How to Keep a Dream Journal

This is the third post in my series about working with dreams without a dream dictionary.  Today I’m focusing on dream journalling. Besides basic dream sharing, this is the easiest way to start remembering more dreams and working with them.

Everyone has their own way of keeping a dream journal, so of course the trick is to find what works for you.  These tips below are what works best for me, not only the actual techniques but also the important attitudes to keep for success.

Recording dreams starts with patience

Let’s talk attitudes first.  You want to remember more dreams, but all you have when you wake up in the morning is the vague recollection of the color blue, or the lingering feeling of being frustrated.  It doesn’t seem worth writing down…..  Actually, we all have to start somewhere, and those small clues are the gateway to the dreamworld.  So the attitude of “readiness to work with what I got” is key to starting a dream journal process.

Gotta be patient. You can’t put too much pressure on yourself, especially if it’s been months or even years since you last had a memorable dream.  I’ve found that when I put high expectations on myself to dream, I end up with disappointment.  Dreams are, by definition, mercurial…. they’ll come around, in their own sweet time.

Making the habit stick

Like almost anything that is good for you, dream journaling will be easier to stick with if you make a daily habit of it.  That means setting time aside to record your dreams, as well as having a notebook and pen that is specifically for dreams, and nothing else.  Personally, I’ve noticed that my dream journaling comes in waves: I’ll record six dreams in a row, and then the book will be blank for awhile.  What happened?  More often than not, the wave of  recording started at the beginning of the week when I reset my daily habits.  If I don’t set the intention on Monday, I’ve got no dreams by Friday.

No judgments

Just like I mentioned in my article on dream sharing, it’s important when journaling to suspend all moral judgements about what occurred in the dream.  Dreams have a habit of being socially unacceptable, which is probably one of the reasons why they are hard to recall in the first place.  Dreams often fulfill a desire or express something that would be inappropriate in our life.  As such, dreams are not the work of a corrupt or primitive sense of self as some may argue, but a natural clue to our unmet emotional needs.  And, besides, sometimes stuff is symbolic.   Bottom line, don’t take your dreams too seriously.

5 Techniques for Dream Journaling

I have been writing down my dreams now for twenty years, most of which I have had a separate dream journal,  so I have a lot of data on my dream life.  This also serves as a record for what works and what doesn’t when it comes to journaling techniques.  These are my tips for anyone who is new to dream journaling:

  1. Pick your journal carefully, and make sure it speaks to you. Doesn’t matter if it is a fancy leather-bound book with acid-free paper  or a spiral notebook you picked up at the dollar store.  What matters is that it feels good, approachable, and most importantly, that you use the journal for nothing else but writing down those dreams.  Admittedly, I have experimented with mix-use journals over the years, mostly because I was interested to see how my dreams and waking life intertwined.  That’s a story for another time, but the practical result of this mixed-journal approach is that I wrote down less dreams.  So if you are just getting started, I recommend a dedicated book.  No recipes, phone numbers, to do lists.

    My first dream journal, started on new year's day, 1991. Age 15. Note the marginalia about technique, and my trepidation.

  2. Keep the journal and your dedicated pen by the bed. If you are really serious about recalling more dreams, you want the journal to be the last thing you see before you go to bed, and the first thing you see in the morning.  Also a good idea to have a book light or a pen with a light attached if you want to record a dream in the middle of the night, upon awakening.  Don’t trust that you’ll remember it in the morning — I can’t tell you how many amazing dreams and brilliant ideas I lost with that assumption.
  3. Record your dreams in the morning.  This is hard, I know.  But the truth is that the dream is easier to recall in the morning.  Also, our memory of the dream is less polluted by the “whitewashing” that we will later apply.  If you absolutely can’t make time to record your dreams in the morning, jot down the most powerful emotions and images from the dream right after you wake up.  Later, such as over lunch, record the dream more fully. The danger here is, as we keep recalling the dream throughout the day,  we try to “tidy up” the dream into a clean little story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Beware of that urge – dream researchers call it the “narrative effect” when we alter the dream’s memory by adding a connecting element like “I must have gone into the house next because then I was in the living room and….”  Instead, record what you remember.  “Now I’m in the living room..”  More dangerous still is the urge to “drop” a bizarre element that doesn’t seem to fit in the story.  If I catch myself trying to drop a detail that my waking brain says is “unimportant” I make a special note of it.  Why? Because that incongruous detail sometimes turns out to be the most revealing part of the dream later on, once I get some distance.  Tricky, tricky!
  4. Pay attention to what happens, as well as any remembered emotions and thoughts you had in the dream.  Remembering these details makes it easier to work with it later on.  It also helps build cognitive bridges between your waking self and your dream self (or selves).  Yeah, we are not always the same person in the dream; that’s one of the coolest aspects of dreaming! I actually make it a practice in my lucid dreams to look in the mirror to see who I am.
  5. Give the dream a title. This is a great little tactic taught to me by dreamworker Jeremy Taylor.  Giving each dream a title forces you to sum up the dream into a theme.  It also makes it easier to find the dream later on when you want to cross-reference it. Something short and sweet works best, like “Rotten sandwiches at lunch” or “Argument with my sister brings on a bubble party.”  Sometimes these titles can later be instructive as well, as they may contain unintentional puns or admissions.

Okay, my challenge to you is to set up your dream journal system tonight!  Seriously, pick out a notebook on the way home from work, or dust off your old dream journal that hasn’t seen any action for 10 years.  Choose a good pen.  Put them on your nightstand or within grasping reach of your bed. Plan out the morning in your head: wake up, jot down dream fragments, get up, brush teeth, shower, and eat breakfast. Next, record dreams.  Done.

The next way to work with dreams is Dream art and the central image.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Ryan. Great tips. Here are a few additional things I’ve found very helpful:

    1. Write down the main events of your day, along with the main things you are presently concerned about, before going to sleep. This helps prime the dream pumps. By taking the time to do this, you let the dreaming parts of yourself know you are serious about remembering — and working with — your dreams. Writing down the day’s main events and the main things you are concerned about also helps give you a leg up on what your dreams may be dealing with, since they often (in my experience anyway), are dealing with current events and concerns. This also serves one other very important function: by thinking about your day’s events, and writing them down on paper, you help release the pent up energy from these events so they don’t follow you into your dreams and squander your dream time rehashing trivial events and emotions. Ive come to call this process “a clearing session” because it not only primes your dream pumps, but because it releases pent up energy and helps you focus on the areas of your life where you would most like to receive help, insight, healing.

    2, While my dream notebooks look very much like yours — a hodgepodge of different kinds of journals depending on the different phases of my life — I’ve discovered that creating an extra-special dream journal when you first start helps set the stage for a solid relationship with your dreams. It’s another suggestion to your conscious and dreaming self that you really want to remember your dreams and form a deep relationship with them. Of course, creating an extra-special journal — or buying one — doesn’t guarantee that the dream fountains are going to flow. But it does help set the stage, at least in my experience.

    3. Expanding on your suggestion to limit dream journals to dreams, and dream work, I’ve found it really helpful to add elements that pertain to my dreams. When I write down my day’s events, for example, I will sometimes include things from very important events — maybe ticket stubs, for example, from a movie that had special meaning; or a quote I heard or read during the day that had special meaning. And once I’ve written my dreams down, I will sometimes track down things that amplify dream images. If, for example, I dream of characters from a movie, I might track down images of those characters and paste them into the journal. If a person’s name is mentioned, I might look up the origin and meaning of that name and write it down. Or if I dream of a bright red lamp that was a dominant dream image, I might find something similar and paste that in. Usually, I reserve this kind of attention for “Big Dreams” — dreams that feel especially significant. But this kind of attention can also help prime the pumps when a person is first forming a serious relationship with their dreams.

  2. says

    Nice post, Ryan! Good additions David. Do you guys have any thoughts about journaling on the computer instead of on paper?

  3. says

    David – thanks for these additional tips! I especially like the idea about adding a scrapbooking or collage dimension to the dream journal. Also the tactic about writing down the main events before sleep is a good one. I discuss a similar technique in my ebook Enhance your dreamlife which is based on the dream yoga mental preparation exercise of recounting the day backwards.

    And Tim – so glad to see you stopping by – I have poked around your forum – good stuff – and am adding it to my lucid dreaming resources page. I am pretty old-fashioned, so I’ve never used a computer for journaling. I still keep a planner and literally “pencil” people in. I did go through a voice recorder stage in the mid 1990s which I set to record automatically whenever a noise was heard – this resulted in some cool dream vocalizations (and a lot of recordings of me turning over in bed and making grumpy sounds).

  4. Scot Stride says

    Dear Ryan,

    I’ve maintained a journal for a long time. About 3 years ago I started recording my dreams on a mini tape recorder, and then digitally, both in the middle of the night and first thing in the morning. This takes less time than writing and is an excellent way to capture details you can, and will forget later. I then transcribe my recordings into an electronic document (MS Word). Most of the MP3 players have a digital voice recorder and it’s easy to copy those voice files into a computer for archiving. With that method, many times I’ve recorded more than 8 separate dreams in a single night. One thing I’ve longed for is a voice-to-text program similar to that used in high end transcription systems. It requires voice training and discipline (no slurring or fill words…uh…umm, etc), but would save hours of typing in the long run.

    Cheers,

    Scot Stride

  5. says

    I find all these tips topnotch for dream journaling (including David’s recommendations of including information about daytime events and influences, which helps with sorting out day residues from deeper images/themes) particularly I have found giving a title to the dream essential to working with the dreams later on. This is easier of course with big dreams, but what I’ve found works for the more commonplace/ quotidian dreams is to title them with the primary events or actions in the dream, along with the core that makes that dream unique ( since there’s always some weird novel twist each night).

    Another thing I’ve found really useful over the years is typing dreams up afterward, usually when I’m done with each journal, which puts the dreams into a broader narrative context and points to the continual or returning themes. Another method of doing this might be underlining the particularly dreamlike qualities of each dream, which helps one pay more attention to them the next time they occur.

    Looking forward to the rest of your series here!

  6. Jeff VoVillia says

    Regarding recording dreams on a computer…I’ve recently been getting into this because it seems recording 5-7 dreams each day can take up to an hour a day!

    I use a digital recorder and attach each sound file to the typed out dream. I use a program called “The Journal” and it allows attachments of any file type as well as keyword searches, cross-references and categories etc.

    I’ve noticed a lot of new themes and interesting correlations when I compile similar dreams or all dreams containing a certain character. However, I also notice interesting elements when I hand write dreams – like mispelling words that end up meaning more than I intended.

  7. says

    great to hear about dream journal techniques involving the computer. If I wasn’t so antiquarian I’d give it a spin. but Tait’s point is tempting – those recurring themes really do “pop” when you reprocess a journal. I noticed something similar when I made a lucid dreaming journal, recopying old lucid dreams.

  8. says

    I actually had a dream diary. The difference was that i had not had any problem remembering them. They were vivid to me as if it just happened yesterday. There was a point when i would like to pursue on this dreams, know what they meant but i grew tired of wondering. Maybe i will never really know. Can you help me with that? You have a great site here.

  9. says

    Dreams are mysterious almost by definition. Will we ever know what they mean? Well, consider that question when applied to the memory of another event in life, such as eating a peanut butter and pickle sandwich yesterday. I can interpret the meaning of this memory for years, and discover a lot about myself in the process. But the ultimate significance of that lunch will never be known. Or more precisely, it will constantly shift around as I live my life and draw from the power of that sandwich. This is a terrible example, but you get my drift? Dreams are more powerful than a peanut butter sandwich, but the only final authority on its meaning is you!

  10. says

    Concerning different ways of recording our dreams, I’ve tried both computers and tape recorders, but they didn’t stick. When I tried to tape record my dreams, I discovered that I often mumbled incoherently and it took too much time to re-listen to everything and write it all down. With respect to computers, I had a friend who created a database-driven software dream journal. I really tried to make this work because I thought I could squeeze more out of my dreams if I could keyword and cross-index them — drawing, with the click of a button, all the dreams up that contained similar words and discussed similar themes. But waking up and typing my dreams down at night woke me up too much, which made it difficult to go back to sleep. And writing down quick notes at night and then entering them into the computer later proved too laborious, especially since I’m a slow-typing perfectionist.

    In the end, I discovered that for me there was something important about writing my dreams down on paper, complete with messy drawings and ideas that popped out while I wrote them. Something tactile, old school, more personal that felt more honoring of the quiet, special, central place my dreams have played in my life. Slow food, in other words, versus fast food.

    That said, I’m still not completely happy with writing my dreams down either. I’ve got piles of dream notebooks, full of dreams that I haven’t revisited in years, many of which are/were big dreams. Finding them is a real challenge. And I’ve also forgotten many. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back and reviewed old dream journals and discovered important dreams I had forgotten. Early on, when I had time to give them huge amounts of my attention, I went to great lengths to create handwritten indexes of all my dreams so I could quickly remember them, and find them. That fell by the wayside as other parts of my life (raising kids, working multiple jobs, etc.) took center stage.

    When it comes to dream journaling, I’m still in search of a way to record them that covers all the bases…

  11. says

    David – I’m with you on the “slow food” approach to dream journaling.

    And I notice that I’ve forgotten so many good dreams over the years too. Here’s what I do tho: I practice bibliomancy with my dream journals. I’ll crack open a dream journal from the past and let my eyes fall on a page, and then read all the dreams on that page. It’s so cool how something in those dreams always connects to recent dreams and sometimes even provides a clue to interpretation.

  12. says

    Great suggestions, Ryan. I wasn’t aware of Sawlogs. Post suggestions like this on your Twitter feed and I’ll help spread them around (and, hopefully, encourage more people to visit your website — and start working with their dreams)…

  13. Laura Herzog says

    Hi all.
    I just stumbled upon this site today. Great place! I am in the very first stages of journaling my dreams. I have never tried to interpret them, as they are more often than not very apocolyptic. I look forward to checking out your books and reading more comments on the site and an attempt to apply ideas.

    L in Jax Florida

  14. says

    I used to write down my dreams in notebooks, but I found it frustrating not being able to search for keywords, get statistics and query most popular symbols, etc. There’s no way I’m going to try to find an obscure dream I had a month ago page-by-page and trying to decipher my handwriting.

    I’m also surprised at the number of dream journals not geared towards learning lucid dreaming. Wouldn’t it be great to have dreams which you could search, tag, organize, run statistics and note which induction techniques worked and which didn’t? Somewhere which you could set your goals and track them? Maybe there’s out there and I missed it, so I’m resorting to writing my own web-based dream journal. Perhaps something like David’s.

    Well, I have the basic functionality done and find it encouraging to see the content of my dreams steadily grow.

  15. Danny Grassa says

    These are some great tips! Even though I’ve been documenting my dreams, it always helps to get another person’s perspectives and ideas on how to improve the process. It’s really cool to see the a drawing like the one in the image of your different journals–I’ve got to start incorporating that!

    I typically type up all my dreams in gmail and send it to myself and a few friends. It’s excellent because you can add “tags” to your e-mail (the options are endless, so you can tag an e-mail with dream character names, lucid methods, themes, etc). Another huge benefit is being able to search later using any keyword and pull up all dreams that have the word.

    That said, the last thing I want to do in the middle of the night is get out of bed and go to the computer, or open up a bright laptop screen (unless it’s a dream that absolutely must be written down immediately). I use a dream journal to handwrite plot elements or details in bullet points, and then document them the next day.

    The only downside I’ve found with recording dreams is the tendency it has for self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, if I find that I am constantly dreaming of the same theme/plot (i.e. being back in high school and being unprepared), by noticing its frequency and paying attention to it, the dream tends to come up more often.

  16. Burus says

    What can I do if I usually remember more than one dream at night? And also, my dreams are very real and detailed so I couldn’t write everything, and the problem is that I feel that the most impresive thing of my dreams are the details, like the feeling of a chain in my chest or the feeling of a sweater fabric… I have tried to keep a journal but it’s hard, too much info. But well, as you say “start with patience”

  17. Burus says

    Thank you very much for your answer! I’ll start trying focusing in central image! Hope to Be able to do only one page, cuz once I wrote one of my big dreams and it ended up a 3 pages story! Haha that’s why I quit! But today I’ll try the way you said. And I’ll use pen and notebook even if I can type it, because I feel like there’s nothing better than a good piece of paper and a pen to express anything! By the way! I hope you don’t mind I wrote about your site in my blog! I think people will be very happy to join this! Thanks again

  18. says

    Very good tips!I usually write it straight on a note or blog to keep track of what I remember

    I also try to see how real life affects/triggers the dream