying the bills you’ve been ignoring or having a clearing conversation with a friend that you’ve been avoiding.

But it may be a symbolic act.

Examples from Inner Work:

People sometimes dream they need to be more aware of their feeling side, their feeling values. For such a dream you could make a ritual of spenfing one evening doing something that has deep value, that feels important and uplifting, but for which you never ‘have time.’

Maybe your dream tells you that you spend too much time working. You could honor the dream by scheduling a stay-cation where you find a local nature spot and spend the day there.

When dreaming in your ritual; remember KISSS

Keep It Subtle, Small, and Solitary

“People are often surprised to learn that the most powerful rituals are the small ones, the subtle ones. It is not necessary to do big things or expensive things. Keep your physical rituals small and subtle, and they will be more powerful. It is also not a good idea to try to make a ritual out of talking about your dream or trying to explain it to people. Talking tends to put the whole experience back on an abstract level.The best rituals are physical, solitary, and solent: These are the ones that register most deeply with the unconscious.” -Robert Johnson

Avoid the impulse to make grand plans or gestures in response to your dreams. This is the art of subtly and keeping it small.

Avoid the impulse to bring other people into your ritual (if you have a dream your partner cheated on you, it is not appropriate to tell them you’re doing a dream ritual and the dream told you that you need to check their phone.).

Keep it solitary. Your dreams are for you.

I want to share a story from Inner Work that stunningly captures the magic of this fourth step.

Dream: ‘In The Monastery’

The following is a dream one of Robert Johnson’s clients had.

I am in a monastic cloister, in a room or cell attached to the chapel. I am seperated from the people and the rest of the chapel by a grille. Mass begins. I participate alone in my cell. I sit crossed legs, zazen style, but holding a rosary. I hear the murmurs of the responses through the grille. The voices are tranquil. I close my eyes and I too receive communion, although no one and nothing physical enters my cell. The mass finishes. I become aware of flowers blooming at the side of my chamber. I feel a deep serenity.

She decided to go pick the kind of flowers that were in her dream, drive to the ocean, and offer them to the water as a kind of ceremonial offering.

When she got back from the ocean, she found a friend was waiting at her house to see her. They hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and decided to aimlessly drive around and catch up.

A few blocks into the drive she noticed a monastery. Her friend happened to be one of the few local people that had a key to the gate of the monastery. They stopped and went in.

The moment the dreamer walked into the monastery she was floored. Everything was exactly as it had been in her dream. She found the room she was in in her dream, found her spot, and sat down legs crossed.

She was filled with all the mana and magic of the dream coupled with a sense of profound awe at the mystery.

She ended up becoming a regular at the monastery, meditating there frequently.

She had been struggling for years with her tension between her childhood Catholicism and her current pull towards Buddhism.

This dream brought the resolution of this tension.

What Does The Unconscious Want?

It seems to be the case that each of our unconsciouses want the same thing for us.

Whatever is the force inside the acorn that desires for it to grow into an Oak is the force inside us that dreams our dreams.

This force knows what you are. It knows that the vast majority of what you are is currently stuck in the unconscious. It’s desire is for you to bring all the parts of you into the conscious mind, and learn to integrate these pieces into a harmonic symphony.

This fullness of who we are is our dharma.

It is the oak we are meant to become.

We live is a beautiful broken world that needs more dharma.

The most important task you can accept is the task of making your unconscious conscious; and then pointing the fullness of your individuated soul towards helping improve this world and build a future we’d be proud to give to our great-great-great grandchildren.

Step 0: Remember your dreams (and write them down in the first person)

Step 1: Map The Associations

Step 2: Claim The Parts

Step 3: Receive The Interpretation

Step 4: Do The Ritual

Putting It All Together

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