Our unconscious hides living water, spirit that has become nature, and that is why it is disturbed … [it is] a secret unrest that gnaws at the root of our being.
The living water hidden in the unconscious, is also the living water in dreams. It is the same water of which Jesus spoke: “unless a man be born of water, he will not see the kingdom of God” and “whoever drinks the water from me will never know thirst.” The kingdom of god and the everlasting well of water – both are within us, one an infinite vision of life, the other an eternal source of healing.
The secret unrest gnawing at the root of our being is experienced as suffering, the symptoms of which are anxiety, depression, fear, and meaninglessness. Dreams express something unknown to the conscious mind, lending insight into those unconscious disturbances which influence our conscious lives. In the psychology of C.G. Jung, dreams are emissaries of that disturbed unconscious, bearing messages of healing and guidance for those who suffer.
Water is a profound symbol with many mythological associations, and when it appears in our dreams, water can have many different meanings. The meaning of water in your dreams and the living message of its symbolism for your life depends entirely on the context of your dream and whatever is happening in your life at the time of the dream. This is why dream dictionaries are ineffectual when it comes to a real analysis of your dreams. Keep this in mind as you read the post. Don’t look for your particular dream because you won’t find it. Look instead for similar motifs. I want you to learn how to work with symbolic images.
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The Essence of Water in Dreams
We can distill the essence of water in dreams to some elemental motifs. As an undifferentiated mass, water is symbolic of primeval beginnings and the mother matrix of all potential. Bathing in your dreams can be an image for psychological redemption or rebirth. When water appears in the form of a killer tidal wave or a deadly tempest, then it can be symbolic of destructive, unconscious forces of life drowning out all of our current standards for harmony and order – meaning a total destruction of our worldview, which is not always a bad thing.
Looking at Water in Dreams Symbolically
Whenever you’re working with the image of water in dreams, you have to remember that the dream is symbolic, not literal. That means everything in the dream is an image for an unconscious aspect of something happening in your life at the moment. You don’t see it yet and that is why you dream about it.
The water in your dream means something specific to your unconscious psyche. Your psyche wants to convey something and when you discover that, then it gives you more information about your conscious situation.
To repeat myself, dreams do not tell you what you already know about the situation. They tell you what you do not know about the situation…
For example, a man once shared a dream that he was in water and a snake charged after him. Someone suggested that to be in water meant he was flooded by emotions. That is just not true. There was no flooding imagery in this dream. The dream only stated that the man was in water.
To be in a body of water in dreams merely means that you are in the unconscious realm of the psyche.
Simply being in water in a dream does not represent a flood of emotions. And even so, water rushing in on you would be more symbolic of a flood of unconscious emotional material, not simply emotions per se. There is a big difference between unconscious and conscious emotions and that is why understanding your dream is important.
A woman dreamed that she was standing on the shore and a giant wave washed over her. Her wedding ring slipped off her finger as the wave tossed her around in the sandy water. She almost drown trying to retrieve it.
That woman was unhappy. She was in a miserable marriage, but was afraid to admit it to herself. She assumed it was her work or her childhood, failing to understand the unconscious, secret unrest in her being. The secret cause of her unhappiness was the marriage – so the dream said something about it.
the unconscious has burst into the terra firma of consciousness like a flood. Such invasions have something uncanny about them because they are irrational and incomprehensible to the person concerned. They bring about a momentous alteration of the personality …C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Translating water in dreams
The woman above also suffered from severe anxiety, but to say this dream is about anxiety says absolutely nothing. I’m sure it’s fairly safe to say if you’re suffering from fear or anxiety that a wave in your dream would say a lot more than it’s fear or anxiety.
- We always have to ask ourselves when we have any dream “why now?”
- What does the dream tell me about myself that I do not already know?
We see what happens in the dream. She’s drowning while trying to save her marriage, the marriage symbolized by the ring. Now, you can imagine how that woman felt when asked her, “what’s up with your marriage?” It shocked her when her marriage problem appeared in the dream because she had been afraid to admit it even to herself. Up until that point, we had never discussed her marriage.
You can imagine what happened next. It was that flood of emotions to which Jung refers in the quote, and eventually, the momentous alteration of her personality.
Symbolic Associations of Water
Whenever you are working with water in dreams, you can always amplify water symbolism based on some mythological associations. Remember that you are looking for symbolic connections to water, that is, the meanings with which water has been associated throughout the history of human beings.
Some archetypal connections with water:
- maternal significance of water
- water as the source of life/primeval beginnings
- water as the prima materia
- dissolution and water
- water as life force
- the moon and the waters
- rebirth in water
- water and redemption
- cleansing or purification properties of water
- water as emotions
- night sea journey
- ritual bathing
Bodies of Water in Dreams
There are several things to consider when we see bodies water in dreams, for example:
- What kind of body of water is it? (lake, ocean, pond, river, pool)
- Is the water clear or opaque?
- How’s the temperature? Is it hot or cold? Tepid?
- Is the water still, flowing, or stagnant?
- What is the depth: shallow or deep?
Various bodies of water have different psychological meanings. For example, if we dream of stagnant water, we have to feel our way into the qualities of that water and translate that into psychological language. Stagnation. The word alone says something in our lives is not flowing properly.
Surely everyone knows the condition of being stuck, but not always the unconscious why or where of the stuckness. Perhaps your creative flow has stagnated, and you feel dreadfully fearful that you will not get it back. Sometimes this happens when I write, especially under the pressure of a deadline. I get stuck and the words don’t flow. Hours go by and once I realize how much time I have lost, it often feels terrifying. I cannot move. William Blake said in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “expect poison from the standing water.”
During one of these phases, I once dreamed of driving my car into a foul-smelling, stagnant pond. It was a pond in town where I had grown up, a dreadful place where many people stay their whole lives in stagnation. Psychologically speaking, I was back in that place, and I needed to get out.
Remember, I drive my car into the pond and we know what that means from the dreams about cars post. The dream says, “You have driven yourself into this place.” My fearful attitude drove me into that stagnant water. To escape my creative block, I needed to move – to trust the process and do something else – anything other than sit there day after day.
In a stagnant situation, surrendering to the process is often unsettling, but at least the unsettledness is itself a kind of movement. Sometimes we must psychologically move away from a stagnant condition until the waters of life become clear again and something begins to flow.
Crossing the Great Water
Flowing water in dreams is also significant. The I-Ching speaks of “crossing the Great Water,” which is symbolic of those times in our lives when we encounter dangerous or decisive undertakings – those times in our lives where we must make a life-changing decision.
Sometimes the Great Water appears as a rushing river which one must find a way to cross. A woman in crisis had reached a point of no return in her life. In the dream, she had just avoided a plane crash by getting off the plane before it took off. She came to a river crossing where a woman washing clothes said, “Don’t worry. I will get your information to the right people,” then she pointed her to someone who would help her cross the river.
In her dream, it was not the plane, but rather its destination which was the problem. The dreamer was headed to yet another business training and certification, a business which had long since ceased to serve her life plan. However, she was desperately afraid to let it go despite the fact that it had caused her suffering.
We should take note of the “washing woman at the ford,” because she is certainly reminiscent of the Celtic figure of the washing woman or Bean Nighe who washes bloody garments at the ford of a river and turns to tell the beholder whether the clothes are hers. Apparently the dreamer got off that plane before her psychological death.
If we translate this image in the psychological language and meaning for her life, the dream says first you must stop pushing toward this old way of being in the world and something will guide you across this “dangerous passing” – symbolized by the river – and into the next phase of your life.
And just so you know, those magical helpers did indeed help her cross that river. That woman’s life opened up in ways she could have never imagined.
The Sea of Life
Many creation myths begin with an image of a cosmic ocean or primordial waters. In his book Patterns in Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade begins his chapter on “Waters and Water Symbolism” with
Water, thou art the source of all things and of all existence! ” says one Indian text, summing up the long Vedic tradition. Waters are the foundations of the whole world; they are the essence of plant life, the elixir of immortality like the amrta; they ensure long life and creative energy, they are the principle of all healing, and so on. ” May the waters bring us well-being! ” the Vedic priest used to pray? “The waters are indeed healers; the waters drive away and cure all illnesses!”
Sometimes we dream of vast bodies of water, such as an ocean or a sea. “New life springs from the mysterious watery realm, analogous to the womb’s amniotic fluid,” says Maria Gimbutas in her book Living Goddesses.
In our dreams, these large bodies of Mother water can symbolize the infinite nature of pure potential or that mother matrix out of which all life emerges and to which all life eventually returns for reabsorption or transformation.
In Jungian psychology that Mother Matrix is the Unconscious, the dimension of the human psyche from which the possibility for a new, more developed conscious life emerges.
If we dream of being in an ocean or the sea, then we know that we are in that archetypal Unconscious Mother Matrix. The context of such a dream is important. Are you swimming or drowning? Are you going down into the sea or rising out of it? You also have to examine the dream in terms of your current life situation.
Water in Dreams and Drowning
For example, if you are caught up in an overwhelming situation and you dream of drowning in the waters of the sea, then it is a warning from the unconscious that you are being overwhelmed by archetypal energies.
This kind of experience is an existential crisis and it takes a specialized conscious effort to withstand that kind of onslaught. Knowing that what you are going through is not an ordinary situation, but an archetypal one is most helpful. Even a slight shift in your consciousness of the situation can be a life preserver. To dream of swimming in a sea in the same situation lets you know that you are okay, even if the problem feels so vast that you cannot see your way out. You just have to keep swimming.
When you dream of going down the waters of the sea, then again you know that you need to make a deep descent into yourself. That descent is the night-sea journey, which Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s quest” whereby we bring forth something eternally new into our lives, “something never beheld before.”
The bringing forth of something new is our resurrection, hence dreaming of rising out of the waters has the same meaning as baptism and rebirth. If we have such a dream in a time of crisis, then we know the prognosis is good and soon we will resurrect anew.
Transformations in the Soul
Sometimes, it is not our conscious ego that is transformed in the waters, but rather a deeper part of ourselves which undergoes the transformation.
For instance, I knew a woman who had projected virtually all of her creative potential into a local artist whose work she had admired. When she met him, the artist had nothing of the symbolic depth which she had imagined he would have.
She had the following dream about the artist, whom we will call Henry:
Henry left a suicide note for me. He was going to commit suicide by walking into the Pacific Ocean. The note said, “you know girl, I never knew that much anyway”. I ran to the beach, thinking I could save him. From a distance, he said, “It was you all along and now it’s time for me to go,” then he walked into the ocean and disappeared.
Henry was actually a personification of the dreamer’s own vital creative energy. As long as that energy was tied up in the projection, she could not recognize it as her own psychological value. Henry’s return to the waters meant the dissolution of her projections, thus his symbolic death. This was a turning point for the dreamer because Henry’s death meant the birth of her own creative life.
Funeral Rituals and Water in Dreams
Another woman dreamed that a former friend died. At the funeral, she saw his body floating in a clear pool of water which had been filled with flowers. It turned out that the dreamer had formally ended the friendship with this man because of his overwhelmingly negative effect on her life.
Now the dream brings her friend’s symbolic death into her consciousness, which means that some negative aspect of her own personality has also died. His death was emphasized with a sort of religious water burial, again reflecting the mythological motif of a return to water as the source of life and thus the possibility of a rebirth.
Swimming Pools in Dreams
Swimming pools are common dream images, but their water is quite different from a sea because pools are constructed by human beings.
A swimming pool in a dream shows us something about our personal unconscious, meaning something related to a personalistic causality or immediate condition, as opposed to an archetypal situation.
For example, a client dreamed that an auditor-like woman told him, “There’s too much chlorine in your pool.” Chorine is a harsh disinfecting agent and too much of it is not a good thing. No real life can exist in such a sterilized environment. Translated psychologically, this would mean something about the dreamer’s personal life is too sterile.
In fact, this man was unconsciously driven by an obsessive perfectionism, a perfectionsim in which no real life could exist. Everything had to be perfect – fatherhood, his work, his child, his martial arts – and this attitude caused him deep suffering.
My client had no idea that his hyper-sterilized attitude was not good for his soul. However, when we spoke about the symbolic meaning of too much chlorine, something clicked for him and he could recognize all the ways this attitude had actually infected his life.
Dreaming of Cold or Freezing Water
Water is also symbolic of our emotional or feeling life and the temperature of water in dreams can lend insight into problems we may have in those two dimensions.
For example, if a dream drops you in cold water, then maybe things are too hot in your emotional life. In such a case, perhaps you suffer from intense emotional outbursts or habitually find yourself in heated conversations.
If so, then a dream of being in cold water could be compensatory, telling that you should cool down before you act or speak.
Cold water in dreams could also mean the opposite of intense emotions, perhaps indicating a defect in your emotional or feeling life. For instance, a woman who was disconnected from her emotions dreamed of being in freezing cold water. Nonchalantly she said to herself, “If I stay here in this freezing water I could die, but at least it won’t be painful.”
This is a very significant dream image because this woman is dying and she has absolutely no emotional response to it. We can infer from the dream, a connection between feeling no pain and her lack of emotional life. Indeed, the dreamer was admittedly afraid of emotional pain, so she just froze it out. The dream clearly states that her cold emotional life will kill her soul if she does not address it.
We simply cannot live as human beings if we are emotionally numb. Analysis of this water dream gave her the shock she needed to address the soul killing factor of her cold, detached emotional life.
Bathing in Dreams
Now let’s look at bathing in a dream and its association with bathing rituals found in cultures all over the world. An isolated woman suffering from anxiety and depression had a dream where she stepped into a hot bath and submerged herself. An unknown man sat behind her in the bathtub. He felt like a reassuring presence. Reassurance is the important feeling to work with because the dream left her with this impression.
It is easy to dismiss this dream as meaningless but it is quite profound when we see it from an archetypal perspective. Watch how the meaning of the dream unfolds as we amplify the imagery…
Similar to baptism, immersion in water is symbolic of a dissolution of form. In this case, the form to be dissolved is her current attitude. Dissolution of form is a return to formlessness. For example, you can dissolve salt in water and the salt essentially becomes one with water. If you evaporate the water, the salt crystals re-form.
Again, we have the concept of surrendering to a process. She has to be willing to let her attitude dissolve, something which can be done when we surrender ourselves to whatever is happening in our lives.
Associations with the Alchemical Bath
What we see in this imagery of submerging into a bath is related to alchemical imagery of immersion in the bath, which has many variations such as the drowning king, the sun drowning in the mercurial fountain, or the king sweating in the glass house.
Each one of those images also refers to the dissolution of the old ways and the possibility for a new attitude or a new level of awareness.
Jung compares the symbolism of immersion in the bath to immersion in the sea, which is an image for the alchemical stage of the solutio – dissolution – or again, the possibility of a “solution to a problem.”
For Jung, this process was not simple. It was a return to the dark, initial state of the womb…
..[the symbolic womb] is the aqua benedicta, the lustral water, wherein the birth of the new being is prepared.
Jung, Collected Works vol 17, par 454
As an archetypal process, we know that after the bath comes a rebirth, that is, a resolution to a problem. So, if you are in a bad state and a dream of the bath assures you that something in your depths is changing and soon you will feel the effects.
Working archetypally with her dream, reassured my client. Finally she saw the possibility for the transformation of her dark and fearful states.
The Regenerative Significance of Water
Mircea Eliade said, “Every contact with water implies regeneration: first, because dissolution is succeeded by a new birth…” Other names for this power of water are living water, water of life, fountain of youth all of which speak of the regenerative and restorative power of water.
Remember earlier I said that water symbolizes our feeling and emotional life. Almost two years into his analysis, one of my clients dreamed he was digging for water looking for some source.
He was a dry, thinking type who had not tapped the waters of his feeling function and that emotional defect caused difficulty in his relationships.
I am digging a hole to get water from some source. Finally, I succeed and water starts to come out of the hole. I can put a closure on it. Next, we (my family) are sitting at a table nearby. I show my container of the water to everybody. I am proud of myself.
My client is digging for water from some Source and he quite proudly strikes it. We know that the source is psyche, the source of our conscious life. As Jung says, “… our psychological energy, is expressed by water.”
Really the flowing water symbolizes released, psychical energy … it comes from nothing outside, but from what we call the unconscious, namely, from an unknown place [within us] with which we are eternally in contact.
As my client awoke from this dream, he heard a Voice from from within say, “Everything is going to be okay.” He said to me, “Somehow, after this dream, I feel lighter. Can this be … my feelings flowing?”
After this dream, his primary relationships changed, and it just happened naturally. In his case, he had not consciously changed himself, but rather his consciousness was changed by contact with the Living Water within. My client lived a life of rigidity, rules, and obligations which conventionality superimposed on him. He is an example of what happens when we really tap that Source of living water within and align ourselves with an inner something which is beyond the ego.
Want to learn more about working with dreams or Jungian Psychology?
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