Carl Jung and Dream Psychology – His Influence on Dream Research

     Carl Jung regarded dreams as a reflection of psychic activity. A dream, he felt, should be regarded seriously and analyzed to see how it would fit into a person’s conscious living. He felt that people should analyze their own dreams, think about them and meditate on them in order to get something out of them.

     A dream is an involuntary and spontaneous product of the unconscious mind, and is usually obscure and difficult to understand because it is made up of symbols and pictures. In attempting to understand the dream-language, Jung uses a method of sort of similar to deciphering symbols. The first step in understanding a dream, he considers, is to establish its context. This means discovering the significance of the various images it presents. For example, one’s mother might appear in a dream. Everyone has a concept of what mother implies, but for each person the image of a mother is different, and the significance of this image will even vary from time to time. The thought of mother may for one person be associated with love, care, and protection, and for another with power, anger, or frustration and so the meaning of a dream of mother can vary accordingly. As far as possible, each image or symbol must be taken in turn till its meaning for the dreamer is established as nearly as possible, and not until this has been carefully done is one in a position to understand what the dream may mean.

     A series of dreams makes a more satisfactory basis for interpretation than a single dream. The possible themes which the unconscious may be presenting can become clearer, the important images are underlined by repetition, and mistakes in interpretation are corrected by the next dream.

     Dreams can be interpreted on an objective or on a subjective level. In the objective case the dream is related to what is going on in the environment; the people appearing in it are taken as real, and their relationship to, and possible influence on the dreamer are analyzed. In the second case the dream figures are taken as representing aspects of the dreamer’s personality. It depends on the circumstances of the moment which side the emphasis shall be placed. A woman dreaming of her father may need to face a problem connected with him or some aspect of her relationship to him, or she may need to recognize the male principle (personified by the father) in herself. Generally speaking, the subjective aspect of dreams becomes more important in the later states of analysis when the personal problems have been seen and understood.

     Some dreams have considerably more than personal significance. These more significant dreams are often vivid, and make use of surprising and even incomprehensible symbols, and their relationship to the dreamer is difficult to trace. These dreams are classed as collective dreams, and to understand them, one must often use historical and mythological analogies to find out what the symbols meant to other men in other times. It may seem strange at first to think that these could have any relevance to ourselves; we have cut ourselves off from the past to such an extent that it is difficult to realize that the experiences of remote people can still have meaning for us. Yet it is so; unconsciously we still think like our distant ancestors, and to understand this is to deepen our experience, and open up new possibilities.

     A collective dream will present “archetypes” from the “collective unconscious” and have significance for others as well as the dreamer. There is probably some reader who has told such a dream at the breakfast table, and noticed its effect upon the hearers, for the archetypes always have a certain impact on people. It is also important to note that the unconscious constantly uses different symbols for what the consciousness regards as one and the same thing.

     As mentioned before, we find today that important dreams are repeated if they have not been understood, or if they need to be emphasized.

     Another fairly common belief is that dreams reproduce the events of the day before, especially if these were significant or striking. Careful recording, however, shows that dreams rarely repeat events in an exact manner; they add or subtract something, round off the experience, or can be shown to be compensatory in character. This tendency to compensate a conscious attitude is an important characteristic of the dream, and must always be taken into account when attempting to understand it. As an example of this, Jung quotes a young man who dreamt his father was behaving in a drunken and disorderly manner. The real father did no such thing, and, according to the son, behaved in a somewhat ideal way. The young man had an excellent relationship with him – too good, in fact, for his admiration of his father prevented him from having the necessary confidence in himself and developing his own different personality. In this case the dream went to the other extreme, showing the father in a most unfavorable light. It was almost as it the dream were saying, ‘He is not so marvelous after all, and he can behave in a quite irresponsible manner. There is no need for you to feel so inferior.’ The unconscious was drawing attention to a relationship based on an idealistic view of the father which was hindering the son’s growth into manhood.

     Dreams also work the other way round; if we habitually undervalue somebody, we are likely to have a highly flattering dream about him, to see him, for instance, in a much higher position than the one he would normally occupy, or doing something with ease and skill where we know he should be incompetent and clumsy.

     Dreams also bring hidden conflicts to light by showing an unknown side of the character, as when a mild, inoffensive person dreams of violence, but more frequently the dream language is less direct than this. For instance, there are hosts of sexual symbols well known in myth as well as dream: ‘the bull, the ass, the pomegranate, the horse’s hoof, the dance, to mention only a few.

     Dreams sometimes express hidden wishes, but it is too simple to class them all under this heading. The ‘wish’ dream is usually easy to spot; when, for instance, the hungry man dreams he is eating a wonderful meal, or the thirsty that they see sparkling water.

     There are also forward-looking or ‘prospective’ dreams. A simple example of the ‘prospective’ dream is that of getting up and dressing, when one is really asleep in bed and the alarm has gone off; but there are others which are more striking than this, like that of the woman who was shortly going to move to a new and unknown district who dreamt correctly all about the house she would live in, down to the smallest detail, even including the reason why its present owners were leaving it.

     Occasionally dreams seem to be clear warnings of danger, as for example that of the mountain climber who dreamed he was climbing higher and higher and then gaily stepping off into space. One would have thought that such a dream would have made the least superstitious of persons stop to think, but the man in question simply laughed. Not so very long after he was killed in the mountains, a friend actually seeing him step off into the air. To dream of death, however, does not necessarily indicate a fatal accident; there is symbolic as well as actual physical death. Only a knowledge of the dreamer and his immediate circumstances will show on which side the emphasis is rightly placed.

     Sometimes dreams reproduce things seen, heard, or read and forgotten long before, or recall distant experiences. It is often difficult to trace whether a lost memory is really being recalled, or whether the experience actually happened, but this is not of great practical importance; what is relevant is why the dreamer had such a dream at this particular moment, and why he felt he had that particular experience.

     One curious feature of dreaming is the way that close friends or members of the same family, particularly husband and wife or parents and children, will dream the same dream without previously having told it to each other. Still more curious is the way that children dream about their parents’ problems, when these have been carefully hidden from them. The dream is not usually a straightforward statement, but is symbolical and often picturesque in manner.

     The most striking dreams are those which seem to arise spontaneously from the unconscious, presenting something completely strange with a vividness that compels attention. Sometimes these may be the unconscious aiming at a complete change of the conscious attitude, and they can be so impressive that the dreamer is in fact changed by the experience without any interpretation being necessary.

     The dream is of value in analytical practice because it gives a picture of inner, and also often of outer conditions of which the dreamer is unaware. The first dream that a patient brings to analysis often gives a striking summing up of his or her problem, and even a hint of how it may be solved. It is this forward-looking aspect of dreams that, among other reasons, leads Jung to insist that dreams should not only be used for reductive purposes. Dreams do not only uncover forgotten memories and present difficulties, but appear, especially in the case of individuation dreams, to have a goal in view. Dreams at the beginning of analysis are often relatively clear and simple, and have an immediate effect. As the analysis proceeds the dreams usually grow more complicated and difficult to understand. It is at this stage that mythological themes often occur and that a wider framework than that of the dreamer’s personal experience and associations becomes necessary. Sometimes the dreamer has no meaningful associations and can find no relationship to the dream situation; it is here that mythological parallels can be helpful. These will usually throw light on the collective meaning of the dream, and its relevance to the dreamer can then be worked out.

     Jung never imposes an interpretation on a patient. He looks on it as even more important for the dreamer to understand his own dream than for the analyst to do so, while ideally the interpretation should be the result of mutual reflection and agreement. Much of his work lies in helping patients to deal with their own unconscious material, and they are encouraged to record their dreams carefully, and even to illustrate them either with pictures or models in wax or clay. No artistic ability is needed for this; in fact it is better to approach the work naively, for one is less likely to falsify the picture. The expressions of the unconscious are often most primitive, and their power is lost if there is too great an attempt to fit them into aesthetic concepts. By working on dreams in this manner the patient (though he is still likely to overlook unpleasant implications) can develop his independence and learn, to some extent, to understand the unconscious himself. He makes more real the fantasies that are activating him, and so he knows better what they are. Even the mere painting of a picture can have an effect, curing a wretched mood, or bringing a release of tension. Through active co-operation of this kind the danger of only understanding dreams as fantasy is avoided and dreams become not only sources of information, but also of creative power.

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