A dream in which three rivers meet.
One about two identical pools, side by side.
A dream of fire flaring out an attic window.
A yellow zucchini flower being pulled out of rotting skin.
These images, shared with me in my Chinese medicine clinic, were rich with information about health, disease, and where to turn for healing.
Dreams, like poetry and classic myths, communicate through metaphor and story. Like a basket laden with fruit, some easy to grab from the top and some tucked deeper inside, each metaphor comes to us bearing a bountiful collection of meanings. Unfettered by literalism, they can refer to many subjects at once, our psychology, issues within our community, and our physical health among them. I find truth in what Jeremy Taylor taught: every single dream comes in the service of our health and wholeness.
I don't look to dreams to identify illness (although sometimes that happens). I look to them to find good questions, to be prompted about how to get into better balance. Dreams are strikingly eloquent about the core questions of an acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine treatment: Where is there stuckness? Where is there flow? What's missing? What is there too much of? Where is there cooperation, where support, where over-control? Where are the strongest resources?
My patients and clients often seem to know which dreams relate most to their health, and they'll bring those to share with me. Sometimes the connection is not obvious, though, so I have these five signals that suggest a dream might relate to physical health. Before I share the list, though, I must say two things.
First, dreams are mysterious. Engaging with dreams seems to offer the most when you are willing to be in mystery, and to say with relish, “I don't know.” To attempt to riddle them out, assign concrete meaning, or do a dream-dictionary style this-means-that translation is, in my experience, a great disservice to the wild richness of the world of dreams.
And secondly, only the dreamer knows the true meaning of his or her dream. If what someone else says about your dream falls flat for you, let it go. But if you are struck by a sense of resonance, an “Oh! That's it!” feeling, or maybe even a fierce sense of disagreement – then that might be worth exploring.
Those two things being said, here are five cues that can invite you to explore a dream in the context of physical health:
1. Characters you associate with illness, healing, or medicine.
Dreams are often peopled with characters from our lives: those we are most intimate with, those we barely know, those we haven't seen or thought of in years. As you bring to consciousness your associations with any particular character in a dream, if you hear yourself talking about their illness, their healing, their injury, their work in the medical field, or other things related to health, then perhaps consider your own.
Whenever a dream has a vivid depiction of the flesh, like the dream I mentioned above of the zucchini flower, I open up questions about the physical body. The dream might show the dreamer's flesh, or the flesh of another character, or animal flesh, or maybe meat.
In Chinese medicine, we look at the body as a landscape. Distinct landscapes, like the two pools or the three rivers that I mentioned above, often mirror a place in the body. When there is a very physical engagement with the dream landscape, like digging deep into soft earth, or getting into a pool that's cold but avoiding a pool that's hot, I am even more likely to think about the body.
4. Houses & Vehicles:
Houses are the spaces in which we live, and vehicles are the physical vessels in (or on) which we move. Imagine a dream of opening up the walls of a house to replace all the pipes, or driving in a car that you suddenly realize has bald tires. Imagine how these might relate to the inner and outer workings of a physical body.
5. Embodied sensation:
I find this to be one of the most important ways to not only recognize a dream's relevance to the body but also to work with that dream in a healing way. When you re-experience a dream or reflect on it, take note of where you feel sensations in your body. Does a part of you that has pain or other symptoms “light up” as you explore the dream? If so, insight into healing the issue may await you in that dream.
If you have already worked with your own dreams for some time, may this give you something to enrich your practice. If working with your dreams is new to you, I encourage you to start writing down your dreams and engaging in conversation with them. With dreamwork, the insights we can help each other toward are usually quite different from what we can find working alone. I cherish my time with my own dream group, which meets regularly every winter, when the garden and tourist seasons are done and we all turn a bit more inward. If you want to dive deep, I invite you to form a dream group of your own, or to reach out to someone experienced in working with dreams one-on-one.