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
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
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
Ithaca, New York.