Have you ever wondered why you have such odd dreams? How those strange scenarios that play out during REM sleep can possibly be the product of your own mind? Have you ever wondered what the purpose of dreaming is, or whether it even does serve a purpose at all?
Well, I'm here to tell you that they do serve a purpose and that they aren't really odd so much as they are "cryptic" in their message to your conscious mind.
To understand dreams you must first have knowledge of how our thinking processes work.
Everything in the mind starts with the thought. The thought is the building block of what is to become your beliefs. Every thought is developed through observation of various stimulants, whether internal or external, through the use of one's senses (eg touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, seeing). Thoughts that are repeated, or reinforced, often, or that have a strong "emotional charge" associated with them will start to literally change the brain chemistry so as to condition the mind towards that way of thinking. In other words, they form beliefs. As the beliefs develop they gain a stronger effect on the contents within the thoughts, which in turn strengthens that belief, until it eventually becomes accepted as "reality." Of course the "reality" of our mind isn't reality in the true sense of the word, but our perceptions of reality.
While some fears are instinctual, most of them were developed through the conditioning that I formerly mentioned. They were developed either through your own personal observations or through your observations of others around you. Your most deeply held fears are the ones that you have had the most repeated access to and/or you associate the strongest negative feelings towards. The reason why some people develop fears that others don't is the same as why inner beliefs aren't shared amongst everyone - not all people are exposed to the same "stimulants," or under the same conditions.
The more a mind is conditioned, the less open it becomes to ideas or beliefs outside of that conditioning and the greater the number of repetitions or emotional impact any stimulants (ie external or internal circumstances) must have to cause any psychological changes to occur. That's why the mind of an infant is so susceptible to change - it's entirely unconditioned. That's also why it's so important to pay attention to what kinds of messages you convey to children through your words and actions as they are likely to have a huge impact on how their minds develop.
In summary, you have mostly a clean slate at birth. There are some instinctual things in place, but for the most part, you have no fears, or beliefs for that matter. Through years of observing your surroundings and how you and others relate to it, your mind becomes conditioned to hold certain beliefs and develop certain fears. Over the years, your mind will continue to accumulate these types of observations and store them in memory. Every observation either reinforces or de-sensitizes the dominantly held ways of thinking. Whatever prevails as the dominant beliefs at any moment will determine how one perceives reality.
The unconscious mind is essentially a massive storehouse of your past experiences. It's your unique "mental universe" and it is inescapable, for it's the inner reality that forms your outer perception. The objects of the external world may be fixed, but they can represent very different types of stimulants for people, depending on how their minds associate with it due to its conditioning. People that are often fearful, or sad, or angry, or depressed are that way because their surroundings are full of things that stimulate that response from them. Their world is chalk full of negative stimulants.
The problem is, although they may want to change, without conscious awareness of what is at the root of the problem, they will never be able to make the necessary changes to bring about more ideal conditions. That is where dreams can be a useful tool.
Closing the mind off to the stimulants presented by the objects of the external environment, one's mind becomes free to explore the universe of its own creation. Many people are often surprised or confused by their dreams, as they often seem outside their ways of thinking. Common sense tells them that every dream must be the result of their thoughts and emotions; yet, their dreams may be very different from anything they ever recall experiencing, imagining, or thinking. What they may not realize is that there are many thoughts that are hidden from their waking consciousness, and those are the driving force of the mental universe, which is portrayed in the mental imagery of the dream.
Dreams are a glimpse into your deepest beliefs, the ones that have gained the most control over your conscious thoughts. Nightmares are a look at your most deeply held fears, those that have the most power to inhibit your conscious decisions.
As it turns out, in the conscious state we can hide from our "true" selves - our most fundamental, instinctual, conditioned, and powerful (ie action guiding) beliefs and fears - but not in the unconscious state of REM sleep. Dreams are like God's way of reminding us of who we really are, as opposed to the egoic, self-conceptualized, conscious self.
These "glimpses" of your true self, when studied with the intention of interpreting their meaning, provides one with the necessary self-awareness to begin making deep changes in themselves. One can only improve when they begin to question their most deeply held beliefs and challenge their most deeply held fears; but the awareness of those beliefs and/or fears must first be present, and that can come through accurately interpreting the symbolic (ie metaphorical) message(s) conveyed in one's dreams.
At the surface, it might seem difficult to interpret what might appear to be a complex, perhaps even convoluted, assortment of symbols. However, it's your mind that made those images and the feelings attached with them, so it should be clear to you that whatever message stands after giving it deep thought is likely the correct interpretation. Of course, even upon much introspection, or meditation, you may still reach the wrong conclusions. In order to ensure accuracy, it would be wise to base your interpretations off of a sample of dreams.
With more dreams to draw conclusions from - a "dream journal" would be ideal, as it would allow you to recall them in more detail - one may begin to see familiar patterns or correlations in how each individual dream plays out and/or how they relate to one another. In this way one is more likely to accurately "connect the dots," which will likely give them both a more accurate idea of how their inner (unconscious) mind is operating and more confidence in that conclusion.
That confidence is important, because with more of it comes a deeper penetration into your consciousness, becoming a stronger conviction and, therefore, a stronger source of reference in your future quest to change or overcome your unwanted thoughts, beliefs, fears, traits, habits, etc...
Once the knowledge is gained from the dreams, you can begin to aim your focus on actions to "uproot" the unwanted conditions of your mind. One way to do this is to take the Buddhist (ie Zen) approach of letting thoughts that "feed" that way of thinking pass by without giving it attention. The analogy that is often used is to not "water" the "seeds" of fear, hatred, anger, sadness, depression, etc., by giving them thought and supplying them with an emotional charge and they will soon begin to wither and eventually die. At the same time, you can "water" the "positive seeds" (eg happiness, courage, peace, joy, etc.) through positive self-talk, or positive affirmations, so as to replace the old habits with the ones that you desire.
Explore your mental universe. Become aware of the core of what makes you you by beginning to look deeper within yourself. Dreams can be a useful tool in reaching this awareness. What you do with that awareness is entirely up to you, but at least you'll have the knowledge of why you are the way you are and the power to change, should you make that choice.