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Dear Melissa,

During the last few years I always have dreams involving animals and/or water. The most frequently appearing animal in my dreams is a whale. A couple of times I dreamt of a whale calling me or trying to get me to swim with it into open waters. I was always curious about these dreams because they also involve a strong sense of the environment — mostly it is unrealistic, underwater, or the atmospheric conditions are changing really fast. 

Could you help me decode the meaning of these dreams?

All the best,


Dear R,

This dream is after my own heart, as the first dream I ever wrote down was a whale dream. I was 13 years old, and I dreamt I gave birth to a baby whale. The dream also took place underwater, and I had to protect the whale from scientists trying to capture it. This dream has now lived with me over 20 years and continues to be a source of curiosity and wonder for me today.

Whales are the largest creatures to have ever lived on earth,

they even surpass dinosaurs! Pretty special to have a whale dream, huh? Some whales are as long as three school busses, and weigh up to 400,000 pounds. In our archetypal imagination, whales are the “dragons” of the deep and convey innate fears of being swallowed by the depths. The deep sea, with its expansive darkness and bizarre life forms, mystifies us much like outer space, and whales are like magnificent aliens. However  they are more like us than they may seem! Surprisingly, whales can’t breathe underwater; they breathe air like us and surface every few minutes to take a breath. We also share certain brain neurons that link to play, compassion, self-awareness, and linguistic expression, yet whales evolved over 15 million years earlier than humans.[1] How might this reflect an internal dimension that’s both foreign and ancient, yet it wants to swim with you?

It also feels, both in your whale dream and mine, like we’re in a uterine environment. If you’ve ever listened to whale sounds you get a feeling like you’re back in your mother’s womb. There’s an abundance of whale song audio out there to help with falling asleep, as the sounds transport us back to that muffled, vibrational, oceanic womb environment, which has a very soothing effect. However, your dream depicts the underwater womb environment as not so soothing, but instead in “atmospheric conditions that are changing really fast.” Maybe this conjures up associations about your circumstances, current or past, but being the therapy-nerd that I am, I’d probably ask my mother about her pregnancy with me to see if I could get any clues into my experience in her womb. Also, swimming too close to shore to catch prey is a huge threat to a whale’s survival (if they get stuck in too shallow of water), so it’s very important a whale stays in the open water. Might the whale in your dream be warning you about getting too close to the “shore” and you need to go back out into freer territory?

Unlike methods of dreamwork that have to do with unmasking the “real” meaning behind a dream, James Hillman, father of Archetypal psychology and critic of modern psychology, approaches dreamwork from a phenomenological perspective rather than an interpretive one. In other words, we would watch the phenomenon of the whale in your dream instead of unmask what the whale “really” means. One way to do this is by asking descriptive questions. What’s the whale up to? What does it want? Can you describe the environment? So what this approach does is keep the whale alive instead of translating it into a concept. Regarding a patient’s dream about a black snake, Hillman famously wrote:


The moment you’ve defined the snake, interpreted it, you’ve lost the snake, you’ve stopped it and the person leaves the hour with a concept about my repressed sexuality or my cold black passions … and you’ve lost the snake. The task of analysis is to keep the snake there, the black snake…see, the black snake’s no longer necessary the moment it’s been interpreted. [2]

You can think of this approach to dreamwork akin to a psychic environmentalist, aiming to keep the natural landscape intact instead of uprooting it or turning it into something else. Once we say the whale is a stand-in for something else about you, we turned the whale into an intellectual concept and lost touch with something more animal and alive in the psyche.

You already provided a really nice description to get us started thinking in this vein. The whale calls to you and wants to swim with you in the open water. So if we just stick to this image, you are living with a whale who calls to you and wants to swim with you. What’s that like for you? Are you rejecting it? Do you feel a sense of obligation or maybe confusion? And what does that remind you of? The goal in this approach is to stay very close to the image and the sensations, feelings, and reveries that occur to you in relation to it.

While the point here is subtle, you can hear (I hope) the shift in attitude toward a dream as less something containing a secret meaning and more as a phenomenon that can be studied and observed. As I’ve lived with my own whale dream, it’s meaning continues to come alive as I’ve grown and matured. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’m paying more attention to the protective, maternal dimension of the dream. In my 20s I connected with the whale as a precious gift I must cultivate that has to do with my path in life, whereas in my angsty, artsy teenage years, I was more focused on running away from “the scientists,” or my fantasy of “normal” people who didn’t understand me and my creativity.

Overall my hope is that readers feel as though the repertoire of ways to hold a dream continues to expand. It’s not about picking one method of interpretation over another, but becoming multilingual in dreamwork, allowing the dream to inform you of a way it’s asking to be understood. Sometimes it can feel like the dream is speaking a language where it’s “meaning” is hiding in plain sight. A whale is asking you to swim with it in open water, and the underwater atmosphere is changing really fast. In this regard, the dream is painting a portrait for you of the conditions in the inner world, yet this has no bearing on what you decide to do about this. Perhaps the growth occurs not by interpreting the dream correctly, but by giving the dream image our quiet, observant attention and swimming in its water.

[1] The book of symbols: archetypal reflections in word and image. (2010). Koln: Taschen.

[2] Hillman, J., & Moore, T. (1989). A blue fire: Selected writings. New York: Harper & Row.

*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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