Dream Work and Dream Interpretation

It is difficult to properly label this practice I am calling dream work.  Calling it "work" might seem pretentious or grandiose.  For that reason, it doesn't sit completely comfortably with me.  I don't mean it to be grandiose.  Anything but.  I see it as pragmatic.  It is (or at least can be) like exercise for the psyche (or specifically for the psychic organization that is identity).  We commonly call such exercise, a "work out".  Dream work is similar.  Its ideal goal is the increased fitness of identity or small-s self.  Dream work (done properly and over an extended period of time) aids a natural process of memory organization or consolidation toward greater efficiency that we require in order to think functionally and adapt our identities to the environment we must live in.

Dream work can substantially affect the stuff of identity, which is attitude.  It can modify and at times (and over time) transform attitudes toward oneself and others.  Dream work cannot enable the ego to attain enlightenment or transcend human limitations, becoming especially wise, insightful, or charismatic.  It does not reveal esoteric "truths" about the universe.  One does not, by interpreting his or her dreams (however devotedly), become deeper, more spiritually attuned, happier, or (necessarily) more fulfilled.

Why then is it "work" and not "play" or a hobby?  Mostly becomes proper dream work is hard.  It is largely unpleasant work that (like physical exercise) one does with teleological interests.  That is, one does it while working toward a goal of self-improvement and increased psychic fitness.  But it is important with dream work (more than with physical exercise) that a dream worker has a valid conception of what devoted dream work will help bring about.  It won't make one more attractive or more powerful or more capable of getting what they desire.  But it may well lead to a greater sense of personal meaning or connection to something meaningful, and it may help enable a person to increase his or her acceptance of and sympathy for others and for her or himself.

Another important side effect of dream work could be a much more sophisticated and accurate understanding of how the mind (and specifically one's own personality) works.  Many of my psychological theories and observations have developed out of my dream work.  Not because mystical secret knowledge is revealed through dreams, but because the careful study of dreams involves a lot of observation of the mind working in consistent, ordered ways.  That is, dream work helps one look at the operation and organization of the mind as a complex dynamic system with specific properties and rules of organization and movement.  In fact, I have found there to be no better source of data that expresses the structure and dynamic of the psyche than dream work.  It actually functions like a kind of high powered psychical microscope, allowing high level order to be seen as an elaborate, dynamic arrangement of simpler, lower/elemental level structures and operations.  Dream work is like zooming in on the skin until it can clearly be seen to be made up of connected cells.

These days, I do dream work just as much to further my study of the psyche as to improve my psychic health and "know myself" better.

It is difficult to find success in dream work as a "hobbyist", because the hobbyist has the option of avoiding anything slightly unpleasant . . . and also the option of rationalizing and recreating actually unpleasant things into more glamorized, flattering things.  Where one approaches the analysis and study of one's dreams as a labor or even a "job", a higher degree of ethical participation is required.  With dream work, one does not get to weasel out of painful insights or walk away from dreams that are too difficult or unflattering.  Dream work means honesty and integrity are one's duties.  It has to be taken seriously and engaged respectfully.  It has to be treated like a job one performs in order to, for instance, support a family or simply to survive and adapt in a world that requires adults to be self-sufficient and socially functional.  It is work because it's difficult (at times even tedious), but when accomplished successfully, it is rewarding.  It is not a luxury or an indulgence.  It is not like reading one's horoscope or being inspired by a self-help seminar or book.  One gets out of dream work what one puts into it, but recognizable rewards require substantial labor and perhaps some suffering.

I prefer not to use the term "dream interpretation".  It is not entirely incorrect, as it suggests that dreams have secret meanings that, using a special "decoder" algorithm, can be revealed.  I do not see dreams as having secret meanings.  This is one point where Jung decidedly deviated from Freud.  Dreams say and are what they mean.  There is no disguise.  Symbolism in dreams is not a mask to be seen through.  It is a natural "language" of memory construction and valuation.

For this reason I am generally opposed to dream dictionaries and how-to guides.  The analytic aspect of dream work is not a decoding but a re-constructing or re-languaging.  It is a kind of translation or native dream language into the kind of verbal language that we need in order to understand something consciously and "intellectually".  But there is no universal meaning for dream images and symbols.  All meaning is a matter of the personal construction of the dreamer's unique system of memory organization and identity.  This is not to say that memory constructions and symbol formations don't have typical forms.  They do, and these forms are abundant, making psychology (the study of the psyche in a universal sense) possible.  But typicality has more to do with the way memories (as structures) tend to fit together logically than it does with inherent "archetypes" or inherited complex images.  On a more elemental level of what I call "memory quanta", there are a relatively limited number of "shapes" and "connectors" for memories.  The complexity of memory is a matter of the massive interrelation and iteration of these "shapes" and "connectors".

Although I concur with Jung's belief that dreams say what they mean, I tend to find Jung's and other Jungian approaches to dreams inadequately embody this idea.  In my experience, there is one very simple demonstration of dreams saying or being what they mean.  That is a matter of dream image associations.  I will write another chapter of this article devoted to the process and function of dream image association.  For now, I will merely say that I place much greater emphasis on such associations than other Jungians do.  My emphasis on associations is much more like that of Freud, although with Freud and psychoanalytic dream analysis, there is often a kind of corruption or displacement of dream image associations.  I don't have first hand experience of this and I'm not well studied in psychoanalytic theories and techniques, so I can't offer an analytical explanation of why this might be the case.  But my hunch is that psychoanalytic dream analysis is umbilically connected to psychoanalytic theories of how the psyche functions, and this connection forces dream image associations into a specific shape that is ultimately interpretive, conforming dream associations to specific psychoanalytic expectations.

There may also be a distortion of dream image associations in psychoanalytic dream analysis and interpretation that comes as the result of a huge imbalance in the relationship between analyst and patient.  Psychoanalysis tends to force the analyst/patient relationship into a version of the parent/child relationship in a way that infantilizes the patient and maternalizes the analyst.  There is also a psychoanalytic assumption that patients' dreams in analysis often depict a transference of the patient onto the analyst.  These kinds of assumptions seems to pound the context of the patient's dreams into a form that must abide by these assumptions.  Perhaps this severe contextualization encourages dreamers to focus on (or at times even invent) associations that reinforce the expectations of the psychoanalytic paradigm.  But the actual context of a dream's images is not a theory of how the psyche works but the specific psychic system of the dreamer, which is expressed in dreams, especially through his or her associations given without leading expectations.

In other words, some associations are valid while others are not.  And the psychoanalytic method (especially to the degree that it is rooted in a classical Freudian mode) lacks a functional tool for differentiating one from another, specifically because its expectations about what it will find are so dogmatic.  What I have found is that having a dreamer ask simple questions of her or his dream images tends to be very effective for eliciting valid associations.  These associations should never be interpretive.  If they are in any way interpretive, they should almost always be discounted and rejected.  The kinds of questions one must ask of oneself in the solicitation of useful associations are, for example, "What did I feel when X happened in the dream?", "What was I thinking about personage Y?"  That is, dream work should solicit every aspect of the dream contents, not just the superficial or "audience perspective" of events and personages, but all of the thoughts, feelings, and mental goings on of the dream ego within the dream.

Beyond that, some "extra-dream" solicitations are also in order (but should be very closely scrutinized for interpretive reactions).  For instance, it is reasonable and usually useful to ask, "When I think of dream image Z, what comes into my head?"  As long as one can both relax one's mind enough and maintain enough integrity and honesty not to constructively or interpretively elaborate, this process usually works.  And almost always, what just "pops into one's head" is a valid association.  Why?  Because specific memories are connected to other memories and memory fragments in a specific individual.  This is the case whether awake or asleep.  So reflecting on an image from a dream might conjure up other memories that are connected, that are sort of filed on the shelf next to or in relation to the memory of the dream image.  Some people (usually those without elaborate dream theories or who have not been indoctrinated into a school or tribe that views dreams within a certain context) are naturally good at such association.  But enough practice with functional dream work tends to improve one's ability to associate validly.  One gets the hang of which kinds of associations are useful in dream work and which are not.

In fact, with experience, the dream worker will come to realize that memories and memory quanta are connected to one another with varying, quantifiable degrees of magnetism, and that the degrees of association between and among memory quanta are hierarchical.  In other words, as one generates a list of associations to a specific dream image, one can recognize how some of these associations are powerful and immediately pop into the mind, while others are connected, but less powerfully.  The strength of these associations can almost be ranked from strongest to weakest (although I don't recommend actually ranking them as part of dream work).  This quantifiable association strength actually parallels what we know about the physical structure and function of the brain.  Neuronal connections and pathways have varying strengths that seem to be gained and reinforced by repetitive association patterns.  Various memories are connected to other memories by various degrees of association just as certain connections are stronger between or among some neurons than among others.  The study of dream image associations illuminates the connection between psyche and brain.  And so a dream worker can (without much difficulty) solicit useful associations and differentiate them from less useful and un-useful ones because that is how memory (and the brain) is "wired".  There is nothing magical about it, nor does it require special wisdom or self-knowledge.  It is merely a matter of making an empirical observation.

And this empiricism operates perfectly well unless one has been deeply indoctrinated into a dream analysis or interpretation theory that clouds this natural empiricism with a paradigm of expectations.  One then is easily able to fool oneself into thinking that one's interpretive expectations are one's natural associations.  But where one lacks such a severe and specific theory about what dreams are and should be, one is likely to associate quite functionally.

And that is something that seems to be unrecognized or undervalued in Jung's and the Jungian approach to dream analysis.  Reacting to the problems with severe psychoanalytic expectations I mentioned above, Jung seems to have overcompensated Freud's approach by downplaying and sometimes devaluing the dreamer's associations.  He may have even projected a kind of negativity or shadow onto association in general due to his conflicts with Freud.  Jungians have inherited Jung's edict that the dream worker should not "free associate" to her or his dreams, and I have seen this edict advocated and practiced dogmatically.  But where Jung's theory of the value of dream association dissolves into vagueness is the way in which "free association" (or what I would call interpretive association or elaboration along the lines of theoretical expectation) is different from association proper.  This is a very dark area in Jungian dream theory and dream analysis practice, perhaps even tabooed.  It not only prevents the Jungian approach to dream analysis from incorporating one of its greatest assets, it even endangers a kind of complexed blindness toward muddling Jungian dream expectations.

The Jungian method does utilize some associations, but definitely classifies them as less important than the archetypal nature of dream images.  But in the expectation that archetypes are afoot in dream images, Jungians often bring destructive expectations and interpretive theories to their understanding and analysis of dreams.  To non-Jungians, this is very obvious.  But for Jungians, this expectation that archetypes are responsible for the construction of dreams is habitual and often unconscious.  They might even reiterate Jung's declaration that all theory should be discarded before engaging with a new dream, yet never actually apply this tenet to their own expectations of finding archetypes.

One of the reasons Jungians can persist in their emphasis on archetypes in their analyses of dreams is that they devalue personal associations (which are in certain ways even tabooed).  A thorough examination of valid associations often makes the absence of innate or underlying archetypes quite clear.  That is not to say that it is wrong or wrongheaded to describe certain patterns or personages in a dream as archetypal.  But I think that talk of archetypes is a matter of amplification.  It is not a matter of empirical observations.  Talking about archetypes is a way of illuminating certain patterns and dynamics in dreams, a way of re-languaging dreams so as to make them more comprehendible and useful to consciousness.  In other words, archetypes are not valid pattern recognitions in images so much as they are pattern attributions employed as reductions of complex organizational movements of psyche into something verbal we can understand.

Archetyping is reductive . . . but it can be functionally reductive.  In redefining archetypes in this way, I am not claiming that there are no inherent consistent patterns of organization that are typical of dream narratives.  There are . . . but they are not "innate images".  There is, for instance, no archetypal personage like the anima or the shadow that has a truly autonomous and innate existence with the psyche.  These personages are representations of specifically surface-breaking aspects of massive, complex organizational movements in the dynamic psychic system.  It is the idea that we all have innate animi figures, wise old women and men, heroes, shadows, and so forth inside our minds as foundational psychic structures that I am opposed to.  The psychic level on which archetypal personages are observable is a conscious, verbally linguistic level characterized by personification, reduction, condensation, anthropomorphism.  The underlying (or "quantum") level of complex, dynamic memory or psychic organization does have typical patterns of organization, adaptation and transformation, but I find it to be both mystifying and obfuscating to attribute these patterns to archetypal personages.

I won't digress on this here, but I've written about it elsewhere as "Core Complex Theory".  The gist of this theory is that the core archetypes of animi, hero, personal shadow, Self, and Demon all interact with one another in complex but typical ways, especially during an individuation event (or large scale reorganization of the identity).  This series of relationships, events, and developments among these core archetypes all takes place in the context of ego or conscious sense of self.  All the archetypal goings on affect identity, and they all describe aspects of an organizational dynamic that is unified, that is one elaborate movement.  This complex pattern described is more along the lines of what Jung meant by the term archetype, the innate pattern that is represented only in "archetypal images".

But in my construction, the underlying pattern is a specific narrative coordination of the transformative relationships among all these core archetypes.  There is no underlying archetypal pattern in some kind of "psychoid realm" for each archetypal personage.  The identification of archetypal personages is phenomenologically sound (as this is how they most often appear in dreams and in art and storytelling), but further study of these archetypes and their complete narrative of development has led me to see Jung's archetype theory as a "blind men and the elephant" approach to languaging the psyche.  Where he saw "splinter psyches" or autonomous personalities operating within the whole psyche, I see aspects of a single dynamic complex system that are all connected and can only really be adequately understood when seen as aspects of this system.  Even though our subjective experience (e.g., in dream work) may be that we are acting and must act as if relating directly to another person, an other, when we engage an archetype like the anima or the shadow, I see these episodes as anthropomorphisms of complex systemic movements.

To clarify, I am arguing that archetypal personages are emergent phenomena rather than wholly inherent ones.  Their emergence also requires the particular kind of distorted lens our minds bring to the observation and interpretation of complex, dynamic systems.  Namely, the attribution of agency, personality, mind, intelligence, and anthropomorphism.  These are our inherent tools of understanding, and these tools allow (in their style of languaging) for some insights into the phenomena themselves while distorting other insights.  One advantage to this cognitive bias we bring to complex dynamic systems in the case of dream work is that we are compelled thereby to relate to these emergent personages as others.  This relational stance can lead to the increased recognition and valuation of these others, to a more developed ethics.

Much of dream work is dedicated to the valuation of these others, a significant part of which is our recognition and acceptance of their autonomy.  In the traditional Jungian approach to archetypal personages observed in dreams, fantasies, and art, even though the relationship to these personages as autonomous others is valued, the manner of these relationships is often problematized.  This problematization is mostly a matter of two different aspects of the same issue.  The archetypal personages are either idealized (and treated as "gods" or divine messengers of truth) or enshadowed as demons, which have nefarious intentions regarding the ego.  That is, they want to seduce, deceive, possess, or destroy the conscious ego.

That prescribed approach to archetypes is better, in my opinion, than treating them is either pets or as whimsical imaginings, but it is not functional in the long term.  It doesn't grant them true autonomy in the same sense that having a sexual or racial prejudice about a group of people enables them to be and be related to as fully autonomous and truly complex.  There is tremendous, exaggerated fear in Jung's essays on archetypes of "identification" with these archetypal others.  Such "identification" is pathologized and opposed . . . yet at the same time, this forced opposition tends to create secret, illicit identifications which "good Jungians" are not supposed to be guilty of (but, of course, inevitably are).  As a result, typical defense mechanisms are used to disguise these identifications and the temptations to identify.

Jung's sense of selfhood was very heroic and individualistic.  It did not often acknowledge (or perhaps recognize) how enormously contextual and constructed selfhood is, how subject to relationality and sociality it is.  Selfhood does not arise solely out of some kind of pure eternal spring, but is made up of many arbitrary, dynamic relationships and elemental identifications with others and their attitudes.  Jung's heroic individualism emphasized a kind of "true self" that was not only partly a fantasy, but also led to the demonization of constructed aspects of identity.  This attitude can bog down in a kind of transcendence hubris where one can throw off "false" self, persona, and the like and become more like the inherent and autonomous Self one might encounter in dreams as an other.  Although the parallel with occult and Eastern mysticisms is obvious, this approach quickly becomes dysfunctional in dream work and serves as yet another unnecessary distortion in the observation and relanguaging or dream phenomena.

Dream work proceeds much more functionally where archetypal personages are related to with as much respect and ethical consciousness as possible.  But that relationship entails the modification of one's identity.  All encounters of otherness affect and recontextualize selfhood.  Selfhood or identity is a creation of relational contexts.  Even the Self (which I would agree with Jung has a kind of genetic, biological basis) stands in relation to the ego, i.e., as an other.  It is not an ideal for the ego or a direct pipeline for egoic traits.  It is only in ethical and valuative relationship to the Self that the ego develops.  The Self is an environment for identity, not something we can or should become or even "channel".

But where dream work segues into a more analytical and even scientific study of brain, mind, memory, and the phenomena of dreaming, we need a language that is more cautious about correcting for cognitive habits like anthropomorphization that are less of an issue in dream work and psychotherapeutic situations.  The kind of mythological personification that Jungianism is famous for and which buoys a "religious attitude" in the Jungian approach to the psyche must itself be seen as objectively as possible . . . i.e., as a psychic phenomena, not a "spiritual truth".

This is where complimenting archeypalist languaging with complex systems languaging is especially useful.  The complex systems languaging helps us recognize elements of dream structure that archetypalizing doesn't facilitate.  For instance, through complex systems languaging, we can begin to see that dreaming is an organizational mechanism that seeks to more efficiently arrange the dynamic inter-associative process of memory.  Many dream narratives end in some form of resolution or go through a transitional, dynamic process (in which a great deal of energy is expended) to arrive at a plateau state (of organization) that is different than the one at the beginning of the dream.  Archetypal personages in such dreams often act as engines generating momentum for these transitions or as pivot points or centers of gravity around which a trajectory is redefined.

But these reorganizational movements are complex and typically require a great deal or reiteration . . . just as the deposit and erosion that defines a shoreline requires a long series of waves and tidal changes.  It is not as if we have one dream that "corrects" a conscious attitude and lets everything drop into place from that point forward.  Sometimes we do have pivotal dreams that help define a new and more livable pattern of being, but more closely examined, these dreams can usually be seen as part of a series of reorganizational movements that finally clicks with consciousness, allowing us to recognize and begin consciously reinforcing an emergent pattern.

Still, it is not invalid to think of some dreams and even of the dreaming process in general as "healing" or reparative.  Dreaming (or sleep in general) puts our "eroding" minds back together, following a pattern that can lead to more efficient self-organization over time.  Depending on how elegantly integrative the self-organization is.  The mind or identity that more easily fragments, decoheres, or whose interconnections are susceptible to blockage or "clogging", will likely prove less robust and resilient over time.

Dream work is an exercise that seeks to compliment and improve the natural process of dynamic memory maintenance.  It consciously reinforces organizational propositions that are part of the self-organizational process of dreaming.  This facilitates chunking of vital associations of memory quanta.  And chunking is the process by which we learn.  A group of related memory quanta chunked into a coherent unit can then be associated with other coherent units and with new or unorganized quanta, increasing the efficiency of their associations and, perhaps, the energy required to enact the association.

What we experience with effective dreamwork is that dream-proposed associations or symbols that the dream worker recognizes and reinforces the chunking of tend to be "recycled" in subsequent dreams.  This recycling is not a matter of "recurrent" dreams, but of continuous recontextualizations of these chunks, which acquire more and more associations and connections.  This process helps integrate and illuminate other quanta by effectively associating them with a chunk that is relatively "known" and highly valued and focused upon.

Of course, these original chunks don't stay the same, because the process is dynamic.  Over time and through dedicated dream work, these chunks (which are often "archetypal" in a Jungian sense) lose some associated quanta and gain others.  Or, more precisely, the ranking of valuation of each association within the chunk is in constant flux.  What ranked very high at one point might rank quite low in a year or ten years time.

Our identities are complex dynamic processes made up of these constantly reorganizing chunks and there more slowly self-organizing associations with one another.  The sense of self may be a kind of snapshot of this process at a given moment, an approximation even more distorted by its rendering in static, "two dimensional" form.  The whole system of personality is so large that significant changes to its organization are rare and slow in developing.  A living system moves toward robustness in whatever environment it exists.  Environmental changes compel adaptive changes in the system.  And we have the habit of limiting and defining our environments in ways that would seem to serve a relatively static approximation of our selfhood.

Another contribution complexity languaging has to offer to dream work is the recognition of complex autonomous, non-directed processes.  Dynamic memory organization is not a process we can determine.  Our power to affect it is quite small, and any influence we seek to have is often impossible to implement through any direct approach.  The dream worker doesn't seek to work against this autonomous process, but to make small contributions to its coherence and perpetuation.  In other words, we cannot assert that we want a memory chunk organized in such and such a way and expect that to "take".  But we can become more attuned to self-organizational "suggestions" in dreams and learn to "roll with" the organizational process as it mutates and evolves.


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