By John Porterfield, MFT and Jungian Analyst
Why do we dream? How are we to understand the meaning and purpose of these visions of the night?
Our dreams are “living images” from the unconscious that reflect and respond to our personal life, our loves, our conflicts, and the as-yet unknown possibilities that await us. Dreams tell us more about the person we are, while leading us to the person we may more fully become through personal healing and growth.
By acknowledging and relating to the images and symbols of our dreams, we acquire a better understanding of ourselves, as well as those others who are important to us – be they friend, or foe.
Through an active engagement with our dreams, we are able to gain a fuller insight and perspective into our lives – past – present – and future.
Rather than being merely the processing of the day’s residue, or the result of a spicy meal eaten too late in the day, dreams are a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious.
Dreams articulate the immediacy and authenticity of our experience in ways our conscious mind does not yet understand. They are a living art form and communication that asks us to reconsider our perception of who we are, and the choices we make about how, and for what purpose, we are living. Dreams reveal the conceptions (and deceptions) that determine many of our actions and primary concerns in waking life.
If, for example, our conscious attitude is too one-sided or biased in some way, we will have a dream that reflects this problem in an attempt to correct it. If we disregard or fail to integrate this new perspective into our consciousness and the matter is of real importance, we will find that we begin to have repetitive dreams whose themes, for some, can go on for years. In such cases, it is generally a deep issue that is being addressed, which will take time and much conscious effort – even suffering -- to resolve.
In addition to these ongoing thematic dreams, the unconscious will send us symptoms that all is not well, such as anxiety or depression, angry outbursts or feelings of overwhelming hopelessness. In such situations it is essential that we look inward for the resolution of our problems, rather than projecting these internal conflicts onto others, thinking that if only they would change, we would feel better. If we do not come to terms with our inner adversary, peace with our neighbors will be impossible, since we will always blame them for what is in us. As Carl Jung states, “That which remains unconscious, we are destined to live outside, as fate.”
Most often, the content of our dreams provide a striking contrast to our conscious sense of self and the world in which we live. For most, the vast, overwhelming complexity of the rapidly changing external world has torn their attention away from the depths of their own inner life, bringing a sense of self-alienation and dis-ease that they are hard-pressed to address or overcome.
Yet by paying careful, respectful attention to our dreams we are awakened to a deeper sense of the depths and dimensions of our Being. Dreams reveal our relationship to both the practical and the spiritual dimensions of life. Just as our instincts have been honed and developed over the millennia, dreams connect us to archetypal images and drives that influence our lives whether we are aware of them, or not.
The interplay between the archetypal and personal levels within us is expressed in a symbolic language. If we are to understand and benefit from our dreams, we must understand their symbolism.
As one begins to delve into the many layers of the unconscious, at the threshold he or she is certain to meet the shadow, which Jung describes as “the thing a person has no wish to be.” Here we come face to face with all of the things one cannot accept about oneself. Whether the shadow is experienced as our friend or foe depends entirely upon ourselves, for the unconscious shows us the face we show it. When we repress the unconscious in an attempt to lock it out of our lives, the shadow often appears in dreams as intruders or attackers whom we flee or attempt to kill.
An African tribe teaches its children that when they are chased by a devouring monster they must stop running, turn and face it, hold out their hand and say, “Give me a gift.”
This is the essence of what is required of our conscious attitude. We must stop making the unconscious an unwelcome threat, and learn to expect something positive from it. For example, a woman was terrified by a series of dreams in which a dangerous man was trying to break into her house. After much work she came to understand that this figure represented her own inner masculine that she needed to accept and face. In her final dream of the series, she heard the man knock on the door. Rather than panic, she went to the door and opened it. On the porch stood a smiling deliveryman who handed her a beautiful bouquet of flowers.
Our relationship to our dreams can bring us psychological healing and the consequent growth of personality. A successful partnership with the unconscious increases the possibility of fulfilling our potential and consciously living from a place of wholeness, and experiencing our incomparable uniqueness.