Dreams And Jungian Analysis
Constance Romero, LPC, LMFT
I am going to begin with a quote from Jung about the archetypal nature and origin of dreams which Marilyn evoked in her article:
The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness, and will remain psyche no matter how far ego-consciousness extends.
Jung believed that dreams were independent, spontaneous manifestations of the unconscious that could take various forms. Often they compensated the conscious standpoint of the dreamer, but they might also indicate a future possibility, predict a literal occurrence or indicate the presence of significant trauma (PTSD). He wrote (in contrast to Freud) that ”Dreams are...natural phenomena which are nothing other than what they pretend to be. They do not deceive, they do not lie, they do not distort or disguise. They are invariably seeking to express something that the ego does not know and does not understand.”
He also wrote this about working with dreams:
A dream that is not understood remains a mere occurrence; understood, it becomes a living experience.
Twenty years ago I had the privilege of hearing a dream from a woman at the battered women’s shelter where I worked as a therapist. She was 53, had been married for 30 years, and had worked most of her life as a librarian. Unlike most residents at the shelter, she had not come to escape physical battering, but was seeking respite from the long-term effects of ongoing verbal and emotional abuse. One morning, without telling anyone, she packed a small bag and left her home, husband, church, and the extended family she had been with for most of her life. It was an act of stark courage.
When I first met her, she had been at the shelter a few days and had heard that I was interested in dreams. She wanted to talk about a dream that she’d had two nights before:
I am in the bedroom of my house sitting on the bed with my 2 sisters. We are talking, when all of a sudden, I look out of the window and see the moon. It is very full. I go over and open the window to see more closely. I realize that the moon has begun to bleed. I point this out to my sisters, but they can't see it. They just keep talking. I then notice there is a silver cup on the windowsill and I pick it up. I hold it out so the drops of blood will fall into the cup.
As her counselor I was very fortunate, because this woman already knew the dream had something important to tell her. I felt it had something important to tell me too and, over the years, I have often returned to these images or shared them when experiencing the powerful emotions of a life transition.
This dream, unlike many, has a clear structure whose images readily impress themselves upon the dreamer, and I wondered if this was due to the urgency of her situation? The dreamer felt terribly stuck and did not know how to proceed with her life. We might imagine that her unconscious was highly activated through the crisis and, as a result, was producing images and scenes to further inform her of her situation. In such times, if one can relate to and reflect on the dream material, there is the possibility for change. This process is an example of what Jung called The Transcendent Function, and I will describe this further as we go along.
Jung has suggested that, on initially hearing a dream, it is important to remember that we don’t know what the dream means, and it is a good idea to leave our preconceptions at the door. We do not try to fit a preexisting paradigm on the dream, but rather wait for the associations of the dreamer. Even though the images in a dream may be archetypal and have a shared significance at the collective level, they will also have a specific meaning for each dreamer. Stock or canned interpretations of an image or symbol for example, where the moon means the same thing in every dream often do not range far or wide enough to capture what is happening in the life of the individual. We can miss both the specificity and deeper meaning the image may hold for the dreamer’s current circumstances. So, we get her personal associations first and then weigh these alongside her current circumstances and the archetypal motifs.
As a sidebar: it is important to note there are no “good” or “bad” dreams. We may feel a dream is good or bad, but dreams themselves are neither. They may appear opaque, luminous, terrifying, humorous, or completely nonsensical. Whatever the case, it is a good idea to reserve judgment, to wait and see if we can allow the dream to speak to us by reflecting on its images and the emotions that well up.
Jung has also suggested that we reflect on the structure of the dream. He likened the narrative of a dream to the structure of a play where there is a specific setting with characters and an unfolding drama. Sometimes we get a full play; and sometimes, just a scene or two.
In this dream setting, we have the exposition where the dreamer and her sisters are in her home, in her bedroom, and seated on her bed. The action builds to a climax when she tries to get her sisters to see the moon. A resolution follows as the moon bleeds. After this, we have what Jung called a lysis, where the dream elements provide an indication of where the dreamer’s energy might be headed (the lysis here being that she collects the blood in her silver cup).
After taking note of the setting of the dream, its characters, and “story,” I asked the dreamer for her personal associations: that is, what came up spontaneously for her when she reflected on the dream? She replied:
I know it was important for me to collect the drops of blood. I knew I had to do that, but it was upsetting that I was the only one who could see the moon and what was going on. I really wanted my sisters to see it, but they couldn't.
I was curious not only about her feelings with regard to her sisters, but how she felt throughout the dream, because emotions (or their lack) alert us to the presence of complexes. We both felt awed by the uncanny “ritualistic” quality of the images. Jung believed that such powerful emotional responses verified the presence of archetypal material.
Upon further reflection this woman discovered a definite link between her waking life and the dream scene. She felt that her sisters did not see the terrible situation she was in or understand her desire to leave. It was especially hurtful that neither they nor the people in her church believed she had a right to her feelings. They told her that because her husband was not an alcoholic, worked a regular job, and was not a womanizer, that she should be grateful. They believed that her husband’s continuous put-downs were a small price to pay for the “stability” of her life. No one could see her suffering or emerging sense of self-worth as anything other than rebellion and self-absorption. Her desire to claim her self-worth had thus become a threat to the “old order,” not only in her outer world, but also to the old order within herself.
This situation, over the long term, had generated a deep conflict inside her and, as Jung describes in Symbols of Transformation, the tension between the opposites (here illustrated by the feeling she should stay versus needing to find a more authentic way to live) was constellated. The crisis generated within her had caused the unconscious to become activated at a deep level. Such times can feel chaotic, akin to a “dark night of the soul” or a “night sea journey” because our usual conscious orientation is no longer effective. Our old coping mechanisms don’t work anymore and we feel lost, frightened, and stuck.
However, such times may also be opportune. Jung imagines that in these kinds of circumstances the libido or life force of the individual that is dammed up in opposition to itself now begins to flow back down into the unconscious. The images of the collective unconscious become activated by this additional psychic energy and dreaming may become more prominent. If one has a stable enough conscious position (we can use analysis to facilitate this) and can reflect on the images that arise, things may shift. In this way our dream images may become our guides.
I did not say to this woman at the time (in part because I did not know her well enough) but I wondered if the sisters in the dream also represented aspects of her Shadow; that is, if the dream sisters were symbolic of not only her actual sisters who diminished her feelings, but also represented some dis-owned, emotionally shut off and disconnected parts of herself? This woman was, in addition to being abused in her immediate environment, no doubt deeply hurt by patriarchal culture at large. However, as we all do, she had introjected these dismissive attitudes unconsciously and could not readily perceive them in herself.
There are also other possibilities in the image of the two sisters: Jung has suggested that when images in dreams appear doubled, it may signify that material that was previously less conscious is now moving closer to consciousness. The number two in myth and folklore is also often said to represent confrontation, opposition, or a conflict that was previously hidden which is now in view. Is it possible she was becoming more conscious of her sisters' effect on her as well as her own projections?
This notion of imagining the traits of others in the dream as not only belonging to them, but as aspects of ourselves was expressed by Jung when he wrote: “A Dream is a theater in which the dreamer is himself, the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic.”
Another element about the dream setting is the location. It takes place in the bedroom of her home. The dreamer did not make any associations to this, and I did not wish to be intrusive at such an early stage. However, there were some things about which I wondered. For example, is the dream in the bedroom because it is so personal a matter, that is, so close to home? Was the bed a place of sexual wounding? Could it be a window onto a kind of rebirth? What might this say about her marriage either way? Was she too psychically embedded with her sisters and their view of her marriage?
There is no way to answer these questions, but clearly the bed is a place of transition. We are born and die in bed; it can be the site of deep, early nurturance as well as a place of passionate awakening or repression. In short, it might represent a sort of psychological crossroads for this woman where things could go any number of ways. It is also curious to me that the moon and the blood and even the cup all exist outside her house. Might the image be saying she needs to get outside herself and her situation a bit, but that the container for her own transformation (the cup) is within her reach?
I next asked the dreamer what her associations to the moon and its bleeding might be. She had few words, but said there was an excitement and an emotional pull to the images she didn’t understand. At that point, I offered an amplification by suggesting that the moon in many cultures has long been associated with women. More specifically, that the moon was a symbol for the feminine mysteries surrounding childbirth, menstruation, menopause, and death. I wondered if these initiatory feminine transitions might be resonating something about her own experience? At this she nodded adamantly, and we wondered if she might be undergoing, like the moon, a transformational cycle. In her suffering was she waxing, waning and possibly becoming fertile, though not in the physical sense? Whatever it was, she had to collect and sacralize her experience.
One might ask, could the moon be representative of a new kind of “lunar” consciousness? Is it a call for her to value her innate feelings and body as equally important as another’s and as part of a lineage of feminine knowledge that remains somewhat hidden in current culture? Is hers a form of experience that needs a different kind of consciousness to see?
Rather than being a “lunatic,” as her family suggested, was she the recipient of something life-giving and renewing? I had the sense that she intuitively viewed the images of the blood and silver cup as gifts of sustenance from a deep well. Were they, for her, “the blood of life, the cup of salvation”?
What I did not say then but thought later, was that I saw in her dream something akin to the drama of a feminine Christ figure; only her cross was erected and borne in the lunar world the (under)world of feminine consciousness. I imagined that, on some level, she had been crucified in her old life and had died or was dying to it. By taking the silver cup a symbolic image of the womb she had become willing to take up her suffering in a more conscious fashion. We can recognize the Christian iconography in this dream, especially through the sliver chalice or grail. Through such images we can feel the archetypal realm of our shared religious iconography making its way into our conscious experience.
In this dream powerful images of suffering and possible renewal arose. These images produced strong feelings of awe in the dreamer that inspired her in a time of crisis. At the very least, she was able to get herself to a place where she could rest and reflect. Such times, which exist outside our normal routines, can create the psychological spaciousness for the possibility of change.
In the process of the Transcendent Function, it is the new image with its hope and power that facilitates the life force of the dreamer to become unstuck. The psychic energy that was in opposition (between conscious and unconscious) may be released, because it now has a new channel along which to flow. These emergent images (symbols) with their numinous energy may provide new meaning for the dreamer. In Jungian analysis, the analyst provides relational attunement along with his/her knowledge and training to facilitate this process.
(As an aside: This woman decided to return home but only after she was assured by her family that the verbal abuse would stop. What the long-term situation was I cannot say, but at three-month followup, she reported she was doing well and was no longer depressed.)
Most of the time, getting to the point where the Transcendent Function is activated takes time and work. In analysis, we will need to follow our dreams for some time and contemplate their feelings and imagery. We also need to look for any archetypal patterns that may be emerging. When these elements combine and infuse our ongoing exploration, the dream can be felt as a living experience. At such moments, we know we have gained, not only an intellectual understanding, but a shift in our being. New possibilities arise and our capacity for relatedness increases both with ourselves and others. It also becomes apparent that there is a process beyond our ego control that is guiding or shaping the journey. Jung called this process Individuation and believed it to be under the aegis of the archetype of the Self which is discussed in Charlotte's article.
Some practical suggestions for facilitating dreams are to keep a pad and pencil by your bed or a tape recorder. When you wake you can record what you were dreaming without it slipping away. Jung has stated that the unconscious shows us the face we show it. There is a correspondence between how we approach our dreams and what they yield to our consciousness. Generally, it helps to have an attitude of humility and curiosity when one attempts to engage the unconscious with its numinous energies.