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.


The Hero’s Night Sea Journey: Lunar Consciousness in Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are cover for post on lunar consciousness

Late one rainy afternoon, while I was organizing my bookshelves, I discovered a copy of Maurice Sendak’s award-winning picture book, Where The Wild Things Are. On the cover was the well-remembered curious creature, part monster (claws, horns, gigantic in size and girth), part human with its dreamy, endearing smile and clean, unhairy man-feet.

It’s a quiet night in the monster’s world. Not a breeze stirs the palm trees under which he dozes, the brightening night sky still dominated by stars. Opposite the sleeping monster a lone sailboat is anchored in a churning river, but no human sailor is in sight.

Child and adult readers alike understand what these images convey: open the book and you too sail into a fantastic world in which known entities – trees, sailboats, moon and stars – coexist with the shapes of things unknown. We have inhabited this territory all our lives, since most nights we too are stirred when our unconscious minds generously initiate and guide us into the unfamiliar and sublime realm of dreams.

Murray Stein for post on lunar consciousnessIn his book, Minding the Self, renowned Jungian analyst Murray Stein describes what he calls solar and lunar consciousness, the former relating to our everyday waking consciousness, the latter referring to the unconscious realm of imagination and dreams. Stein writes:

“The dreaming mind is autonomous and free of the waking ego’s controlling influences. In dreams, the ‘I’ figure is one character among others in the dramas, and not the controlling center. In normal waking consciousness, the ego’s position is quite different, usually central. In what we may call solar consciousness, to distinguish from lunar consciousness, the ego is the center of consciousness and holds the levers of control. . . . Solar consciousness can proceed by logical thinking rather than by association, metaphor and image.”

In contrast, the movement of the lunar mind is through musing and reverie that may playfully juxtapose associative images to bring about a new sense of meaning which eludes the ego/solar conscious mind. “In alchemy,” writes Stein, “Sol and Luna are brother and sister. For depth psychology, solar and lunar minds are seen as complimentary aspects of a single entity, the mind as a whole.”

It is into this world of lunar consciousness that Sendak invites us to join him.

Douris Cup from Vatican for post on lunar consciousness

At the core of the story is the archetype of transformation young Max undergoes during the mythopoeic adventure of a night sea journey. Jung writes in The Psychology of the Transference, “The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos – a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious.” Typically, in night sea journeys the hero is swallowed by a whale or sea creature, but Jung’s description suggests a form of katabasis, the Greek word for “gradual descending,” used in the ancient world to describe a descent in search of understanding, often to the underworld for the purpose of renewal and rebirth.

And so it is with Max, Sendak’s young hero, dressed in his wolf suit, complete with snarly grimace and claws, a boy in a costume soon to meet the monsters of his own imagination.

Max, and his inner monsters, can only be transformed during the night, for it is through unconscious means that the child’s anger, unappeased by logic and rational thought and impervious to parental demands, is assuaged. Sendak tells us as much through his poignant illustrations: within a couple pages Max’s day-world disappears. His bedroom sprouts a forest; shining outside Max’s window, the full moon waxes and wanes according to its own inherent laws and wisdoms. We have entered timeless space, wilderness, where nature, in its weird and lovely fecundity, reigns.

Sendak has written and spoken about how his personal history influenced his work. The monstrousness of the holocaust, the European relatives he thought of as “grotesques,” the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as a manifestation of collective evil, all shaped the children’s tales Sendak wrote. But Sendak is also telling us something more profound about the transpersonal aspect of ego development, that wildness made conscious is energy that can be harnessed for the creative rather than the destructive.

NOW with Bill Moyers: Maurice Sendak from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

Max said, “BE STILL!” and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.

Joseph Campbell has called this scene, in a conversation with Bill Moyers, “one of the great moments in literature . . . because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.”

We need not lose our human form to rage or fear. In the dark night of the soul, potentialities and possibilities exist, though a different kind of vision may be necessary to see them.

Carl_Gustav_JungIn Dream Analysis, Jung wrote: “[The] great principle of transformation [begins] through the things that are lowest . . . that hide from the light of day and from man’s enlightened thinking, hold also the secret of life, that renews itself again and again, until at last, when man understands, he may grasp the inner meaning which has been till then hidden within the very texture of the concrete happening.”

“Let the wild rumpus start!” Max shouts after being made king of all the wild things. He is announcing a joyous new order, one that celebrates the integration of solar and lunar consciousness. We have ascended with him from the underworld into a new day.



The Civilizing Effect / Finding Refuge

College-Hall-After-Dark

The Vermont College of Fine Arts Alumni Magazine asked me to contribute an article about “Life after the MFA” for its Winter 2014 issue. As graduation season approaches, I’d like to share these words of encouragement and strategies for coping with writers and artists everywhere who may be facing difficult transitions. Do let me know what you think.

Tarot_Fool_RWSLike the fool in the Tarot, when we leave graduate school we’re all potentiality, accompanied solely by our trustworthy dog, our instincts. As an inner quest, it’s a solitary journey, but one that outwardly propels us to seek a balance between engagement with others and communion with our private souls. To paraphrase John Updike: Writers are cave-dwellers who want to be chased into the cave. Most of us in the arts welcome interiority, but not to the exclusion of interaction and attention.

Probably it’s an exaggeration to think of leaving the MFA fold as exile—graduation is a ritual of transition not an enforced condition—but let’s face it, once we depart the walled villa of graduate school, its significant mentors and tribes of friends, we’ve changed. I’m talking about often radical transformation, shifts in perception, self-awareness, altered habits of speech and thought—subtle and wrenching metamorphoses.

A funny image comes to mind. Remember Lon Chaney in the Wolf Man movies? Remember how his forehead would begin to bulge and fur crept up his neck? Remember the horrifying spectacle of watching him watch himself become a beast? Let’s just play with the idea that VCFA grad school has the opposite, civilizing effect.

Or let’s say we’re initiates undergoing a rite of passage—we’re being scarified, tattooed, sent to the moon hut, learning to decode the stars. The purpose is to move us to the next stage of development. The transition is luminal but time-bound: for ten days we’re severed from the known world. Our preconceptions about ourselves, our work, the meaning of work are morphing. Soon we’ll be bestowed adult membership in the clan. We’ll carry on the tradition. We’re the seeds, the fruit.

Anthony StorrThe British psychiatrist Anthony Storr suggests that when a break with the past is imminent and issues of identity, belonging, and continuity arise—while the furniture in our psyche is being rearranged—patience, retreat, and reflection are required. Simply put, don’t rush to the surface of your life without expecting to get the bends. If art is an act of incarnation so is the evolution of an artist.

On the other hand, when it’s time to leave campus as graduates, we’re beset by homesickness and anxiety. It’s been a big experience. Without the structure of a residency, without assignments, deadlines, or the goal of attaining a degree, how will we manage to keep our public/domestic lives from usurping or artistic space? We’re lonely for the old life, our teachers and our cohorts. Where will we now find community? Inspiration and support?

In-post-MFA life we’re a scattered lot. But we belong to a history we carry as part of our identity, a place inside ourselves, a refuge we can return to again and again when our creativity feels in jeopardy. Recently I emailed my friend and dharma teacher Cheri Maples, co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness & Justice, about the Buddhist notion of sangha and taking refuge. cheri-maples-transmission-of-the-lamp-ceremonyCheri, ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, whom she calls “Thay,” replied: “Thay speaks of sangha at a cellular level (the sangha body), which is totally interrelated to refuge . . . when we’re together as a practice community (sangha), we rest in common shared values, and then when we go outside, we’re the living embodiment of that community (we’re a cell representing that body, reflecting those value and commitments of that body). We return to the sangha/community for refuge, to rest and replenish ourselves. We know we create something together as a sangh that no one can create individually.”

We’re a cell representing that body, reflecting those values. . . . This is the perfect image of how I think of post-MFA life. We take refuge in the teaching we’ve absorbed, in our creative selves, and in the good company of others. When we need support, we find each other. We return to campus for retreats. We’re never without sources or resources. We continue together as sangha, as vital cells of a living whole.

Three Jewels