Sunday, March 1, 2009

Clinical Perspectives

Dreams: A Path to Awareness of the Unconscious

The Pathway
With no doubt, dreams attest to the existence of the deeper levels of the human psyche. It is through dreams that one symbolically works over complexes, memories, daily struggles and pleasures one takes in consciously and unconsciously. However, dreams speak to us in their own representational language which is rarely clear. As in allowing oneself to become embraced by a musical composition, we are drawn in to the dream by the tone, theme, rhythm, emotion, and nuances evoked in thought and intuition. Because a dream is an encapsulation of that which disturbs or distracts the dreamer, hearing the message embedded in the dream is a humbling challenge.

Introducing her chapter on dreams in Boundaries of the Soul (1974), June Singer states: “I believe that the experience of dreaming is the clearest proof we have that the unconscious exists. The inner life of an individual unfolds through dreams, and those who carefully observe their dreams may gain access to dimensions of their natures that would otherwise remain impenetrable.” Singer further states that “Jung saw the dream as an image of the dreamer’s unconscious psychic situation, expressed in symbolic terms that could be unraveled to reveal an underlying meaning.” In his brief overview of Jungian psychotherapy, Kaufmann states that “A Jungian views the dream phenomenologically. The drama of the dream is the unconscious message expressed in symbolic form, a message not necessarily repressed or hidden, but rather trying to reveal itself” (Kaufmann, in Corsini & Wedding, 1989). Jung himself realized that “When we consider the infinite variety of dreams, it is difficult to conceive that there could ever be a method or a technical procedure which would lead to an infallible result” (Whitmont & Perera, citing Jung, 1999). And, “So difficult is it to understand a dream that for a long time I have made it a rule, when someone tells me a dream and asks for my opinion, to say first of all to myself: ‘I have no idea what this dream means.’ After that I can begin to examine the dream” (1999). Jung understood that dreams are so private, so sacred, that with little exception, they could only present themselves in an obscured (symbolic) expression, protecting the dreamer’s deepest level of struggle, fear, love, or hope. It is through symbolic representation that the unconscious communicates what would otherwise elude one’s conscious mind for many varied reasons. Kaufmann says, “It is a basic tenet of Jungian therapy that all products of the unconscious are symbolic and can be taken as guiding messages” (1989).

Inner World/Outer World
When a client brings me a dream, I am curious if it is a dream about the dreamer’s inner or outer world (Morazzini, personal communication). Were it an “outer world” dream, it would mean that the issue in the dream is about something that is actually going on in the dreamer’s waking life, the outer world. For example, if the dream depicts the client preparing to go on vacation, bathing suits or shorts laid out on the bed by the suitcase as if headed for a warm island, and she is indeed planning to go on a Caribbean holiday, the dream may actually be about the upcoming journey, the dreamer working over preparation for the trip. This could be an outer world dream, or as Kaufmann referred in lecture as a “just so” dream. Of course there may be added meaning embedded in this dream, but for our purposes, we will leave this explanation as is.

However, if the dreamer dreams that, for example, his wife is leaving him, when the wife is quite devoted with no intention of separation, the dream may likely be addressing turmoil within the inner world of the client. Here, the dreamer may be grappling with the wife-part of himself, a projection of some part of his behavior that he associates to or projects on to his wife’s behavior. In some way, this behavior has an abandoning influence (the dreamer may escape responsibility or avoid facing behaviors that he needs to attend or perhaps is unhappy in the marriage, but refused to acknowledge this) rather than working his issues out to find more productive, healthier solutions. This could then be considered an inner world dream.

Dissecting the Dream
One needs more ingredients than this to decipher the meaning of a dream, however. The client’s associations to the images and drama of the dream help point the way. We will address this in a minute.

Jung identified the sequence of a dream. He said that there are four distinct stages:

1. exposition, which is the statement of place, the opening scene which introduces where the dreamer is and who he is with (the protagonists). Exposition sets the tone of “what is the problem?” One can see this as akin to watching a play: the curtain opens; what is the set depicting? Who is in this beginning moment and what is he or are they doing, which may begin to reveal the situation of the dreamer. Next comes

2. development, in which the plot of the dream emerges or begins to become complicated through action. Here the story’s tension becomes apparent. Accordingly,

3. culmination (or peripeteia) follows during which the plot thickens; that is to say, something significant happens or something changes totally and the main character responds to that significant event. Finally, we have

4. lysis which is the conclusion or resolution of the dream. How does the situation or dilemma resolve itself? What does the dreamer or main character do? Is this a habitual resolution, resolving the conflict in the usual way? Or a novel ending, finding a new way of dealing with the issue. Some dreams lack lysis.
Often in therapy, the dreams of a new client are resolved habitually: “My mother is coming to pick me up. I wait and wait and finally I realize she is not coming. I am crying as I wake up.” In this case, the client, by his ongoing report, resolves the dream in his usual, sad, but ineffectual way that is true to life; relying on people who fail to follow through responsibly in their commitments and allowing that pattern to continue. Later on, hopefully after gaining inner strength and awareness, the client may resolve the dream differently: “My friend is distracting me from my job, as usual. This time, I tell her to go away so I can work and I will contact her later.” Here the client has changed his usual way of dealing with problems. Instead of succumbing to an inability to draw boundaries, he has drawn one with the knowledge that the friend’s distraction can cost him his job and if she is a good friend, she will understand and await his call.

Reality and Complex
Another important piece to explore in a dream is if the story line or the image is grounded in reality or is symptomatic of grappling with a complex. Jung gives an example of such a dream in his Analytical Psychology (1968): it is a dream of a patient, in his 40s, well-established as a director of a public school, intelligent, but who, Jung describes, “…has nothing to do with details of human life but moves in the stratosphere of abstract ideas.” This patient has worked his way up from the bottom to his current level of accomplishment. His parents were “poor peasants,” and so the gentleman continues to pursue loftier professional goals. Jung writes the dream thus: “He knows that he ought to go to an important conference, and he is taking his portfolio. But he notices that the hour is rather advanced and that the train will leave soon, and so he gets into that well-known state of haste and fear of being too late.” The dream continues with the poor fellow struggling to depart, but consistently realizing he has mislaid his clothes or his portfolio, frantically trying to find all that he needs. He rushes off to the station. Jung proceeds: “Pantingly, he arrives at the station only to see that the train is just leaving. His attention is called to the railway track.” Here Jung has put an illustration of a train that is on a track with a great curve in it. The dreamer is watching this from the station.

Jung continues: “He watches the train, a long one, winding round the curve, and he thinks, ‘If only the engine-driver, when he reaches [past the curve] has sufficient intelligence not to rush full steam ahead; for if he does, the long train behind him which will still be rounding the curve will be derailed.’” But the engineer fails to foresee the disaster, accelerates fully and the train derails as the dreamer feared. Jung points out that when one is frantic and struggles to gain organization and control in a dream, it is indicative of anxiety, a symptom of danger, and often experienced when a complex is at work. Jung says, “One is nervous because there is an unconscious resistance to the conscious intention … consciously you want something very much, and an unseen devil is always working against it, and of course you are the devil too.” Jung clarifies that the dreamer is the engineer, attempting to advance before he is able or ready, if ever, to take on the next level of achievement.

This demonstrates the incongruity between the outer or objective reality and the dreamer’s inner or subjective perception. The discrepancy indicates a break down in the thought processes of the dreamer; an inability to grasp the true value of or perhaps make the necessary sacrifices needed to earn the next academic step, indicative of the complex around his origins. Thus, the frenetic tone of the dream.

Dream Images and Associations
Jung said, “I do not want to know the complexes of my patients. This is uninteresting to me. I want to know what the dreams have to say about complexes, not what the complexes are. I want to know what a man’s unconscious is doing with his complexes, I want to know what he is preparing himself for. That is what I read out of the dreams” (1968). It is important then to gain the client’s thoughts or associations to the images or story line of the dream. Although these thoughts may come from the unhealthy part of the person’s personal unconscious (the complex), personal associations to the dream can help point the way to the meaning of the dream. For example, if a dreamer reports that he had a pleasant dream of a duck and further speaks of how much he enjoyed looking for ducks with his father as a child, how precious this bond was, the connection may be a positive one. If, however, a dreamer reports a dream about being in a carnival house of horrors, and associates to having grown up in a chaotic, unhealthy, possibly even traumatizing home, the associations have the potential to indicate the complex.

Image and Nature
It is important to understand how the dream image occurs in nature. For example, if someone dreams of an iguana, the interpreter may have to do some homework on the nature and habits of an iguana. This is vitally important; the image of such a reptile speaks of something that is cold-blooded, reptilian, primitive; a tough-skinned throwback to dinosaurs. Thus the clinician may already know quite a lot about the client (even if the client has a pet iguana!) and the defense system. The defenses are antiquated and likely to be currently ineffective; part of the defense is to have a thick emotional skin or to be emotionally shut down or cold. These defenses probably are not working very well. If one dreams of a dog, however, we may be in the realm of something that is domesticated, hopefully obedient and devoted. Although a dog is a more dependent pet than, for example, a cat, dogs can be trained.

In a presentation on dream interpretation by Yoram Kaufmann, Jungian analyst (Antioch New England Graduate School, 1997), a dream of a money or silver dollar plant (Lunaria) on which mistletoe is growing was presented. The dreamer was a slightly older, rather wealthy woman, romantically involved with and subsidizing a younger man. To understand the warning in this dream, one must know that Lunaria is a plant whose flowers become seed pods resembling silver coins; mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant that infests trees and other shrubs, thriving on the water and mineral nutrients from the host. When the nature of the symbols psyche chose are grounded in reality, the warning of the dream becomes clear: the client was blind to the male lover availing himself of her financial liquidity, threatening the loss of that which was valuable: not only her money, but more importantly, the hope of a sincere, loving relationship.

Here is one final example: “There is a parquet floor in the middle of a meadow. There are white curtains hanging on either side, flowing in the breeze. I can smell the meadow.” At first glance, this dream may evoke a warm feeling. However, in reality, one is most unlikely to find an expensive, complicated parquet floor unprotected in a meadow. It simply would not endure. Further, the curtains are hanging on nothing. This dream belonged to a client who had struggled with suicide, both personally and in her family, had done some good work with a therapist (the parquet floor), but the therapist had to leave the agency where the work was taking place (the complex of hopelessness due to family members abandoning the client through suicide and alcoholism). Thus whatever progress had been made was at risk of enduring, just as curtains must be suspended from a rod or they will succumb to gravity.

I attempt to interpret a dream with deep curiosity, humility, sensitivity and attention. Dreams are exquisitely personal, deeply revealing, spiritual and sacred. I use patience, aware that that which may be revealed in the examination of the dream can be painful for the dreamer and received with resistance. I am also aware that the meaning of the dream may show itself over time. Jung required a dream series, rather than a single dream, in order to gain insight into the pattern of the complexes. Above all, I am honored when a client presents a dream to me, knowing well that something deeply private and invaluable has been shared.


Jung, C. G. (1968). Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice. New York: Random House.

Kaufmann, Y. (1989). Analytical Psychotherapies. In Corsini, R. & Wedding, D. Current Psychotherapies. Illinois: Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Morazzini, G. personal communication.

Singer, J. (1972). Boundaries of the Soul: The Practice of Jung’s Psychology. New York: Doubleday Publishing Group, Inc.

Whitmont, E & Perera, S (1989). Dreams, A Portal to the Source. New York: Routledge.
-Submitted by Barbara Darshan

No comments:

Post a Comment