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While I don’t have one specific dream in mind, something that I have noticed repeatedly about my dreams over the past 15 years is that very often while I’m dreaming I find myself in a place I recognize and seem to recall memories from, yet when I wake up the place in my dream is neither anywhere I’ve been, or have even dreamed about before. The places are as varied as a rural road in the pines to a castle filled with golden canals to strange dark labyrinths of houses. Do you think I have in fact dreamed about these places before and then forgotten, or does my mind somehow generate memories for fictional places?


Dear J,

I’d be doing you a disservice if I actually replied with a yes or no to your question — that, yes, you did in fact dream of those places before but forgot, or, no, you’re not generating memories of fictional places. Be wary of anyone who claims to know the answer to these mystifying questions! You describe this beautiful weaving of a past resonance in a current dreamscape, as if you’re having a memory you never knew you forgot. This quality in and of itself sounds so rich and alive, let’s linger there.

As I reflect on your experience of dreamscapes never dreamt before yet still familiar, I associate to Romantic poet John Keats and his concept of negative capability, that is, “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (1817). Keats wrote about this in a private letter to his brothers, and described how this quality is essential to supreme creative achievement. Carl Jung, also influenced by the Romantic poets, held a stance of negative capability in his approach to dream analysis. When presented

with a dream, he was famous for saying, “I have no idea what it means.” Here he was, the famous dream expert, completely humbled and confused in the face of a dream. This is not unlike a Zen Buddhist master who has no answers, teaching the pupil a lesson about the questions themselves.

On the topic of memories, the telling of a dream is already twice removed from the original source. First we have the dream experience itself, then we wake up and remember it, then if we tell it to someone or write it down, we’re transcribing the memory of the experience. Dreams are always only ever known as memories, and further still, the dream itself is an unconscious working through of the past taking place in the present. We may dream that our boss scolded us for not turning in work on time, which perhaps has something to do both with your current boss, but perhaps also with an old shame or fear of punishment. Yet dreaming about this may also facilitate a kind of “downloading” to help bring release from this old feeling and leave us better prepared for future conflicts. Thus dreams are always taking place both right now and without time.

I say all of this just to pause and revel in the landscape of the dream itself, and how within a single dream the resonance of past, present and future are held in total. This feeling you get in your dreams of “I’ve been here before,” is probably because you have, just not literally in that concrete place. What does this “been here before” feeling bring up for you? How does it have to do with your past, and how does it leave you longing for something for your future? Can you make space for “I’ve been here before,” the sense and texture of that reverie, to be the “meaning” of this recurring dream theme? Try on having no idea why this happens, and, as another of my favorite poets famously wrote in yet another private letter:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

                                                              – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903

*DISCLAIMER: Dreamwork is a collaborative process that relies entirely on the associations of the dreamer to create a dream meaning. Without the dreamer’s input, I can only describe my personal associations and amplify the dream images as they exist symbolically on a cultural level.

See original post on the Free People blog here

Illustration by Erica Prince

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