by Gillian Holloway, Ph.D.
Water is a very important and mysterious image in dreams. In response to numerous requests for information about the symbolism of water I'm sharing the observations I've made about these images. Use these ideas to the extent that you find them helpful. If they don't seem to apply to your dream or to fit your experience, don't force them on yourself.
Different Forms of Water Have Different Meaning
The meaning of the water in a dream depends on the form it takes (whether it is a river, a puddle or a pool) and on your relationship to it. Sitting in a wet spot has different implications from swimming in the Olympics. If raindrops are falling down your cheeks and into your collar, the meaning often has to do with crying or sadness because the image is so much like the shedding of tears. On the other hand, if you are being swept through town by a flash flood, the image has much more to do with overwhelm, crisis and a sense of devastation. The water in a flash flood may also have connections with emotion, but it may largely represent a very mobile and turbulent condition in your life that has recently "taken over." So when examining the water in your dream consider what qualities it has, and also notice your relationship to it. Here are some general interpretations that tend to predominate in the dreams I've seen. Use these ideas as a short cut, by all means, but please continue to follow through with your own conclusions.
On a River: The Passage You're Moving Along
Rivers can symbolize the flow of our lives in much the same way that a highway or path can represent the road of life. This is particularly probable when you dream of traveling down a river in some kind of craft or boat. This type of dream can provide a reading on how you're handling the particular phase you're in, and whether your skills and responses fit the challenges you're facing. Typically this type of dream is either exhilarating or frightening. You either feel ready to deal with the rapids, the twists and the current, or you're falling out of the boat, losing passengers and narrowly escaping death. This type of dream is common to people who are bright, capable and who enjoy using their brains and abilities to handle life. They can be all the more frustrated when the powers that usually serve them well are not suited to the particular condition they're dealing with, or when their sense of control over their fate is being battered by a rocky passage.
Crossing a River: A Transition
Another common image is coming to a river that must be crossed before you can go further. The necessity to cross a river is often symbolic of a phase that you must move through prior to achieving the goal you're after, or as part of digesting a recent experience. After separating from a spouse or partner many people dream of coming to a river they must cross and feeling confused about how to manage it. This implies that they are not merely suffering a loss, but also a great deal of what they're experiencing is like an initiation or a preparation for what they will do next. They have the sensation of being caught in an ordeal, and may be unaware that some of this is due to the sensation of facing an entirely new chapter. Others dream of coming to a river when going through a change such as becoming a professional, starting their own business, or moving away from their home town. This image signals that you may be moving through a phase where you must stay positive even though you don't feel adequately equipped for what you're facing. If this fits, then it is a good time to reach out for support and reconnect with inspiring people and ideas.
Stream: Ideas and Flow
Streams may represent a stream of information, ideas or influences in your life. This is more likely to be the case if there are creatures - living things or fish in the stream. If you are walking along the flow, or beside the stream, you may be trying to follow a project or live by a certain philosophy at this time in your life. The difficulties involved in your progress sometimes reflect your level of satisfaction or frustration with this process. Concealed hazards along the stream don't mean you're on the wrong track, but they may serve as a "heads up" that the assignment you've tackled is laden with unexpected complications or hassles. When a stream is "magical," pure or enchanted it is likely that you're connecting with someone or something that is reminding you of essential truths and what it feels like to flow with life in an easy fashion.
Pools are often symbolic of a time to refresh and renew yourself. People dream of pools when they need to dip back into more pleasurable activities, or reconnect with a sense of peace after a taxing period in their lives. When your time in the pool is refreshing and blissful it is likely the dream is affirming your need and right to take time for yourself. If the pool is contaminated, or has some unwholesome problem this can reflect a tricky problem that is stirring up mixed feelings and draining your vitality.
Bath or Shower: Renewal
Baths and showers represent fresh starts and renewal. Usually dreams of showers and baths involve frustrating incidents where you can't find the shower, lose your belongings or never make it to the bathroom because there are too many demands on your time. Some people have this dream regularly when they fall prey to multiple pressures and postpone their own wishes for too long. It's a good idea to interpret these dreams as reflecting a need for time and activities that feed you, as well as a need to "start fresh" with the challenges and demands you already have. Step off the treadmill, and do what you can to reorganize priorities so that you aren't living continuously under siege.
Ocean: The Unknown
The ocean is associated with the unconscious elements in life, things that are very fertile and powerfully alive, but a bit foreign to our normal way of thinking. An ocean voyage therefore implies a passage through aspects of life that are mysterious to you. Being swept into the sea implies that recent experiences have launched you into a struggle with the most baffling feelings and challenges you've known. This doesn't mean you're doomed by any means, but your emotions may be close to the surface, and you may feel in crisis even if your objective circumstances seem fine. Don't doubt your experience, or think you're going crazy. This level of deep experience is very real, even though it is not visible in objective terms. Accepting what is happening to you, and honoring your own responses will go a long way toward stabilizing the situation. When your relationship to the sea is a positive one, the implication is that you're enjoying this passage despite the mystery and uncertainty. Artists and mystics often have dreams of struggling with the ocean, and these dreams have an epic beauty, even if they are demanding. These dreams show that you're exploring deep regions of your own gifts and truth, which takes amazing courage. But the rewards are nothing less than magic. If you dream of coming to the edge of the shoreline and gazing out to sea it is likely you are dealing with a situation that has brought you to the very edge of all that seemed certain. You may now be considering possibilities that were previously unknown to you. This image is essentially a positive one, since it shows you moving to your "edge" with a sense of wonder and interest. An open mind and heart will be your strongest allies at this threshold in your life.
Puddle, Mud, Swamp: Mixed Feelings and Frustration
Mud is a mixture of the things we know (earth) and the things we feel but aren't sure about (water). So in our dreams, mud is the perfect image for those situations that trip us up and slow our progress precisely because they evoke mixed feelings in conflict with our thoughts and opinions. A variety of images carry this symbolism including quicksand, mud puddles, eroded paths, and swamps. Whenever you find a mixture of soil and water you are seeing an image of mixed emotions in conflict with thoughts. Understanding this symbolism can be a relief, since you can then stop waiting for the situation to make sense or come clear to you. It isn't going to make sense easily, nor can you "snap out of it" by will power. You are going to have to proceed for the time being without the clarity you're used to. The nature of this situation is likely to be somewhat complex and paradoxical. Though your powers of logic may not work well to solve the problem itself, they can help you orient effectively and realistically toward this slippery situation. Just as if you were stuck in quicksand, you've got to avoid struggle, panic or denial, and use patience and realism to get yourself onto firmer ground.
In most instances rain conveys the notion of sadness. This is often a subtle background effect in a dream that is easily overlooked. The rain tends to reflect sadness when the individual drops are felt or seen. Rain that overflows a container suggests a welling up of feeling or the sense that something is getting to be too much. If this fits, then acknowledging your feelings can go a long way toward making you more comfortable and balanced. There are times, however, when the rain is not so much poignant as simply natural, part of the cycle of life.
Leaks: Emotions Seeping Through
When something in a dream springs a leak or takes on water this suggests that feelings kept on the sidelines for some time are now seeping into conscious. You may experience sudden discontent, cry very easily, have a low threshold for frustration. This doesn't mean your emotions are out of control; but it suggests that something you have successfully shelved so far is now elbowing it's way to the forefront, requiring attention. On the plus side, your psyche would not be pushing this issue into consciousness if it were not time to work it through. You are, in more ways than one, ready to deal with it. Although this image does tend to arise after an incident or experience has stirred up feelings, there is usually something old that is associated with the recent catalyst that has rocked your boat. (That is why your feelings seem so powerful, for such a minor incident.) If you're feeling swamped by a certain situation, perfection isn't going to be an option. Instead, concentrate on being flexible, both with life and with your feelings. Don't hesitate to get help if you need it, and be gentle and accepting if you don't feel like your normal, superhuman self right now.
A flood represents a situation or feeling that is something of a crisis. There are usually strong emotions involved and a lot of them. This can happen when a divorce, death or job lay-off triggers anger or fear of abandonment that has been around for a lifetime. You not only deal with the sadness and suffering of your current situation but also the flood of emotion that suddenly sweeps over you. Some flood dreams occur when there is no objective emergency in your life, but when a fairly ordinary circumstance has a powerful charge for you. If this fits, then be aware that most of your challenge lies in permitting yourself to feel the way you do. Get support if you can, but don't expect that your inner experience can be contained or tidied up immediately. Strangely enough, embracing your experience of things can actually be the most effective way to feel more stabilized.
If the water in your dream doesn't appear in these descriptions, consider the quality of the water - still water suggests peace and renewal, flowing water suggests challenges and change. Look at the way the water affects you, and how you interact with it. You'll know you have the right idea when your interpretation of the symbol fits the action of the dream, and seems consistent with the plot and feeling. An open welcoming attitude helps the mind to arrive at accurate insights more quickly. So if you aren't satisfied at first with your analysis, try to live with the image for a few days, and try to become more and more open to what it has to teach you.