Jungian Dream Analysis
Working with dreams is a vital aspect of Jungian psychotherapy. According to Jung, dreams are purposive. The purpose that they serve is to compensate “attitudes which,” as John Beebe says, “are not truly adaptive” (1993: 84). Dreams emerge from the unconscious in an effort to compensate some maladaptive attitude of our ego. This is what Jung calls the “compensatory function” of dreams. (In addition, Jung says that some dreams have what he calls a “prospective function.” These are dreams that anticipate some probable eventuality in the future.)
A dream offers potentially valuable alternatives to the attitude of our ego. These alternatives appear in the dream as images, which emerge spontaneously and autonomously from the unconscious. Because our ego has a maladaptive attitude, it has difficulty appreciating the potential value of these images. All too often, our ego experiences these images as a threat, and it reacts defensively. If, however, our ego can respond receptively to these images and engage them appropriately, the dream can transform our consciousness.
Clients in Jungian psychotherapy work with dreams in a number of ways. One way is to interpret dreams by “sticking to the image.” Jung says: “To understand the dream’s meaning I must stick as close as possible to the dream images” (CW 16: 149, par. 320). Rather than free associate to the image as Freudians do, Jungians stick to the image in order meticulously to define what it means. Another Jungian way of working with dreams is to interpret them by the method that Jung calls “amplification.” To amplify a dream is to compare the images in the dream to images in other sources – for example, myths – in order to identify archetypal parallels. Finally, clients in Jungian psychotherapy work with dreams by the method that Jung calls “active imagination.” This is not an interpretative method but an experiential method. Active imagination is a conversation with the dream images. Clients actively engage the dream images in a dialogue.
I will now give an example of the Jungian way of working with dreams. This is a dream of a 43-year-old man:
T-Rex, King of the Bad Boys
I’m going down some stairs, some stone steps, into a stone chamber. It looks like something out of a castle. It looks old. I see a pool of water. Then suddenly a mini-monster pops up out of the pool! The mini-monster looks like a classic nasty dinosaur. It walks on its back legs with its long tail. It’s a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex – a T-Rex, King of the Bad Boys. It jumps out of the pool at me. At first, I’m able to grab it and throw it right back into the water. When it falls into the water, I see it fizzle, like Alka-Seltzer. Somehow, throwing it back into the water kills it. But immediately another miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex bounces right back at me, and I realize that I can’t defeat it this way. Then I run back up the stairs, with one of the T-Rexes running after me up the stairs. I am able to get out of the chamber before the T-Rex can get at me.
This is what Jung calls an “archetypal” dream. The dream is a psychological variation on a mythological theme. As James Hillman says in The Dream and the Underworld: “Mythology is a psychology of antiquity. Psychology is a mythology of modernity” (1979: 23). This dream employs what Jung calls a “mythologem.” That is, it adapts an ancient mythological motif for a modern psychological purpose. The dreamer goes downstairs into a chamber and then runs back upstairs out of the chamber. In mythological terms, the hero descends into the underworld and then ascends from it; or, in psychological terms, the ego descends into the unconscious and then ascends from it.
In the chamber, which is one image of the unconscious, the ego sees a pool of water, which is another image of the unconscious. “Water,” Jung says, “is the commonest symbol for the unconscious” (CW 9,1: 18, par. 40). A dinosaur, a specific content of the unconscious, pops up out of the pool of water. Edward C. Whitmont and Sylvia Brinton Perera note that “dinosaurs are not uncommon in dreams.” Dinosaurs, they contend, are images of “pre-human energy that is, in actuality, or felt to be ‘monstrous’ or archaically primitive.” Frequently, they assert, such an image is “an unnatural combination of qualities, horrible, wonderful, fabulous, and unusual to the dreamer.” According to Whitmont and Perera, “These qualities, then, demand to be looked at and related to” (1989: 109).
In this dream, the ego attempts to become one of those “monster-slaying heroes” whom Whitmont mentions (1982: 86). The ego experiences the dinosaur as a threat and reacts defensively. It apparently assumes the worst – that the dinosaur intends to devour and swallow it. This is hardly an exceptional assumption. For example, Hanna Segal recounts a dream that featured a “hungry” dinosaur that the dreamer kept feeding “with bits from his pocket, in great anxiety lest, when the food was finished,” the dinosaur “would eat him up” (1974: 44-5). In contrast, in this dream the ego employs two defenses – first “fight,” then “flight.” It grabs the dinosaur and throws it back into the pool of water. It kills the dinosaur. In mythological terms, the hero slays the monster; or, in psychological terms, the ego represses the content. Immediately, however, another dinosaur bounces back out of the pool. This is an example of what Freud calls the “return of the repressed.” The content of the unconscious is irrepressible. One dinosaur may be dead, but there is another one, alive and well, where that one came from – and perhaps many more, perhaps an inexhaustible supply. In this instance, repression fails as a defense. It is an exercise in futility. The content of the unconscious is too resilient for the ego to defeat it by repression, and when the ego realizes this, it employs another defense – escapism. Finally, the ego escapes the content that pursues it.
What is peculiar about the defensive reactions of the ego in this dream is that, although the content of the unconscious is a monster, it is just a “mini-monster.” The content may be “felt to be” monstrous by the ego, but, if we stick to the image, the content is, “in actuality,” miniature. In this case, the defenses of “fight” and “flight” do not fit the threat, which the ego exaggerates out of all proportion, as if the content were a “maxi-monster.” This ego perpetrates a hyperbolic projection. The magnitude of the content – and of the ostensible threat – is actually much smaller than the ego assumes. A content of the unconscious may not be intrinsically frightening – it may only be that the ego is inordinately frightened. That seems to be so in this instance. As Whitmont and Perera say, the qualities of a content of the unconscious “demand to be looked at and related to,” however “horrible, wonderful, fabulous, and unusual” those qualities may appear to the ego. In this case, the hope would be that, with the assistance of a Jungian psychotherapist, the ego could eventually develop the capacity not to react defensively with repression and escapism but to respond receptively.
If the dinosaur is, as Whitmont and Perera say, a “pre-human energy” that the ego experiences as “‘monstrous’ or archaically primitive,” it may be that this energy is potentially valuable as a compensation for some maladaptive attitude of the ego. This energy is reptilian and prehistoric. That is, it is not from the personal unconscious but from the collective unconscious. It may be that the ego needs not to repress or escape this energy but to engage it and integrate it. This ego immediately assumes that the dinosaur is harmful – that it intends to devour and swallow the ego. It never occurs to this ego to wonder (much less to inquire) whether the dinosaur, as a special variety of instinctual energy, might be helpful – that is, whether the dinosaur might energize the ego instinctually and transform consciousness.
How might the ego engage this energy? With the assistance of a Jungian psychotherapist, the client might employ the method of active imagination and address the dinosaur. The ego might actively engage the image in a dialogue. In such a conversation, the ego would not simply assume that the dinosaur intends to devour and swallow it but would inquire, with curiosity, exactly what the dinosaur does intend. It would pose this question and expect the image to provide an answer. Images that emerge from the unconscious have intentions. The general intention of the image is to contact and impact the ego. A specific image has a particular intention, which is to contact and impact the ego in a distinctive way for a precise purpose – which, from a Jungian perspective, is to compensate some maladaptive attitude of the ego. In this respect, active imagination is a method to ascertain, experientially, just what the particular intention of a specific image is – in this case, what the intention of the dinosaur is – so that the image might then compensate the attitude of the ego and transform consciousness.
In this dream, when the ego kills the first dinosaur by throwing it back into the pool of water, the ego sees it “fizzle, like Alka-Seltzer.” To fizzle is to fail or end feebly, especially after a promising start. Alka-Seltzer is a remedy for “heartburn, acid indigestion, sour stomach with headache, or body aches and pains.” Two effervescent tablets of Alka-Seltzer in a 4-ounce glass of water go “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz.” Chemically, the result is a base with a pH factor that neutralizes acid. In addition to an analgesic (aspirin), the active ingredients of Alka-Seltzer are two antacids (citric acid and sodium bicarbonate). To the extent that the dinosaur has an effect like Alka-Seltzer, it is a potentially valuable aid to digestion. An acid is a sour substance. If the maladaptive attitude of the ego in this instance is a sour disposition, it may be, ironically, that the ego needs to devour and swallow the dinosaur! In this sense, the dinosaur as Alka-Seltzer would compensate a maladaptive attitude of the ego – neutralize the sour disposition of the ego – and enable the ego, in what Wilfred R. Bion calls the “alimentary metaphor” (1977: 90), to metabolize otherwise unassimilable contents of the unconscious.
Beebe, J. (1993) “A Jungian Approach to Working with Dreams,” in G. Delaney (ed.), New Directions in Dream Interpretation, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 77-101.
Bion, W.F. (1977) Transformations, in Seven Servants: Four Works by Wilfred R. Bion, New York: Jason Aronson.
Hillman, J. (1979) The Dream and the Underworld, New York: Harper & Row.
Jung, C.G. All references are to the Collected Works (CW) by volume, page number, and paragraph.
Segal, H. (1974) Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein, New York: Basic Books.
Whitmont, E.C. (1982) Return of the Goddess, New York: Crossroad.
Whitmont, E.C., and Perera, S.B. (1989) Dreams, A Portal to the Source, London and New York: Routledge.