Soulwork: Why Dreams Are So Important in Jungian Analysis

The Strange World of Your Dreams comic book cover for Jungian Dreams blog post

A Conversation with Jungian Analyst Kenneth James (Part Two)

This post continues my conversation with esteemed Jungian analyst Kenneth James. In Part One, we focused on how Jungian analysis is different from conventional therapies and other analytic traditions.

The COVID pandemic is reshaping life as we have known it on the planet. For many, the absolutes we have counted on to sustain us during times of crisis have already disappeared. That we have lost all sources of income, that our hospitals are understaffed and inadequately supplied, that we may die alone without a beloved near are the unthinkable realities we must now face. During the long weeks ahead, fear, loneliness, and despair will be uninvited visitors. As our sense of catastrophe deepens, so will our feelings of isolation. How can we cope? One way is to turn inward and pursue a relationship to our inner world. In this second conversation, Dr. Kenneth James will discuss the importance of dreams and how making the unconscious conscious is a giant step toward becoming self-enlightened.

Kenneth James is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Communicative Sciences and Disorders from Northwestern University, and a Diploma in Analytical Psychology from the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. Dr. James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago where he practices as a Jungian analyst.

Dale Kushner: Most contemporary models of psychological counseling do not value the examination of dreams. Why do Jungians place so much value on dreamwork?

Kenneth James: The dream is considered the purest expression of unconscious dynamics, both personal and collective. Jungian work is not strictly speaking ego-based. We rely on disclosures from the unconscious to guide us in analysis and more importantly, in life outside of analysis. There are many ways that the unconscious seeks to communicate with the ego. These ways include daydreams and reverie, projection, displacement, somatization (the production of medical symptoms with no apparent organic cause), parapraxis (the so-called “Freudian” slip) and synchronicity. Dreams we have while we are asleep are highly esteemed because the ego is not involved in the generation of dreams (while we are asleep, the ego is absent). By examining dreams, the analyst and the analysand are guided to explore critical areas of the analysand’s life that may lead to unsuspected breakthroughs in self-understanding and growth of consciousness.

D.K.: In your experience, how does working consciously with dreams benefit an individual?

K.J.: Dreams point both the dreamer and the analyst toward issues and concerns that are in need of exploration and understanding. These may not be considered important by the ego, but when considered calmly and openly, dreams can awaken awareness of connections that can help the dreamer resolve problems, alleviate suffering, and calm conflicts. I often refer to dreams as the “MRIs” of the psyche. They show what the ego can’t see. A skilled analyst can use the dream to help the analysand explore areas that may not be brought up in any other way. Dreams circumvent the dominance that the ego wishes to claim for itself, and help facilitate both individuation (see Part One for our discussion of individuation) and its close companion, the relativization of the ego to the unconscious.

D.K.: Is there a positive side to nightmares or so-called bad dreams?

Mysterious Dream by William Blake for Jungian Dreams blog postK.J.: Although uncomfortable for the dreamer, nightmares can serve as “stat” directives for the analysand and analyst, calling us to deal with something right away, now. Nightmares can be thought of as dreams that will no longer be ignored. Nightmares often motivate people to question what is going on at deeper levels of human personhood, and as such can be valuable in bringing the ego to the place it needs to be for psychological health. No matter how hard we try, we cannot take into account all of the exigencies of human life. The ego is always thwarted when faced with phenomena that can be referred to as luck, fate, and hazard. Each of these is an event that happens without regard for causality, intention, planning, or personal volition. We go along in life, making our way and formulating decisions, and if all goes smoothly, things seem like they are under our control. This is a pernicious egoic illusion, or perhaps delusion. Experiences of luck (who knew that would happen?), fate (I had no choice, I was destined to undergo that event) or hazard (an event that seems to come out of nowhere, usually suddenly, with significant consequences for the individual) show the ego that, despite its good-faith efforts to plan and provide for all contingencies, life has more to offer than any ego could dream possible. The nightmare supports this, bringing the ego to the place where it can experience fear, and possibly terror. This capacity for utter terror, which would be avoided at all costs by the ego, serves to shake up the complacency of even the most resistant person, if the nightmare can be respected for its gifts, and not explained away as “nothing but a dream.”

D.K.: Can you give some examples of how dreams contribute to the development of the individual?

K.J.: Dreams can help individuals approach events in their lives more slowly and reflectively than one might do habitually. Because dreams can shine new light on situations and relationships that the ego thinks it already understands, an individual who can become more open to dream symbolism will find new and different perspectives by which to consider aspects of their experience. Dreams are viewed as works of art produced by the unconscious, and as such, can be explored again and again throughout one’s life. Jungians rarely simply “interpret” a dream and then abandon it as having been understood. Dreams never cease to be sources for deeper and deeper insight. A dream image, whether a person, place, or event, can serve as a seed for what Jung referred to as “active imagination.” Active imagination is sometimes referred to as “dreaming the dream forward.” In active imagination, the individual gets into a relaxed state and focuses on a particular element in the dream.

Glory of Commerce (1914), a sculptural group by Jules-Félix Coutan (1848–1939) featuring Mercury as the central figure atop Grand Central Terminal, New York City for Jungian Dreams blog postFor example, one analysand had a puzzling dream about being in Grand Central Station, a place familiar to him because he was born and raised in New York City. He wondered why he should dream of what was to him a very mundane setting. I suggested he do an active imagination on Grand Central Station, relaxing his body and then focusing his mind on the place, letting himself move through it as though exploring it in waking life. His visions began in an ordinary way, and he went through areas of the station he remembered from waking life. But then he turned a corner in the imagined station and found a doorway down to the sub-sub-basement, where he witnessed rats carrying on their lives unbeknownst to the people bustling to meet their trains or greet their loved ones. He then was taken, in the active imagination, to the top of the station, where he saw a large statue. He didn’t know what it was. When we discussed his active imagination, I suggested that he investigate what statue might be on the top of Grand Central Station. He did, and discovered it was a statue of Mercury, or Hermes in the Greek mythological form. I explained that Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods, entrusted with carrying messages from humanity to the Olympian realm, and returning with divine message for mortals. He then said, “so Mercury is what helps us do this analytic thing!” I agreed. I believe that one of the functions of this dream of Grand Central Station for this analysand was to help him accept the reality and the autonomy of the psyche. He also was able to see that the rats might represent things going on “really deep inside me” that he either ignored or judged to be disgusting. Because of his valuing of the dream, he came to see that even the disgusting parts need to be witnessed, understood, and respected.

Please watch for Part Three of my conversation with Dr. Kenneth James. This series is an invitation to turn toward your deepest internal resources. How we respond as individuals to the overwhelming emotions generated by this global crisis will affect not only our own lives and those in our circle, but the entire planet. When we know ourselves, when we can name and face our fears, we are in a stronger position to act with clarity and brave hearts. We also recognize we are joined to others in our suffering. As Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says, “What if compassion could go viral? What if love could?”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

 



Can Dreams Be Prophetic?

Cover of The Strange World of Your Dreams for prophetic dreams blog post

In September of 1913, Carl Jung, the great pioneer of depth psychology, was on a train in his homeland of Switzerland when he experienced a waking vision. Gazing out the window at the countryside, he saw Europe inundated by a devastating flood. The vision shocked and disturbed him. Two weeks later, on the same journey, the vision reoccurred. This time an inner voice told him: “Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.”

Years later, in his memoir Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he recalls the event and his concern that he was having a psychotic break.

“I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood.”

The following spring of 1914, he had three catastrophic dreams in which he saw Europe was deluged by ice, the vegetation was gone, and the land deserted by humans. Despite his awareness that the situation in Europe was “darkening,” he interpreted these dreams personally and feared he was going mad. However, by August of that year, his dreams and visions were affirmed: World War I had broken out.

Abraham's Dream for prophetic dreams post

Some fifty years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had a prophetic dream. Three days before he was assassinated, Lincoln conveyed his dream to his wife and a group of friends. Ward Hill Lamon, an attending companion, recorded the conversation.

“About ten days ago I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Think I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” (Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865 by Ward Hill Lamon, published 1911.)

Two weeks later, on April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. As in his dream, his casket was put on view in the East Room of the White House and guarded by soldiers.

These are two chilling examples of dreams that occurred during periods of collective crisis which accurately predicted historical turning points. Do prophetic dreams occur more often during turbulent times? How does the dreamer know if a dream is to be interpreted personally and symbolically, or as a warning for others and the world at large?

I asked these questions to Dr. Murray Stein, a renowned author and Jungian analyst at the International School for Analytic Psychology in Zurich, Switzerland. Dr. Stein replied that he had no statistics on whether people have predictive dreams more frequently in times of crisis than at other times. In his experience, one can’t know if a dream is precognitive until after the event. After 9/11, he told me, people reported precognitive dreams that foretold the disaster. He said people also reported that dreams foretold the financial crisis of 2008, which he called, “a black swan event.” According to Investopedia:

A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the practice of explaining widespread failure to predict them as simple folly in hindsight.

The recent outbreak of the coronavirus might be considered a black swan event, and perhaps we will soon hear about people who have had prophetic dreams of its manifestation.

 Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream for prophetic dreams postWhile there is no simple answer or proven method to discern whether a dream should be interpreted personally or more broadly, we can go about exploring its contents with both aspects in mind. For example, if I have a dream in which I am a child who has been put into a cage. I might ask: What aspect of me feels “caged” right now? Noting that I am a child in the dream, I might further inquire: Is there something from my childhood that is still confining and constricting me? I might try to estimate the age of the child in the dream and reflect back to when I was that age and try to remember if something significant happened then. Maybe my parents had begun to think about divorce at that time and I felt caged by their emotions. I might then inquire if there is something similar going on in my life right now, not necessarily a divorce, but an imminent disruption or the loss of a treasured relationship. When we go back into a dream to amplify it, each question generates other questions that can lead to deeply buried insights. (For a more complete explanation of Jung’s use of amplification as a technique, please see Michael Vannoy Adams’ description on JungNewYork.

But what if I dream that I am a child that has been put into a cage, and a few days later I discover that children of immigrants are actually being held in cages in detention centers? My dream, while personally relevant, would carry a collective, or more public meaning as well. This collective meaning of the dream attests to the interconnectedness of our species, to our capacity for empathy (we see a horror on the news and we feel it enter us) and to the common values we share about the quality of human life.

If we had lived during the early part of the last century, or in an indigenous culture, or in ancient Mesopotamia, we might examine our dreams for deep wisdom and as augurs for the future. These days we are more likely to look to neuroscience to understand of our dreams. Neurobiology tells us that sleep is a complex neural activity of the brain that stays busy activating and deactivating complicated neuro-systems while we doze, including consolidating memories, regulating mood, restoring immune function and many other important utilitarian tasks. But neuroscience tells us nothing about the meaning of dreams or why our dreaming life has carried significance for humans since we first walked the planet.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu for prophetic dreams postAbout thirty thousand years ago, toward the end of the Paleolithic Era, our hunter-gather forebears descended into the subterranean darkness of caves to enact rituals of trance and dreaming. Recently, archaeologists and ethnographers have speculated that the artifacts found in the caves of southern Europe— bone flutes, whistles, and types of drums—and the now-famous discovery of cave wall paintings indicate that ancient shamans may have used these caves for ceremonial dream retreats (See in particular the work of David Lewis-Williams). We can speculate that the depictions of bison and large and small game along with scenes of hunting painted on the walls may reflect shamanic dream content. Perhaps the shaman ascended from his retreat having had visions about the abundance and location of prey, which would be crucial information for the clan.

Later human societies continued to transcribe their dreams. The oldest written dream recorded is in the Sumerian epic poem of Gilgamesh (2100 BCE). Not unlike King Nebuchadnezzar’s frightening dream in the Book of Daniel, Gilgamesh, the king of the Sumerian city Uruk, has violent nightmares about death, which shake him to the core, and send him on his quest for immortality. But Gilgamesh cannot interpret his own dreams, and like many of the dreamers in the Old Testament, is in need of an interpreter. How telling that from ancient times, the one who receives the dream and the one who knows its significance are different people.

Black Elk for prophetic dreams postIn some contemporary cultures, dreams are thought to be a way of receiving messages from the spirit world. A holy man or medicine woman, an elder or shaman is the receiver of the prophetic dream, which is given for the benefit of all and linked to the survival of the tribe or people. Black Elk, the holy medicine man of the Lakota Sioux, stated this when he said a dream is worthless unless it is shared with the tribe.

How can we relate to the dreams that pursue us? Are they simply the result of complex neurological activity and without real meaning, just as we know the moon is no enchanted sphere but a mere rock in space? What might we miss if we cast our lot with a viewpoint based wholly on the material world? Is it possible to consider the two worlds as being equally meaningful, the world of science and — to borrow the phrase John Keats used to characterize adventurers on the threshold of a new frontier — the world of “wild surmise”? Can we think of ourselves as vessels open to receiving wisdom through non-ordinary means? Can we be our own shamans?

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”