Dreams are one of those crazy things in life – things we know are real, yet doubt their legitimacy. You don’t get far in life without meeting or being that person who’s had a dream with substantial meaning. From ancient times to present, dreams have played a role in the decisions we make in life. But, in our skeptical-leaning culture, the meaning in our dreams can far too easily be lost.
We asked Nancy Swift Furlotti, a top Jungian analyst and editor of the comprehensive The Dream and its Amplification, to talk with us about dreaming, layers of meaning, and how our own dreams can help us to achieve ultimate wellness. Here’s Nancy…
The Chalkboard Mag: In this busy modern world, it’s easy for many of us to dismiss our nighttime dreams and their meanings. Why do dreams matter?
Nancy Swift Furlotti: If you dismiss the existence of the unconscious then you would dismiss the importance of dreams and dreaming, and just see them as meaningless reactions of the body. Dreams matter because they allow us to know what goes on in the unconscious, and through dreams we receive a kind of running commentary on our lives. This commentary isn’t controlled by our ego or our present desires, but offers a more objective viewpoint on our attitudes and behaviors. It can also be assuring to know that we are not alone out there, but instead have an inner world that cares and can help guide us to live a more fulfilled life.
If you pay attention to the images that appear in your dreams, you can’t help but observe repeating patterns and images, repeating stories and themes. With this you have to question why something meaningless would repeat itself in such a patterned way. And if you follow that train of thought, you might be curious and ask yourself if there is meaning in it. Maybe there really is something like the unconscious that brings you messages through your dreams. We have all had experiences with Freudian slips, little comments that slip through from the unconscious into consciousness. These experiences point to the reality of the unconscious.
TCM: Tell us about the relationship between dreaming and symbolism…
NSF: Dreams speak in the language of symbols and images, they speak in metaphors. They are visual stories, like movies, and they draw from all the images that have been available to humanity since the beginning of time. Those images have been used in the formation of different religions, myths and mythologies, fairy tales, and legends. The stories created by these images can be called archetypal.
Every story is based on archetypal patterns that have been repeated over and over again in the stories we pass on through novels, movies, and opera. They are the stories that represent the dynamics of living life, with all the difficulties, struggles and joys.
Symbols are the foundation stones for these archetypal stories. Their purpose is to bring together opposing and complementary elements to make meaning and wholeness out of chaos. Symbols in dreams feel important and they touch us emotionally. The dream voice gives us symbols to attract our attention and make us curious about its meaning. We want to pursue them and in so doing we are led down the road the dream voice wants to take us – this is the road that leads to our own unique self.
TCM: You’ve touched on their meaningfulness, but what would you say is the true purpose of dreaming?
NSF: Dreams help us to develop, to know which way to go in our life, to further our sense of wholeness, and lead to our mature development.
They help us live creative, full lives, and to live our own unique life, not the life of anyone else or everyone else, which would be a “collective life.” That would be living a life out of one’s persona or false self. The dream voice encourages us to become conscious and manifest our own destiny.
Dreams are compensatory, in other words, they compensate for our conscious attitude. For example, if someone is terribly depressed, the dreams might be all light and happy to show that even though the ego is depressed, the unconscious is not. In this situation, the hope and joy is hidden away there, wanting to be found and brought into relation with the outward depression. It is all a question of balance between opposites and the goal is to find the middle ground, the middle way.
Dreams can also tell us what will happen in the future. I am sure many of you have had the experience of dreaming of an event before it actually happens, or of a person you haven’t seen in years and then they call. Dreams can comment on our lives as they are, in supportive or in critical ways. They can tell us if we are going to get physically sick or get into an accident. Finally, dreams comment on what is going on in the outer world. Many people had dreams of disaster before 9/11, for example.
TCM: How can we understand the symbolism in our dreams?
NSF: There is no one single meaning to any dream symbol. To understand the meaning, you have to explore your personal reactions to it. Doing this puts the dream text in a specific, individual context. Asking questions such as: Where and when have you seen this symbol or image before in your life? What was going on then? What emotional reaction do you have to it? Once the personal context is established, you can explore what is called the archetypal aspect of the symbol. By using a process called amplification you can open up the deeper meaning of the image by comparing where it has appeared in stories throughout history. Those stories will shed further light on why the dream voice gave you that specific symbol or image.
Let’s take, for instance, the common dream of falling. It first needs to be related to the dreamer by asking what is going on presently in that person’s life. That will tell you how to relate to the image as all images have multiple meanings. The context – the setting of the dream – is important.
Generally with the image of falling, through years of experience working with dreams, I can say it may have something to do with coming back to earth. The person may have been “flying too high” just like the story of Icarus and Daedalus, where Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax on his wings melted, causing him to fall back to earth. This example might be a metaphor for flying too high, for getting too far away from a grounded connection to one’s body and to the earth. Perhaps this person is too much into thinking or is too intuitive, and is neglecting the other aspects of herself, and to compensate for this, the psyche drags her to the opposite pole, causing her to come down to earth. This can be done gently or dangerously, depending on how lopsided we have become and how resistant to the correction we are. This is one example of how dream images compensate for your conscious attitude.
TCM: Dreams can get pretty bizarre. What are some of the craziest dream symbols you’ve come across?
NSF: Well, often we might feel that any symbol can be pretty crazy, since they come from the unconscious. The further away from our consciousness – and the unconscious has many layers – the stranger it seems to us. The more we feel that the symbol is out of context, unfamiliar, or surprising and unexpected, the crazier it seems. But this really emphasizes that the dream is not a creation from the conscious mind. For example, seeing a dwarf-like underworld creature pulling cars out of a garbage hill, or a serpent turning into a young boy, clearly indicates that it is not my conscious mind that conjured up the image.
TCM: In our conversation you mentioned, “Dreams don’t lie.” Would you unpack that a bit for us?
NSF: Dreams show us pictures or stories of ourselves as we are in our incompleteness – living out of only part of our potential. They offer us directions on how to integrate all our parts into a healthy whole. Since it is not “I,” the ego, who writes the dream, but instead the dream is “written in me,” I don’t have conscious control over its content, and therefore cannot lie about it. It is rather the other way around: The dream comments on my conscious sense of identity, on who I am. But of course, if the truth spoken in the dream is too much for me, I may just not remember it, let it pass by unnoticed. But then, if I fail to account for those messages, they have a tendency to come back, knocking on my door, sometimes in ever harsher ways.
There are figures in our dreams that try to keep us from changing. These are what we call our complexes and we experience them when we fall into strong irrational emotional states. The complexes are patterns of behavior that each of us have and mostly feel embarrassed about when they take us over. We can see our complexes represented in our dreams by certain figures or similar actions to those in our waking lives. These figures like to take us away from our ego position and put themselves in charge, instead. When this happens we are taken over by the unconscious temporarily. It may take a few days to pull out of the mood and regain control over ourselves. The dream figures representing these moods help us see what we are dealing with and if we pay attention, we can learn to avert the negative behaviors. These figures are the ones that lie to us, trick us into remaining under their control, but all this is in service of getting our attention and contributing to our growth.
TCM: What is your advice for remembering dreams?
NSF: It is, in fact, quite easy to start remembering dreams. When you go to bed, just tell yourself that if you happen to wake up, recalling even a bit of a dream, that you will write it down immediately. Stating your intention and desire before you fall asleep really helps. So put pen and paper or a recording device next to you, and you will see that within a few nights, you’re going to receive a dream! We actually dream about four to six times a night. Don’t let the pressure of the day with everything you need to do take you away from your dream images. Remain in bed those few minutes to grab and hold onto the dream images. Even writing down an incomplete picture will jog your memory to bring the whole dream back to you later.
TCM: Favorite technique or resource for decoding dreams:
NSF: I recommend the process of dream amplification, the means Carl Jung devised to read the text of the dream, which is deciphering meaning through comparison.
Jung clearly explains his thinking behind the process of amplification. It is simply that of seeking the parallels. For instance, in the case of a very rare word which you have never come across before, you try to find parallel text passages, parallel applications perhaps, where that word also occurs, and then you try to put the formula you have established from the knowledge of other texts into the new text. If you make the new text a readable whole, you say, “Now we can read it.” That is how we learned to read hieroglyphics and cuneiform inscriptions, and that is how we can read dreams.
The dreamer’s personal associations are always a starting point in working with dreams, whether predominantly personal or of a more archetypal nature. Jung emphasizes this by “making sure that every shade of meaning which each salient feature of the dream has for the dreamer is determined by the associations of the dreamer himself.” Unlike free association, which leads to a person’s core complexes, it is crucial to remain within the context of the specific dream image. Thus, the dreamer’s associations are bound to the specific image, exploring it by circum-ambulation, that is, by staying close to the image, circulating around it.
With the personal associations flushed out, there may remain obscure images that will benefit from archetypal amplification. We enter fairy tales and legends, explore the mythical dramas, and turn to comparative religion. We go back to the language that has been formed over the course of human history and draws from the emerging creative imagination of humanity. We find the archetypal associations in the deep well of human, divine and nature’s wisdom. They supplement and support our personal associations, which together allow us to decipher the meaning of the dream. Particularly, it is the big, archetypal dream that we remember all throughout life. But the archetypal kernel is present even in the simplest of dress; it may often be the simpleton, the common clerk, barely noticeable, the unsophisticated neighbor, who serves as the guide along the road of our soul’s travels.
The task, then, is to find similarities or associations between the dream image and mythic stories and fairy tales, in culture and religious thinking. The story will open up the gates to a world of experience for the dreamer to see and ponder upon. The psyche beyond our consciousness may often help us find the stories and the archetypal representations that expand the information transmitted through the dream.
TCM: Any recommended reading?
I would also recommend The Dream and Its Amplification, which I co-edited with Erel Shalit. In this book, the introduction clearly lays out why we dream, what dreams mean, and how one can work with them. It is both serious and fun to read at the same time. Included in it are chapters by some of the world’s leading Jungian analysts who, in very personal ways, share their professional expertise in working with dreams.