The truth is, no one knows for sure. But there are a few things we do know pretty clearly from the fact that lots of people have this repeating dream.
The early dream researchers, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, asked these kinds of questions themselves. The
first thing that the common repeating dream proved to them was the existence of what they called the “unconscious.” The fact that we have no clue what this is all about is evidence that there are aspects of our inner world – our thoughts, emotions, and the stories we tell ourselves – of which we are unaware.
The next thing that these dreams tell us, as Jung recognized, was that there are parts of our psychological makeup that are universal, that is, they are shared by everyone. Jung called this the “collective unconscious,” and the common images and patterns we find there he called “archetypes.”
Jung contended that this collective layer of our psyche was deeper than our personal one. That is, there is our personal reason for having this school dream, and then there is something about this story that goes deeper than that, that gets played out in everyone.
If you explored this further, you’d find that the school dream is only one of many images and patterns that are found everywhere in all people. Once Jung and his followers got into this, they discovered these common stories showing up in myths, fairy tales, and rituals as well as dreams. Once you go deep enough, we are all cut from the same cloth.
The next thing we understand about this stuff is that dreams are symbolic. What does that mean? The symbol is different than a sign. A sign means one thing. The drawing of a man outside a bathroom only means this is the men’s room. But a symbol has endless meanings. Think of the Christian cross or Jewish star. These symbols can never be fully defined and the meanings are infinite.
The limitation of language is that words can generally only mean one thing at a time. In order to have opposite meanings one word has to follow the other. We need to say this or that. But symbols can hold opposite meanings simultanously. In the symbol language of dreams, things don’t mean this or that, they mean this and that. This is closer to reality, which our waking, conscious mind, which thinks in words, has a hard time grasping.
When we try to understand why someone acts the way they do, we usually look for the right answer. Once we come up with a story that makes sense to us, we believe the story we tell ourselves is the true one. But understanding the truth of why someone acted the way they did isn’t about right or wrong. Rather, we can always get closer to the truth through the breadth and depth of our understanding. For example, you might think your spouse is a jerk because you believe they are withholding affection from you out of spite. But if you understood that they are also protecting themselves from feelings of shame and pain, you would see them in a different light. One interpretation doesn’t preclude the other – it is all true. The same goes for the dream. The deeper you go, the more you find.
Because dreams are symbolic, every interpretation, therefore, has a grain of truth. The meaning of a dream is multi-determined.
The next thing we need to understand to penetrate this dream is another observation of Jung’s. He claimed that the psyche, or the personality, is always, in some way, out of balance. We have strengths and weaknesses of character. Some ways of orienting ourselves to the world predominate, and others are in the background. For example, some people think too much and feel too little. Some people know how to take care of everyone else, but don’t know what they need for themselves. Dreams are one way of trying to right these imbalances.
Along with this, Fritz Perls and the Gestalt psychologists recognized this thing they called “unfinished business.” Health, or wholeness, by their definition, was being able to know your needs and how to get them met. Problems, they believed, came from any interruption of that process. Needs that chronically go unmet they called unfinished business.
So let’s take all this and apply it to the school dream. On the surface we could say this is an anxiety dream, or an inadequacy dream, and to an extent this is true. But if we go deeper, we could say that this dream tells us that in some way, there is some essential, but at this point ignored, aspect of ourselves that has yet to be optimally developed. There is some unfinished business inside of us that needs to be attended to, and until we complete this “gestalt” we will have this dream over and over again. There is something we need to learn, that is, something we need to bring into our conscious awareness that keeps us stuck, that keeps us from developing that inferior aspect of ourselves, that keeps a need from being fulfilled.
The perhaps reassuring truth is that this is the human story. It is archetypal. We are not alone in this problem. This problem comes out in one way or another in all of our lives. The particular way it comes out in yours is the personal dimension of this story. It can come out as inner pain, or outward problems. Nature is our friend in this regard. Nature will use whatever tool is at its disposal to get our attention. The dream is a gentle one, should we only listen. If the tedium of that repetition doesn’t get us, it will resort to far more disturbing methods to let us know we are out of balance. You might wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, or a relationship goes sour. You might find yourself successful in all aspects of life but one, where the problems just won’t go away.
All these experiences, like the dream itself, are symbolic. They are there to tell us there is something of great, important, and deep meaning missing in our life should we only have the courage to look. That lack of courage, the tendency to avoid what may feel embarrassing or painful, is always there with the repeating dream. If you’d only not avoided what was difficult, you’d have gotten that credit and you’d be done with “school.” But you just didn’t go to that class, and you feel bad about yourself because of that.
In other words, or on another level, the dream is about shame. Shame is the feeling that goes along with the belief that there is something fundamentally, unfixably, wrong with us. We generally don’t get the “diploma” in life not because of a lack of aptitude, but because we believe we are incapable of doing so. Thank goodness that in almost all cases we are not unfixably broken. But if we believe we are, it might as well be true.
In order to get out of that dream, we need to work through that shame, which leads us to our fear, which causes us to avoid, and brings us right back to the repetition that tells us there is something unbalanced, undeveloped, or unfinished in us that needs to be attended to, but of which we are unaware.
My own view is that the psyche moves very slowly. We gather our dream images from decades ago and it take a long time to work through things. As Confucius said, you can’t pull the shoots. But he also said that it was our task to self-cultivate. That means that we must always be working on ourselves. The very things that scare us the most are the parts of ourselves we most need to attend to.
For me, I used to have that dream, until I walked down the aisle in cap and gown to pick up my PhD. Sometimes, a nice graduation ritual helps.
What’s your repeating dream?