Monday, February 02, 2009


“It is always as if we were observing through a slit so that we only see a particular moment; all the rest is dark and we are not aware of it at that moment. The area of the unconscious is enormous and always continuous, while the area of consciousness is a restricted field of momentary vision.” [Jung, Analytical Psychology: its theory and Practice, p. 8]

“Man (sic) as we realize if we reflect for a moment, never perceives anything fully or comprehends anything completely,” [Jung, Man and His Symbols, p. 21]


I start with the two Jung quotes above because we need to understand that our ego consciousness is extremely limited. Any event of our lives has details and information associated with it that go unnoticed by us but that may be extremely important. It is often the case that these unnoted but important elements are brought to our attention in a subsequent dream. This is one valuable way dreams can inform our ego consciousness.

The more we can expand our consciousness, the less likely we are to fall victim to unconscious forces that can make a mess of our lives. As we shall see in this course, dreams are a natural way that unconscious contents make themselves known. By taking notice of and exploring our dreams, we can considerably increase the scope of our conscious understanding. Since you are taking this course, you probably are already convinced of the value of dreams.

Some Assumptions

Following are some working hypotheses that we will hold as we take up our topic:

1. Every dream is an attempt to help us heal and move us toward wholeness.

2. Every dream is a comment on our life situation.

3. Threads from any dream can and do lead into many, many areas of our lives.

4. Through patient attention to our dreams, we can make contact with and enter into a meaningful dialogue with the unconscious. [By unconscious, I simply mean the source of those factors that influence and impact our lives in unknown ways.]

5. The unconscious is Janus-faced; i.e., it turns to us the face we turn to it.

6. Every dream is given to us for the purpose of healing past hurts, enlarging our perspective, and/or integrating portions of our personality.

7. The dream brings new information to compensate or complement our waking attitudes.

8. Our life energy, or libido, is personified in dreams, as if the psyche or the unconscious wants to draw us into a living relationship.

9. Relationships with inner figures can be as important, enriching, and rewarding as relationships with people in our outer lives.

10. Our inner and outer lives are in some way mirrors of each other. Dream work can provide for a more harmonious balance between the two.

11. The psyche has a teleological aspect, i.e., it is working towards a goal or purpose. Further, it seeks our participation and cooperation.

It seems to me that the unconscious both conceals and reveals itself. It both yearns to be seen, yet is reluctant. In analysis, a secured-symbolizing field is certainly necessary for the analysand. Such a field is also necessary for the unconscious. [Goodheart describes therapeutic containers as the “safe and secured spheres or circles in which ‘heavy’ things can safely happen.” This is the sense in which I use the phrase, “secured-symbolizing field.”] I doubt that our course will provide such a field. However, it can open us to the possibilities for creating that kind of sacred space for ourselves.

Symbols and Symbolic Meaning

Since dreams speak in the language of symbols, this is a good place to interject a few notions about symbols. Jung, in Man and His Symbols, pp. 20-27, writes:

A symbol “implies something vague, unknown or hidden from us.” . . . . “Thus a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”

“Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.”

“Thus every experience contains an indefinite number of unknown factors, not to speak of the fact that every concrete object is always unknown in certain respects, because we cannot know the ultimate nature of matter itself.”

“As a general rule, the unconscious aspect of any event is revealed to us in dreams, where it appears not as a rational thought but as a symbolic image.”

And Paul Tillich, in Dynamics of Faith, pp. 41-43, writes:

“Symbols . . . point beyond themselves to something else.” Symbols “participate in the reality of that to which they point” Symbols cannot “be replaced for reasons of expediency or convention. . .”

A symbol “opens up levels of reality which are otherwise closed to us.” And a symbol “also unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality.”

“Symbols cannot be produced intentionally. . .” Symbols “cannot function without being accepted by the unconscious dimensions of our being.” Symbols grow and they die.

What is a symbol to one person may or may not be to another. The meaning a symbol takes on is determined not in itself, but rather it is determined by the capacity of the interpreting mind. This understanding is extremely important when we are working with dream symbols.

Working with dreams is one way of increasing our capacity for understanding symbols. Symbols behave like water in that they fill up whatever container they find themselves in. Together, we will be working to increase our capacity, our ability for containing symbolic meaning.


All of us interpret. We assign meaning to ideas, events, and experiences. Most of us are, more or less, in the dark, i.e., unconscious of the process by which we arrive at meaning. Since the fundamental purpose of working with dreams is to render somewhat conscious that which is largely unconscious in our lives, an exploration of the process by which we interpret is in order.

As Scholes tells us, there is a significant difference “between the states of consciousness involved in receiving a text and producing one. Specifically, the text we produce is ours in a deeper and more essential way than any text we receive from outside. When we read we do not possess the text we read in any permanent way. But when we make an interpretation we do add to our store of knowledge—and what we add is not the text itself but our own interpretation of it. In literary interpretation we possess only what we create.” [Robert Scholes, Semiotics and Interpretation, p. 4]

Translating this understanding to working with dreams, it is of little value to have someone tell us their interpretation of our dream. It can be of enormous value when we arrive at an interpretation of our own dream or dream symbol. When we interpret our own dream, we add a piece of our own nature to our conscious personality.

There are, of course, universal symbols that crop up in our dreams all the time. Aid from someone else in amplifying such symbols can be helpful because their meaning is inexhaustible. However, the unique message for the dreamer is still highly personal.

You might take note that in interpreting for another, we are actually interpreting for ourselves. It is for this reason that many dream groups use the constant caveat, “If this were my dream, . . .”

One of the great delights in working with our dreams is that every dream presents us with new information that is uniquely our own. In our waking realities, much of what we are exposed to is not new. It is repetitive news, translated works, repeated stories, a fresh learning of existent knowledge—often interesting, to be sure, but not truly new. Of course, one reason dreams can be off-putting, even frightening, is that we by nature are wary and careful of what is strange, different, unknown. The danger in any work with dreams is that our ego consciousness will naturally try to fit the new content into an existing and often inadequate framework of understanding, in which case, the value of the content will be either lost or distorted.

Adding to Our Conscious Understanding
There are several possible ways in which we can add an outside content to our consciousness and assign meaning to it:

1. We can adapt something from an outside source and accept it at face value. We do this when we accept dogma as our truth or when we follow the laws of the land because we hold an assumption that our doing so is for the common good. A good deal of early childhood education holds with this way as a methodology even though there is ample evidence that children learn not what they are taught but rather what they see modeled in the behavior of significant others. Rejection or acceptance of dogma or law can be flip sides of the same coin. In either case, it is the dogma or the law that determines the individual’s behavior because the dogma or the law has taken up residence in consciousness.

2. We can achieve a modicum of distance from an idea, an event, or an experience, put it through some kind of consciousness-sorting process and accept/reject some or all, more or less thoughtfully. In this process, our own consciousness is the final arbiter of meaning and value. A potential problem with this process is that whatever is put through a particular state of consciousness, is at least to some degree, shaped and determined by that state, so that meaning and value can arise more from the consciousness than from the content itself. If the content is odious or contrary to the state of consciousness, considerable refraction of the content may take place so that it loses its value for adding something new/different to the existing consciousness. One way of illustrating this process is to consider two extremes of consciousness for approaching a written text:

Author is Authority --------------------------------- Reader is Authority

LAW ---------------------------------------------------------ANARCHY

Meaning/value determined by author –---- Meaning/value determined by reader

All of us approach any text somewhere along this continuum, and our approach is by no means a trivial choice. For the fundamentalist Christian, a Biblical text is understood literally, and its meaning and value is determined by the author whom he/she believes to be God. For a reader on the other end of the continuum who finds meaning and value in translating Biblical story as a way of understanding patterns of behavior in his/her own life, the reader determines for him/herself meaning and value. Another example of interpretation along this continuum is the varying ways people view the U.S. Constitution—meaning and value fixed by the framers or meaning and value determined by the application of the document’s principles to changing circumstances.

3. We can seek a larger context in the outer world for both our consciousness and an idea/event/experience so that our consciousness is not alone or is not the final arbiter for judgment of meaning and value. This is, of course, a tricky business because it demands a great deal of trust and faith. We are willing to yield to a higher authority (i.e., someone who can author) because we believe the higher authority has information, experience, or judgment that we lack. Sometimes the issue (idea/event/experience) is so troubling that we are relieved, even happy, to give it over to someone else. People may come into therapy with the happy expectation that the therapist will tell him/her what to do. Personal responsibility for the state of one’s own consciousness can be a heavy burden. I think we are seeing some abdication of personal responsibility and authority among the general population as we collectively try to deal with this phenomenon of terrorism. There are, of course, collective issues that must be dealt with by collective decision and action, and this too is a matter for important discernment.

4. We can seek a larger context in the inner world for both our consciousness and an idea/event/experience. If you accept one of the basic tenets of Jungian Theory, i.e., that the ego and ego consciousness are one part in a larger entity, the Self, there is existent in the inner world a context that can be extremely helpful in the discernment of meaning and value. Whether the Self is a help or a hindrance depends entirely upon the relationship between the ego and the Self—as is the case in any other interdependent relationship. If the ego is at odds with the Self and is pursuing meaning and value contrary to the intentionality of the Self, it may happen that the Self will hasten the destruction of an unhealthy facet of ego consciousness. [Assigning intentionality to the Self may be anthropomorphism. A more accurate way of stating the situation might be to say, "It is as if the intention of the Self is counter to that of the ego." We are probably on firm ground in our statement, however, since frequently the Self personifies itself in dreams.]

Let’s take a specific example to illustrate the possibility outlined in No. 4 above. This example also shows one of the archetypal patterns of human behavior portrayed in the Bible In the Spring of 2001, Pakistani official traveled to Kandahar, Afghanistan, on a mission to save the two 1,700 year-old statues of Buddha that the Taliban were threatening to destroy in their religious fervor. Mullah Omar, “Commander of the Faithful” and head of the Taliban, told the official this dream: A mountain was falling down on him (Omar). Before it hit him, Allah appeared and asked Omar why he had done nothing to get rid of false idols.” (Robert Marquand, “The Christian Science Monitor,”, October 10, 2001) Omar, a person known to take guidance from his dreams, proceeded with the destruction of the ancient Buddha carvings.

There is a close parallel between Omar’s dream and that of King Nebuchadnezzar as told in the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel. At the peak of his power, Nebuchadnezzar, full of his own might and glory, had a warning dream: “I saw a tree of great height at the center of the world. It was large and strong, with its top touching the heavens, and it could be seen to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, providing food for all. Under it the wild beasts found shade, in its branches the birds of the air nested; all men ate of it. In the vision I saw while in bed, a holy sentinel came down from heaven, and cried out: ‘Cut down the tree and lop off its branches. But leave in the earth its stump and roots, fettered with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field. Let him be bathed with the dew of heaven; his lot be to eat, among beasts, the grass of the earth. Let his mind be changed from the human; let him be given the sense of a beast, till seven years pass over him.” (New American Bible, Daniel 4:7-14)
A year passes. Nebuchadnezzar has gone on in his arrogant way as before and then “was cast out from among men, he ate grass like an ox, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle, and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (NAB, Daniel 4: 30)

Had Mullah Omar been willing to look inward at the “false idols” within his own consciousness, he might have interpreted the dream as a correction of his behavior. Events of the past few years would have unfolded very differently. Had he known the archetypal story of Nebuchadnezzar, Omar might have interpreted his dream as an invitation to self-reflection and self-criticism. It could have helped him with his mental hygiene. However, he interpreted the dream as a confirmation of his ego plan, and thus you could say the Self acted to destroy an unyielding and contrary ego structure. As he was warned in the dream, so it came to pass—a mountain fell on him.

If we accept the premise that the ego is the exponent for the Self in the world, a solid working alliance between them is essential, for the only way the Self can manifest or incarnate is through the conduit of a more or less willing ego consciousness. In the cases of Nebuchadnezzar and Mullah Omar, we could say that the ego became so inflated with its own view and importance that it could no longer accept critical input from the Self.


The best approach I have found for working with dreams is the one Jung describes in MDR:

“After the parting of the ways with Freud, a period of inner uncertainty began for me. … I felt it necessary to develop a new attitude toward my patients. I resolved for the present not to bring any theoretical premises to bear upon them, but to wait and see what they would tell of their own accord. My aim became to leave things to chance. The result was that the patients would spontaneously report their dreams and fantasies to me, and I would merely ask, ‘What occurs to you in connection with that?’ or, ‘How do you mean that, where does that come from, what do you think about it?’ The interpretations seemed to follow of their own accord from the patients’ replies and associations. I avoided all theoretical points of view and simply helped the patients to understand the dream-images by themselves, without application of rules and theories. Soon I realized that it was right to take the dreams in this way as the basis of interpretation, for that is how dreams are intended. They are the facts from which we must proceed.” [Pp. 170-71]

In approaching dreams in this manner, I think we are more able to honor and enter into the state of the dreamer, keeping in mind our earlier discussion of symbolic understanding. Over time, what begins to happen is that alchemical and archetypal processes come into play. The dreamer’s, and the analyst’s, conscious and unconscious psychological structures dissolve and reform in new, often subtle, ways that can go unnoticed for some time. Jung called this alchemical process solve et coagula.

The archetypal factor at work is the numinosum. Jung describes the numinosum as “a dynamic agency or effect not caused by an arbitrary act of will …. The numinosum is either a quality belonging to a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence that causes a peculiar alteration of consciousness.”

The numinosum appears at the moment when the dreamer begins to glimpse the luminosity of the dream or dream image or dream symbol. The numinosum both, “… seizes and controls the human subject, who is always rather its victim than its creator” and exerts effects that are “anything but unambiguous.”

“Often it (the numinosum) drives with unexampled passion and remorseless logic towards its goal and draws the subject under its spell, from which despite the most desperate resistance he is unable, and finally no longer even willing to break free, because the experience brings with it a depth and fullness of meaning that was unthinkable before.”

Working with dreams in the manner described above eventually and almost inevitably brings the dreamer to an attitude that can only be called religious in the sense that Jung uses the term: “We might say, then, that the term ‘religion’ designates that attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been changed by experience of the numinosum.”

Through careful, meticulous association and amplification of dream images and motifs, the dreamer (with the help of the analyst/therapist) will begin to trace the personal to its archetypal roots in the objective psyche where he/she will find the source of renewal.

In some mysterious way, the healing function of the dream engages when the personal meets the archetypal. An emphasis on the archetypal without due regard for the personal can actually hinder any healing. Once when I was working hard to connect the personal and archetypal, trying to force connections, an analyst I much regarded said, “Don’t worry about the archetypal. It will show itself when it is ready.” How very right she was!

I want to share a sequence of dreams where the personal and the archetypal are so intertwined that no interpretation on my part was necessary.

S was a woman in her mid-30’s who had gone through a painful divorce, and after several years alone, had remarried. She was eager to have a child as she felt her biological clock might run out on her. She had this dream:

I discovered that my mother and her two sisters had been secretly keeping my grandmother (their mother) alive for years. However, when I was face to face with my grandmother, I saw that her eyes were brown instead of the vivid blue they were when was alive. I said, “No, this is not Grandma. Her eyes were blue.” At that moment I touched her arm. Her eyes turned blue, and I knew it was she.

Shortly after this dream, S discovered she was pregnant. The night before the child was born, she dreamed that her grandmother came through the front door of her house. Later she told me that when she awoke she knew the dream was announcing the birth. Sure enough, on that day she went into labor.

Some four months went by, and S brought a new and puzzling dream:

My grandmother comes to my house. She tells me she is bored and needs a new craft.

I asked her what she made of this Grand Mother dream. She looked very startled. Later she told me that on the way home she bought a pregnancy test. She discovered, much to her surprise, that she was again pregnant.

On the day S’s second child was born, her sister called to tell her that she had had a dream about their grandmother in which the grandmother had assured her that S and her little family would be just fine. As S told me later, she (S) immediately wondered if the sister were herself pregnant. The sister was but didn’t know it yet.
Some years go by. S brings this dream, which she had the night before she was to have a hysterectomy:

My grandmother comes to tell me her work is done. The scene shifts. There is to be an elaborate funeral for her in a huge theater. All my grandmother’s progeny are ushered into the place. The funeral service is more beautiful and moving than I can possibly describe. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

These dreams were all deeply moving and held great meaning for S. She felt very much supported and loved by this grandmother who, when she was a young child, had been so loving and gracious to her. The dreams helped her realize that this loving and supportive Great Mother continued her presence in S’s life.

Rose F. Holt
January 14, 2009