Dreaming our way to wholeness and happiness
Individuation is a process of personal psychological development that involves the assimilation of unconscious energies into the conscious mind. It forms much of the underlying thrust of Jungian psychoanalysis, but an understanding of it will bring important benefits to those who would otherwise consider themselves “sane”. It’s not a simple matter however as it involves the seemingly impossible task of bringing things we are apparently unaware of into awareness, and it also requires the willing participation of one’s ego – who is never an easy ally. It is also a lifelong work, rather than a quick fix that can be learned in a weekend seminar. Nor is it a process that can be fully completed in one’s lifetime, since the final stages of it will necessarily involve the experience of one’s own death.
Successfully following the path of individuation in life, however, does result in a gradual change in the personality, bringing with it a heightened awareness of the world we live in, and a greater sense of connectedness. This in turn brings contentment by releasing us from the devil of perpetual angst, and all manner of attendant demons of neurotic handicap. Our lives on the surface may appear entirely unchanged. We may continue to live with the same people, do the same job we always did, but we find ourselves mysteriously able to transcend the problems that life once appeared to be hurling at us – we recognise that more often than not the cause of our troubled heart lies within our own minds and our approach to life, rather than in the outer world and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Those enduring a mid-life crisis will understand more what I mean, indeed this is a subject aimed at the more mature person. The young will find it incomprehensible and should have no need of it anyway, or worse, they will see it as a means of acquiring something – be it Kudos, wealth or mystique, and will fail to realise that individuation, at least in the early stages, is more a question of letting go of something – that until we do, the important part of us that wishes to become known will be forever shy of introducing itself.
We learn early on which aspects of our personality we are most successful in exploiting in our daily lives. Once learned, we then formulate a set pattern of behaviour, favouring those same personality traits at the expense of others whenever we have to deal with the world. The result is one sidedness and a general stagnation in our outlook, and our aspirations. We can become pedantic, resistant to change, bombastic, bigoted, biassed, arrogant, withdrawn, or depressed,…. any or all of these things. The process of Individuation is one of redressing the balance, of building up the strength of those neglected aspects of our character, and getting things moving again.
Many of us hit a low-point in mid-life. For men, this is quite unlike the female menopause, which is biological and hormonal in nature. The male menopause is a psychological crisis. I write as a man, from the perspective of a man who has gone through – indeed is still going through this process – but the methods are equally applicable to the fairer sex. I’m sure men have no monopoly over feelings of existential angst.
As a mature person we’ve probably established ourselves in the world. We may have a steady job, and a family, a mortgage, a credit card debt, and a little money in the bank for a rainy day, but we are haunted by a feeling that there is something missing, and we don’t know what it is. It’s like an itch we cannot not scratch. We become obsessed by the search for it, determined not to have wasted our whole lives and not experienced this thing – whatever it is, because its promise, though incoherent, is none the less seductive.
This is the call of individuation, which is simply another word for the natural process of psychological development that all thinking feeling human beings go through. It has taken a back seat up to now, but is hankering to move on. However, there is something in the modern way of life that hampers the natural process and results in a log-jam of emotional issues in middle age.
Seeing our way through this crisis is not something we can manage with anything like a set plan, and the method we use is dictated entirely by our own unconscious disposition. It is the unconscious that decides what aspects of ourselves have been neglected, and it seeks to redress that balance in its own way, most obviously by drawing our attention to these things through the dreaming process.
A classic example of this would be dreaming of ourselves in our normal everyday environment, at work perhaps, or with friends, but finding ourselves inexplicably naked among them. The associated feelings of embarrassment and anxiety would suggest that, unconsciously, we are afraid of letting people see us for who we really are. This is normal of course – one cannot always speak one’s mind for fear of getting sacked, or at any rate giving offence – and perhaps the important thing is to be accepting of the fact that you are presenting a false face, if only so that you are able to recognise it and not be fooled by your own act!
Problems occur when one’s ego refuses to allow the assimilation of these “alien” ideas into consciousness. It rejects them. It holds fast to the personas it presents and truly believes they are representations of our authentic selves. It might even lead us to think that challenging these assumptions is a symptom of illness and we should go and see a doctor – or worse: that we are possessed by an external evil agency, or we are the victim of an invisible plot. We might lead an upright and morally superior life, yet be plagued by nightly dreams of drunken and sexual debauchery, and if so, such dreams would understandably cause us much anxiety, but we would do better to try to understand what the dream is trying to tells us about ourselves than to struggle on blindly in the belief that we are exactly who we think we are.
When we are totally unwilling to make conscious steps towards a reconciliation with the unconscious, the unconscious can overwhelm us. This can take the form of nightmares, or the actual breaking through of unconscious tendencies into consciousness. We begin to behave in a way that is “out of character”. We can also be tipped headlong into the pit of depression or we can be plagued daily by all manner of neurotic symptoms – irrational fears, phobias, panic attacks, phantom pains,…
In short, we break down.
The suppression of any emotion, or the denial of any personal trait will turn to poison and do us harm. Individuation is about leeching the poison out of our system, and is something we are all involved in to some degree, though we might be unaware of it. We all dream, even if we do not always remember our dreams. But the issues raised, even by our unremembered dreams remain with us, subliminally, and effect our emotional state throughout the day. It is better though, to accept the dreaming process as an essential part of one’s life, as the journey, the quest, indeed the very meaning of our lives, and to cooperate with it. We may be unable to comprehend the journey, but our ability to understand seems subordinate to our actual willingness to undergo the experience. In short, if we are willing, it is enough. This willingness involves rediscovering the art of dreaming, of making a conscious effort to recall our dreams and to think upon them.
The Meaning of Dreams
It’s unfortunate that most dreams are not so clear cut as the one’s previously mentioned. Indeed as we begin to delve into them we quickly despair that there can be anything sensible worth retrieving from them. Their language is strange and personal – dream dictionaries I’ve found are of little help and it’s up to us as individuals to interpret their meaning as best we can.
Dreams enable us to interact more directly with the unconscious, to listen more, and to respond more effectively to its wishes. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that this is not a process in which one can consciously dictate terms. The journey towards wholeness is entirely in the hands of the unconscious, and one over which we have absolutely no control, other than being accepting of the need to listen.
The difficulty for us as modern, rational people, is that the dream is no longer considered to be of any importance in the so called real world, that indeed there is no point in troubling the conscious mind with the meaningless puzzles that dreams present us with. They are trivia. They are noise generated by the sleeping mind on the borderland of consciousness. However, I think this is rather a biased and unscientific view, since so far as I am aware there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that dreams are meaningless, yet plenty of evidence, all be it anecdotal, to support the idea that dreams can exert a healing influence over the dreamer. Further, it’s plain to me that the human being has been equipped by nature with nothing that is superfluous to our function. There is nothing in our bodies that does not serve a purpose, or in the case of the appendix and the coccyx, has not served a purpose in our evolutionary past.
Likewise dreams have served a purpose – we have merely lost touch with what that purpose is,… namely individuation, the journey of a mind from its first spark of consciousness at birth, to its eventual reunion with the cosmos, at death. The dreaming process grants us a sense of connectedness with both the inner and the outer world, a notion that will be readily understood by many so called primitive, pre-technology cultures for whom there is less of a clear distinction between waking reality and the intangible world of the inner self, or the realm of the spirit.
The Religious Perspective
The goal of individuation, the reunion with the self, has echoes in the eastern philosophical and theological ideas of Buddhism and Taoism. In these traditions, God is thought of in an entirely abstract sense and is internalised. If we wish to get closer to God, these tradition teach us that we must look deep within ourselves. If we can do this, perhaps through the practice of meditation, then God can be experienced if not exactly described, as both a physical and a psychological sensation.
By contrast, Christianity Judaism and Islam externalise God and teach us to look outside of ourselves, look up to heaven, to project our prayers upwards or outwards to an external deity that presides over creation, thus rejecting in some ways the importance of the individual and the voices within, indeed teaching us to mistrust the inner world as a place of darkness and malevolent spirits.
Individuation then can be described as a form of spirituality, but one that might appeal more to the secular person, the person who has perhaps fallen away from any form of mainstream religious practice, but still harbours spiritual yearnings. The idea of individuation can also grant a formerly devout individual a way to reconnect with their own spiritual tradition.
Spiritual yearnings are a natural part of living: Who am I? What am I doing here? What is the meaning of my life? The answers to such questions cannot be found in the outside world. They cannot be found in the night sky, or in the empty places of the earth, nor in extreme forms of physical experience, which can emphasise instead how small we are as individuals when compared with the natural world and the whole of creation. Instead, we need to turn inside of ourselves and in doing so, we find that instead of being dwarfed by creation, we begin to embrace it.
One does not consciously begin the process of individuation – that has already begun with our entry into the world, with our birth and our passage through the formative stages of childhood and puberty. However, the pressures and systems of society, misguided upbringing by parents and the sometimes damaging institutions of school, college or work, that we are subject to can easily subvert our natural development.
There has always been a tremendous emphasis on preparing our youth so that they might enter society well qualified to take up positions in the world of work, but conversely, they seem increasingly ill equipped, emotionally, to understand and respect themselves, or to forge adequate relationships with other people, with society, and the world around them. They become troubled adults, incapable of long term marriages, vulnerable to society’s many opiates: sex, alcohol, antidepressants, sleeping pills, and a disturbing array of easily available yet wholly illegal narcotics. This is the malaise of the western world.
And its killing us.
In a metaphorical sense the breakdown of western society is the result of our having rejected the unconscious spiritual and emotional needs of human beings, and of shackling them to a strictly materialistic, secular and scientific philosophy that reduces us to nothing more than the sum of our parts. In the opinion of science, we are no more than a biological machine, and of no personal significance whatsoever. This is a shocking thing for us to have to accept, and a part of us rejects totally it because we each of us feel ourselves to be special. But science will not listen to such irrational nonsense, and suggests we are merely in the grip of a harmful delusion that requires therapeutic druggery to exorcise, and to make us feel normal again – normal being de-humanised, but somehow accepting of it.
In a collective sense, a global sense, then, the unconscious has begun to despair of ego’s excesses and is in the process swallowing us up. The rational ego is becoming increasingly overwhelmed by nightmares of hell. Twenty years ago, the thought of an intelligent, articulate young man or young woman entering a crowded place and blowing themselves up in order to take as many innocent lives as possible, for whatever reason, would have been unthinkable,… but it is now an every-day reality. We have been incredibly successful at building a world on rational values, but human behaviour is becoming increasingly irrational, and unpredictable, often in violent ways that seem bent on self destruction, rather than on building a meaningful and universally constructive dialogue.
Once this starts to happen, a part of me is left wondering if it’s not already too late, and those like me who write about such things are just a voice in the wilderness – tired old hacks writing it all down for posterity, before some idiot finds a way of turning the lights out for good.
It’s beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here to deal with the disturbing breakdown of human values, but at least on a person by person basis, I do hope to describe a way by which the process of individuation can be brought back on course. If you have a lot of money, then you might consider psychotherapy with a Jungian or Humanist slant, but that’s only for a handful of wealthy people, and unless you’re suffering from some serious emotional damage, it’s probably not necessary.
The art of dreaming is a simple and a natural process, and we do not need an expert. Each of us comes equipped with an unconscious mind, and it is our unconscious who will become our most reliable guide. All we need is a willing suspension of disbelief, and to begin reading our dreams. This is the natural way of reconnecting with the irrational side of ourselves, of immediately balancing out the overwhelming and destructive dominance of the rational ego.
Not all of us are vulnerable here. Some have no difficulty in embracing the irrational, spiritual side of life, but those of us brought up in an exclusively scientific or otherwise technical field, are more or less obliged to sneer at the irrational, to mistrust it. But there inevitably comes a point when the irrational will not be ignored. To many, like me, this reckoning comes in middle life, but whenever it comes, it must be dealt with.
Beginning to work with our dreams
We begin by writing down our dreams. Some people take pleasure from doing this for its own sake. Writers are fond of doing it because the scenes and situations presented by the dreaming process can inform and influence our work in delightful ways. Robert Louis Stephenson was a great dreamer and claimed his best tales were more or less dictated to him by his dreams.
Some dreamers are fond of dream dictionaries, and amuse themselves by looking up the various dream symbols (dogs, ducks, bats , swords, cups, clocks etc) to see what they mean. Serious dream work, however, does not concern itself much with dream dictionaries; they are too general for anything more than a bit of fun. Serious dream work involves looking at the dream itself and working out what it is saying to you personally.
Before we can write a dream down though , it is necessary to remember it. This can take a little practice at first, but seems to involve nothing more than reminding oneself before going to bed, that remembering the dream is what we want to do. It might take a few nights before we succeed, but eventually, we will raise the dream up into consciousness sufficient for us to commit it to memory.
Memorising a dream, I’ve found, is then a case of running through the main events again in that strange semi-wakeful state before full consciousness returns. It is a state in which we know we have dreamed, and are not yet assailed by the chatter of consciousness, and so seem able to pour the dream directly into memory in order that we can then commit the details to paper.
Some people keep notebooks handy at their bedside, or even tape recorders, in order to begin recording right away, in the middle of the night if need be. This fine if you sleep alone, but otherwise a little inconsiderate on your partner. Personally, I find I can hold onto a dream until I’m washed and breakfasted. Then I can hammer it into a computer for safekeeping, a process that takes no more than five minutes.
Having begun to remember our dreams, and record them in our dream journals, what comes next? Well, the first dreams will give us a clue as to where we are up to in the process. We can think of it like this: we have opened a channel of communication with the unconscious, but it is a one way channel. We cannot talk to the unconscious. We cannot ask it to tell us what it wants. We can only listen, and do our best to respond. Strong, ego driven personalities will have difficulty with this because it implies that were are not ultimately in charge of our lives,… well we aren’t, and accepting that is the first step.
A dream can be thought of as a piece of theatre. It can be strange and surreal, but profoundly meaningful, if you can grasp the underlying message. The dream reflects our conscious state, but in such a way that it compensates for the excesses of the ego. If for example we are drawing an egotistical pleasure from repeatedly humiliating someone else, the unconscious may send us dreams in which this person exacts a terrible revenge on us, or they may be shown to us in an incredibly flattering light,… something to make us think twice before behaving badly towards them in the future.
In the opposite sense, if we become too dependent on another person for our own good, the unconscious may send us dreams in which that person appears to us in a very unflattering light, making us doubt the image we have constructed of them. If we have made a conscious effort to reject certain aspects of our own nature that we fear others would disapprove of, say what we perceive to be perverted sexual feelings for example, these things will appear to us in dreams in a way that demands we accept this part of ourselves back – thinking what society might currently consider to be perverted thoughts, is not the same thing, as acting upon them – and what might be the issue here is one’s relationship with society, rather than any suppressed urge to do unspeakably vile things.
People who exhibit extreme forms of righteousness or demand unrealistic moral standards from others might themselves be plagued by dreams in which they indulge in all manner of debauchery. Such dreams will understandably cause them a great deal of anxiety, but all the dream is doing is urging them to chill out. This is the hardest thing in studying one’s dreams – accepting that the occasionally dark maelstrom of human experience is not something external to us. We are a part of it, and though we try to distance ourselves from certain aspects we find disturbing or a civilised society finds unacceptable, they do touch us all. We have a responsibility to accept that we are all capable of going over to the darkside (there but for the grace of God, and all that), and the worst thing we can possibly do is hear of something awful that someone else has done, and somehow think that we could never ever possibly do the same thing, under any circumstances. This would be like sticking yourself up on a pedestal and making yourself a target for all manner of unconscious energies to start teasing you.
But don’t worry, this is something we all do, all of the time. The thing is to be aware of it, and to be more questioning of our motivation when we are provoked into forming moral opinions of our own supposed superiority.
Meeting the Shadow
When we do not understand what’s going on, when something has gone badly wrong, it is human nature to blame it on someone else and to think of ourselves as the innocent party, or to excuse our own bad behaviour on the necessity of having to deal with the even worse behaviour of others. We reject the notion that we are all capable of doing wrong, that we are all capable of the irritating personality traits we abhor in others. Denying such things, these traits become repressed, or hidden in the unconscious, where they begin causing us problems when we inadvertently project those same values onto others. We might for example take an instant dislike to a stranger. We do not know this person, yet we feel a sickly dislike of them - we feel unable to deal with them, to talk to them even. It’s important to understand that the problem here lies not with the stranger, but with ourselves. We have begun projecting parts of our “shadow” onto them and this severely limits the development of our own personality. Unless we can address this issue and remain mindful of it for the rest of our lives, we’re really going nowhere.
The Shadow is the dark side of who we like to think we are are. It’s like a real shadow cast by sunlight shining onto our physical form. In the psychological sense, the physical form is who we choose to think we are, or who we choose to let others see us as. This is our Persona, and we may possess several of them, depending on whom we are with at the time. But the Persona always casts a shadow, at certain times more strongly than others, such as at times when it’s important we make a good impression, say at an interview or when delivering a speech. Under such circumstances, we become paranoid about showing any weakness at all and we attempt to present a persona that is flawless, or as close as possible to what we think is expected of us.
The better individuated person, however, accepts the weaknesses within himself as shared human traits, and consequently casts a weaker shadow. The shadow of a better individuated person will also fade over time as more weaknesses are discovered and accepted.
Nailing the projections
Initially, we can spot problems in ourselves without recourse to dreams. Being aware of “the shadow”, we might be able to spot those instances during the day when we project the shadow onto others, and this can teach us a lot about our own shortcomings. But the shadow is not the only unconscious energy, or so called psychic archetype, we will encounter. One of the most important archetypes we must assimilate is that side of us which maintains the balance of our gender.
At conception we possess an ambiguous sexuality, and it’s only later in the womb we become recognisably either male or female. But a male born child will possess psychological attributes that are feminine and vice versa. These lie dormant throughout childhood, but following puberty, teenagers, and indeed adults as well, begin to project these dormant sides of their natures (the Anima in men and the Animus in women) onto members of the opposite sex.
We have all done this: fallen hopelessly, and sometimes tragically in love with someone we basically do not know. What we are really doing is projecting characteristics that are entirely our own onto someone else. What we are seeing, what we are feeling when we look at the host of our projection, is an image of something inside of us. We transform this person into an image of our own making, an image that bears no resemblance to reality. In one memorable incident from my own distant past, I created, from a distance, the most adorable and perfect angel out of a girl I later recognised, as being nothing more than a manipulative tart.
Before we can progress then, we have to withdraw these projections. We have to stop falling in love at a distance. This is not to diminish the value of human love, but true love can only be realised between people when we learn to see and respect each other for who we really are and not for whom we imagine the other person to be.
Anima development in men is a complex business, and I speak from experience. She wears many guises, sometimes mother, sometimes lover, sometimes the wise confidant, sometimes the goddess, sometime the prostitute, sometimes the witch and the crone, and it is wrong to assume that she progresses through each stage in tidy progression. She can be any or all of these things at the same time. Were I more of an expert I might be more adept at dealing with her. But I’m not. Sometimes the best I can do is paint her picture, or put her into one of my stories.
The anima as mother is a particularly strong influence and is dictated by the experience of our own mothers, in the case of men, fathers in the case of women. If that experience was a good one, men will be a reluctance to move on, to grow up. They find it unpleasant to be away from their homes for long periods, they become homesick and ridiculously sentimental about women. Such men are prone to seeking women onto whom they have projected the anima as “mother”. They build homes and families that are replacements for the emotional havens they knew as children. Their wives become their mothers, they themselves try to become their fathers, and their children they try to mould as models of their own younger selves. This may work out, but if the woman you’ve married is looking to be more than just a surrogate mother, you’re on a hiding to nothing. And believe me, the last thing your children are going to want to be is just like you.
On the other hand, men with a bad experience of their mothers, will have little difficulty in flying the nest and “growing up”. They will become independent quite early in their lives and establish a place for themselves in the world. However, they may neglect their feminine side altogether and lead a predominantly ego driven life that can fail spectacularly later on when the inner woman demands recognition.
Perhaps the most emotionally crippling projection we are prone to though, is that of the Shadow. The psychological shadow is another complex phenomenon that we encounter in dreams alongside the anima. Taken in isolation, when we find ourselves irrationally recoiling from someone, from a stranger, or a person, possibly of another race or creed, or sexual persuasion, or we feel ourselves deeply irritated by “something” about others we can’t quite define, it’s likely we are projecting qualities in ourselves we’d rather not acknowledge.
Shadow projections are responsible for a whole range of human weaknesses from mild prejudice and bigotry to full blown homophobia and racism. The shadow is a difficult issue to deal with and most of us will spend our whole lives wrestling with aspects of this particular devil, but it’s time well spent. Fortunately, shadow issues are a common dream topic and can therefore be identified and addressed with a bit of patience and a willing heart.
The Shadow and the Anima or Animus in dreams
The Shadow appears to us in dreams as a character of the same sex as the dreamer and they are most easily recognised in dark, malevolent, or mysterious roles. Such dreams indicate the earlier stages of individuation, where substantial quantities of unconscious material remains to be addressed. The shadow presents aspects of this material to us and gives us the chance to accept it back as part of ourselves. Acceptance seems to involve only the withdrawal of specific projections onto others. We learn gradually then to accept other people, or other groups as they really are, and not for whom we perceive them to be. When dealing with others then we would do well to remember that, thanks to our shadow, our first impressions are not always reliable.
The Anima, the inner woman, appears in the dreams of men as an unknown woman. She will come in many guises and many roles, but essentially she is the same pattern of psychic energy. In women, this same balancing entity, called the Animus appears as a man, or a group of men. In either case, the manifestation of the anima or animus in a dream indicates a serious engagement by the unconscious, and we should pay particular attention to their actions, or any symbols surrounding them. Their actions in dreams can indicate underlying influences dominated by mother complexes but they can also act as our guides, spirit or inner guides if you like, along the road of Individuation. They are potent energies, and not to be trifled with, as anyone will know who has suffered from projecting them onto others.
This is very important, the animus, or the anima are not to be feared. They are on our side. When they appear in dreams, it indicates an important engagement with the unconscious. The term psychic energy can be misinterpreted but I mean it here as simply the impetus driving the stirrings of the unconscious mind – rather than its more woolly paranormal definition. If we therefore project our inner guides, our animus or anima onto members of the opposite sex, this psychic energy is wasted in useless or even damaging adoration. Withdrawing the projections, we take that energy back inside of ourselves. Similarly, projecting shadow issues outwards onto unfortunate members of society is wasteful and debilitating. Taking the energy back, it is possible for the unconscious to channel it in more beneficial way, through our dreams, and to guide us more towards wholeness, rather than psychological disarray.
Dreams in which our anima or appears to struggle against shadow characters tell us that significant shadow issues remain and hamper our progress, hamper our access to the wisdom of our natural ally, our other half, our anima, or animus. Shadow characters might seek to capture or harm our guides, or we might even see our guides pressed into service against us. Such things suggest our deeper natures, spirit guides, anima or animus, are trying to engage with us, but are hampered by something else in our selves that must be dealt with first.
We can also get clues as to how well we have developed our inner guides. In the case of a man for example, dreaming of an unknown woman locked up and in a state of duress – as in the case of many fairy tale princesses - might indicate that he has not developed an awareness of his inner femininity at all, that he undervalues his feminine side and is therefore trapped. However you view it, dreams present themselves as a practical means of resolving emotional and psychological issues that are either doing us harm or preventing us from achieving a condition of wholeness.
At the time of writing, I am playing a computer game called ICO. In it a young lad finds himself incarcerated in a mysterious fortress. He encounters a ghostly girl in some distress, who he decides to help, and the two of them try to make their way out – to escape. The girl is vulnerable though, needs leading, coaxing, taking by the hand, and each new stage brings perils in which shadowy creature try to suck the girl back into incarceration. ICO cannot leave without the girl, and must fight the shadowy presences off. I can think of no finer metaphor for the masculine relationship with the anima, the so called divine feminine, nor their journey through the labyrinth of the unconscious mind.
Working through our own inner stories of anima and shadow, we are sometimes granted intimations of our own destiny, our own wholeness.
Intimations of wholeness
Issues of wholeness are shown to us in dreams by characters of an altogether more mystical appearance, usually of the same sex as the dreamer. In men, these characters take on the form of older men, perhaps fatherly figures, or wizards, male gurus, or shamans – the Gandalfs and the Merlins of literature. In women the character manifests itself as a goddess or a wise and kindly queen, or an “earth mother”. The appearance of such characters tells us the process of individuation is well under way and we are encountering emissaries of the “self”
The self, if you like, is the core of our being. In psychological terms it is the successful eradication of all disruptive shadow elements and it is the assimilation of deeply embedded unconscious energies into consciousness. In religious terms it is touching God. Encountering the self is not without its dangers. Like any other unconscious energy, the self can be projected onto others, which means that humans have always had a natural tendency to deify other human beings, and so render themselves vulnerable to the malevolent intentions of certain charismatic charlatans. Secondly, the uncontrolled assimilation of the self into consciousness can trigger megalomania, seriously damaging the individual by filling them with delusions of their own divinity or grandeur. This can happen when the power of the self falls hostage to a poorly adapted ego.
The Interpretation of Dreams
Having looked at the process of individuation and the sorts of things we might encounter in our dreams, we now turn to the analysis of our dreams themselves. The first and only rule of dream interpretation is that there are no rules. There is no set procedure for understanding dreams, something the rational mind finds infuriating to say the least. There are however some loose guidelines and these must suffice, but it must be stressed that the meaning of dreams only becomes apparent when the dreamer sits down and thinks on the dream. When interpreting dreams for others we must therefore be very careful to react in an impartial way to the dream’s contents, and generally the best we can do for others is help the dreamer to list their own associations with the images presented, and not to contaminate their dream with our responses to it.
The first step in dream analysis is simply to recall the dream and write it down, to present it in some form of narrative. One should pay attention to details here, describing the situations, the actions, the characters, and also the emotions we experience in the dream. Are we made to feel happy, threatened, guilty, or ashamed? Also dialogue is important, and numbers,… say the number on a bus ticket, or the time on a clock – though it has to be said, I’ve never fathomed the meaning of any of the numbers in my dreams.
More usefully, I’ve found that anything that can be represented by a noun i.e. cat, dog, fish, dagger, time, number, etc. is presented to us by the unconscious as a symbol for something else. Dreams are never literal. If we have an unconscious fear of water, for example, the dream will not give us images of ourselves swimming happily in order to encourage us to overcome such fears. This quirk of dreams is likened to a censor, never exposing us directly to the thing we are hiding from, or the thing we most fear. What the dream does do is present us with symbols that allow us to arrive at a specific meaning by a more roundabout process of association.
Once we have captured our dream as a narrative then, it is useful to go through each of the symbols and to write down our association with it. Say, for example, I dream of a shark, this is an emotive image, one that might reasonably conjure up a sense of fear or dread in most people, a fear of being bitten or eaten or injured when swimming,… but say I had viewed a TV program the day before that painted sharks in a sympathetic light as creatures responding to their natural environment,… my personal association with the shark image would be slightly different, it might not immediately provoke feelings of dread, but a more ambivalent response, because of my own recent experience.
The right association can be identified as the one that grants us an inner nod of understanding from the unconscious : a sort of inner “Aha!” Then we may reasonably suppose that part of the puzzle is now in place.
I hesitate to bore others with my own dreams but sometimes they are useful as illustrations. The following is an example from my own dream journal:
I have gone to Australia, alone, on holiday and am conscious that my family is on the other side of the world, though this does not appear to greatly trouble me. I am on a beach by a lagoon. The water is clear and I am rendered giddy by a feeling of euphoria at the sheer beauty of everything I see. I take a canoe out onto the lagoon and begin to paddle but my paddle is made of an inflatable material and keeps losing its air so that I am unable to make progress. What’s more, as I lose momentum, the canoe itself begins to sink. Repeated efforts to inflate my paddle all fail. I cannot keep it at the right pressure and the feeling of euphoria is lost in the confusion.
Later I receive a package from home, from my infant son. Inside is a small box containing items I would regard as rubbish, but which interest my son because he is very young – bits of silver paper, plastic bottle-tops – that sort of thing but nothing I initially recognise. His intention is for me to have something to remember home by, and to stop me from feeling homesick. But I am angry with him for having wasted the cost of postage in sending such useless items all around the world. But then I recognise an item in the box as a tyre pressure gauge.
I interpreted the dream in this way:
Australia is a foreign country for me, in a metaphysical sense it represents my own journey into the far away, something I do alone, and in isolation from my family. The lagoon of clear water and my attempting to float upon it I associate with feelings of trying to stay afloat in the peculiar world of the unconscious, trying also to make way, to understand, to progress. Losing the air out of my paddle needs no explanation,… I am stuck, lacking the means to go on, struggling even.
But then I receive a package from my son, whom I regard as being caught up in a world of his own delightful innocence and imagination, where a bit of twisted silver paper can actually be a dragon or a boat or an aeroplane. He sends me a box of things I do not recognise or understand, but significantly in that box is a means of checking the pressure of my paddle, of maintaining it at proper levels, as I do with my car tyres.
Following the dream I realised I was guilty of being impatient with my son. I had recently regarded his imaginative games as being rather childish and had found myself wishing he would grow up a bit. Once I’d written this down it immediately struck me as wrong, that it was obvious the only person who had a problem with his innocent games was me. Also, my impatience with him was hindering my own progress in some way. I had to see the world through my son’s eyes, become a child again myself in some regard and recognise the value in things the way he did. I had to respect his innocence and understand the joy he derived through his fascination for even the most trivial of things.
What this dream did was encourage me to let go of something. It was an issue that had been causing me some irrational stress in real life, but I had been blind to it. Realising it, I was rewarded by a feeling of relief, a kind of euphoria, at something recognised, understood, and overcome. That sense of relief, of pressure eliminated at a stroke, was proof enough to me of the importance of the dreaming process, and the very real benefits that can sometimes be gained from studying them.
Others might interpret my dream in different ways, but it would be useless to do so, like consuming medicine for a malaise they do not personally suffer from. The best someone else could have done was to help me list the nouns and make the associations. We should always bear this in mind when helping others with their dreams because the mind is easily suggestible and false associations born out of someone else’s prompting, can easily become embedded and disruptive.
Much controversy has been caused by professional psychologists poking about in the dreams of their patients, in particular for repressed memories of sexual assaults during childhood. A person may have no memory of any such event having taken place, for the simple reason that it did not take place, but dreams of inappropriate contact with others, can be easily twisted by a crusading clinician, causing the patient to suddenly doubt everything that they hold as the foundation of their being. In trusting others to help us therefore, we must always ensure they are worthy of that trust and not simply pursuing an agenda of their own.
My own agenda in writing all of this down is primarily that I believe it will help me to understand the process better myself – that’s simply the nature of my writing, and my own journey. Your trust need go nowhere beyond an appraisal of my methods. They will cost you nothing, and I can have no insidious influence over your inner world, because you do not know me, and we will never meet. At best, presenting my thoughts on this subject in this way may allow others to arrive at a view from their own perspective, whether that comes about by agreeing with me and finding some resonance, or by rejecting me as a crackpot.
Nor am I writing for those who would rather trust their fate to the guidance of others, rather I am writing for others like myself who believe in the sanctity of the inner partnership we form with ourselves. There is a line in the Anglican funerary rite that talks about us coming into this world alone and leaving it alone. But I no longer recognise this as being true. If the implications of dream work are correct, then we are never alone, at any point in our lives, for we are each of us born with an inner partner. If we are wise, we come to recognise this unseen partner as the reality behind the myth we have chased all our lives, the myth we have attempted to embody in others.
It may be that we will have a chance to meet this partner face to face during our last mortal dream, and that a kind of metaphysical union will take place between us – therefore we do not exactly leave this world alone either. This also seems to be the consensus among the various traditions of spiritual alchemy, either eastern or medieval European. It is a union that brings about a transformation of the mind, and a reunion with the inner world, with the subtle mind of the Buddhist tradition, the universal mind that exists independently of the physical world, also known as the Tao of the Taoists, that which pre-exists, which posits reality and shepherds the flow of its events.
For the majority of us, a knowledge of the Shadow and the Animus, or the Anima, is the best we can hope for. Shadow is not a bad phenomenon, it is not the devil, though as a shadow archetype, the devil is perhaps unrivalled. Yet the shadow is not intrinsically evil and requires us only to accept ourselves for who we truly are. If we can do this our shadow will reward us with inner peace and contentment, for we can never be truly happy if we are not fully accepting of who we really are. We will always be glancing over our shoulder, feeling Shadow breathing down our necks and threatening to expose us.
The same goes for Anima, for the divine feminine in man, or the Animus, the divine masculine in women. Here, like the shadow, the approach is primarily one of withdrawing our projections onto others – in the case of men, withdrawing the sense of falling hopelessly in love with female strangers,… fellow students, colleagues, the girl on the train two seats down every morning who never seems to notice us – and of seeing them instead for who they truly are. This alone will bring about the inner balance and harmony required before we can safely contemplate an encounter with the Self.
Encounters with the Self
In Western culture, we are driven to imagine the Self as being the thing sitting at the centre of our consciousness. We equate is with the ego, and as something we might recognise if only we could clear off all the clutter of our daily lives and find the time to think. But this is not true and in fact the only thing underlying consciousness is the chameleon like Ego itself with its multi-coloured cloak of various personas. The best we can hope to achieve in this respect, is a degree of balance and an awareness of the importance of those other aspects of the psyche that remain hidden.
It is believed that the Self is the gateway to what in traditional religious parlance might be called the Divine. The self is the route back to where we came from, and might be thought of in an abstract way as God. All religions, whether they profess a deity or not, teach us that the Divine is not something to be trifled with. It is a dangerous phenomenon that can overwhelm an individual’s consciousness. Only through consciousness are we defined as an individual. The Self, paradoxically, does not define us as a unique and separate entity, but as a part of the universe. The Self is the universal consciousness, and transcends the individual, being something we tap into, something we share.
The self will appear in dreams as a wise individual, an old man, a wizard, a guru in the case of a male dreamer, or a goddess, or an earth-mother in a female dreamer. It can also manifest itself as so called mandala symbols. These are symbols of wholeness, most often recognised when they appear circular, an arrangement of stones perhaps, or the face of a clock, or a circular building. Dreams of this kind are highly symbolic, deeply intriguing, but I have to say in my own case, totally incomprehensible.
When approached by the self in such dreams, it is useless to look for projections of the shadow or of the animus or anima in our external reality. We have passed beyond the point at which we are required to physically respond to unconscious stimuli and are instead being given a glimpse of a sort of psychological end-game. Here, my first hand information is rather scarce because I’m still dealing with shadow and animus material,… beyond it I’m merely speculating, and must consult the works of Jung and Freud, for hints of the way ahead,… but this is the stuff of life and one should not be in too much of a hurry.
Life is a journey, not a destination.
You get what you pay for?
It strikes me that nothing in western society is considered to be of any value unless you’ve paid money for it, or it involves a set of exercises with rules and merchandisable apparatus. This applies to both physical and spiritual forms of self improvement. We are brought up from birth to be consumers of things, be they goods, services or ideologies. There are fashions and fads, our attention spans are short, we are used to demanding things, demanding progress, quality, satisfaction. And we expect it all to fit into our timetable. Expect results in two weeks! Or so the adverts tell us, gambolling on the fact that we’ll probably have grown bored long before then and moved on to the next big thing.
Self improvement however, involves first of all the recognition that such values are actually rather foolish, and that overcoming them is a major step in self improvement itself. If we practice yoga, for example, all we really need are to attend some classes to pick up the techniques – then spend our lives trying to perfect them. We do not really need the fancy mat nor the stretchy clothes, the fancy music or the aromatic candles. Similarly in dream work, we can all too easily rush out and buy an expensive notebook and a fancy pen for the recording of our dreams, hoping for fantastic encounters with the dark shadow, or deliciously erotic ones with a gorgeous anima, only to find ourselves recording months or even years worth of the most incomprehensible dross. We lose patience, become angry perhaps, and such emotions are reflected in the dream material, so we just end up going round in circles, looking for buried anxieties, when the anxieties we see evidence of are sitting on our shoulders the whole time.
The essence is in the doing of the thing, not in how it can be wrapped up and presented by the material world. Nor can we dictate the pace. If we find ourselves asking “how long”, or feeling impatient in any way, this is Ego talking, untempered by inner wisdom.
You have to learn to let it go.
Dream work is not a fad, and to call it “work” is also very misleading, for then we might begin view it as some sort of labour or “self-help” exercise. This would not be correct at all. The dream is like an old friend following us down a busy street where our attention is constantly taken by the bright and gaudy goods on display in the shop windows. Our heads are down, we are feeling impatient to make way, to find the one thing that will satisfy the ache inside of us, but we’ve found nothing. And there’s this old friend following, sometimes even tapping us on the shoulder, wanting to talk to us,.. but we haven’t the time.
The only thing we have to do is take a deep breath, stop, turn around, smile at our friend, so that he is assured we do recognise him, and that we want to listen, to become reacquainted. And that’s all there is to it.
We have begun!
My own understanding of dream interpretation comes primarily from the works of Carl Jung, and a book titled simply “Dreams” which comprises extracts from his collected works. In it Jung pays tribute to Freud’s earlier pioneering work “The Interpretation of Dreams”. Of the two, personally, I would say Jung’s writings will probably be clearer to the lay person. Freud’s work is authoritative, but considerably more voluminous , and possibly of more interest to the professional analyst. Another useful book I came across was “Learn to Dream” by David Fontana. But these are just my personal favourites.
Browse Amazon, browse the bookshops, and pick the titles that mean something to you. There are also many dreamer’s websites and blogs and it’s useful to browse these in order to learn from the interpretations that others come up with for their own dream material.
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