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The Mind and its Dreams
Before discussing the nature and significance of dreams it is worth giving some thought to the entity that creates them, i.e. the mind.
One of the most difficult concepts for the human mind to appreciate is itself. According to the dictionary, mind is the "seat of consciousness, thought, volition and feeling, intellectual powers; memory; opinion." These are some of its functions, but somehow don't get us much closer to understanding what the mind really is.
A useful definition of mind is 'that quality separating the living from the non-living'. If we compare the physical body to a car, then the mind is the driver and the brain is the various controls and dials (without something to operate or read them they are useless). Extending this analogy, physical death may be likened to the car ceasing to function. Note this does not mean that the driver necessarily expires also - even though he's no longer in the driving seat.
Science deals mainly with the four dimensions of the physical universe known to us as space-time. It can explain events within this sphere fairly accurately, although the quantum theory and the uncertainty principle admit its inability to provide a complete explanation even here. Cartesian philosophy tells us that human knowledge is limited to "I think therefore I am". Beyond this all knowledge (however probable) is guesswork. There is always a chance that whatever we perceive is an illusion or a dream. What seems certain is that the universe is infinitely more complex than potential human understanding.
The question of whether man has free-will has puzzled philosophers for centuries. The science of Newton gave weight to the belief that everything was pre-determined, from the motions of fundamental particles upwards. However twentieth century physics predicts that these sub-atomic particles have an inherent 'randomness'. Without doubt humans appear to have free-will, and therefore possess another order of complexity to the world studied by scientists.
This brings us back to the question of mind. It is thought to consist of the consciousness and the subconscious. The conscious mind is the thoughts, feelings, sensations etc. of which we are aware at any time. The subconscious is the vast part of the mind responsible for certain body functions, reflexes, instincts etc. It also houses the memory and our personality. It is a great advantage if you're able to get your subconscious working in your favour. If the mind were compared to a computer, the inputs would be the senses, the output the consciousness, while the central processing unit and memory would be the subconscious.
Basically, dreaming is the process of the subconscious tidying itself up. Dreaming is often relevant to your current situation since these matters are most likely to be in the pending file of your mind. Dreams give a useful glimpse into the subconscious that could be difficult to obtain while awake. Try to get into the habit of remembering your dreams as soon as you wake up.
There are many ideas about the meaning of dreams, including many books giving interpretations for various dream symbols. I think these books should be used with caution, for example to dream of cats would have a different meaning for an animal lover than for someone who is allergic to felines. There are also psychological systems (Freud, Jung, Gestalt etc.) of interpretation. These are useful starting points, and with experience you may find one particularly suited to you, but at the end of the day the dreamer is the writer, director and usually the leading actor in the dream and, as such the only one who can give it meaning.
First of all consider the dream as a whole, think about what happened, where, who was there, and how you felt about it. You may then want to isolate certain objects or elements from the dream. Consider the obvious, literal meaning first, if that doesn't make sense think about what the elements could represent e.g. a physical journey might be the journey through life, a death could be the end of some enterprise etc. The symbols could be parts of yourself e.g. an angry man or a locked door could be those sides of your nature. Remember - you created the dream - its symbolism is yours. Don't accept any meanings that don't feel right to you.
It's possible that a few dreams contain some kind of 'psychic' information e.g. predictions of the future, messages from the spirit world etc. During waking life we create barriers and inhibitions between ourselves and the external universe. In the dream state these barriers are relaxed and we are more sensitive to so-called psychic energies. However most dreams are probably created by your own subconscious.
It's always worth spending a little time thinking about your dreams. Often they'll just tell you what you already knew consciously, but once in a while may come a flash of inspiration that you'd never have thought of while awake. If nothing else dreams provide a playground away from the restrictions of reality in which your wildest hopes, fears and fantasies can all be experienced to the full.