As portrayed by the eighth-century Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus is a handsome lad pursued by “youths and young girls” but indifferent to their attention. One day, while hunting alone in a shady virgin forest, he comes across a clear pool of water; bending to drink, he is transfixed by what he sees. Instantly, as if pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows, he is “struck with wonder by what’s wonderful in him … He wants himself.” Narcissus, writes Ovid in Allen Mandelbaum’s wonderful translation, “tries to quench one thirst,” and “feels another rise.” The lad has fallen into fatal self-admiration.
The story does not end happily. Speaking to his reflection in the water, the besotted Narcissus says, “Your gaze is fond and promising; I stretch my arms to you, and you reach back in turn. I smile and you smile, too…” But when Narcissus tries to embrace his simulacrum, the image disperses.
Despite his frustration and suffering, Narcissus cannot leave the spot. He lies beside the pool and wastes away. In the poem’s concluding stanza, Ovid tells us that even in the underworld, after death, Narcissus continues to stare into the pool of Styx, fixated forever on his own image.
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.
As 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.
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.
Written 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.
Anyone who has been raised by a cruel or neglectful mother can attest to a painful legacy of rejection. The effects of deprivation of good maternal care are uncontestably at the core of a host of psychological maladies. Our first relationship is with our mothers. Across cultures an infant’s first attempt at word-forming starts with babbling the sound Ma—mommy, maman, mater, mutti, amma, mare—as if from birth we are programmed to call out to the person most likely to sustain our lives.
But what do we make of negative mothers, those who do not care for and attend to us? Once, on a friend’s sheep farm where I’d gone to help with lambing, I witnessed the sad spectacle of a mother ewe rejecting her offspring. Tottering on its weak legs, the lamb struggled to nuzzle and suckle, but the ewe shoved the lamb from its udder. The lamb tried again, and again the ewe kicked and butted until the newborn lamb collapsed and gave up. Recently, while reading Peg Streep’s excellent book, Mean Mothers, this haunting image returned to me.
“. . . not all mothers love, unconditionally or otherwise. For the mother who doesn’t, the cultural myths of unconditional love and maternal instinct require her to hide and deny her feelings at all costs, even if she cannot always keep herself from expressing them in words or gestures. There’s no room in the mother myth for the mother who resents all the attention her infant or toddler needs, or who chafes at the necessary loss of freedom and self-focus the transition into motherhood usually entails.”—Peg Streep, Mean Mothers
Our personal mother may be cruel and inadequate in fulfilling our needs, but it’s helpful to enlarge our understanding of their influence by exploring the archetypal dimensions of motherhood and situating the personal within the context of the universal. As Carl Jung writes:
“. . . all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity.”—Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
Behind the personal mother is the archetype of the Great Mother. She is the force that drives creation and destruction, fecundity but also the barren womb. The Great Mother is Mother Nature who brings us fruit and grain but also hurricanes, drought, and locusts. She is Gaia, Demeter, Isis, and all the other goddesses from the beginning of time who have been worshiped and propitiated, demonized and thrown out. She is not our birth mother, she is the our psychic heritage of what motherhood attains, and she carries within her the poles of good and bad mothers that come down to us through fairy tales and myths.
“These are three essential aspects of the mother: her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.” —Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
As the bad mother we know her as the queen in Snow White, as Cinderella’s stepmother, as Circe or Medusa, whose gaze turns us to stone. These figures stand for a reversal of positive mothering. Instead of providing food and comfort, they seduce and devour, harboring a secret malicious intent. They “eat up” our self-confidence or numb us with their betrayal. Many of us read these tales and identify ourselves in the narrative. We say, Yes, my mother is just like that, and we can understand that from the beginning of time there have probably been mean mothers, and realize, because of this long history, that we too can survive our own.
Among the archetypes, the witch is a fascinating figure. When someone calls another “a witch,” we know exactly what they mean. The witch has powers. She is uncanny and unholy. She lives outside the borders of civilization and has been ostracized because her ways stand in opposition to accepted values, thus challenging our own impulse to conform. To not conform, especially as women, puts us at risk of being called a witch (or the rhyming word that begins with a B).
“The witch figure presents an awesome image of the primordial feminine concern with herself. Maternal life spends itself like life’s blood flowing outward to nourish the sounds and bodies of loved ones. In the witch figure, life flows inward and downward to fuel the dark recesses of a woman’s psyche or a man’s anima.”—Ann and Barry Ulanov, The Witch and the Clown: Two Archetypes of Human Sexuality
The witch reminds us there may well be unnamable and untamable aspects of ourselves where passions stagnate and fester. What parts of us don’t fit into the conventional idealized feminine? Do we harbor an urge that wishes to transgress and to cross borders? Historically, innocent women have been tortured and killed because the prevailing masculine rule feared female sexuality.
What if we draw on the full complexity of the mother archetype and think of our mean mothers in another way: as women whose creativity has been stifled, the vital flow of their creative energies dammed up, ignored or rejected, and thus unavailable to be consciously used? Without a positive outlet, these women may experience a fixed negativity that damages their ability to nurture.
The hundreds of similar fairy tales illustrate the universality of certain psychic phenomena. In most tales, the witch is a persecutory figure. She pounces on victims who feel helpless to defend themselves. In reality, young children can be helpless victims of parental neglect, and good fairies do not always intercede. But as adults, we can see beyond our own situations to the archetypal dimensions that underlie our present reality and discover we do not suffer alone. In these tales, help of some sort usually steps forward to rescue the heroine, often in the form of animals, birds or toads. We can hope that these also represent archetypes: inner helpers cultivated in our own psyches who will lead us out of harm’s way.