Inner Vision: Dreams Speak to Us from the Depth of our Being

Nearly every night we find ourselves in a completely different space---a dream space—where we have adventures, fall in love, discover treasures, all without ever leaving the comfort of bed. Although dream images tend to melt like snowflakes upon waking, the emotions involved, and even some of the scenarios, can stay with us for years.

Many people can distinctly remember the dreams they had in childhood. Even those who pay no attention to dreams have likely awakened at least once from a nightmare, heart pounding, unable to assure themselves that their bedroom was actually a safe place, that the monster, intruder, or attacker they had just been running from was “only a dream.”

As far back as anyone can determine, people have believed in the wisdom and power of their dreams. The stories of our major religions abound with examples of dreams bringing revelation and prophesy. Some of the earliest known forms of therapy consisted of the “clients” going to sleep in a special chamber in order to have a dream that would heal them of their ills. Even today, where little value is openly given to the movements of the unconscious, we can still find numerous examples of artists, composers, scientists, even world leaders, who claim to have received insight and inspiration from their dreams.

Perhaps one of the better known advocates of the importance and value of dream-listening was Carl Jung. Jung’s own experience analyzing thousands of dreams led him to conclude: “In each of us there is another whom we do no know. [S]he speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently [s]he sees us from the way we see ourselves. When, therefore, we find ourselves in a difficult situation to which there is no solution, [s]he can sometimes kindle a light that radically alters our attitude—the very attitude that led us into the difficult situation.”

From a Jungian perspective, our conscious mind makes up only a small percentage of the psyche itself. Dreams, however, act like doorways to the resources perspectives contained in the deepest layers of our mind. This “other whom we do not know” can offer us valuable insights and suggestions precisely because “it” is not bound by the same narrowness of outlook as our conscious selves. The unconscious moves with a great deal of fluidity and creativity. Hence the records of artists and scientists who have “suddenly” come upon solutions in their dreams. Hence, too, the possibility of finding new direction or meaning in a dream.

Dreams speak to us from the depths of out own being. In a world where we are constantly bombarded by outer suggestions for how to live, they can tell us something about what is right and true for us as individuals. Says analyst Marie-Louise von Franz, “Dreams have a superior intelligence in them; a wisdom and a guiding cleverness which leads us. They show us where we are unadapted; they warn us about danger; they hint at the deeper meaning of our life, and they convey to us illuminating insights.”

Sometimes the corrective medicine of a dream is clear: as when we dream about doing something—beginning a new painting or forming a relationship perhaps—which we have hesitated about doing in waking life. This type of dream can feel supportive, as if some part of us is telling another part, “you can do it.” Even people who pay no attention to their dream life comment on the boost of confidence they feel upon waking from such a dream. On the other hand, dreams can also urge us to examine the ways in which we are being too one-sided, or acting against out own best interests. If we are being characterized as proud peacocks in our dreamscapes, for example, we might do well to allow this humorous, balancing image to tell us something about our attitude or behavior.

But what about when the dream message is not so obvious? Many people complain that their dreams seem like gibberish. Even those who would like to move closer to their dream life feel as though the vague imagery and conflicting storyline act as a barrier to the “real meaning” of the dream. If dreams are so concerned with helping us live our lives, why can’t they just say so in plain language?

There at least two compelling answers to this question. The first is that dreams do speak a consistent language, but it is the language of myth and poetry, rather than rational, discursive thought. When we attempt to read a dream the way we might a newspaper, we find ourselves confused and frustrated: Time sequences are out of order, characters seem to transform into other characters, and so forth. Instead, we would do well to remember that dreams arise from the most ancient layers of the mind—they invite us back into that nearly forgotten part of ourselves that expresses itself in symbol and metaphor.

Even when dreams do make use of everyday places and events, they do so in the manner of fairy tales: Kitchens become places of transformation (where the raw is transformed into the cooked), for example, and banks take on the meaning of stored energy (in the form of money available to be spent).

To begin to really listen to our dreams, we must put on our poetic ears. A dream about a burglar breaking into the house or a stranger chasing us, for example, is not likely to come “true” in the outer world. But it may be trying to call our attention to some new element in the psyche which is trying to break through or get our attention. In dreaming about making love with someone, we may be admitting unknown desire for the actual person, but more often it suggests that we are coming closer, or would like to embrace, the quality carried by the person in the dream. Giving birth in a dream might hint at some new development occurring in the psyche (perhaps one which began nine months before the dream). And so forth.

If we really begin to pay attention to our dreams, it is possible to begin to detect some of the ways in which dreams commonly state their meanings. Often it is easier to get a feeling for a dream when it belongs to someone else. This is because we can see that person and hear the dream story with a measure of distance and impartiality.

The second great reason why dreams are so difficult to understand is that they are about ourselves. Most of the time we view ourselves and our lives through a narrow set of reactions and concepts. Really to hear a dream, we need to consider the ways in which it may be asking us to widen our focus or alter our response.

If we listen carefully, we might hear something of our deepest selves.

Barbara Platek, M.A. is a Jungian therapist in private practice in
Ithaca, New York.

© 2006 • Barbara Platek, Jungian Psychotherapist • 119 East Buffalo St, Ithaca, NY, 14850 • (607) 273-4610