Dream Work Introduction

In the following essays, I will explore the practice and the concepts of dream work. There are already many books and articles on dream work and dream interpretation. My approach doesn't differ greatly from some of these, especially those that are more strictly or professionally Jungian, but there are some important differences and, perhaps especially, contextualizations. Enough that I felt these essays were worth writing.

This is not meant to be a do-it-yourself guide to dream work. I will not be explaining how to interpret dreams. One of the primary reasons I've decided to write this article is that I would like to do something to lift dream work out of the New Age ghetto and bring it closer to legitimate neuroscience.  Still, this will not be a "neuroscientific" essay on dream work by any stretch. I am neither qualified to make such an essay nor interested in making it. But I do feel my approach to dream work is compatible with contemporary mainstream neuroscience and relies on no magical or parapsychological thinking.

Despite this, I freely admit that my approach to dreams is clearly rooted in Jungian psychology and deviates from Jung's own approach in what would seem to be fairly subtle ways (to, for instance, a neuroscientist who believed that dreams were "meaningless noise"). But after recently participating in a Jungian seminar on dreams and dream analysis, I realized that not only did I have some substantial differences of opinion on dream work compared to other Jungians, I even had a "theory".

It had never been my intention to build a dream work theory. Dream work was mostly a matter of rigorous practice for me. I simply did my best to go into this work with an open mind and as much courage and integrity as I could muster. I needed to see other people working with dreams who had theories to recognize a theory had also emerged from my practice. So, when I say I have a theory of dream work, what I mean is that a theory has emerged out of my practice and experience, not by intentional design, but by a kind of self-organization out of what were originally simple processes.  And by a theory, I mean an organized and consistent way of approaching and understanding dream structures and phenomena conducive to the development of certain languaging "rules" and patterns . . . and NOT some kind of clever, abstraction or extremely elegant reduction.

Before I begin discussing dreaming and the work of dream analysis, I would like to make it clear that dream work, although it doesn't require tremendous technical skill to do well, is not at all easy. Very few people are good at dream work (even as quite a few are adept at recognizing elemental components of complex dream images and symbol formation).  One reason for this is that most people who try to interpret dreams follow one rulebook or another fairly didactically. But what actually makes a dream worker especially adept is courage. The courage to face her or his demons or shadow, the courage to look into unflattering mirrors. It is a special kind of bravery that is extremely rare. Although, alternatively, it could be the result of a compulsion or complex that encourages one to identify with the shadow, and therefore accept one's self-image and identity as deeply flawed and darkened.

But no one can make a good dream worker out of a person who lacks this kind of courage. Dream work itself is not likely to teach such courage to a dream worker. Dream work is likely, though, to eventually take a dream worker to a place s/he is not willing to work through. If the dream worker endures and rises to these challenges, these confrontations with difficult crossroads will arise again and again. Eventually, these crossroads events will begin to define the practice of dream work, and that practice will become mostly an aspect of shadow work.  In other words, dream work comes to serve corrective progress, revising habitual attitudes that have had self-destructive aspects.

This observation accords with what neuroscientists studying dreams have found: that most dreams involve and are colored largely by negative emotions and increased anxiety. The "bad" dreams significantly outweigh the "good". Jung also picked up on this, and expressed it in the hypothesis that dreams always compensate the egoic attitude. I have not found that to be absolutely true, but most dreams do involve personages or events that are not determined and controlled by the ego/dream ego, and often enough, the dream ego is made to suffer in some way at the hands of either these other personages or the narrative structure of the dream.

It has not been clear to me that there is any correlation between some kind of advanced "psychic wellness" in a dreamer and the quantity of "good" dreams. And if this is the case, it would imply that dreaming is not a process that reflects the psychic health of the dreamer, at least on the basis of decreased anxiety and opposition in dream contents. In other words, one looking to understand the purpose of dreaming should be deterred from concluding that the anxiety and opposition in dream contents is something that should or can be decreased.

I will say, though, that I have noticed a correlation between successful dream work (leading to conscious attitude adjustments) over extended periods of time (years or decades) and the increased likelihood of dreams that clearly do not "compensate" the egoic attitude but actually seem to support and encourage it. What this might suggest is that dreams do have a tendency (at least within their contents and narratives) to advocate for certain psychic attitudes over others. That is, they are not merely and mechanically compensatory of consciousness, but support certain attitudes over others. In following essays I will discuss this phenomenon in greater detail and suggest why it might be.


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