I’ve been having vivid dreams for weeks now, and doing a great deal of dream work as a result. Because I’m personally immersed in unraveling my own dreams, I thought it might be useful to write another article about how to work with your own dream content.
To begin, let’s recall the idea analytical psychology poses about the contents of the psyche. If we imagine the psyche as a bus full of characters, we could say that the ego is the bus driver, getting everything he needs to direct the bus from his conscious mind. His unconscious is in the back seats of the bus, full of complexes and archetypal images that are usually unruly and even out of control. But as long as the ego has control of the bus, the ego believes that all is well. He doesn’t want to look into the rearview mirror or be reminded that he may not be in control at all. So he maintains a firm grip on the steering wheel (the conscious mind) and barrels merrily down the road.
The problem is that the ego is not in control. The ego merely thinks he or she is in control. The personal unconscious reminds the ego day and night that the ego is definitely not in control, whether through dreams, through sudden and emotional reactions and outbursts, through slips of the tongue, through strange or unusual reactions that arise unbidden; through discontentment, through depressions, through “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today,” and through all other manner of uncontrollable urges and reactions, the personal unconscious reminds us that we, the conscious Ego, are definitely not in control.
And so a battle for control ensues. These characters riding in the back of the bus really just want to work together and get along with the ego. Unfortunately, the ego often cannot tolerate sharing power. And so we dream.
An interesting and useful exercise for anyone doubting the power of the Ego will take only five minutes and is likely to have surprising results. The Ego maintains a stubborn and tenacious grip on control at all times-so much so that our unconscious is forced to communicate its distress and balancing signals while the Ego is unconscious! To demonstrate how much control the Ego needs, get a timer and try this exercise:
Set the timer for five minutes. Assume a comfortable position. If you’re experienced with meditation or guided imagery, prepare yourself as you would normally: take several deep, slow, long breaths. Relax your body. Close your eyes and focus your mind’s eye on an object or image. If nothing comes to mind, simply focus on your own breathing. Try to hold the image or your concentration on your breath. At the same time, keep out any other thoughts or images that come up. Continue with this exercise until the timer calls the time.
Unless you are a very aware meditator, you will most likely have experienced a great deal of “noise” from the ego and the conscious mind. Rather than being able to maintain one image in the mind for five minutes, much self-talk and chatter probably occurred, such as, “I’ve done this before, how boring,” or “What’s the point?” or “Did I leave the coffee pot turned on?” Your mind probably left the station and drove away, even after you told the driver to sit quietly in his or her seat and concentrate on one simple image. Perhaps you blocked the first one or two interruptions, but allowed the fifth and sixth to distract you.
The ego is always in a “doing” mode rather than simply being. The unconscious is willing to simply “be,” but not so with the ego. If the ego were to surrender her control, then the ego would have no function, as far as the ego knows. The ego is compulsively task oriented, and when we become so, too, then it can be said that we are ego-driven.
The ego does everything it can do to maintain and preserve our sense of individuality and uniqueness, and “it achieves this goal by separation, by eliminating any- and everything that could infringe on our ‘differentness’” (Elsom Eldridge and Chandler D. Brown, Perchance to Dream, 5).
Types of Dreams
Most dreams are of a compensatory type. Compensation is the natural balancing function of the psyche, so the dream compensates for the ego’s stance. Let’s say that the ego is ultra-responsible, duty-bound, and even Boy Scoutish in conscious life. This sort of a person is likely to dream about out-of-control situations or symbols, perhaps of bums or winos, whores or reprobates. The shadow self, represented by a same-sex figure in the dream, is likely to be quite different from the conscious, ego-driven individual.
There are several different types of compensation possible in the form of dreams. In the dream, the psyche may take the following stances:
- The conscious attitude is one-sided, so the dream provides or suggests the opposite position.
- The conscious attitude is correct, so the dream affirms this position.
- The conscious attitude is in the middle, and the dream coincides with this.
There are also at least two different types of dreams: compensatory dreams and prospective dreams. The compensatory dream balances out the ideas of the conscious, ego-driven mind. The Boy Scout leader who dreams of bank robbers; the bank robber who dreams of Boy Scouts; the middle-aged stuck woman dreaming of babies; all these are examples of possibly compensatory dreams.
In the compensatory dream, the unconscious is considered relative to consciousness, adding to the conscious situation all those elements from the previous day or week which remain subliminal because of repression, or because they were too weak to reach consciousness. This compensation is purposive because it allows for a self-regulation of the psyche.
The prospective function, on the other hand, is an anticipation in the unconscious of future conscious achievements. In a prospective dream, the unconscious offers a map of sorts to the conscious, ego-driven mind. Rather than predict the future in a prophetic way, prospective dreams offer more of a weather report: they are an anticipatory combination of probabilities which may coincide with the actual behavior of things, but “need not necessarily agree in every detail” (Jung, Collected Works 8:492-3). It is generally regarded as an error when an individual mis-uses a prospective dream as an objective predictor of the future. The rule of thumb with prospective dreams is to go gently, friend.
How to Interpret a Dream
Dream work is instructive and rewarding if undertaken diligently. One should keep a dream journal and write down the dream immediately upon awakening. I’ve found few more exciting relationships than the one I’ve developed with my own psyche. Going to sleep at night is like spelunking—exciting, mysterious, dangerous, and demanding.
Because dream content is symbolic and has been hidden from the ego, one must take great care with dream elements. I don’t recommend interpreting the dreams of other people, or even attempting it, until a person has learned a great deal about dream work and theory, myth, and symbolic communication. Begin with your own dreams and, after some months or even a year or two of doing your own work, you should find yourself able to help others.
There are two basic approaches when working with dreams: the objective interpretive stance and the subjective interpretive stance. The difference between these approaches speaks to how we react to the dream. In an objective approach, the dream is viewed as making a direct commentary on an external world issue, such as how you deal with a colleague at work or how you treat your children. The subjective stance, on the other hand, relies on the idea that all the parts of the dream are parts of your self. It is probably best to always begin with an objective interpretation and to only proceed with a subjective interpretation when an objective one is inappropriate.
In an objective interpretation, the dream is a direct comment on a real-world experience. The dream comments on an interpsychic issue, meaning an issue between you and another person or several other people. Intrapsychic means within you. A key idea for an objective approach is that if the laws of physics hold within the dream and known people, places, or events are the components of the dream, you may well consider taking an objective stance to the dream interpretation. In an objective dream, everything in the dream is as it would be in the real world: people in the dream look and behave as they might in real life. One doesn’t walk through walls, see fairies or dragons, and dead relatives don’t appear. The dream is like a short documentary film, a realistic or direct report on the way you’re handling issues external to you.
If an objective interpretation doesn’t work, the dreamer must move on to trying a subjective interpretation. In a subjective interpretation of a dream, all aspects of the dream are aspects of the dreamer’s personality or psyche. The dream’s “you” is the dream Ego; a female figure may be the Anima (for a male dreamer) or the Shadow (for a female dreamer); a male figure may be the Animus (for a female dreamer) or the Shadow (for a male dreamer). This sort of dream is a comment on the relationships within one’s own psyche. It is an intrapsychic comment.
There is a possible third interpretive stance of dream interpretation: a comment on the transference relationship in a therapeutic relationship. If you’re not in therapy with an analyst or other therapist, it’s not likely that your dream would reflect a transference relationship. However, it might be possible in the case of enmeshment or another relationship during which one person transfers his or her unrecognized and unworked-on “stuff” to another, stronger, person.
Working on an objective dream
- Write the dream down. Read the dream slowly out loud once or twice. Slow down, take a deep breath, center yourself, and advise the dreamer to do the same, because you’re about to bring unconscious material into the conscious. Remind yourself that you know nothing about dreams, so you have no preconceived ideas; you are simply going to hear the dream as though you’ve never heard one before.
- What is the dream affect? Ask the dreamer to describe how he felt in the dream; you (analyst) also look at your feelings as you listened to the dream.
- Look at the affect on waking. What is the dreamer’s feeling on waking after the dream and writing it down, and how do they feel now about the dream?
- Find the conscious attitude that the dream is responding to. We have a conscious attitude, and the psyche responds by commenting on it. It’s crucial to know what the conscious attitude was of the dreamer just prior to having the dream. We would ask, what have you been dealing with over the past few days? What’s been bothering you? What have you been thinking about? What feelings have you had that relate to the situation(s)?
- Develop the personal associations to the content of the dream. Ask the dreamer to list three or four things that come to mind when listing the various objects or material in the dream.
This material gives us the basic skeleton for interpreting the dream objectively. Because knowledge about archetypes and symbols is important to the subjective interpretation of dreams, I’ll approach that subject at another time.
In dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show riches Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d I cried to dream again. ~ Shakespeare, The Tempest (III, ii).
Betts, John. Jungian Dream Interpretation.
Hall, James A. Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice.
Jung, C. G. Collected Works, General Aspects on Dream Psychology, Vol. 8.
Mattoon, M. A. (1978). Understanding Dreams. Spring Publications, Dallas TX.
Whitmont & Pereira (1989). Dreams: A Portal to the Source.
More on the Psyche: The Seed So Full of Meaning