Making Sacred Sense of Our Dreams
by Chris Butterfield
No one who does not know himself can know others. And in each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams.
C. G. Jung
Dreams: Some wave them off as a mere side effect of sleep an unfortunate result of an overactive imagination. Still others say they do not dream, or cannot remember their dreams. To all of them, Patricia Warming says, "Nonsense!"
A shadowy, unexplained phenomenon somewhere between order and chaos, dreaming, Warming says, is as necessary to human beings as a ballast to a ship; dreaming is perhaps the closest to the divine that most individuals will ever come in their lifetimes.
"One could call the matrix that creates the dream an inner spiritual guide, or an inner center of the psyche, so to speak," said Warming while sitting across from me in her home office, adjacent to Lake Union. "There's an ordering principle within the psyche...mystics have called it the divine spark. You could say that it's the image of the God within, or the experience of the God within."
Warming is part of the school of psychologists collectively known as Jungian psychologists, who base their beliefs on the teachings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. She received her diploma in analytical psychology from the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland during the "very rich time" between 1972 and 1976, when many of the people who had studied directly with Jung, who passed away in 1961, were still there.
One of Jung's most important contributions to the field of psychology was the concept of psyche. The psyche is divided into two basic topographical divisions: consciousness and the unconscious. He further divided the unconscious into the personal unconscious that which is unique to the individual psyche but not consciously and the objective psyche, or collective unconscious, which has an apparent universal structure throughout humanity.
"It's often difficult to describe the collective unconscious, but I often like to think about it as the building blocks from which humanity arises," Warming said, "that vast reservoir outside of time and space of patterns and energies out of which our human emotions and images are formed. And they're universal...how do you explain an image that perhaps you had in your dream that's similar to somebody else's from two thousand years ago?"
Out of this unconscious state, dreams are produced. As a separate reality, Jung felt that dreams and the psyche are just as real as external reality, and that dreams are a function of the human being used to maintain balance as important as any "ordinary" sense.
As a result, Jungian psychologists attempt to interpret dream meanings and promote dream awareness among their clients. The Jungian approach amplifies a patient's dreams by using personal associations as well as cultural and archetypal amplifications drawing from knowledge of fairy tales, mythology, and religion. The dream images and words are constantly referred back to, and looked over, by a process called circumambulation.
"If somebody comes to see me, my basic stance is that I don't have the faintest idea what's right for that person, but that I trust that somehow the answer's within him or her," Warming said. "You pick up a lot of the popular books that say, 'if you dream this, it means that,' and I'm very wary of that. What we need is a good symbol dictionary, so if you have a symbol, you can amplify that and then see which symbol fits your dream."
Warming spoke of the Swiss analyst, Marie Louise von Franz, noting that von Franz shows us the process of amplification in her book, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Jungian psychologists study fairy tales to learn about the anatomy of the psyche.
"Von Franz does a magnificent job of amplifying images," said Warming, who is also influenced by Dr. James Hillman, the father of archetypal psychology in this country. Despite extensive knowledge in mythology, when amplifying images in dreams Hillman pays close attention to ensuring that the process does not become an intellectual exercise.
"Where he could easily do that [intellectualize], he's very careful not to," she said. "The balance for me is between keeping the feeling of the dream and amplifying the image. It's interesting to see if people react in their dreams. That's probably as telltale sometimes as the image. If something terrible happens and you have no reaction whatsoever, what's wrong with this picture?"
Jung differentiates between an objective level of dream interpretation and a subjective level of interpretation. For example, a person known to the dreamer may appear in a dream, raising the question as to whether the dream image should be taken objectively (referring to the actual person in the material realm) or subjectively (using the other person to represent a character in one's own internal psyche).
Warming said that it's quite acceptable to look at a dream from an objective viewpoint at first, but that the majority of dreams are completely subjective: what does your dream tell you that you didn't know before?
Of course, this raises the question of psychic powers and extrasensory perception. Sometimes one has dreams that are prophetic; they foretell, in accurate detail, specific future events. These dreams are rare, but they do happen.
"The problem with having a dream like that is there is no way of knowing until after the dream," Warming said. "So you can't automatically just assume that it's a precognitive dream."
Similarly, telepathic dreams can only be discerned when the event reflected by the dream becomes known to the dreamer.
"I can remember that I once dreamt that my mother had a heart attack," Warming said, "and I was at a meeting and an analyst colleague got all excited and thought I should call her up right away. I did, but I had a strong feeling it was not about her, but it had to do with something going on with the mother in me. It was interesting to get her reaction, and it's certainly valid to check. In that instance she was fine."
We just have to pay closer attention to our dreams and the corresponding events in waking life.
One of the primary dreams, whether it's clearly indicated or not, is the dream of compensation. Compensatory dreams are meant to ensure that we do not become too one-sided in our personality or waking life. The unconscious will often bring up the other side to balance the personality and help one achieve individuation.
"We listen to dreams in an attempt to attune to a greater self."
A central concept in Jungian theory, individuation is the process by which a person in actual life consciously attempts to understand and develop innate individual potentialities of his or her psyche. The dream will continually send out these balancing dreams to help a person achieve individuation until she or he understands the dream's message. Therefore, if one looks at one's dreams over a long period of time, isolated images tend to hang together, pieces to a crossword puzzle that, when combined, form some sort of purpose or goal for which the individual should strive.
"If one has a strong compensatory dream, the point is not to switch to the opposite viewpoint, but to find a balance in the middle," Warming said, "and acknowledge some of our shadow personalities."
Another, rarer, form of dream is the conscious, or lucid dream. Lucid dreams are dreams in which the dreamer becomes aware that she or he is dreaming within the dream, and is subsequently able to exercise some control over the content and course of the dream. There are certain techniques one can use to train oneself to dream lucidly.
"My only caution is to recognize that dreams come from something other than our ego," Warming said. "We listen to dreams in an attempt to attune to a greater self. We often get so preoccupied with trying to control things that we forget to listen to what has been called the 'still, small voice within.' I'd like to see a heroic effort to be 'awake' [heightened conscious awareness] first, and then work up to the discipline of really being awake in the dream. Then it can be valuable."
Warming said that another way to deal with dream characters that may have an unclear message is to use active imagination. Active imagination is a process in which one meditates on a dream figure, and then in this state actually speaks to it.
"Initially, when you do this work, you say, 'This is just dumb. I'm talking to myself.' But if you stay with it, inevitably you'll say, 'I wouldn't have thought to say that.' And then you'll see that the other piece has some autonomy of its own."
Dreams: messages sent from the Divine, or simply an offshoot of neurons firing in the brain? This question is ultimately left for each individual to answer for himself or herself. But for those who decide to accept the messages as just that, things are not all rosy ahead, according to Warming.
"It's hard work to deal with these shadow things going on inside of us," she said. "It takes a great deal of effort, and people are resistant to it. You're not having a 'big [archetypal] dream' unless something's out of whack. One reason people resist change is that however they are, they're familiar with it. Dreams do necessitate change in personality and so forth. If we're willing to accept that and confront it, it takes a lot of hard work."
Patricia Warming has done dream work for the past 22 years. She received her diploma in analytical psychology from the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland in 1976. She has a private practice on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, where she lives with her 12-year-old adopted daughter, Tara. She can be reached at (206) 283-8204.