“The dream is specifically the utterance of the unconscious” Jung, Dreams, (p.95)
What significance do dreams have? Are they nonsense mumbo-jumbo? Or do they provide valuable insights into our inner worlds? Noted psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung believed that dreams were an important compensatory tool for our minds to cleanse themselves and achieve harmony. In his book ‘Dreams’ he maintains that “all dreams are compensatory to the content of consciousness…and contribute to self-regulation of the psyche by automatically bringing up everything that is repressed, neglected or unknown” (p.38). According to him, during the day we repress unpleasant thoughts, judgements, views, directives and tendencies. At night-time, these are spontaneously reproduced in our dreams in the form of symbolic imagery, allowing our minds to achieve resolution. He calls this the process of individuation, which is the uniting of the conscious and unconscious processes to achieve human actualisation. He states that “since everything living strives for wholeness, the inevitable one-sidedness of our conscious life is continually being converted and compensated by the universal being in us, whose goal is the ultimate integration of conscious and unconscious” (p.80).
So, if we want to interpret our dreams, where do we start? Interpretation of dreams is essentially the interpretation of subjective content. Jung says that “a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is themselves the scene, the player, the promoter, the producer, the author, the public and the critic” (p.54). Jung maintained that there is no “sixth sense” needed, but he did warn that it is a very “exacting task.” What he advised is “psychological empathy, ability to coordinate, intuition, knowledge of the world and of humankind and above all a special “canniness” which depends on wide understanding as well as on a certain “intelligence du Coeur” (p.74) and cautioned that justifiable interpretations would only come through a “painstaking examination of the context” (p. 74). As Jung placed importance on the role of archetypal imagery – common mythological figures and symbols which often appear in dream sequences – he also thought that without understanding their meaning true dream interpretation would not be possible. It may be helpful to keep in mind that along with Freud, Jung was pioneering research in this area and perhaps went a little overboard on the eligibility criteria for dream analysis.
However, if we want to begin to interpret our own dreams drawing from Jung’s theory, here are a few pointers with which to start:
1. Be aware of the conscious content. Jung stressed that dreams are formulations of repressed content from the conscious mind which takes refuge in the unconscious mind. For us to truly understand the content of our dreams, we must also have a thorough understanding of the content of our wakeful hours. I find that keeping a journal and noting down the main occurrences of the day, as well as your thoughts, feelings and interactions, may serve as a valuable cross-reference for the contents of your dreams at night. When analysing dreams, it may be helpful to ask – what conscious attitude I am compensating for?
2. Series rather than singular. Jung placed emphasis on interpreting dream-series rather than singular dreams. He said that this would guarantee “a relative degree of certainty…where the later dreams correct the mistakes we have made in handling those that went before” (p.93). However, don’t worry if a particular dream happens only once. Note it down anyways for your own reference.
3. Imagery and symbols. Try to identify all the major dream images and sequences and detail them in full. Jung believed in a universal collective consciousness where certain symbols, deeply rooted in our human history, will have a shared meaning. A comprehensive study of mythological symbols is beyond most of us but don’t despair – the more information you can gather, the better! It is advised to keep a dream journal beside your bed and note down your observations as soon as you wake up. The film between unconsciousness and consciousness is still permeable at this time, which can make the details easier to recall.
4. Don’t over-analyse. Jung thought that “(i)n themselves, dreams are naturally clear – they are just what they must be under the given circumstances” (p.98). Where it is helpful to note down your dreams when you recall them, do not fret too much if you cannot make sense of them or if you don’t remember them at all. Meanings can reveal themselves to you with time, or as you gain more of an awareness of your conscious processes.
Jung believed that “the unconscious does not harbour in itself any explosive materials unless an overweening or cowardly conscious attitude has secretly laid up stores of explosives there” (p.119). If we experience nightmares, we must thoroughly explore the conscious content to gauge a better understanding of what we are repressing.
A Gateway to the Future
He believed that dreams are backward facing in that they are rooted in a person’s prior history but also forward facing and may hold important clues to what the future has in store. He says “we do not understand that everything of psychic origin has a double face. One face looks forward, the other looks back. It is ambivalent and therefore, symbolic, like all living reality” (p.134).
He maintained that “the voice of the unconscious so easily goes unheard” (p.82). By keeping a personal dream journal, we give form to the utterances of the unconscious and may in our own way, begin to make sense of ourselves.