Mark Saban

Jungian Analyst and Psychotherapist


The Paradoxical Psychology of Dreams

The dream is an inhabitant of two contradictory realms at one and the same time. It is true that the dream is full of images of people, things, landscapes that we know in our conscious lives, but it is generated in the literally unknowable unconscious. It appears to us, as we return to the dayworld, as a jumbled piece of nonsense simply because the unconscious does not speak the language of the conscious, even when it uses the imagery of the conscious world. We can, sometimes, understand the dream, but only when we discard all the analytical tricks of thinking we have laboriously learned, and trust in our not-knowing, which, when we are lucky, invites the unconscious itself to help us.

Jung rejected any dogmatic theory of dream interpretation. Nonetheless Jungians work on the assumption that dreams have meanings, and that a properly interpreted dream will add something important to our conscious knowledge. This means of course that the dream will never tell us something that we already know. If a series of dreams seems to be making the same point over and over again, it is because we have not understood what that point is.

When our conscious attitude becomes too one-sided we have dreams that help us to correct this imbalance by showing us where it lies. For example, if I have a tendency to withdraw from the difficult and sordid entanglements of the world into a position of superiority whence I can peer down, I may have a dream in which I am walking on long stilts stumbling over rough ground. The act of recognising this image as reflecting my conscious attitude suddenly brings into focus an area to which I have been completely blind.

But general rules about compensation simply do not work, because it depends on the whole nature of the individual. This is why it is crucially important for the dream interpreter not to have a ready-made technique that can be applied to everyone. One should not fall into the trap of thinking that the unconscious is simply there to give us helpful hints on psychic balance. We can perhaps differentiate two quite distinct aspects of the dream: one, where the dream appears to give advice, clearly nudging us in one particular direction and another where it seems quite impersonal, simply showing us the way things are. Often the so-called big dreams are of the latter kind, leaving us with a wonderfully numinous sense of our place in the scheme of things.

There are two levels of interpretation: objective and subjective.. If I dream of someone I once knew many years ago the chances are that I should interpret their associated qualities on the subjective level, i.e. as an aspect of the dreamer, myself. If on the other hand I dream about my wife, who I see every day, the dream would seem to be referring to the actual wife, though we must remember that even here a certain amount of subjectivity is required, because it is not my wife in the dream, but how I see my wife, and the two are not necessarily the same. Jung says, ‘the whole dream work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public and the critic.’ At any rate it is hard to emphasise enough the level of knowledge of the conscious attitude of the dreamer that is required for dream interpretation. Moreover it is important to bear in mind the context of the individual dream within the ongoing series of dreams. Certain motifs will be revisited again and again in extraordinarily inventive ways over time.

When we are faced with images to which the dreamer has no association, the important thing is to stick as close as possible to the dream images. Amplification should, through a circumambulation of the symbol, reveal more by looking back at the image from different viewpoints for example the mythological or anthropological However, perhaps the most important thing Jung ever wrote about the dream is that the wise interpreter should approach every new dream saying to himself, ‘I have no idea what this dream means,’ and prepare for the unexpected. One must brave the terrifying void, and only then, if we are lucky, something may come. We must always remember that the process is a mutual discovery of meaning or it is nothing. Finally, a strikingly beautiful description of the dream by Jung:

The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the psyche, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego consciousness may extend. . . All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There he is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare of all egohood. Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it never so infantile, never so grotesque, never so immoral. CW 10, par. 304