Understand Your Dreams by Engaging Them Using Jung’s “Active Imagination”

Le Rêve (The Dream) by Henri Rousseau (1910) for Active Imagination post

 

Dreams are a marvel, worlds of wonder filled with phantasmagoric images, surreal plot twists that have their own logic even as they turn us inside out with their shifting points of view. Dreams take us high and drop us low. Whether we’re flying over the Manhattan skyline or being chased through a cornfield by a bull, we sense that our dreams are trying to communicate something—perhaps something essential—to our waking selves. We suspect that what is hidden from one part of our minds in the day-world—our unspoken worries, our secret loves, the destiny we fear to follow—becomes manifest in living color in our dreams.

Enkidu tussling with Gilgamesh for Active Imagination postAs far as we know, humans have always dreamed. Some of our earliest written stories include dreams. In the first tablet of our oldest epic poem, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, just before he encounters his doppelganger Inkidu, Gilgamesh dreams of a rock and an axe falling from the sky; his mother explains to him that these images foretell the arrival of “a mighty comrade.” In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope dreams of fifty geese being killed by an eagle, a wish fulfilled when her husband Odysseus returns and slays the suitors plaguing her. And in the Old Testament, Joseph achieves fame by interpreting Pharaoh’s dream about fourteen cows, seven fat, seven lean.

On every continent groups still exist that consult dreams to foretell the future or connect with the Divine. Even some of us “non-believers” decorate our bedrooms with dream catchers. Why? As much as we might want to reject the notion of an invisible world that influences our day-life, don’t we all suspect there is a meaning and purpose to our dreams?

Marie-Louise von Franz, a scholarly colleague of Jung’s, wrote that dreams “are the voice of nature within us.” Dreams may be the sacred place where human and cosmos meet and interact. In The Collective Works, Jung elaborates:

“… in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There he is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare from all egohood. It is from these all-uniting depths that the dream arises . . .” (CW 10).

On the scientific side, we are learning more about the neuroscience of dreams than ever before. As Sander van der Linden describes in an article in Scientific American, one hypothesis, based on where dreaming occurs in the brain, speculates that dream stories “may be stripping the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it.” Other scientists speculate that the purpose of dreaming may not be psychological but physiological. Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep has been thought to help the brain process memories, but a new research in the field of ophthalmology suggests the purpose of REM sleep might be to oxygenate our corneas.

Though we can study the hard facts about our dream-brain, the dreaming mind still remains a mystery.

carl-jung-and-pipe for Active Imagination postAfter losing his mentor and father-figure in a professional split with Freud, Jung suffered a tremendous psychological upheaval, a twenty-year period Stephen A. Diamond describes in his PT post “Reading The Red Book: How C.G. Jung Salvaged His Soul.”

Like Freud, Jung understood dreams to be messages from the unconscious, but rather than viewing dream images as manifest symbols of latent pathology, a storehouse of unwanted and dreaded content, Jung, through his own self-analysis, concluded that our darkest dreams might contain imagery that illustrate our internal conflicts and point to their cure as well.

In an essay on Jung, psychoanalyst Joan Chodrow describes the process by which Jung experimented with ways to restore his emotional equilibrium through dialoguing with fantasy and dream images as if these characters existed in the day-world. She writes:  

“… he made the conscious decision to ‘drop down’ into the depths.  He landed on his feet and began to explore the strange inner landscape where he met the first of a long series of inner figures. These fantasies seemed to personify his fears and other powerful emotions.  Over time, he realized that when he managed to translate his emotions into images, he was inwardly calmed and reassured.  He came to see that his task was to find the images that are concealed in the emotions.”

Jung later called the process of working with dream figures “active imagination.” In his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he describes terrifying encounters with his unconscious, which often threatened to overwhelm him. His gradual discovery of how to work with the fearsome material flooding his psyche has been posthumously published in The Red Book.

Philemon for Active Imagination postWritten closer to the end of his life, Memories, Dreams, Reflections details perhaps more objectively Jung’s actual experience during the time of his turmoil and outlines how he came to use his own frightening encounters with his psyche to form some of his most lasting theories about conscious and unconscious material:

“… I did my best not to lose my head but to find some way to understand these strange things. I stood helpless before an alien world; everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible. . . . But there was a demonic strength in me, and from the beginning there was no doubt in my mind that I must find the meaning of what I was experiencing in these fantasies.

“I was frequently so wrought up that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check. But since it was my purpose to know what was going on within myself, I would do these exercises only until I had calmed myself enough to resume my work with the unconscious. As soon as I had the feeling that I was myself again, I abandoned this restraint upon the emotions and allowed the images and inner voices to speak afresh…

“To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images—that is to say, to find the images that were concealed in the emotions—I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them…. As a result of my experiment I learned how helpful it can be, from the therapeutic point of view, to find the particular images which lie behind emotions.” (MDR, p. 177).

What if dream figures could step out of our dreams and talk to us, and tells us why they have appeared and what they want?

Using the imagination as a tool for transformation is what drew me to Jung and, later, to work with active imagination. As a writer, I inherently trust the wisdom of my unconscious mind to lead me to the story inside the story. To show me what I am not looking at, what escapes my awareness but wants to be seen. What a revelation to discover that the nightmares that wake us, shaken and despairing, might indeed be coded messages of a healing source within!

Try it yourself. Sit in a quiet place and recall a figure that has appeared to you in a dream. Talk to it. What is your second grade teacher doing in a dream? Why is she grooming a parrot? Why is this happening in your grandmother’s yard? To find out the meaning of the dream, active imagination encourages the dreamer to dialogue with dream figures in waking life. We ask and through their answers we associate what these figures might mean to us. Do they bring any stories, myths or fairy tales to mind? Looking at dream images through an archetypal and a personal lens allows us to see, alternately, the broadest and the most precise meaning of our dreams. What I’m suggesting is a simplified process but many good guidebooks exist. In the animate world of dreams, cars, trees, shoes, dogs can all speak, and what they have to say has everything to do with your life.

Recommended for further reading:

Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson

Jung on Active Imagination, edited and with an introduction by Joan Chodorow

Dreams, A Portal to the Source by Edward C. Whitmont and Sylvia Brinton Perera



Dreaming Our Lives: Five Things Our Dreams Could Be Telling Us

The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli for Dreams blog

 

One of the many things that fascinates us about our dreams is that they hint at an alternative life. Anyone who has ever tried to recapture or re-enter a dream knows that dreams live in us but are autonomous and impervious to our will. They visit while we sleep, transporting us to landscapes real and surreal, offering wild and awesome narratives, oracular portents, and often hilarious outcomes. The uncanny wisdom or cleverness or solemn warnings of our dreams seem to have everything and nothing to do with us.

To compound the paradoxical mystery of dreams, they are intensely personal, often repetitive, and yet share common themes with the dreams of others. We arrive too late for the train. We are unprepared for the big exam. We forget our house keys, lose our eye glasses. Our hair falls out, our teeth are loose, the toilet is plugged. We lift our arms and fly away. The commonality of some dream images points to universal or archetypal motifs in the human psyche, yet each dream is unique to the dreamer, its meaning and relevance part of an intimate and individual portrait of a singular unconscious.

“The dream is a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious,” writes Carl Jung in The Collected Works. (Vol. 8, para 505)

 carl jung for Dreams blog postAfter splitting with his friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud, Jung went on to develop his own theories of dream interpretation. For Jung, they were not manifest representations of repressed (latent) Oedipal conflicts and unresolved childhood wish-fulfillment interpreted against a more or less static system of symbol equivalents (snake=phallus; cave=womb); for Jung, dreams are a dynamic aspect of our evolving psyches.

According to authors Edward Whitmont and Sylvia Brinton Perera in Dreams, a Portal to the Source, “Each dream may be seen as aiming toward a widening of awareness. It offers comment, correction, and contributions toward problem solving. Thereby, it strengthens, coalesces or balances the dreamer’s waking views, and, thus, it serves as an important vehicle to support psychological development.”

Dreams may challenge our assumptions of who we are or may fill out what we don’t already know about ourselves. Jung believed dreams do serve in a compensatory or complementary manner by informing the conscious mind of ignored, overlooked, or denied aspects of self, prompting the dreamer with dream-dramas and narratives the ego has tuned out. Concerning this compensatory function of dreams, Jungian analyst Dr. Murray Stein wrote me: “It’s important to understand that Jung’s use of the term ‘compensation’ means ‘adding to’ and ‘balancing’ and with a prospective, forward-looking meaning that facilitates individuation.”

Viewed from this perspective, the dream is our friend, our ally, our guide over a lifetime. It presents truths that have not yet reached the level of our conscious awareness.

In The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man, Jung wrote, “In each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.”

murray-stein-home for dreams blog postIn dreams, we step out of the ego world of order and certainty into the domain of the interior, where we may discover our true selves and the path to our destiny. In his essay, Jung’s Contributions to Psychoanalysis,” Dr. Stein writes, “With the notion of transformation (Wandlung), Jung introduced dramatic openness and flexibility into the psychic system and laid the groundwork for considering the possibility of prolonged psychological development throughout the lifespan, i.e., the individuation process. With his understanding of the symbol, he radically overcame the prevailing intellectual tendency in psychoanalysis toward reductionism, including psychological reductionism and not only biological reductionism. Together, these two terms open a vast space for investigating the reality of the psyche . . .”

240px-iching-hexagram-59-svgSeveral I Ching hexagrams coax the practitioner: “It furthers one to cross the great water.” So, too, our dreams encourage us to continue onward despite obstacles and rocky terrain. Over time, we encounter inner and outer conflicts. We change, and our dreams reflect these changes or the changes that still need to be addressed. A dream in which you are at a banquet but lacking silverware may mean one thing when you are twenty and something entirely different when you are sixty. Just so, a dream in which you are about to be attacked by wild dogs might suggest your instinctual life feels threatening. In later years, the pack of dogs may have metamorphosed into a loving and loyal canine friend.

We can’t think our way back into dreams, but we can re-enter them with our conscious minds. We can dialogue with dream figures much as Jung did in The Red Book, and ask them to state their intentions and enlighten us with their wisdoms. There is no finite end to the reaches of our imaginations, nor, as our dreams indicate, are there limits to our capacity to transform.

Five Things Our Dreams Could Be Telling Us

  1. Dreams are spontaneous self-portraits, in symbolic form, of the actual psychological situation in the unconscious. (paraphrase of Jung in The Collected Works)
  2. Dreams “offer comment, correction, and contributions toward problem-solving” in our conscious life. (Whitmont & Perera in Dreams, a Portal to the Source)
  3. Dreams inform us of ignored, overlooked or denied aspects of self.
  4. Dreams present the underlying archetypal and mythological motifs that direct, pattern, and give meaning to our waking existence.
  5. Dreams map our psychological and spiritual transformation.


Treating Patients or Creating Characters? Making the Choice

Zurich-Switzerland-948x362

 

A number of years ago I took myself to a small town in Switzerland outside Zurich where Carl Jung founded his training institute for Analytical Psychology. I was exploring the notion of becoming a Jungian analyst and had signed up for a summer intensive training program as a litmus test for a career change. My mother had been calling me her psychiatrist for years, a title I would gladly have shucked if there had been anyone else for the job. I was a dutiful daughter, a patient listener whose sympathetic clucks my mother enthusiastically interpreted as “Poor you.”

By the time I arrived in Küsnacht, I’d earned an MFA in Poetry, had numerous publications in prestigious literary journals and was enjoying teaching writing workshops. It seemed enough. More than enough. My children were still at home, and I could hardly keep up with myself as it was. And yet… something else was calling.

Something else was calling.

Jung himself would have been interested in my choice of words. “Call” from the Old Norse Kalla, meaning “to summon loudly.” What was calling me and to which calling was I being called? The motivation to study depth psychology was nothing as jolting as an angel (or devil) sitting on my shoulder directing me to change my life. It was something more akin to a still small voice that, had I not been listening, might have been drummed out by the cacophony of the daily round.

simone-weil-1200Something else was calling. Actually it was nudging me, poking into my dreams. I didn’t know what IT was, but I was paying attention. Just about this time, I had begun to write persona poems, that is, poems in the voice of a speaker who is not the poet, dramatic monologues really, and mine were in the voice of famous women—Simone Weil, Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe. I see now that I was beginning to need a larger canvas than poetry to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I was evolving from a poet to a storyteller, and soon a writer of fiction, but none of this was clear to me when I stood on the steps of the Jung Insititut at Hornweg 28 on the Zurichsee.

Something was calling. Most of us know the feeling—the nameless, faceless prompting that niggles our mind and causes us to flail in our sleep. It’s the road we fear we might not take to an unknowable future.

In my case, the impulse turned out to be writerly, leading me away from crafting lyric poems toward writing a novel. I needed to understand better those paradoxes and conundrums of the human soul that are the basis of good fiction. Therapists and fiction writers share a lot in common: our charge is to observe and empathize with our clients/characters, to listen to their stories and help them discover new ones, to excavate the strata of their experience and bear witness to their motivations, their secrets, their unspoken desires. To do this with grace and objectivity, we need to know our own biases and personality ticks.

My “aha” moment, when I realized becoming an analyst was not for me, occurred while chatting with a fellow trainee. The day was postcard perfect—grazing sheep and gardens of Old-World roses scattered among the colorful medieval houses of Küsnacht, the Alps outlined against an enameled blue sky. My friend and I were discussing “transference,” the phenomenon in which a patient’s unconscious feelings are projected, “transferred” onto the analyst/therapist. (Say you resent your father and have never been able express it, but hey, it’s easy to cuss out your analyst.) Much of the healing in analysis, I was learning, got accomplished through transference whereby the analyst remains a mirror for the analysand to see his own feelings. Bad behavior on the part of the cussee was never to be taken personally by the analyst.

The “Paul/Laura” episodes of HBO’s In Treatment dramatized transference

I remembering thinking on that perfect afternoon in Switzerland: Do I really want to be so intimate with the anger and grief of others? Was my skin thick enough? All day I would be listening to stories and trying not to absorb the emotions behind them. These would not be invented stories either, but narrative tales bound to the real world and woven out of real suffering. Though I knew myself to be the best of empathizers, I didn’t know if I had the emotional stamina for the job.

I realized I wanted to explore the stories in my own psyche that were not bound to time and fact. The writer and analyst/therapist share a preoccupation with narrative and a love of mucking around in the unconscious where personality incubates and where the inexpressible is born into metaphor and image, but the desire to create art is vastly different from the intention of analysis. If I were going to explore inner worlds, it would be my own inner world, and by extension, the inner worlds of my characters, a much more selfish and self-serving goal than that of a becoming an analyst.

Embedded in the art of writing is the art of listening, true listening without the ego’s ready assertions, those automatic habits and defenses that define our public selves. This is listening the way I imagine a horse “listens” to the shifting musculature of its rider. I was just beginning to sense that I housed characters who wanted me to listen to them in just this manner, whose stories I needed to uncover and disclose.

800px-Jung-InstitutI knew that if I decided to continue with analytic training, the experience would profoundly transform me, and that I would have to make a choice between becoming an analyst and writing, between treating patients and creating characters. I wouldn’t be able to sustain both.

I listened to fabulous lectures for two summers at the C.G. Jung Institut, but I did not stay to get my diploma. Instead, I opened myself to a new way of looking at the world, its shadows and archetypes, the likes of which would surface in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love.

And here’s an afterthought: the something else that calls us can manifest in cunning ways. Both summers I attended the Institut I was called away before the program finished, once for a family celebration and once for a sudden death in the family. Was the fact that I was called home early both times a coincidence or something more? How to interpret the interruptions? I would have to dig into Jung’s explanation of synchronicity and its relationship to fate to understand.