Dreams have always been one of depth psychology’s primary sources of information about psychic processes. The way the dream is interpreted and used in psychological work, however, varies widely. Llet’s first look at the major branches of dream interpretation within depth psychology and examine some of the similarities and differences in their approach to the dream.
Arguably the most famous exponent of dream interpretation as a psychological tool is Freud. His monumental The Interpretation of Dreams laid the groundwork for all depth psychologists who followed. However, the fundamental assumptions of Freudian dream analysis, in my opinion, don’t usually help much when we try to figure out the meaning of our dreams in everyday life.
For Freud, the dream represents a purely interior, subjective process. The essential function of the dream is wish fulfillment: Every dream makes a demand on the sleeping ego—a demand for the solution of a problem, the satisfaction of an instinct, or the forming of an intention—depending on the source of the dream impulse. The ego wants to preserve its sleep, and so, via the dreamwork, turns the dream into the fulfillment of a wish, thereby answering the dream’s demand in a way that will not wake the sleeping ego. Freud states categorically that the wish that provokes the dream must always be an infantile one; he doubts that the conscious wishes of an adult are strong enough to provoke a dream. These unconscious, infantile wishes are “always on the alert” for an occasion (such as an event in the dreamer’s waking life, the “day’s residues”) when they can “ally themselves” with a conscious impulse and create a dream. The day’s residues “borrow” energy from the unconscious wishes, and also provide the unconscious wish with a hook, or point of attachment, upon which to spin a dream.
Dreams are important in Freud’s analytic theory because they represent one of the times when the id has a chance to force its way into the ego and cause disturbances. In this sense, the dream “is a psychosis, with all the absurdities, delusions and illusions of a psychosis. A psychosis of short duration, no doubt, harmless, even entrusted with a useful function, introduced with the subject’s consent and terminated by an act of his will.”
Dreams are nightly events that occur in everyone, and so, although they function in this way as a “short-term psychosis,” they actually represent a normal state, not a neurotic or psychotic one. This is particularly helpful to the analyst because unconscious and pre-conscious materials that make their way into a dream “are handled in the course of the dream-work as though they were unconscious portions of the id” and so can be studied as such. By investigating dreams the researcher can gain insight into the normal functioning of the mind as well as its functioning in abnormal states.
Freud’s tool for analyzing dreams was primarily the technique of free-association, by which he could uncover the unconscious ideas associated with elements of the dream. Resistance, evidenced by “drawing a blank,” slips of the tongue, or outright reluctance to express an idea, was useful to the therapist in that it drew attention to areas where something unconscious was being actively repressed. Further probing would often reveal the thoughts that the patient was trying to hide from himself. Generally, in Freud’s work, what was being hidden was of a sexual nature.
I don’t use Freud’s method of dream analysis because his fundamental assumptions about the nature of the unconscious and of the dreams it produces are completely different from mine. For Freud, the unconscious consists of two parts. First, there are things the child brings into the world, residue of his ancestors’ experiences. Second, there are things that exist in the unconscious either because they have not been noticed, because they have been forgotten, or because they have been repressed by the ego. Freud’s concept of a collective mind is much more limited than Jung’s collective unconscious. For Freud, human beings exist, almost entirely, as completely separate entities.
Furthermore, Freud insists that everything in his psychology is capable of definition by scientific methods. This automatically excludes from consideration anything like the imaginal world with which I am dealing in this work. As McCurdy says, because Freud’s unconscious “is scientifically defined, it cannot encompass spirits, gods, the numinous, creative forces, or anything that is beyond the power of consciousness.” The only reason that “the unconscious exists at all is because of the power of the ego to repress what is culturally unacceptable.”
Then there’s the question of whether or not dreams have an intentionality about them. For Freud, dreams don’t “intend” to be understood. We can analyze them and decipher their meaning, but this is an action that we perform on the dream, not something that the dream itself intends. In contrast, my view of the dream is that it may represent an avenue for communication with not only the personal unconscious but with the collective unconscious, with the imaginal world of spirits and archetypes.
Here’s an example that explains the result of the differences between my approach and Freud’s. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud tells the story of a father who had been watching over his son’s sickbed for many days and nights, and whose child finally died. The exhausted man lit candles around his son’s bed and went into the next room to lie down. He fell asleep and had a dream that his child was standing next to him, shaking him by the arm. “Father, don’t you see I’m burning?” said the child, reproachfully. The father awoke and discovered that one of the candles had fallen over, the bedding had caught fire, and the child’s body was indeed burning.
Freud’s interpretation of this dream was that it represented the process of wish fulfillment: The father desperately wished his son to be alive once more, and so the dream, using the father’s memories of the boy’s words and actions, created a scene where the boy was indeed alive. My own interpretation, based on a different view of reality, would suggest that the exhausted father’s mental defenses were lower than usual and the boy himself, from the other side of death, was able to communicate with his father directly and alert him to a dangerous situation.
Freud’s way of looking at dreams doesn’t fit with my own view of the world, which takes the existence of the collective unconscious as a given, assumes that it’s possible to dialogue with imaginal beings, and assumes that the dream very likely has a message—maybe a message that’s not even a personal one. These assumptions are derived from the basics of Jung’s psychological theories.
Jung had quite a different view of psychic reality than Freud. Dreams, he said, “are the most common and most normal expression of the unconscious psyche”; they are “nothing less than self-representations of the psychic life-process.” In contrast to Freud, Jung saw the images in dreams as the energy of the psyche itself—the actual reality of the psyche at the time of the dream. Whereas Freud would call the dream image a re-worked and “sanitized” reflection of psychic material too traumatic to be openly seen, Jung considered the images as having a life and a reality of their own.
Jung also believed that dreams depict the interactions of complexes within the psyche: The dream figure often or usually reflects a nexus of emotional and emotionally charged material: a complex. Interactions between figures in a dream, or actions within a dream scene, can therefore be interpreted as reflective of these complexes, and the interactions between them. One can view dreams as theater “in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic.” Interpretation of this type he refers to as “on the subjective level,” where it is assumed that all the figures in the dream represent parts of the dreamer’s personality. If the dreamer can be encouraged to see these different “characters” as in fact part of himself, he will be better able to understand his own actions and feelings.
Jung believed that by working with the dream we help the patient (or ourselves) become aware not only of the conscious aspects of the situation, but of the “unconscious complement, that is, the material which the conscious situation has constellated in the unconscious.” This enhanced understanding “improves the patient’s attitude” and thereby allows therapy to continue. Dreamwork is invaluable in fostering the process of individuation both within the therapy room and on one’s own.
Jung’s understanding of the dream’s symbolic and metaphorical components led him to use dreams in a completely different way than Freud. First of all, from a Jungian perspective, dreams can be viewed as a form of psychic compensation: The dream-ego often, through its emotional state, responses, and actions, allows the psyche to point out to the waking ego an alternative point of view.
Jung believed in staying close to the image itself when analyzing the meaning of a dream, avoiding the Freudian assumption that the image “stood for” something entirely different than it appeared. Rather than Freud’s technique of free association, Jung used active imagination and what he called amplification: He looked to broader cultural and historical sources to expand the understanding of the dream’s metaphorical and archetypal relations. For Jung, a feeling for the historical/cultural past—not just the individual’s lived history—was supremely important. Myth, fairy tales, religious practices, and other cultural associations give insight into an image without making it into something other than it appeared.
James Hillman’s archetypal psychology takes Jung’s basic ideas and moves them even farther. Hillman’s premise, like that of Jung, is that the dream is something in itself, not just a re-working and re-presentation of something hidden. Hillman uses the dream itself as a model of the psyche. Each night in the dramas of our dreams we see the interaction of the psyche’s various centers of consciousness, giving us “a critique of the ego-complex from the viewpoints of the other members of the troupe.” He imagines the structure of the psyche to be “an inscape of personified images.”
Hillman also insists on letting the image speak for itself but, typically, goes farther than Jung himself. He speaks of “befriending” these autonomous images and argues strongly against dragging them up into the dayworld in an attempt to use them in any way. “To go deep into a dream,” he says, “requires abandoning hope, the hope that rises in the morning and would turn the dream to its purposes.” Dream images belong in and to the underworld of soul. Our work should be to go to them, not drag them into our world and interpret them.
In my work with dreams, I attempt to befriend them, as Hillman suggests, but I refuse to abandon hope that the dream images would interact with me. Instead, I seek to provide an atmosphere of hospitality, as Robert Romanyshyn does, and offer them the opportunity to speak beyond the bounds of the dreamworld itself.
Note: I’ve temporarily taken out the references here; will put them back shortly…. Meanwhile, if you want to know where a quote comes from, I can let you know.