The Psychology of Dreams

The instructor at the Jung Center in New York City asked for a show of hands, indicating reasons for attending this Saturday seminar on dreams. How many attendees were students? How many were therapists? How many were social workers? Clusters of hands went up in response to each question. Then the instructor asked who were present simply for the love of dreams? Every hand in the place was raised.

Dreams are like that. We all have them at some time in our lives. The instructor, a Jungian analyst, asked a few questions about how often we dream. Some attendees dream almost every night; some dream rarely. She asked if we remembered our first dream. A few remembered dreams they had at ages four and six. I think how wonderful that experience must be. I recall growing up in London during World War II. The London Blitz was over but the VI and VII rockets still threatened the city. I recall the heavy blackout curtains. My older sister, now almost 94, said I was born after an air raid warning chased her and my mother back to their flat just in time for my birth. I wanted to ask the instructor what does trauma do to our capacity to dream but didn’t want to personalize the class. During the course of the day, I would mention to a few students my “In the Shadow of the DMZ,” a book-length poem about the wars I’ve experienced and imagined.

The instructor informed us that we should “hold” dreams in the room. Psychologically, that seemed like good advice though I heard nothing during the day that would invite after-class gossip. There were jokes about some people using dreams as predictors. For some, dreaming a certain number would be a strong indication that the number might be magical and worth playing when the lottery came to town.

Dreams are like that; commonplace and baffling. They were once the province of the prophets. I’ve done a fair bit of research regarding the Catholic Church’s efforts through its various councils to discourage a person’s private symbol-making ability. This has been a very contentious issue because it is about image and soul-making. Freud, for all his literalism, said that the dream is the royal road to soul-making. Jung was more emphatic, saying image is psyche, image is soul. As Jung showed us in his “The Red Book,” the dream connects us to the Personal and Collective Unconscious and the sometimes monstrous and impossible archetypes that populate our dreams.

Our Jungian instructor was very practical and focused and seemed less inclined to make such heroic leaps. She addressed a question about encouraging the dream. If I want to dream, I should ask for it; I should ask permission to receive the dream. This is an important part of Jungian analysis. For Jung, the psyche or soul was autonomous. He frequently referred to the autonomous psyche and reminded his students about being in service to soul. This meant a humble and pious approach to the dream.

Our teacher suggested that dreams indicate movement in our psyche, a possibility for transformation. Dreams propel us into the future. A small kernel, a phrase, a sentence or an amorphous image is worth reflecting on. I think about the dream journals that I have kept for more than twenty years. From time to time I go back and read the entries, some as confusing as they were in 1997. Nonetheless, there are enough hints, metaphors and symbols that chart my psychological development during upheavals in my personal and professional lives. I am reminded of what Jung said, that our journeys during the second half of life would be inside out, with the psyche leading the way. The instructor will get to the personas we wear to mask our inner lives from the world and ourselves.

We watch part of a movie about Jung called “The Wisdom of the Dream.” I was reminded again how much the dream seemed to be an aesthetic for Jung and so often resulted in paintings or other art works either by him or others. In the movie we see displayed as art the details of a dream Jung experienced, reinforcing his idea that the unconscious was real. Jung dreamt of a house in layers. On the top floor was the salon, the orderly space for living in the daylight. As he descended through the house in his dream, the house got starker and darker until he reached the basement where he found skulls. The paintings that recorded this dream depicted the layers of consciousness. Jung believed that modern man and woman have been cut off from this unconscious past, the depths and the host.

The instructor was now at the whiteboard sketching elements of the psyche. She drew a large egg-shaped oval, with an east/west line through the middle. North represented our consciousness and south our unconscious. She drew another east/west line just below the first, informing us that the belt, this band, represented our Personal Unconscious. This is where most our dream images come from; our daily encounters, fears and regrets which might become witches, mad dogs and midgets in our dreams. The psyche seemed to transform and coat images with new metaphorical layers, giving our lives a different perspective through the kaleidoscope of the dream.

In the north hemisphere, a tiny blip on the globe is the Persona, always present and usually inadequate to hide everything we wish to be secret. Another small circle in this region represents the Ego which is much smaller and less important than we think. In the southern hemisphere is the Collective Unconscious, home to ancient time and the archetypes. Our instructor tells us that it is hard to reach this level and the archetypal grounds of Mother, Life, Death, Birth and the like. Dreams are one way. Jung spoke about this soul work as individuation, bringing together our separate parts into an organized whole. On the chart this is called the Self and is represented by a small oval that overlays the belt between the conscious and unconscious. This represents Jung’s joining of opposites.

Before his death Jung said that what he had learned was enough to cover the nail on one of his fingers. He spoke with humor and humility, acknowledging that this psychological task was not easy. The instructor points to the place of the “Shadow” in the collective unconscious, reminding us that the shadow is not what we usually think; it represents what I don’t know about myself.

She also mentioned the Anima and Animus, the unconscious forces that figure prominently in dreams. The Anima represents the soul or the feminine in man’s psyche while the Animus represents the male force in a woman’s psyche. Understanding the anima or animus within is essential if we are to come to consciousness.

The instructor gets a little deeper into the architecture of the dream. If I appear or seem to appear as “me” in a dream, this likely represents my ego and a snapshot of reality. It likely means I am a player in the dream and engaged. If I am an observer in a dream and see the action unfolds, as if at a distance, I am less engaged and perhaps not ready to embrace the full consequences of the dream. Or the dream might be more equivocal, with me at times observing the action and at other times engaged. Jung, who said it’s better to be engaged in a dream, seemed to have the final word on this.

The night of the seminar I dreamt I was standing by a ramshackle house that appeared to have been partially destroyed. The front porch showed particular damage. In front of this structure was a pitch. I saw a young man placing a soccer ball near a flag, apparently preparing for a corner kick. I stationed myself in a position where I could kick or head the ball. The ball that came towards me and went over my head had taken on the appearance of a barrel bomb similar to those frequently used in the current conflict in Syria. The bomb landed with a thud and a small explosion about thirty yards from me near a family with children who were having a picnic. I went over to see if they were all right, telling them I was their witness.

The dream seminar surely touched something in me. As a child I had played soccer among bombed out buildings and corrugated steel bomb shelters. Like many Americans, I have been appalled by the bombing of civilians in Syria. I served on an ammunition ship in the U.S. Navy and became very familiar with a variety of bombs. I am still haunted by the memories of my ship the USS Mount Baker delivering 2,000-pound bombs to aircraft carriers to be dropped on Vietnam. The tonnage was more than the total dropped on Europe in World War II.

Jung and others have suggested that dreams unfold like a drama with fits, starts and transformations. The transformation of soccer ball into a barrel bomb satisfied this dream logic. I am a soccer fan and watched a game a few hours after the seminar. We learned in the seminar that a dream represented a certain morality. Perhaps I am paying too much attention to soccer and not the horrors of war. In the dream, I am first an observer waiting to get into the game. Then I confront the horror and become a witness.

I will return to this dream again and again, knowing that the narrative will change based on my psychological state and the world at large.

Healing the psyche takes a lifetime.