Joseph Campbell, perhaps the world’s best known navigator of mythology and dream spaces, famously said that “Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths.” You can extend this idea to understand why there are so many symbols and themes that frequently appear in dreams. Dreams, like myths of creation and becoming, often feature archetypal themes and imagery — symbols so common across all cultures that Carl Jung proposed they belong to a collective unconscious shared by all humans. Understanding these symbols as a visual language opens the world of the dream and what it seeks to communicate. Check out these 11 most common dreams and what they might mean or allude to and see if any sound familiar to you.
1. Being Chased
In a study of more than 1,000 college students, researchers found that being chased was not only the most common theme among them — with about 60 percent reporting dreams of being chased — but it was also the one that most remember as their earliest dream. When we consider the symbolic meaning of being chased, it could suggest that something is trying to catch up with you. Often it’s related to how you’re feeling about some difficult part of your life that you’d prefer to avoid: perhaps an unrecognized trauma, a stressful event, or something you fear. According to Jung’s theories, the “monster” chasing you could be an aspect of yourself that you’re trying to deny. In Dream Tending, there’s one sure way to learn what it is and start taking steps to resolve it: stop running and engage your dream chaser so you can interact with it and discover “who’s visiting now.” Then it becomes possible to make a more generative and peaceful relationship.
There are two very distinct types of falling dreams. The most common one is the terrifying plunge — off the edge of a cliff, or the floor falling out from under you. This type of dream often references a loss of control you’re feeling somewhere in waking life. It could also signal a loss of support or a metaphorical warning that your conscious ego needs to come back down to earth. In his book, Man and His Symbols, Jung specifically notes dreams of falling and flying as warnings. When we get carried away by inflated feelings of self-importance, the dreaming mind might signal that we are headed for a fall. Sometimes a dream will also represent a pun as an image. Consider the ways that falling appears in our figures of speech: falling in love, or falling from grace, for example. In the other type of falling dream, you’re not so much falling as floating, drifting slowly downward. Unlike the out-of-control plunge, a dream of falling in slow motion can express releasing anxiety and fears, or letting go of your need to control things around you, “falling into another realm.” When you practice Dream Tending, falling becomes a living image that has something important to communicate. By tending the image, the initial feeling of terror can transform into new possibilities.
Dreams of flying were the second most common type of dream reported by the college students in the study above. Throughout history, humans have imagined being able to soar and fly with the birds above. These dreams are often about independence and freedom, but they also can suggest having a “birds-eye view” of the world. In his conversations with Bill Moyers, Campbell touched on one of the most famous myths about men flying — the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. He notes that it’s often seen as a cautionary tale about hubris. Icarus flew too close to the sun and perished. Thus, Jung cautions that dreams of flying at times offer warnings from your shadow self that you’re flying too high and risking a fall.
When you dream of death, dying or dead people, notice how you feel in your dream. While many people fear that their dreams predict a literal death, another approach would suggest that you’re dreaming about an aspect of yourself. Death represents the end of something, both personally and culturally, and moving on to something new. Often, when you dream of someone dying, it’s valuable to consider what that person represents to you, what part of yourself you fear losing or what aspect of yourself or in culture is coming to an end and preparing for a new beginning.
5. Being Naked
You’re walking down the street and suddenly realize that you’re naked, or topless, or you’ve forgotten your pants. Dreams of being naked in public often leave you feeling embarrassed, humiliated and exposed. They can mean that you’re feeling vulnerable, or you’re afraid that others see through your “clothes” to the real you within. On the other hand, dreams of being naked could suggest that you have nothing to hide, that you have the self-confidence to let the world see you as you are. Dream Tending can help you move beyond the “universal” interpretations of dream symbols to learn how, as Campbell suggests, you’ve personalized the myth to suit the message you need to hear.
Water in a dream often has something important to communicate, just as it does in waking life. Consider the various ways we interact with water: We depend on water for life, our emotions flow through our tears, we are carried in water before we’re born, some religious traditions use water in rituals of initiation and purification. In a dream, water can appear in many forms, each having a particular meaning. It might signify a tidal wave of emotion, or being immersed in your deeper feelings, or your own soul recognizing a fresh start, or perhaps a place where your waking life is stagnant. Dream Tending teaches you to become curious about the particular details of the water that you encounter in order to connect with what is uniquely true for you and this image.
When you have sex with someone in a dream, it could mean you harbor a secret desire for them, but it’s not always the case. Remember that Jung believed people in dreams often represent parts of ourselves. When you dream you’re having sex with a particular person — a person of authority, say, or a celebrity — it could mean they possess a quality that you’d like to integrate into your own personality. Sometimes we are shocked to find a dream places us in a sexual situation with someone we would never choose as a partner in waking life. In such dreams, consider the role of the shadow, that part of your own nature that you are unable to embrace or integrate as a part of who you are. In Dream Tending you might reflect on what the “dream lover,” as a figure of imagination, represents to you or to others. What does this intimate connection offer as something new to tend to in waking life?
8. Finding Money or Valuables
By now, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that money and jewelry probably represent something else in your dreams, and most likely, they represent something of potential value to the soul. Dreams about finding money or treasure chests of jewelry hidden away suggest discovering valuable things in yourself. Did you dream you found $100 in the pocket of an old coat? Consider which talents or qualities you’ve forgotten you possess. Maybe you found your grandmother’s precious pearl necklace behind the radiator. What qualities in your grandmother do you wish you had inherited? It’s quite possible they’re hiding behind the radiator, waiting for you to discover them. Our relationship to money in dreams may also hint about the circulation of life energy, both personally and culturally.
In dreams, houses and buildings often represent our bodies or our selves, so when you dream you’re wandering through a house, it could be that you’re actually exploring your own inner landscape. Consider the condition of the house — is it old and neglected or carefully tended? Which rooms in it are important in your dream? They could relate to qualities in yourself, emotionally and physically, that need attention. And if you dream that you’ve discovered a previously unnoticed room — a very common dream theme — you may be discovering something new about yourself.
10. Losing Teeth
Teeth are symbols of youth, strength and virility, and losing teeth is one of the most common experiences of growing old. Teeth are also a vital part of how we present ourselves to others, so they can be a symbol of our social interaction. Lost teeth make it harder to eat things you enjoy, and more difficult to speak clearly. When you dream that you’re losing teeth, you could be dreaming of losing your power, your youth or your attractiveness in the context of your social life. It could suggest a fear of growing old, or that you feel you’re having trouble communicating with others. On the other hand, losing a tooth that has been causing you pain is an enormous relief. Carl Jung saw this image as potentially beneficial. In his work, he equated losing teeth or hair as a signal of impending rebirth — your dream self is literally returning to infancy.
11. Going on a Journey
Dreams about travel are an entire category in and of themselves, but they share one thing in common — in your dream, you’re going somewhere. Your destination, your mode of travel, how prepared you are — all of these things contribute to the meaning of the dream journey. A dream of riding a bus to return to your childhood home has very different implications than a dream that you’re driving across an unfamiliar country. Explore the situation more completely to help you understand what part of your life or self you’re traveling through or towards, and why. Dream Tending encourages you to explore your journey and life purpose from a new perspective.
Common themes and symbols in dreams are both universally applicable and intimately personal. Understanding the universal meanings can help you explore your inner world and relate them to your specific situation. At the same time, Dream Tending calls attention to the life of the image as something that has come to us from beyond us with its own particular gifts and unique perspectives.
Written by Deb Powers
Deb Powers is a freelance writer who has studied and written extensively about archetypal images, dreams and metaphysical subjects. Her self-published tarot deck focuses on using tarot images and concepts for self-empowerment, problem-solving and personal growth.
Dr. Stephen Aizenstat
Stephen Aizenstat, Ph.D., is the Founder of Dream Tending, Pacifica Graduate Institute, and The Academy of Imaginal Arts and Sciences. He is a world renowned Professor of Depth Psychology, an imagination specialist and innovator. He has served as an organizational consultant to major companies, institutions, Hollywood films, and has lectured extensively in the U.S., Asia and Europe.
He is affiliated with the Earth Charter International project through the United Nations where he has spoken. Professor Aizenstat is the Chancellor Emeritus and Founding President of Pacifica Graduate Institute. He has collaborated with many notable masters in the field including Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, Marion Woodman and Robert Johnson.