“Small” Dreams

One of the difficulties any dream researcher or worker faces is the phenomenon that not all dreams are of the same richness or quality. This phenomenon has not been adequately understood yet, and it has allowed some neuroscientists studying the dreaming brain to argue that dreams are "meaningless". Underlying this particular problem of classifying and understand dreams is the complexity and vagueness of that word "meaning". What does it mean that a dream is meaning-less or meaningful?

Does a "meaningful" dream have to have a mystical esoteric "message"? Is a "meaningless" dream pure chaos and randomness? One thing that has become clear to me (and some Jungians would disagree with this) is that not all dreams are fit for dream work. Some are just so basic in their narratives or so overtly "about" a particular anxiety or so humdrum and uneventful that they really need no assistance from dream work to reinforce a specific memory organization. Typical, so-called "anxiety dreams" that everyone has (e.g., finding oneself in public naked or showing up to a classroom test without any preparation or needing to urinate and finding no functional toilets) generally don't require Jungian discussions of symbols or amplification through comparison to Greek mythology. But what these dreams help illuminate is one of the primary organizational problems our minds face.

Namely, how can strong emotions be integrated and interconnected in a memory system efficiently and without causing disruptions or essentially either "clogging up" or "bursting the pipes"? Most "anxiety dreams" say something very telling about human beings: anxiety is both universal and often decidedly social. The problem we (as dream egos) face in these dreams is a conflict between a personal inner need or desire and a social norm that restricts its fulfillment. More to the point, these dreams often bring up the issue of what Jung called persona and the ways in which persona might constrict what we could call small-s self. I don't recognize persona as its own psychic structure in the way Jung did. From my observations, it seems more accurate to consider persona merely a part of the ego that we are aware is socially constructed and does not absolutely define who we are. But ego and persona are made of precisely the same stuff.

One of the reasons "anxiety dreams" are so typical is that the metaphors they use to language anxiety are especially perfect fits (at least where the cultures the individuals live in have many of the same norms). Our cultures typically expect us to be prepared to perform (and with the oppressive restrictions that a student is asked to perform during a test) . . . and we frequently feel, or are, inadequately prepared. Moreover, it is impossible to live up to and abide by all societal norms and expectations. These pressures are superegoic or Demonic. That is, they do not take into account the complexity and fallibility of humanness.

When we fail (as we so often do) to be prepared for and live up to these societal, superegoic expectations, we run the risk of being "revealed" (caught naked in public). Our normally fortified vulnerabilities (our shadows, perhaps) are exposed. Much of the elaborate dance of constructing an identity that can survive and navigate the human social environment is a matter of concealment. We are multifaceted, fairly chaotic, desire-ridden personalities that must exist in an environment where various self-restraints and concealments are required. There is always going to be some degree of anxiety connected to identity.

What we learn from these kinds of dreams is something universal about the way identity is constructed. Specifically and most significantly, that our identities are not singular. This has been one of the emphases of psychology since its very beginning, and the psychological quest to understand how human personality is structured and functions has led to innumerable paradigms like Freud's ego, superego, and id or Jung's conscious, personal unconscious, and collective unconscious . . . or Jung's persona, ego, complexes, archetypes, and Self or his introvert/extravert and thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition functions.

Jung had numerous ways of describing psychic structure. Like many, I find all of these psychological structure paradigms dissatisfying. They all work as metaphors in certain contexts, but they seem to share in common one particular thing: none are scientifically valid in the material sense. We can say with reasonable certainty that the human personality is not homogeneous. It is characterized by multiple, often conflicting, attitudes, some of which seem to be organized into centers of selfhood that may at times operate in specific contexts as platforms of identity. Depth psychology (by which I mean, loosely, the study of the autonomous psyche) has added to the psychological observation that identity is heterogeneous, that various other centers of personality (although not "selfhood") seem to operate autonomously and often without the awareness of the conscious individual.

In essence, an individual personality is something like a society or tribe of personality centers or attitudinal complexes. Jungians, especially James Hillman and those following or influenced by his school of archetypal psychology, have made much of theses numerous personality centers, sometimes even connecting them to an inherent polytheistic inclination coupled to an insistence that monotheism is an artificial construct, perhaps a kind of totalitarian oppression that either idealizes or brutalizes diversity and heterogeneity into homogeneity.

Jung himself seems to sit on the fence of this issue, seeing both homogeneous and heterogeneous features in the individual personality. I am more in agreement with Jung on this issue. I do see evidence of a singular organizing principle in the psyche that affects all of the disparate personality centers and seems to work toward organizing them. NOT conforming them to a single standard or ideal, but urging them to work together for a shared purpose. Therefore, for me, personality is a tribe . . . a monotribe.

The problems of a tribe are much like the problems of an individual personality. The survival of the tribe is dependent on its success at organizing its members in a way that utilizes each of them to the maximum benefit of the tribe. This seems to inspire a kind of tribal democracy or egalitarianism. Individuals allowed to express their individuality fully tend to be more fulfilled, happy, and functional. So the trick of tribal survivability is to somehow harness this facilitation of individualism also to a singular, shared purpose. The psychological growth, fitness, and progress of an individual are facilitated by the construction and regulation of a kind of successful psychic government or social organization.

But this also means that the problems of a psyche are much like the problems of a tribe or even a state. It is a struggle to afford every individual of a state equal rights, privileges, access to resources, and power to affect the organization of the state. It makes conflict and therefore anxiety an inevitable natural condition.

Still, when one analyzes "anxiety dreams" one should always look only secondarily to such universals. Each dream has a specific context that can often be elicited by examining the dreamer's associations. And any dream work should begin with this more specific context. The analyst should never leap at trying to conform even these extremely typical dreams to an interpretive algorithm.

A number of years back, I frequently had variations of the "unprepared for a test" dream. In most of these dreams, I found myself in a classroom (usually high school but sometimes a kind of vague cross between high school and college). I realized I had not attended class the entire year/semester and that I hadn't the slightest idea how to answer the questions the test presented. I would struggle with the anxiety of this for a while, feel like a failure, wonder what on earth had come over me to miss a whole year of class. But most of the time, it would eventually dawn on me that I had long since graduated and didn't need to take these exams.

An interesting anecdote to accompany these dreams in my case is that I actually had the real life experience they describe. As a college freshman or sophomore, I had enrolled in a class call "Jesus of Nazareth". I attended the first and maybe the second session of this class, and came away annoyed that a contingent of evangelical Christian students zealously badgered (and in my opinion hindered) the professor from teaching a decidedly historical and unbiased approach to the documentary evidence (or lack there of) surrounding the hero figure of the Gospels. I never managed to return to that class and I don't think I read more than a few pages of the text (which was actually more of a companion book; most of the reading came from printouts handed out in class).

But in a feeling of last minute desperation and shame, I decided I should try to take the final exam to see if I could squeak by. I looked up the official posted time and place of the final exam and did manage to show up. I took a seat, received the exam and began to read the questions. I had no clue. And then it dawned on me that this was not even my class. The exam had nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth. The final exam rooms and times had been revised, and only those who attended the class could have known about the revision. I got up, handed my blank exam to the professor apologetically, and left.

So, on one hand, the unprepared-for-exam dream is more than merely figurative in my case. But in trying to understand these dreams, any analyst or dream worker would need to take into account what the dream metaphor is actually corresponding to in my personal experience. My entire academic experience could fit with this kind of dream image. It is less a matter of being or feeling “prepared” in my case than it is feeling out of place and perhaps “out of the loop”. It is an issue of participation.

Classroom examinations are a collective credentialing institution where each student is being forced to demonstrate how close she/he can come to a particular tribal ideal. The ideal measures how well the individual students have managed to embrace their indoctrination into the tribe. In these dreams I never had the feeling that the exams were difficult. They asked questions that anyone who showed up to class should have known, and only someone who had never been “in” the class would have been excluded from knowing the answers. In these dreams, I felt forced into evaluation for something I really didn’t care about and found remedial. And I was annoyed by this. Primarily, I felt trapped and confined by standards I did not respect or had previously considered abiding by.

My experience in academia often felt this way to me. Part of this was due to being a Jungian. Part of this was just being an artist. Part was due to being an autodidact by nature and needing to self-teach and organize my own learning. But another part was due to having a somewhat “radical” disposition and a tendency to see things differently than most people did. I was never satisfied with the status quo and was always inclined to question it and the authorities that backed it.

For more than a decade, I tried to either conform to or sneak by in academia, and the effort created a great deal of anxiety and conflict for me. My parents were academics and I had sufficient academic skills and intelligence, but I felt the specific environment and kinds of expectations oppressed and impaired the way I preferred to learn things. Finally leaving academia and (a few years later) giving up the desire to someday return alleviated most of that anxiety (and was probably responsible for the end of or significant decrease in these kinds of dreams).

In my experience, academia was not an environment in which one asked why. Why did academics believe what they believed and act the way they acted? Why was academic society the way it was? I needed to understand these things, and that need was dangerous to the tribal identity of those academics I encountered. I am talking about the liberal arts . . . mostly literature and writing.

Paradigms of thought interested me. It wasn’t that I had to dismantle or oppose their arbitrary constructions. I just wanted to understand how they worked . . . and where they didn’t work well, I was most interested in how they could be repaired or revised. It is, of course, the same approach I take toward Jungian thought.

Even in the supposedly psychological field of Jungianism, Jungians are not very interested in their “Jungianisms”, in the Jungian paradigm . . . or as I have come to call it, the Jungian tribe and identity construction. But these psychological inquiries fascinate me. I seem to have a proclivity for seeing the stuff of identity as arbitrary, as made up of various movable and replaceable components, and not as solid, sacrosanct totems that can’t be altered or penetrated. Much of the psychological insight I’ve developed has come form this approach, which strikes me as the essential prerequisite of a psychologist. A dangerous curiosity about the psyche and things psychic, perhaps.

The personal context of these typical dreams for me has a robust, specific, and affect-heavy character to it that will not be the same for every individual who has such dreams. It is even quite beside the point to describe these dreams I've had as "anxiety dreams", because they utilize a conventional and logical symbol to express a particular history of identity struggle. Every individual's struggle to form and maintain identity is filled with anxiety, but not every individual's identity struggle is mine or like mine. It would be a violation for a dream worker to see one of these dreams and interpret some kind of universal anxiety issue into it.

So, although a dream may be "small" or overtly about a certain emotion, this doesn't mean it is unimportant to dream work or any accompanying self-analysis or individuation.

There is another type of "small" dream that I think should be differentiated from typical predicament dreams like "anxiety dreams". These usually depict a particular scene or act that might seem either repetitive or "purposeless". Sometimes they come as "fever dreams". They are generally not narrative. My observation is that they commonly come near sleep thresholds, either while falling into a deeper sleep or waking up from one. Sometimes they seem especially "real", where "real" usually connotes "mundane". Perhaps one is minutes away from getting out of bed to wash and dress and get ready for work, and one dreams one is doing this, only to be awakened for real by an alarm clock. These surface dreams can sometimes move in and out of deeper sleep.

I've noticed these surface dreams don't usually "get anywhere". They can be routine. Nothing develops. There is no real story, no sense of conflict and resolution. An especially annoying variety of this dream I had often had involves me trying to resolve some particular task or problem and failing again and again. And the barriers I run up against, sometimes physical, sometimes mental, are wholly artificial. But sometimes these dream routines are difficult to get out of. I have always found them painfully frustrating . . . and they even seem to describe at least in part what my version of hell would be like.

One such dream I recall (although there have been hundreds of variations) involved hitting a racquetball in a racquetball court. I was alone, and the court was not especially vivid. I kept trying to hit the ball so as to get it away from me. There was no reason for this, it was just one of those artificial, hellish limitations typical of these dreams. But of course, due to the shape of racquetball courts, the ball often returns to one or to the general middle of the court. I had this dream dragging on for what seemed like hours as I tried to fall truly and deeply asleep one night. And it was as if I could not fall asleep until I managed to hit this racket ball away from me so that it wouldn't come back.

I have only guesses about what is behind such dreams. I cannot think of a dream like this that did not come at a sleep/awake threshold. So it seems reasonable to me to conclude that this is a dream from a different stage of sleep than those more narrative dreams that usually come to mind when we talk about dreams and meaning (probably the dreams we have during REM sleep). Another suspicion I've had is that the deeper sleep these dreams seem to border on and "long for" is the kind of sleep that is truly reparative . . . and that that reparative quality is linked to the common structure of these dreams based on conflict recognition followed by some kind of resolution. Perhaps we need these deeper modes of sleep (although maybe not only REM) to activate the experimental memory consolidation and organization process I propose is "behind" dreaming. This would also be a reason why these routine or simply repetitive dreams are effectively "meaningless" to dream analysis.

Still, there is a kind of "meaning" to all dreams, even those of the transitional threshold variety. The "meaning" is a matter of the attempt at memory organization that the dreaming process offers a glimpse into. This can be observed in basically any dream. I.e., all dreams depict certain memories either reviewed or modified by the addition of other memories. The "meaningfulness" of dreams is in their reflection of and peephole into a fascinating, complex, dynamic process of memory that has specific content and operates by specific dynamic and structural principles. Inasmuch as our memories appear to have content and that content is in flux and in the process of some kind of arrangement, our glimpses into this process portray the making of meaning. That is, essentially, what memory is: the making of meaning out of potentially "meaningless" elements. This meaning is possible relative to or in the context of an individual selfhood or identity. It is not universally meaningful.

But Jungians (and other more spiritualistic or mystic) dream interpreters are (even if confusedly) onto something. There is an internal principle of organization that effectively "provides meaning" to dreams. And this principle is, if not conventionally "intelligent" (not because it is dumb, but because it is a complex, dynamic, and self-organizing system), profoundly "insightful" in the way it sometimes proposes experimental organizations. It will provide "ah ha!" moments of pattern recognition, and our brains are wired to (to put it crudely) get off on that. The pattern emerges "magically" and "mysteriously", and this triggers an affective response that makes us pay attention and essentially reinforce an experimental proposal of memory organization. The organization is in this sense cemented by a burst of valuation. The structural network of associations is reinforced by the accompaniment of a strong emotion. And we typically have stronger memories for those things that are emotionally charged or that we attached greater value to. And what is the nature of this valuation? It is relative to our identity, to what we value, believe, care about. That is, this perpetual process of memory making and revising is the process by which we are made what we are. We are what we value. We are not only "our memories" but the way specific memory complexes or even memory quanta are interconnected with other specific complexes or quanta. Selfhood is a matter of this systemic, dynamic integration and association . . . at least on the quasi-neurological level of memory.

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