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An Interview about Dreams

The Washington Post

Questions from D.Z., Sunday Source reporter for The Washington Post 

Responses from Jungian analyst Weaver Stevens, M. Div., M. Litt., and April Barrett, executive director, The Washington Society for Jungian Psychology (WSJP)

What can you tell me about Jung's thoughts regarding dreams?

How is the Jungian approach applied today?

Weaver Stevens (hereinafter, W.S.): The human psyche possesses a capacity both for conscious thought, governed through the agency of the ego, and unconscious energies, which are equivalent to the psyche's reservoir of instinctual messages. The body has its physical instincts; the psyche has its psychological instincts. These psychological instincts have to communicate somehow to the conscious decision-making dimension of the psyche. Usually this communication is through dreams, though occasionally sensitive persons may have visions or other less usual forms of messaging. As psychological instincts must have a "language" that conscious thought can tune into, over many thousands of years the psychological instincts have utilized symbols to get their message across.

For instance, last night you may have dreamt of driving across a dessert and your car running out of gas. On one level this might be a simple cautionary concern that when you drive from Las Vegas to Phoenix it is wise to check your gas gage. But, symbolically, your psychological instincts may be warning you to think about an impoverished personal life, both with you family and your business, and you may be facing an energy crisis in the form of a breakdown or depression. Your unconscious will know this usually long before your conscious awareness kicks in, and it has to find a "symbolic" way to tell you.

April Barrett (hereinafter, A.B.): This is an enormous question, not unlike asking Alfred Einstein, for instance, for his thoughts on Newtonian physics or the cosmos. Carl Jung wrote extensively about dreams, the importance of dreams to living an authentic life, and how to approach dreams. To the seriously interested reader, I can recommend a collection of Jung's essays on dreams in C.G. Jung, Dreams, published by Princeton University Press, 1974.

Jung's thoughts on dreams are applied and misapplied in a variety of ways, but what comes to mind of the value of working with one's dreams in a Jungian analysis is that it helps enable one to become the person she was meant to become, to approach a wholeness of the personality, to live an authentic life, to be connected to one's religious depths. This is huge; it's everything.

Dream analysis is central to Jung's depth psychology because dreams describe what's happening in the life of the dreamer from the point of view of the unconscious, which is often a corrective point of view. An analogy might be as follows: Just as visual depth perception is very limited in a person with only one eye, so it is that to have only the single point of view from consciousness is also severely limiting; to be able to add to the conscious point of view the dream's commentary from the unconscious realm is more than just helpful; it adds perspective, depth, quality, color, intensity, profundity, richness, fullness, and the like. It provides meaning and connects us to a vitality in our own depths. It adds Life.

What advice can you offer on how to reflect and analyze one's dreams?

W.S.: Self-analysis of dreams is tricky, primarily because the part of yourself facing a difficulty may not be ready to see the unpleasant facts. It is somewhat self-evident if you dream of toilets overflowing or roofs leaking; these can signify personal difficulties not being properly dealt with. However, a more complex dream, such as mountain climbing with a team and, in a blizzard, finding yourself cut loose by an unseen member of the team, and you falling into the abyss, can have many possible interpretations, and it then becomes important to have an outside person with some experience of symbolic language to help sort out the interpretation that seems most adequate to your situation. Even then you may not be emotionally ready to make the decision that will turn things around.

A.B.: Dream analysis is serious and important work. To start with, one can simply accept that if a particular dream (any dream) has come, there is a reason for this particular dream having come at this particular time in this particular dreamer's life. Discerning what the dream might mean is the difficulty. A useful analogy might be that analyzing a dream is like peeling an onion, the point being that there are apt to be layers and layers of meaning. An individual might be able to get at the outer layers of meaning on her own or in a dream group, but as often as not, she may be misled. True dream analysis, real depth work requires the assistance of an analyst. No question! Jungian analysts (as distinct from therapist, psychiatrists, counselors, etc., even "Jungian-oriented" ones) have undergone years of extensive training in dream analysis, their own and those of others; they know how the psyche works and are very insightful.

One can begin work with a dream by exploring the dreamer's own personal amplifications to the images in the dream, what they might mean to the dreamer, and in this way begin to gather in the context and the possibilities of what the dream images might reveal. (These are emphatically not the amplifications of a dream-group member or any other person.) Under ordinary circumstances, the dream is usually specific to the dreamer. 

Amplification is not the same as free association. This is important because dreams often come from a great depth, whereas free association likely involves only the surface meanings (the outer layers of the onion). A drawing made from a dream can often be very helpful.

So, the dreamer brings to the dream images whatever relevant background she can from her own life and also, perhaps, from previous dreams. To that she adds whatever appropriate material she can unearth from the deeper realms of religion and myth, fairy tale and folk-lore, the ancient life of our species and other species, animal and vegetable. Sometimes it's all in the mix.

What are some common misconceptions about dreams?

Is there anything that is often misreported about dreams?

W.S.: The most likely misconception about dream symbols is that a given symbol has a dependable interpretation. The same symbol can have many different meanings, depending on the individual, the family and social circumstances, the historical and cultural milieu, and, which will be hardest for your readers to understand, mythological patterns that are present in all cultures possessing all levels of sophistication. For instance, no matter how primitive or "civilized" the culture, there are always mothers, killers, liars, stealers, gods, enemies, etc.; the list is long. Jung has discovered these universal symbols and patterns in all times, all places, all peoples. He labels this part of the human psyche as the "collective unconscious." For those who want an accessible study of this, I suggest Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By.

A.B.: In the Jungian model, there is no dogma associated with the meanings of the symbols and images in dreams; sometimes a house, for instance, indicates the dreamer's psyche; sometimes not. So, the "Discover the Meaning of Your Dreams" booklets that we're apt to see at the supermarket check-out and other places have little value, if any. How can it be otherwise? If the meanings of the symbols in dreams were formulaic, if the dream images always indicated a fixed meaning, then the true meaning of the dream would be missed in favor of a forced and lifeless equation; the dream would not "speak" to the dreamer if its voice were frozen in a simple code.

Are there dream archetypes, i.e., common dream themes that many people report having?

If so, do they sometimes indicate similar things about the dreamers' waking lives?

W.S.: The word "archetype" is a bit technical. It is enough to say that archetypes are the source of the symbols as well as the means whereby the symbols are transmitted in dreams. There certainly are common dream themes. For instance, fires can suggest that something must be eliminated or transformed; they also represent the spilling forth of anger and rage, the intensity of energy, an alchemical or psychological "cooking" leading to a changed circumstance. To dream of a "home" can have as many meanings as there are homes. A wild animal may symbolize a powerful energy that needs handling. A "mother" may be "good," "bad," "possessive," "abandoning," "abusive," "angelic," "mean"; each symbolic investigation requires searching out many factors. In short, if you dream tonight that a forty-foot crocodile is following you around, hie thee to the nearest Jungian analyst.

A.B.: Yes, sometimes. People dream about taking exams and everything going wrong, about missing their flight or the last flight out (or train or bus), about the washing machine (or the toilet) overflowing, about someone else driving their car, about having to get somewhere or do something and being frustrated at every turn, about being naked in public, about some other presence in their house, about snakes or other reptiles, about stunning flowers, brilliant birds, beautiful new babies.

What reputable dream-related books and websites would you recommend?

A.B.: I began with P.W. Martin's Experiment in Depth; it's a wonderful book, long out of print, but it can be found online; and I would further recommend that seriously interested persons begin reading Jung wherever they find his writing interesting. Just jump in with both feet!. Also, The Washington Society for Jungian Psychology (WSJP) exists to assist in the plunge. The WSJP website is Other potentially helpful sites include (alphabetically):

Assisi Conferences and Seminars with Michael Conforti

The C.G. Jung Foundation of New York

The C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago

The C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich.

The Einsiedeln Conference in Zurich, Switzerland

The Friends Conference On Religion and Psychology 

The Guild for Psychological Studies in northern California

The International School of Analytical Psychology, Zurich

The Jung Center of Houston

The Jung Page,

The Jung Society of the Chesapeake Bay 410.822.7402; 410.647.2772.

Jungian Seminars in Switzerland

The New York Center for Jungian Studies with Aryeh Maidenbaum is an interactive website with Rudy Marcus for one-on-one work with mythic material, short courses on ethics and self-esteem. Dr. Marcus works on line with individuals and groups and does not accept payment. Continuing-education credits for some are available for a small fee.

The websites and other information for these organizations can be accessed at

What local resources are provided either by the Jung Society or another organization?

A.B.: WSJP has a wonderful library. We also have wonderful programs. This is not just a plug. If you were to begin reading or attending Jung programs, you would stimulate the unconscious and would likely be rewarded with a dream. If you were to write that dream in a dream journal, you'd likely be rewarded with another. And on it goes, if one is faithful to the process. 

For instance, WSJP's next lecture and workshop take place on November 3 & 4 at the Embassy of Switzerland. Robin Robertson, Ph.D., will lecture on The Ultimate Mystery: The Self-Referential Nature of Reality; his description includes a discussion of "dreams, myths, Gnosticism, alchemy, modern physics, and much more."

Then, on December 1, Larry Dossey, M.D., will lecture on The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things, the delicate dance between spirit and medicine, at the Washington National Cathedral. I'm checking into whether or not he will include a discussion of dreams. I'll get back to you on that. In the meantime, here are some words from Jung, from his wonderful little book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul: "The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it. . . . And it is only the meaningful that sets us free."

October, 2006

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