White swans, a photo taken when I was at Nottingham in England at a week-long workshop with Luce Irigaray, contemporary feminist philosopher

Dr Kaye Gersch PhD 

psychoanalytic psychotherapist | clinical supervisor | couples therapist  

Dreamtime -  adventure into your personal underworld


I’m going to invite that wonderful exponent of myth and dream Joseph Campbell, to introduce our subject.

“Schopenhauer…points out that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So who composed that plot? Schopenhauer suggests that just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself of which your consciousness is unaware, so, too, your whole life is composed by the will within you. 

And just as people whom you will have met apparently by mere chance became leading agents in the structuring of your life, so, too, will you have served unknowingly as an agent, giving meaning to the lives of others. The whole thing gears together like one big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else…one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too;…Everything arises in mutual relation to everything else, so you can’t blame anybody for anything. It is even as though there were a single intention behind it all, which always makes some kind of sense, though none of us knows what the sense might be, or has lived the life that he quite intended”. 

From Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. (Campbell, 1988)


This paper is concerned with the Jungian interpretation of dreams. This Jungian focus is compared and contrasted with the Freudian method, utilizing both approaches when relevant. In the course of the essay I introduce many of the main voices in dreamwork. These voices provide you with an extensive Bibliography, for your own further study and reference.

The possible depth and breadth of this study is indeed vast, so, from the outset, I will content myself with the highlights of this “via regia, the royal road to the unconscious”, as Freud called dreams. Edward Whitmont elaborated upon this, saying that "dreams have been called the royal road to the unconscious. CG Jung travelled down that road and brought back a map of the human psyche” (Whitmont, 1993). So it is this map we follow when ’interpreting’ dreams.

What do we mean, “interpret” dreams?

I use the word “interpret” cautiously, because as Jung said, “Interpretations are only for those who don’t understand”. He went on to say, “it is only the things that we do not understand that have any meaning” (C. G. Jung, 1980, p. 33). With these paradoxical words, Jung is guiding us away from an insistence that we perceive rationally. So it is with an essential humility that we “befriend” the dream, to use James Hillman’s term. Therefore, I prefer the term “befriending the dream” rather than “interpreting the dream”.

“If, as Jung said, modern man is in search of a lost soul, this soul”, adds Hillman, “is lost partly in life; it is lost through the attempts of modern psychotherapy to “explain” dreams by using the guidelines of the heroic ego. The inevitable result of this rationalistic bias is that the ego becomes strong at the cost of soul, of the imaginal” (Hillman, 1987, p. 77). Too often, when we think of dream-work, we look for an ego-pleasing result. Hillman is saying that imagination is the key. Image and imagination go together.

Imagination prepares us for things we have not yet encountered. Women who are pregnant dream of the upcoming birth, and the worries they might have about the baby and how they will cope as a mother. As with birth, dreams of death prepare us for this most mysterious of transitions. Irvin Yalom, in his book “Staring at the Sun”, (Yalom, 2011) tells of how his patients overcame the fear of their own death, especially through working with their dreams. The dreams educate their imagination to see more possibilities. As Hillman says, “perhaps dreams…prepare the imaginal ego for old age, death and fate by soaking it through and through in memoria. Perhaps the point of dreams has very little to do with our daily concerns, and their purpose is the soul-making of the imaginal ego” (Hillman, 1987, p. 77). Dreams as soul-making; now that is an intriguing proposition.

Meaning through resemblances and metaphor

Time is needed to allow the dream to incubate, and to develop this “friendship with soul”, as Peter O’Connor puts it in his book “Dreams and the Search for Meaning (O'Connor, 1986). To “wait without thought”,[1] however, is confusing to the rational mind which would prefer to depend upon logical thinking and a tendency to literalize. Instead, we look for resemblances, and “as if”. “Aristotle claimed that ’the most skilled interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances’” (O'Connor, 1986, p. 75) and resemblances lead us to think in metaphorical terms. Therefore, every interpretation necessarily remains an “as if’”, simply because psychic images are not necessarily images in the ordinary sense of the word. These psychic images are metaphors, resemblances. So, the image is not what one sees, but a way of seeing. This is another way of saying what I mention as a subheading: “It’s not so much what the dream brings to us, but what the dream brings us to.” That is, a way of seeing.

We need to be cautious about insisting that the dream yeild meaning, because this leads to “interrogating the dream for its meaning, chasing after it in such a way that the dream has no choice but to elude us” (O'Connor, 1986, p. 78). Marie-Louise von Franz summarises approaching the meaning of the dream through four levels of understanding: firstly, “the dream represents an unconscious reaction to a conscious situation; secondly, the dream describes a situation which has come about as a result of some conflict between consciousness and the unconscious; thirdly, the dream represent a tendency in the unconscious whose purpose is to effect a change in a conscious attitude; and lastly, the dream represents unconcsious processes which have no recognizable relationion to consciousness” (M. L. von Franz, 1985, p. 3). The meaning of the dream will include all these perspctives.

St Bernard of Clairvaux described the first step off the path to self-knowledge as being the result of curiosity. So we must allow the dream to speak by staying as closely as possible to the dream itself, and being curious. Jung favoured the process of ‘circumambulation’, to be alert to the infinitely varied expression of the unconscious.[2] James Hillman , in “The Dream and the Underworld” (Hillman, 1979), emphasises the need to stay with the unconscious, the underworld. Indeed, “to start with the image in depth psychology is to begin with the mythological underworld…and that all daylight consciousness begins in the night…” (Hillman, 1979, p. 5).

The more anxious we are about the dream contents, fearing, for instance, that the dream will tell us something we are avoiding, the more likely we are to attempt to literalize the dream. In this way, the literalizing, or concretizing, (or concretinizing, as one Jungian analyst termed it!) constitutes a defence against revelation of the obstacles towards individuation. The dream images have not been enabled to speak, so there is no dialogue.

[1] TS Eliot, (Eliot, 1944)’East Cocker’

[2] “The dream has its own limitation. Its specific form itself tells what belongs to it and what leads away from it. While “free” association lures one away from that material in a kind of zig-zag line, the method I evolved is more like a circumambulation whose centre is the dream picture. I work all around the dream picture and disregard every attempt that the dreamer makes to break away from it”. (Carl Gustav Jung, 1964, p. 29; 1977)

The shadow in dreams

This avoidance is most likely when the literalized image refers to the shadow, and when the dreamer’s relationship with the shadow is unfriendly and uncommunicative. If the dreamer’s relationship with the shadow is positive, it may appear as a friendly companion, a tribal brother or a loving sister, but if not, the figure will be a threatening figure such as a witch, a hated enemy or even a monster. The shadow is that part of the unconscious that is very close to the ego and usually appears as the same gender as the dreamer. It contains character traits that are a natural part of the personality, but which have failed to be assimilated by the ego or have been repressed. Sometimes the shadow contains tremendous positive but unacknowledged strengths, but these entail too much responsibility or require a shattering alteration in order to be assimilated.

Psyche and Matter

Marie-Louise wrote an entire book on this subject, (M.-L. von Franz, 1988a) and the way in which psyche penetrates matter and matter penetrates psyche is a theme of Jung’s as well. Some years ago I convened a day-long workshop with a Jungian Analyst and a Quantum physicist on this topic, and inevitably we referred to dreams, espeically the dreams of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli. I mention the psyche/matter continuum (perhaps we are more familiar with the term body/mind contiuum) here because dreams can reveal our state of physical health, for instance, and the psychological attitudes contributing to physical illness. For instance, Homoeopath and Psychotherapist Jane Cicchetti, in her book “Dreams, Symbols, and Homoeopathy” (Cicchetti, 2003), shows how Jung’s concepts of the archetypes, paradox, the shadow etc can be applied to selection of treatment and healing. She also demonstrates the “dialogue” between psyche and matter, towards creating wholeness.

Are dreams wish-fulfillment?

The theory that dreams are wish fulfillment was one which Freud depended upon in his interpretation of dreams.[3] Freud also postulated that “the dream is the guardian of sleep, not it’s disturber”.[4]However, especially in relation to the unwelcome shadow figures, “too many dreams express what we hate hearing” (M.-L. von Franz, 1988b, p. 5). Usually what we do in our dreams shocks the waking ego. But perhaps what we do in the day is equally disturbing to the “”I of our dreams! Indeed, so many dreams are so startling that they “wake up” the dreamer, in more than one way.

In this vein, Jung commented that “many people overestimate the role of willpower and think that nothing can happen to their minds that they do not decide or intend” (Carl Gustav Jung, 1964, p. 37). Yet dreams often reveal the ‘id’ drives, (through images of motor vehicles out of control, for instance) the primitive, uncivilized, ‘natural’ self, rather than an idealized image of the dreamer. The landscape in dreams can also represent the dreamer’s ontologically insecure position, where the earth itself is unreliable, frightening and unsupportive. An injury to the dream landscape can therefore communicate an injury of the soul or psyche. 

This is also indicated in the “mystical participation” [5]which occurs when the psyche, especially of so called primitive people, assumes a ‘bush soul’ of identification with their land and the creatures in it. Damage to this land also constitutes a loss of soul to them.[5] While this applies particularly to our own Australian aboriginal people, I wonder too at the impact that the damage to the actual physical landforms has on everyone. My observation of my own and clients client’s dreams is that this desecration is part of the collective unconscious and therefore collective information, collective suffering, collective responsibility, and collective healing. The suffering of the earth itself, the elements in disarray through fire, flood, earthquake and cyclone, has a deep impact on our sense of safety. And as Thomas Berry says, in “Dream of the Earth”, “our own well-being can be achieved only through the well-being of the entire natural world about us” (T. Berry, 1988, p. xv).

Jung also reminds us that “the mystery of dreams is that one does not dream, one is dreamt” (O'Connor, 1986, p. 77). That is, according to Jung, New Age philosophies notwithstanding, (specifically lucid dreaming) we cannot direct the content of our dreams consciously through the ego.

[3] “The dream of drinking in long draughts is such an example; here the somatic stimulus seems to be the sole source of the dream, and the wish arising from the sensation – thirst – the only motive for dreaming.” (Freud, 1900, p. 132).

[4] Freud cited his own horse-riding dream where he was riding at ease although in real life he was in great pain because of a large boil located on the perineum. He said that the dream enabled him to pass a peaceful night, oblivious to the pain. (Freud, 1900, p. 133)

[5] Participation mystique was a term coined by the French ethnologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl

[5] “Disturbing sacred sites and land is agony for our people. Land and mountains and spring water – the heart of sacred sites – is really our body. Graders, bulldozers are pressing down on our body, liver, kidney bleeding. The spirit of the landowners is sickened. Graders are scraping the skin off our flesh – a sore that will not heal up: in my language wilu, killing us. David Mowaljarli, quoted by Matthew Fox in A Spirituality named compassion (Fox, 1993, p. 97).

Stay close to the image of the dream

The process of staying close to the images of the dream is somewhat in conflict with the theory and practice of analysis through the process of ‘free association’, developed by Freud, where the aim is that the patient eventually reveals what he is repressing. The dream was for Freud a starting-point which led to other things, often away from the dream images. “I came to increasingly to disagree with “free” association as Freud first employed it: I wanted to keep as close as possible to the dream itself, and to exclude all the irrelevant ideas and associations that it might evoke. True, these could lead one toward the complexes of a patient, but I had a far more far-reaching purpose in mind than the discovery of complexes that cause neurotic disturbances” (Carl Gustav Jung, 1964, p. 28). The form and context of the dream are more important than free association, from the Jungian prespective.

June Singer, in “Boundaries of the Soul” (Singer, 1972, p. 272) says “the dream means what ist says. The unconscious presents a point of view which enlarges, completes, or compensates the conscious attitude. Through the dream the unconscious supplies the missing elements of which the ego is unaware, thus exercising its function of striving toward wholeness”. We saw examples of this earlier, when I mentioned the dreams of pregnant women and thos approaching death being help through dream images.

The telos of dreams

“Just as conscious contents can vanish from the unconscious, new contents, which have never yet been conscious, can arise from it” (Carl Gustav Jung, 1964, p. 37). This idea that the unconscious material could contribute creatively to the future was a startling departure from Freud. Yet dreams “have a superior intelligence in them: a wisdom and guiding cleverness which lead us. They show us where we are wrong; they show us where we are unadapted; they warn us of danger; they predict some future events; they hint at the deepest meaning of our life and they convey to us illuminating insights” (M.-L. von Franz, 1988a, p. 6). For example, the 19th century chemist Kekule, researching into the molecular structure of benzene, dreamed of a snake with its tail in its mouth. Apart from this being an age-old symbol, the dream led him to conceptualize the form of the carbon ring.

It would seem that Freud’s stance of atheism created a boundary where dreams, in his mind, could not be interpreted as to do with the spiritual life. By contrast, “Jung’s religious attitude, despite his natal Christianity, was directed towards the psyche. So focused, he reached out – or better said, he reached in – towards other religions since they draw their symbolism from those deep strata of the soul which speak to common experiences of the divine and which Jung discovered in his work with his own dreams and those of patients” (Spiegelman, 1991, p. 8). Thus Jung recognized dreams as a guide to the spiritual life, in the deepest sense. Aboriginal people also recognize ‘dreaming’, literally “dreaming at night of eternity”, as an essential part of their spirituality.[7]

[7] “The root altjira means ‘eternal’ (so that the verb ‘to dream’ draws from the idea of seeing eternal things, i.e. during sleep), and the noun should have been translated as ‘originating from eternity. From a comment on ‘Dreamtime’, by Eugene Stockton in Aboriginal Spirituality, (Stockton, 1995, p. 52).

Symbol, myth and archetypes feed the inner life

“A word or image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning” (Jung 1990) Symbols lead to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason and man “produces symbols unconsciously and spontaneously, in the form of dreams” (ibid p21). These symbols feed the metaphorical life, and introduce us into the language of myth and archetype. Karl Abraham linked myth and dream when he said that myth is the dream of the people and a dream is the myth of the individual (Abraham, 1913). 

Robert Johnson, representing the Jungian approach to archetypes, describes them as “the universal patterns or tendencies in the human consciousness that find their way into our individual psyches and form us” (Johnson, 1986, p. 46). These archetypes appear in our dreams as the multiplicity of figures “who reflect the plurality and multidimensional structure of the inner self, each pulling in different directions” (Johnson, 1986, p. 45). Some of the possible archetypes are the child, the mother, the virgin, the tart, the wise man or woman, the villain, the thief, the judge and so on. 

Jung, using the process of Active Imagination, developed a personal communication with these archetypes within himself and regarded this as part of the active development of the process of individuation, or gathering together of these sometimes disparate parts into a fully integrated, or balanced (in reference to the idea of balancing the opposites), human being, or ’self’, as Jung called the wholeness of our total being. As Robert Johnson says, “Individuation is not only becoming conscious of these inner energy systems, it is also bringing relatedness and unity among them. Dreams constantly record the process of individuation and the movement of the ego toward the self” (Johnson, 1986, p. 49). Some of the symbols which represent the self are the mandala, the quarternity, the square and the diamond and even the royal or divine couple.

Active Imagination in Dreamwork

Using the process of Active Imagination, the dreamer can speak to the dream images. Apart from the developing of a two-way communication with the world of the unconscious, “befriending” these lesser known dramatis personae of our own inner life, the dreamer finds a path to bridging the gap between the dream and “ordinary” life.[8] For indeed this is “a reality as real as what we call the outer reality” (von Franz 1988).

[8] The dream world is beneficial only if we have a dialogue with it, but at the same time remain in ordinary life. (M.-L. von Franz, 1988b)

Different kinds of dreams need different work

“First, before interpreting any dream, it is necessary to know “from where the dream comes”, as Irina Tweedie says in her book, “Daughter of Fire” (Tweedie, 1986). There are different types of dreams which require a different approach. Beside psychological dreams there are “mind dreams” in which the mind reviews previous events.[9] There are prophetic dreams and also dreams that hint of past lives. 

It is a point of speculation that this may be true only when someone is within a belief system where past lives are taken as a given, such as the Sufi community of the writer of this quote. “There are dreams which are for others, and then there are dreams which in fact are not dreams at all, but experiences on another plane of consciousness. For when the body is asleep the soul is free, the king is not in his castle, the prisoner is not in his cell, and there are other planes of existence beside the physical world. Teaching is often given in such dreams” (Spiegelman, 1991). This brings many possibilities of approach and interpretation; it seems that dreams can emerge from the preconscious, the unconscious, the supraconscious and the collective unconscious.

[9] “Now it seems that the train of thought which has thus been initiated and dropped (from conscious attention) can continue to spin itself out without attention being turned to it again”, ie through the process of dreaming about daily events (Freud, 1900, p. 751).

Paradox, opposites, individuation and the spiritual quest

Liberation from the opposites is not only the goal of individuation, but also of the spiritual path as well. The mystical branch of Islam, the Sufi’s, claim that “Dreams are between ordinary consciousness and the mystic state,” (Spiegelman, 1991, p. 109) and as such are essential guides to spiritual progress. “For Sufi’s, dreams have always been considered as important, offering guidance along the spiritual path. Early Sufi manuals have sections on dreams, and an autobiographical sketch by the 9th century Sufi saint, al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, records many of the dreams that helped guide him” (Spiegelman, 1991, p. 131). In speaking of the process of integration of a Sufi student, Spiegelman says; “She had to see that she was her persona as well as her unconscious shadow, and that she was …. a personality encompassed around the central self which balanced all poles of the opposites” (Spiegelman, 1991, p. 100). 

The Tao te Ching has been advising this integration of the opposites since approximately the 5th century B.C.:

‘Know the male,

Yet keep to the female:…

Know the white,

Yet keep to the black:….

Know the personal,

yet keep to the impersonal” 

(Mitchell, 1992, p. 28, aphorism 28). Further, in Zen, “we must think in paradox” (the paradox of the opposites) if we want to reach enlightenment” (Johnston, 1993, p. 71).

All of these texts focus upon the essential union of the pairs of opposites, and are summariezed in this passage from Jung:

“Hope and fear, nearness and separation, black and white, yin and yang, light and dark, good and bad, spiritual and profane, ‘ascent and descent, above and below, up and down, represent an emotional realization of opposites, and this realization gradually leads, or should lead, to their equilibrium. This motif occurs very frequently in dreams, in the form of going up and down hill, climbing stairs, going up or down in a lift, balloon, airplane, etc….this vacillating between the opposites and being tossed back and forth means being contained in the opposites. They become a vessel in which what was previously now one thing and now another floats vibrating, so that the painful suspension between opposites gradually changes into the bilateral activity of the point in the centre. This is the ‘liberation from opposites’”[10] (volume 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Carl Gustav Jung, 1977, paragraph 296).

The Jungian Analyst and contemporary of Jung, Aniella Jaffe, emphasizes liberation from opposites when she says; “Only when the dark side takes its place beside the light, the will to destroy beside the urge to create, terror beside love, and the world-opposites are seen together in a single image….. only then does this picture fulfil the requirement of totality” (Jaffe, 1989, p. 20). Chogham Trungpa, in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, also emphasizes this need for the resolution of the opposites, namely the resolution of duality.[11]

[10] That Freud was also concerned with the harmonizing of the opposites through the dreaming process may be indicated in the following ruminations. “In waking life the suppressed material in the mind is prevented from finding expression and is cut off from internal perception owing to the fact that the contradictions in it are eliminated - one side being disposed of in favour of the other; but during the night, under the sway of an impetus towards the construction of compromises, this suppressed material finds methods and means of forcing its way into consciousness”(Freud, 1900, pp. 768-769).

[11] “The enlightened person is not caught in the dualism of subject and object, internal and external, knower and known, I and other. Everything is self -known”(Trungpa, 1973, pp. 194-195).

The contra-sexual images of anima and animus

This interplay between opposites is epitomized in the masculine-feminine dichotomy, which is a symbol of “the inner forces that must balance and complete each other” (Johnson, 1986, p. 46). This contra-sexual self “symbolize the energy systems that are the farthest from the ego, farthest from the conscious mind, deep in the unconscious of the dreamer. It is impossible to predict for a particular man or woman what inner parts will be represented by an image of the opposite sex” (Johnson, 1986, p. 47). 

But the soul-image (anima and animus are Latin for soul) or ’psychopomp’ mediates between the ego and the inner world, between the ego and the unconscious. “If we don’t interact with the anima or animus of our inner work, we inevitably project them into areas of our lives where they don’t belong” (Johnson, 1986, p. 48). The feminine figure, or anima, often represents a man’s emotional nature, his capacity for feeling, appreciating beauty, developing values and relating through love. A man can invest his soul, or anima in his job, and leave other areas of his life impoverished. A woman, rather than go through the arduous process of acknowledging the powerful qualities of courage, intellect and spirituality in her own animus, may project this onto a man, and thus fall in love not so much with the actual man but with her own projected and disavowed soul-image. The power of romantic love lies in this joint projection, which has been discussed at length by Robert Johnson in his work, “He, She, and We, The Psychology of Romantic Love” (Johnson, 1983, 1989a, 1989b).

Freud struggled with the presence of sexual images in dreams and said “that an explanation of sexual dreams would involve me deeply in the still unsolved problem of perversion and bisexuality” (Freud, 1900, p. 767, footnote). The concepts or anima and animus, which Jung developed give the male and female figures, regardless of the gender of the dreamer, the task of informing about the inner relationships with the self, rather than commenting on the development of sexuality per se.

“No individual symbolic image can be said to have a dogmatically fixed, generalized meaning” (Carl Gustav Jung, 1964, p. 30). Jung gave the examples of a key in a lock being an essentially sexual symbol for Freud, but cited examples of traditional key and lock symbolism which represented variously hope, charity, desire for God, and authority. It is therefore important to be very familiar with the context of the dream in the dreamer’s life, before jumping to conclusiuons.

Condensation in dreams

Dreams never waste our time, and even little dreams can carry important messages. In fact, a short dream can be just as great a vehicle for the unconscious processes, and the analysis of the dream can be just as rich and rewarding as that of a big dream. “Those of us who work with dreams, along Freudian lines or others, are consistently awed by how much data can be condensed into a few images and a story line” (McWilliams, 2004, p. 30). Freud attributed the condensation of dreams to the principal of compression, so that the dream becomes “brief, meagre and laconic” (Freud, 1900, p. 383).[12] 

Although a dream usually appears to us as a narrative, the sequence of the scene seems arbitrary. “The images in a dream seem to appear simultaneously; that is, no part precedes or causes another part. So, in a way, it does not matter which part comes first, since as in a painting, all is given at once” (O'Connor, 1986, p. 80). No part or image has priority over the others, constituting what Patricia Berry called the “full democracy of the image” (P. Berry, 2008, p. 61).

Specificity has meaning, namely colours, times, the exact selection which the dream has chosen in that particular instant. A hiatus or turning point is often the fulcrum point of the dream, after which nothing was the same. This nodal point, relating past unfinished processes to a present renewal of opportunity for resolution, can provide a very rich exploration, “for I suspect that in the little hiatus absconding Mercurius hides”, as James Hillman claims (quoted in O'Connor, 1986, p. 96). Mercurius was a favoured image for Hillman and refers to the soul, among other inferences.

A major difference between the dream work of the Freudian school and that of Jung, is that the former attempt to reduce the meaning back to the details of our personal history, often events in childhood. This flight into causality has already been discussed elsewhere in relation to the question “why?”. This having been said, however, we can also fall into the same trap by using a Jungian term, such as animus, and then remain untouched by the metaphor, the “as if” quality of the dream.

[12] “Dream displacement and dream condensation are the two governing factors to whose activity we may in essence ascribe the from assumed by dreams” (Freud, 1900, p. 417).


In conclusion, perhaps one of the most important principals of dream work is to understand that “the meaning of a dream is never exhausted, even if it seems completely understood” (Hillman quoted in O'Connor, 1986, p. 80). Freud also asserted that “it is in fact never possible to be sure that a dream has been completely interpreted” (Freud, 1900, p. 383). And, to leave the final word to Hillman; “A wrong path to a dream occurs when we take one path only” (O'Connor, 1986, quoting Hillman)


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