Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Jung on Dreams

[Excerpts from Jung, Carl G. Dreams, trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.]

"The an autonomous and meaningful product of psychic activity, susceptible, like all other psychic functions, of a systematic analysis....Dreaming has meaning, like everything else we do," p. 3.
"The dream is a fragment of involuntary psychic activity, just conscious enough to be reproducible in the waking state. Of all psychic phenomena the dream presents perhaps the largest number of 'irrational' factors. It seems to possess a minimum of that logical coherence and that hierarchy of values shown by the other contents of consciousness, and is therefore less transparent and understandable," p. 68.
"Even though dreams refer to a definite attitude of consciousness and a definite psychic situation, their roots lie deep in the unfathomably dark recesses of the conscious mind. For want of a more descriptive term we call this unknown background the unconscious. We do not know its nature in and for itself, but we observe certain effects from whose qualities we venture certain conclusions in regard to the nature of the unconscious psyche. Because dreams are the most common and most normal expression of the unconscious psyche, they provide the bulk of the material for its investigation," p. 73.
"The symbols of the process of individuation that appear in dreams are images of an archetypal nature which depict the centralizing process or the production of a new centre of personality....I call this centre the 'self,' which should be understood as the totality of the psyche. The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness," p. 115.

Jung's studies of dreams led him to develop an approach to interpreting them. In much of his literature he draws on the work of Freud in this area and credits Freud with developing a scientific method for understanding the hidden meaning of dreams. Jung's understanding of dreams, and the symbols or archetypes present in dreams, is critical to getting at the unconscious messages presented to us in nightmares. True nightmares are replete with archetypal images that haunt us well into our post dreaming stages. The uncanny or horrifying feeling a nightmare elicits will sometimes stay with the dreamer throughout his waking hours.

Jung viewed dreams and nightmares as comprehensive "statements" made by the unconscious mind. These "statements" are not in the form of a language that the conscious mind readily understands. By nature, the language of the unconscious is diametric to that of the conscious. The unconscious mind uses symbols, metaphors, and archetypes to convey meaning. And Jung believed that the meaning of dreams and nightmares was inevitably a statement about the current condition or situation of the dreamer's psyche. Because the language of the unconscious is wholly different from that of the conscious, the challenge for the conscious mind is to try to decode or interpret what the unconscious is revealing. There is no "hidden agenda" or subterfuge on the part of the unconscious. It is simply communicating to the conscious mind the only way it can. Consequently, the conscious mind finds it difficult to interpret and understand the meaning of dreams and nightmares.

Jung developed a process for interpreting the meaning of dreams and nightmares. He referred to this process as "amplification." The process involves isolating the symbols and metaphors of the dream and having the dreamer interact with these images. The dreamer, he believed, could best learn the significance of the symbols and metaphors by using direct association to get at the essence of how these images affected him; i.e., what they reminded him of, how they made him feel, or what they made him think about. Jung was interested in direct associations that revealed personal significance to the dreamer. But he was also interested in indirect associations that might reveal cultural and archetypal messages from the unconscious. So Jung developed a tool for interpretation that he called "active imagination." The dreamer uses his imagination to concentrate on a particular dream image to see how that images might transform in subsequent dreams. Jung developed this tool because he felt that dream sequences were easier to interpret because they repeated a theme. The repetition facilitated focusing on the most significant message.

Jung described the structure of dreams as consisting of four discrete parts, similar to those of a story:

1. Exposition: setting, characters, and theme
2. Development: story line
3. Crisis: crux or climax of the events
4. Lysis: resolution or conclusion

This structure, he recognized, represented complete and model dreams. He did agree that sometimes dreams might be too short or fragmented to conform to this structure consistently.

If you are interested in following Jung's method for getting at the meaning of dreams, here are some basic guidelines to follow:

  1. Write down your nightmare immediately upon waking (you might choose to keep a recorder next to your bed). If you don't record the dream immediately your conscious mind will reject the images and you will lose valuable information delivered straight from your unconscious mind. When you record your nightmares remember to avoid editing or altering them in any way. The message from the unconscious must be read exactly as presented.

  2. Record your feelings accurately. Write down or describe exactly how you felt during the nightmare. Describe how you felt at the beginning, how your feelings might have changed, and what caused the change in your feelings during the course of the dream.

  3. Record the feelings you have after you completed steps 2 and 3. Be as accurate as possible.

  4. Break your dream down into the four parts of Jung's structure: exposition, development, crisis, and lysis. Be as detailed in describing each part.

  5. Identify the images in the dream that hold strong symbolic meaning for you personally. Use free association to get the feel for what these strong images might symbolize in your conscious life.

  6. Review the dream as a whole and see if you can determine what it means and how it affects your current psychic situation.

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