As with any dream symbol, there is no one meaning of water in dreams. As an undifferentiated mass, water is symbolic of primeval beginnings and the potential of all possibility. Imbibed as an elixir, water in dreams can be healing or poisoning. Bathing in your dreams can be symbolic of redemption or rebirth. When water in dreams appears in the form of a killer tidal wave or a deadly tempest, then it’s possibly symbolic of the destructive, yet vitally necessary, forces of life. From the beginning, water existed as the principle element out of which all life came, and at the end of every mythological cycle, it returns as a force of destruction.
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 this. Don’t look for your particular dream. Look instead for similar motifs. I want you to learn how to work with symbolic images.
Water in Dreams: Symbolic Associations for Amplification
Let’s say you dream of yourself treading water in an ocean. Large, undifferentiated bodies of water can symbolize the infinite nature of potential or the mother matrix out of which all life emerges and to which all life eventually returns for reabsorption or transformation. Think about what it would mean to be in the mother matrix of potential. If you are in a state of transition in your life, then this dream could symbolize that you are in an archetypal moment of transition.
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 immortality4 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 !”
Now let’s switch gears. As a symbol of psychic energy or life force, we can say that flowing water in dreams is an animating principle of life. In this sense, think about how your feel after a shower or a bath, especially if you have had a difficult day. Or consider what happens when you give water to a withering plant; it springs back to life.
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
- source of life/primeval beginnings
- prima materia
- life force
- the moon
- cleansing or purification
- night sea journey
- ritual bathing
You can look up any of these symbolic associations to help you amplify the archetypal meaning of water in your dreams. For example, let’s look at bathing in a dream. A woman suffering from anxiety and depression shared 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 to her. That is an important feeling to work with.
The importance of amplification of dream symbols
Now, it’s easy to pass off this kind of dream imagery as meaningless, but in truth, it’s quite profound imagery when you see it from the archetypal perspective. Immersion in water is symbolic of a dissolution of form – a return to formlessness. For example, you can dissolve salt in water and it becomes one with it. Once you evaporate the water, the salt crystals are re-formed.
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 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 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
When my client and I spoke about her dream imagery in this archetypal way, it gave her a sense of relief. She could see the possibility of the transformation of her dark and fearful states. As an archetypal process, we know that after the bath comes some sort of resolution. If you are in a bad state and have a dream like this one, which many people do, you can be assured that something in your depths is already changing.
I have already said a lot about the symbolism of the bath here.
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, as we saw in the submergence in the bath dream above.
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.
Different Bodies of Water in Dreams
Different bodies of water in dreams also have different meanings. For example, a swimming pool in your dream would likely be an image for matters about your personal unconscious. Personal unconscious material is something from your biography.
In another example, a client dreamed that an auditor-like woman told him, “there’s too much chlorine in your pool.” This was a man with a too-pure conscious attitude and he suffered because of it. For him, everything had to be perfect: his job, his kid, his martial arts. No life could exist in that kind of purity. He had no idea that his attitude was not good for his soul. Just that one dream image was enough to change his attitude.
On the other hand, if you dream that you are in the depths of the ocean then you are in the collective unconscious, a dimension of the psyche that is very different than your personal unconscious.
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?
- Is it shallow or deep?
For example, if you dream of stagnant water or mucky water then we’re probably looking at a situation of stagnation somewhere in your life. In most cases, we know when we are stuck, so your dream won’t simply restate that psychological fact. The key is to figure out where you are stuck, not simply that you are stuck. By that I mean the water in your dream could point to the way you think or a stagnant quality in your relationships or in your emotional life.
Again, this kind of dream would show up to tell you something that you are not aware of. Maybe you are clinging to something or waiting for something to happen that’s actually never going to happen. If so, the stagnant water in your dream would say, “You’re stuck and you have to get out this mindset.”
Perhaps your creativity is stagnating, but you refuse to accept that stagnation is sometimes part of the creative process.
This happens to me when I am writing, especially if I have deadline. Sometimes I get stuck and the writing will not flow, yet I refuse to leave my desk, thinking that I have to push myself harder. Now, if I dream of being in stagnant water, then I have to recognize that my attitude causes the problem with my creativity.
Do you see what I mean here? Many people might say, the dream symbolizes that your creativity is blocked. That’s not it. I already know that my creativity is blocked because I am suffering the psychological effects of that blockage. I have to stop pushing and do something else – like take a walk in the forest or work in my garden – until the creativity begins to flow again.
Immersion in the Water
If your dream drops you in cold water, then maybe things are getting too hot in your emotional life. In that case, do you suffer emotional outbursts? Do you habitually get yourself into heated conversations with people? If so, then maybe you need to cool down before you act or speak.
Or such a dream could also mean the opposite. Maybe you aren’t emotional enough. For instance, a woman who was disconnected from her emotional life dreamed of being in freezing water. She nonchalantly said to herself, “if I stay here in this freezing, I could die.”
This is a very significant dream image! The dream clearly states that her cold emotional life will kill her soul if she does not address it. We cannot live as human beings if we are emotionally numb.
Another 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 in a miserable marriage, but was afraid to admit it to herself – 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 stream tell me about myself that I do not already know?
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 really discussed her marriage.
The Regenerative Significance of Water
Water can also be symbolic of purification, redemption, fertility, or rebirth as we see in the myriad water ceremonies all over the world.
Mircea Eliade says, “every contact with water implies regeneration: first, because dissolution is succeeded by a new birth, and then because because immersion fertilizes, increases the potential of life and of creation.” Just think about the Christian baptismal ritual as an example. One steps out of the water, reborn.
Other names for the power of water are living water, water of life, fountain of youth all of which speak of the regenerative and restorative power of water.
Almost two years into his analysis, one of my clients dreamed he was digging for water looking for some source. This client in particular had a mother complex and also he had not yet tapped his feeling function. Both of these issues caused him 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, in the vineyard, me, my sister, my father and some cousins. 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 life. As Jung says in the seminar recorded in Dream Symbols of the Individuation Process, “our energy, our psychological energy, is expressed by water.”
Really the flowing water symbolizes released, psychical energy. When the water flows from the mother, however, the source of life is unconscious. We do not know where it comes from; we do not know the source. If it comes from the anima, we know that the flow, the well of our life, comes from the unconscious, and that it does not come from altar, church, or creed. It comes from nothing outside, but from what we call the unconscious, namely, from an unknown place with which we are eternally in contact.
As my client awoke from this dream, he said he heard something 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?”
I was profoundly touched by this session with my client because when we really tap that inner Source, we align ourselves with an inner something which is beyond the ego and beyond conventionality. That inner Source opened up to him and it was miraculous. My client had lived a life of rigidity, rules, and obligations, all of which were imposed on him, both from within and without. When we spoke about this dream, he even said to me, “I tap the Source, which I know is within me.”
After this dream, all of his primary relationships started to change and it happened naturally. Both his daughter and his son started calling and visiting him more often. When he entered analysis, he and his wife were separated and not long after this dream, they reunited. Again, in his case, it was not that he consciously changed himself, but that his consciousness was changed by his making contact with the Source of the Water within.
These are just a few examples of how water could appear in your dreams. As I always say, don’t look for exact replicas of your dreams. Watch for common motifs.
Want to learn more about working with dreams or Jungian Psychology?
- Water in Dreams from a Jungian Perspective - October 9, 2021
- The symbolic meaning of seeing someone pregnant in a dream - March 20, 2021
- Dreams About Being Chased:Stop Running, Let It Come, and Be Transformed - March 7, 2021
Share this Post