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Dreams as journeys to depths within us – Amalia Carli

By Amalia Carli


In the following pages I want to share some notes on a short presentation I did at Paul’s SMN wine bar in June where I discussed some thoughts about dreams, particularly with views from Carl Gustav Jung, James Hillman as well as from work by Dr.  Art Funkhouser who conducts seminars on dream work at the Carl G. Jung Institute in Zurich where I am a student. I received some interesting comments and would like to express my thanks once again for the attention and participation at Paul’s SMN wine bar.

Dreams as carrier of over worldly wisdom.

During thousands of years, dreams have fascinated people from all times and cultures. Dreams were considered messengers from outer sources, mainly gods- and later within monotheistic religions as communications from almighty God. Within the Torah, the Hebrew Bible that became the Old Testament for Christians, there are many stories about prophetic dreams. One of those stories is that of Joseph, Jacob´s favourite son, sold as a slave by his envious brothers into Egypt. Joseph underwent many hazards but eventually came to gain the Pharao´s grace due to his ability to interpret a dream about seven fat cows and seven thin ones. Joseph prophesized that after seven years of good harvest, seven years of famine would follow. Due to his ability Joseph was granted freedom for himself and his enslaved people.  Egyptian lore paid great attention to dreams, and in Egypt as well as in other places in Mesopotamia, India and Greece, people would attend temples in order to receive prophetic dreams (Funkhouser, 2021). Hebrew views on dreams appearing in the Old Testament were strongly inspired by then prevalent ideas on the matter dating several thousand years before our time among peoples from China, Persia, India, Greece, Egypt and different Middle Eastern cultures. These ancient cultures acknowledged the potential for healing and transformation hidden in dreams (Funkhouser, 2021). 

The Hebrew word for dream is “Hala”, which seems related to the Indo-European root for healing (Funkhouser, 2021). Talmudic scholars saw dreams as a source “for ethical and religious guidance as well as prophecies” (Woods & Greenhouse, 1974. 13, p. 151, in Funkhouser, 2021). Christian lore builds upon Jewish holy scriptures, however Christian views soon took distance from Hebrew dream interpretation, these being considered heretic or even diabolic work. Followingly, only priests, monks and sometimes kings were allowed to interpret dreams (Hiestand, 1994 in Funkhouser, 2021). However, the interest in dreams and their possible interpretation remained alive among the people. Nowadays a quick search in Google or at your local bookstore will show an array of books about dreams, indicating that still today many approach dream matters with interest. 

Sigmund Freud´s approach to dreams

As a Psychology student I had read Sigmund Freud´s “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900). Freud considered dreams as the “royal way” to understand unconscious, repressed wishes. For Freud dreams have a manifest, apparent content as well as a hidden, latent content that expresses aggression and/ or sexual impulses. Freud understood dreams as a “temporary psychosis” since neither dreams nor psychosis develop according to the demands of the ego. Freud proposed that dreams present another kind of logic than the one prevalent in waking life. He elaborated several concepts that characterize dreams: a) condensation, where characteristics of different places or persons can be condensed into one: for instance you dream of your primary school, but it is also your work place or  your kindergarten teacher is also your boss (by whom maybe you felt treated “like a child”); b) displacement: you are angry with your noisy neighbour who has a black dog like your grandmother´s, and you dream about your grandmother holding a noisy party at your kitchen with lots of black dogs; c) timelessness: you dream of your first bike, but you are now an adult taking a ride; and d) contradictions: you dream of a cat which is both alive and a pillow with a cat print, or both a cat and a dog. For Freud the main function of dreams is to protect sleep and allow our body to rest, while helping us deal with conflicts affecting us during the day. Freud elaborates on many of his own and his clients´ dreams. He quotes for instance that of a little girl who had many siblings and cousins and who dreamed that these flew into the sky like angels. Freud interprets this as a wish fulfilment dream, where this little girl expresses her desire of death upon these numerous other children who she was jealous of (West, 2011). For Freud dreams were to be interpreted based on his psychoanalytic theory, and within therapy the psychoanalyst would give back to the client an interpretation of the dreams based on a psychoanalytic understanding of the client´s conflicts and defenses.

Sigmund Freud considered himself a secular Jew and did not acknowledge any contributions from Hebrew scholarship in his psychoanalytic theories. Yet psychotherapist Sanford Drob (2004, 1998) suggests that Freud, who came from an observant Jewish family, ought to have had some knowledge of mysticism and spiritual guidance as shared by Jewish scholars, including dream interpretation which as we saw is central in the Torah (Drob, 2004, 1998). At the beginning of the last century there was a growing animosity towards Jews in Europe. It is therefore not surprising that Freud, influenced by Enlightenment views, would distance himself from Jewish lore and instead focus on keeping a secular, materialistic worldview also when it came to dream interpretation.

Carl Gustav Jung´s approach to dreams

Psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, the son of a Swiss protestant pastor and a spiritualist mother, had quite a different starting point than Freud. Freud was twenty years Jung´s senior, and both shared a mutual admiration and collaboration to start with, but they were to part due to fundamental differences in their understanding of the human Psyche. Jung acknowledged the existence of an individual unconscious, containing repressed unconscious material, as proposed by Freud (Corbett, 1996). However, due to his own interests in spiritual matters, and his wide knowledge about different world cultures and traditions, Jung proposed the existence of yet another, larger realm shared by all human beings: the collective or transpersonal unconscious where memories from our common biological ancestors, not only humans, were stored (Corbett, 1996).  Grounded in his own clinical work and studies of Eastern philosophies, Jung developed the idea of a two layered unconscious. Jung’s view of a collective layer or transpersonal unconscious is close to that of Alaya-vijnana, (Sanskrit: “storehouse consciousness”) which is central in Mahayana Buddhism, a spiritual and philosophical tradition which Jung had studied extensively (Moacanin, 1988). Jung was also influenced by Chinese philosophy and particularly the I Ching (Ritsema & Sabbadini, 2003) where a transpersonal dimension is also acknowledged (Dunne, 2015; Tarnas, 2007). Jung borrowed the Sanskrit concept of mandala (circle) from Tibetan Buddhism, used as a circular depiction of a personal and transpersonal transformation (Hognestad, 1997; Moacanin, 1988). 

Jung`s innovations of psychoanalytic concepts and theory disappointed Freud, but a major schism between them was caused by their different views concerning the function of the libido (McLeod, 2014). Unlike Freud who considered the libido to be sexual energy searching for gratification, Jung developed the understanding of the libido not only as a sexual impulse, but as a form of generalized psychic energy that could bring conflict reduction and promote creative, intellectual, and spiritual inspiration (Freud, 1956; McLeod, 2014). Unable to accept any expansion or redefinition of psychoanalytic key concepts and theory, Freud severed all contact with Jung in 1913. 

Following Freud´s rejection, and being ostracized by the Psychoanalytic society, Jung fell into a deep depressive state, yet he then was to experience numinous phenomena, particularly the meeting with a personal guide, Philemon with whom he kept a dialogue (a technique later known as “active imagination”, that is similar to a way of working known within Kabbalah (Saban, 2015). Jung had a series of visions that he analyzed and recorded and that would eventually become part of The Red Book. These experiences would expand Jung´s understanding of the human Psyche and would influence his views on dreams and his approach to psychotherapy (Corbett, 1996). Among Jung´s innovative approaches is that of “active imagination” where the person may start with an image from a dream or a drawing, and allows time to observe it until “the picture begins to unfold or to change”. In a letter to Mr. O. Jung further explains “Don’t try to make it into something, just do nothing but observe what its spontaneous changes are. Any mental picture you contemplate in this way will sooner or later change through a spontaneous association that causes a slight alteration of the picture. You must carefully avoid impatient jumping from one subject to another. Hold fast to the one image you have chosen and wait until it changes by itself. Note all these changes and eventually step into the picture yourself, and if it is a speaking figure at all then say what you have to say to that figure and listen to what he or she has to say. Thus you can not only analyse your unconscious but you also give your unconscious a chance to analyse yourself, and therewith you gradually create the unity of conscious and unconscious without which there is no individuation at all” (C.W. Letters, Vol 1. 459-460, 1947). Jung himself used this method and would apply it to dream work as well as to other creative material.

Along all his life Jung conceptualized and worked extensively with dreams and symbols, synchronicities, the numinosum, the collective unconscious, and the archetypes, particularly the shadow or unacknowledged sides of the personality (Corbett, 1996; Jung, 1961; 1968; Tarnas, 2007). This unrecognized aspect of our personality may manifest in dreams, particularly in the shape of other beings with qualities we dislike, and that we cannot acknowledge as own shadowy sides. 

Instead of being just a way to deal with aggressive and sexual conflicts as Freud proposed, Jung saw dreams as an expression of a creative, wholeness seeking aspect of our Psyche.

His views on the collective unconscious would influence Jung´s approach to dream analysis. 

Jung understood dreams as having a compensational function and he developed the technique of archetypal amplification which can facilitate an encounter with deeper dimensions of our psyche, create meaning of symbolic material and even to come into touch with an extended, cosmological dimension of numinous qualities (Corbett, 1996; Funkhouser, 2021). 

In his approach to dreams Jung stressed the importance of considering the relevant context in the dreamer´s life, emphasizing “that it is not safe to interpret a dream without going into careful detail as to the context. Never apply any theory but ask the patient what his [or her] dream images mean to him [or her]” (C. W. 18: 248). The dreamer is the one who knows about the possible meanings that are significant, and the role of the therapist is to support the client in a curious, inquiring approach to dream material, for instance: “So you dreamed you wore a white coat what are your thoughts about it? What does a white coat mean for you?”. 

A humble, not knowing approach to dream material

Jung´s standpoint was that of not to interpret a client´s dreams out of a defined theoretical framework. He wrote: “An arbitrary translation of the dreams is absolutely inadvisable. That would be a superstitious practice based on the acceptance of well-established symbolic meanings. But there are no fixed symbolic meanings” (C. W. 4: 539). Furthermore, he stressed the importance of approaching dream interpretation with what nowadays among social constructionist scholars would be called a “not knowing attitude” (Anderson, 1997). In one of his lectures at the Tavistock clinic he pointed out: “I said, ‘Look here, the best way to deal with a dream is to think of yourself as a sort of ignorant child or ignorant youth …’” (C. W. 18: 200 – The Tavistock lectures, no. 3).

Jung also paid attention to the emotions that the dreamer experienced when dreaming as well as the emotions appearing when the dream was told. He developed and introduced a novel approach to dreams work, that of “creative imagination” where the dreamer is inspired to think how he/she would like the dream to continue or to imagine a wished solution.  Jung gave great importance to symbolic interpretation of dream material: If you dream about death- is there anything that needs to die in your life so that something new can grow? Or you dream about a desert, is there anything you feel is drying, barren in your life? Or you dream about a little child, what are your feelings and emotions when you think about it? How do you relate to a childlike, maybe unprotected or playful aspect of yourself? 

Dreams and the great mother of the underworld

Originally a Jungian analyst James Hillman, created “alchemical psychology” and he devoted himself to work with dreams and symbols. Hillman wrote a most inspiring -and quite demanding- book called Dreams and the Underworld. There he advocates for allowing the dream to stay in the underworld, the realm of death and darkness that is also part of our Psyche, instead of forcibly bringing the dream material to day light in order to interpret it according to our moral standards and everyday understandings. Hillman stresses the limitations in trying to understand dreams through words and language. Hillman advocates for the use of imagination when approaching dreams: “Dreams call from the imagination and can be answered only by the imagination” (p 55). Dreams belong to the darkness of night and the blackness of our soul. Following alchemical understanding Hillman suggests that together with our existence in the light, there is an exact replica, the shadow that does not express itself according to daily consciousness but instead develops and expresses itself in the world of metaphor through imagination and in an imaginative manner: ”our black being performs all actions just as we do in life, but its life is not merely our shadow” (p. 55).  For Hillman Shadow is “The very stuff of the soul, the interior darkness that pulls downward out of life and keeps one in relentless connection with the underworld” (p. 56). He further states: “rather than viewing the soul as expiating in a night world for our shady action in the day world, we may imagine day world actions to be expiations for shadows we have not seen” (p. 57). Our civilization and our minds are limited when it comes to grasp “the idea of the underworld as the psychic realm” (p. 68) lying at the ground of our daily consciousness and appearing in our dreams. However, for centuries the underworld was acknowledged in its own stand and honoured as the territory of the earth, matter and death. In different civilizations it has been seen as inhabited by the great mother who “is a modality of consciousness moving through the habits of our thought and feeling” (p. 69). Ancient goddesses, like Ceres and Tellus, represented this primordial force, as did also the god Hades.  Hillman points out that whenever we reduce a dream to its links to everyday reality, and associate its symbolic meaning just to past experiences, memories and feelings, it is a sign that we cannot acknowledge the dream for what it is: “a sui generis invention of the soul”. And we who search for meaning in dreams fail too often in recognizing that we too are made of “such stuff as dreams” are (p. 70).

What I find compelling in Hillman’s book is his appeal to acknowledge dreams as inhabited by persons in their own right. Instead of bringing these dream persons to the light of the dreamer´s own daily consciousness and trying to understand their significance within the dreamer´s psyche, Hillman invites us to contemplate the interactions taking place in our underworldly realm without immediately relating these to our conscious understanding. And he points out: “Only the persons of the dream are essential for understanding the persons of the dream”. Reading Hillman has made me all the more curious to attend and observe yet one more of these nightly, underworld gatherings  and activities of the many dream persons that take command of our life in the dark realms of dream world.

A creative perspective on dreams

I first became personally interested in the potential for transformation that dreams bring when in the 80´s I was struggling to complete my master thesis in Psychology. Someone recommended a book called “Creative Dreaming” by Patricia Garfield who focuses on the different ways in which our daily consciousness can shape our night dreams. There I learned that you could think about a matter of concern and ask to receive a guiding dream which you will eventually do after two or three days. And lo and behold, after three days of intensely thinking on how to finish my thesis I had this dream: I was standing in my bedroom and could see myself from behind. A woman who I understood was not from this world, was sitting on my bed. She was slender, dark haired and elder than me in my then early thirties, dressed in dark clothes. Confidently she looked at me and plainly said: “You are losing your time”. In the dream I understood that I had to find focus. work hard and finish my thesis, which I did a few months later. Of course, I cannot say that my sudden energy boost and capacity to organize my thoughts into written work was due to this dream. But simple and unpretentious as the dream seemed it did communicate a quality of depth within myself that was new to me. By trusting and surrendering to this inner power I might have gotten contact with my inner power and capacity to accomplish thesis work.

In her book, Garfield shares many stories from individuals and collectives that paid attention to their dreams.  The original people of the American continent related to dreams in many different ways. They allowed “the dreamer to contact supernatural spirits and gain power from them (p. 60). I was moved to read that the Senoi, a large tribe form the mountains of Malaysia, start their breakfast family gathering by asking their children “What did you dream last night?” (Garfield, 1974, p.80). Since “they regard dreams as important (the Senoi) receive helpful dreams” Garfield explains (p. 81). After reading Garfield´s work I started to pay more attention to my dreams, sometimes keeping a dream journal. One inspiration from reading Creative Dreaming would be useful in psychotherapy work with traumatized children with recurrent nightmares. Garfield gives examples of how we can ask for help in our dreams, and rather meet what is challenging or menacing us, instead of running away from it. If a fiery, hungry wolf keeps appearing in nightmares it is better to confront it, ask it what it wants, and be prepared to fight it back. Planning who could be with us in the next dream to help us fight the danger is especially useful. This is something children get quite easily, we can talk and draw together who could be there in the dream: the police, parents, friends. Children can also think what could be of help: a gun, a magic wand, a “kill-wolf spray bottle” or whatever real or imagined stuff comes to their minds. The most fascinating about this simple approach is that seems to work. Paying attention to the dream, imagining possible outcomes during the day, as a script director would do, can bring positive outcomes enabling the child to recover sleep rest and while gaining a feeling of empowerment. 

Working with your own dreams

There is an array of books and websites dealing with the understanding of dreams as a phenomenon as well as about dream work. Besides the most recommendable book Creative dreaming you may find a lot of interesting stuff in Dr. Art Funkhouser’s home pages: and Funkhouser is a Jungian analyst based in Bern and holds dream groups and seminars. He stresses the importance of taking time and becoming quiet before interpreting a dream, asking clarifying questions about what the dreamer “saw” or experienced in the dream and not taking for granted that it is what you are imagining. When we hear someone telling a dream or any story, we often imagine things or characteristics about what is being told, but we have to let the dreamer explain in detail his/her own experiences. Questioning about feelings and emotions is also relevant as well as inquiring in an open manner about the life context of the dreamer and how this may be reflected in the dream (Funkhouser, 2021; West, 2011). Funkhouser points to the danger of “killing” the dream if we give an interpretation, however we can give feedback to a dreamer by pointing “my fantasies about what you told are…” or “if it was my dream, I would think it might say something about…” (Funkhouser, 2021).

Some practical notes: 

  • Write down your dream.
  • Why did this dream appear NOW?  Write it down. 
  • What is the context in your life that may relate to this dream?
  • Reading (or telling your dream to others): which new associations and meanings appear?
  • Free of manuals or interpretation. Do not force anything! Let your dream “breath”.
  • Which main themes or elements appear? What is your association to this element?
  • For instance: what does a car, a cow, a dog, a house represents for you now?
  • Which kind of actions? Which part of your wants (to move, to escape, to rest, enjoy, receive?)
  • It could be that each part of your dream represents something about you in this moment of your life:
  • What is (running after, persecuting, stopping) you?

Whichever perspective we take towards our own or others dreams, we should approach them with respect and awe, as the messages they are from a depth within ourselves. They may unveil over time, so that sometime later we could understand new aspects of an old dream. Or they may remain whole or partially in mystery for our daily consciousness yet having performed an important role in the underworld where our unconscious journeys each night. Being able to stay with the ambivalences the dream brings, is also part of dream work. 

Dreams as expressions of different soul levels.

Since we had a most interesting presentation about Jewish Kabbalah by Tuvi Orbach at Paul’s SMN wine bar one week before  mine,I would like to close this presentation by making reference to the map of the human soul as provided by the Jewish Kabbalah (Saban, 2015). There we learn that our Soul has five different levels of consciousness: the lowest is NEFESH, the awareness of the physical body and the physical world, that we share with animals in the material world of Asiya — the world of Action. Above this soul level we find RUACH, were emotions manifest and where we can be moved by contemplating the divine forces operating within us and around us in the world of Yetzira. Our actions and emotions are subject to mistakes, and to growth, but above the Ruach level we find the uncorruptible soul: NESHAMA, untouched by our traveling within physical existence. The Neshama guides us and calls us to grow and transform so to grasp higher levels of reality. Above these two levels we find CHAYA, where we experience “with all one’s being” (Deut. 6:5) and acknowledge the absolute truth of things. The higher level of soul is YECHIDA where we are one with the Infinite Light (Ohr Ein Sof), the all-pervading consciousness and the source of all that is. In our dreams we have the possibility to work through conflicts and desires of our lowest levels of soul that characterize our material and emotional existence – much as Freud would have pointed out. But we can also come in touch with and receive guidance through symbolic manifestations of higher levels, particularly the Neshama but, even for a brief period, dreams can allow us to have a taste of even higher levels of soul consciousness (Saban, 2015).  



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