Spiritualistic and Parapsychological Interpretations in Jungian Dream Work

There is a long history of dreams being associated with parapsychological phenomena, especially such things as the revelation of divine truth or advice and prediction of the future.  Jungian psychology from Jung onward has always been fascinated with the apparent ability of dreams to "defy" the standard laws of time and space, and even many of Jung's own writings on dreams contain anecdotes of parapsychological predictions of the future.

Let me be clear about this from the get-go.  I have never witnessed any parapsychological phenomena in my own dreams or in the dreams of others.  If I had, I would do my best to present a fair analysis of these phenomena.  I am not a rationalist or materialist ideologue.  What I am is a generally skeptical phenomenologist whose basic approach to psychology is naturalistic.  I am not offended by the idea that supernatural and parapsychological phenomena are important to Jung or most Jungians, but my skepticism has only increased over the years.  After all, I have devoted myself to the study of the psyche (especially my psyche) and practiced dream work regularly and diligently most of my adult life.  I have experienced a number of things in my dream work and self-analysis that (as far as the literature goes) Jungians have not yet observed or paid attention to.  I cannot be classified as someone skeptical about dream work or the meaningfulness of dreams or the value of their analysis.

What I do know is that no parapsychological phenomenon has ever stood the test of adequate scientific scrutiny, and no uncanny and inexplicable prediction of the future has ever been scientifically verified.  I also know that the believing human brain has innumerable ways of "fooling itself".  Additionally, all Jungian writing about parapsychological dream phenomena (and there is a great deal of it) is of the anecdotal kind.  No Jungian I can recall has attempted to do anything remotely like a scientific study of paranormal phenomena or subjected even one single anecdote to testing or serious scrutiny.  No anecdotal reference to dream prognostication in Jungian literature is accompanied by a counterargument that tries to look more closely at the surrounding details that might explain why what seemed to be a prediction was actually an educated guess.  Unless you count Jung's essay on synchronicity . . . in which all of Jung's more scientific attempts to verify parapsychological phenomena either failed to support those phenomena or were later debunked by stricter scientific studies.

What's more, there is no Jungian literature I am aware of that concerns itself seriously with the well-studied capacity of the human mind to deceive itself, confabulate, or rationalize or with the strikingly limited accuracy of human perception.

It is not important to me to debunk "irrationality" in Jungian thought because it is irrational.  My concern is that Jungian psychology remains psychological as opposed to slipping into a kind of religious belief.  I am somewhat offended by or ashamed of Jungian testimonies of belief in the parapsychological that are not supported by adequate evidence or argument, as such testimonies suggest (to any more-rigorous thinker) that all Jungian thinking is mushy and idiotic.  I also find the satisfaction with unexamined anecdotes of parapsychological phenomena common among Jungians embarrassing and regrettable.  Most people believe at least some ridiculous and unevidenced things, but they need not be items of pride or made into central tenets of what claims to be a psychological (and therefore scientific) theory.

Of the many Jungians anecdotes I've heard supporting parapsychological dream phenomena, many are unconvincing and could very easily be coincidence (rather than synchronicity). Some (assuming their portrayals were not exaggerated or based on misremembering) are curiosities that may have no rational explanation.  But as data, these examples are outliers and do not deserve to be made the basis of a specific theory.  And again, as a more skeptical but still deeply involved investigator of dreams and the "deep psyche", I have never observed even one such "outlier" . . . not even before I was as skeptical and naturalistic as I am now.  From what I have seen, those individuals already embedded in a parapsychological belief system or believer's predisposition are more likely to "experience" "parapsychological" phenomena.  But in these cases, I would be more inclined to consider these phenomena psychological rather than parapsychological.

I am really not that interested in the ability of dreams to tell the future, but I am concerned with a Jungian psychology that gets wrapped up with such possibilities before exhausting the more mundane and readily observable qualities of human cognition.  I am also concerned with a mentality that needs dreams to defy the laws of material nature in order to be adequately valued.  To me, that mentality suggests a misunderstanding of the value of dreams.  Parapsychological obsessions are a hindrance when they obstruct and distort the more common and logical investigations and understandings of dreams and the psyche.

A skeptical, naturalistic, and fair investigation of the autonomous psyche will inevitably lead to innumerable fascinating observations and moments of wonder and awe.  As with most Jungians, my experience is replete with such observations and moments.  But the psyche does not have to be magical to be astounding.

Some legitimate, and legitimately astounding, things we can observe of the autonomous psyche are that it demonstrates features of complexity like self-organization, massive interconnection, and emergence, that it can be perceived as highly intelligent or insightful (yet, has a "mind" that is also unlike our conscious sense of mind), and that it is and acts as an Other to the ego.  In my observations and analyses, these things alone can account for what other Jungians consider or elaborate into parapsychological phenomena.

Regrettably, the parapsychological, the spiritual, and the mystical happen to be issues of great preciousness to most Jungians, and I would anticipate that very few Jungians could even entertain logical or skeptical thought about these phenomena in dreams.  Jung himself was one of the worst offenders and set a problematic precedent.  Many Jungians could not even imagine a Jungian psychology that did not find the parapsychological both deeply fascinating and distinctly valuable.

My objection to such interest is not simplistic or driven merely by a contrary worldview (although the Jungians I've met and read typically believe that anyone who expresses skepticism or speaks of science or rationalism valuatively must be some kind of scientistic ideologue with a dried up soul and a hopelessly narrow mind).  I do not approach the Jungian penchant for parapsychology with skepticism and criticism because I am true believer in scientism.  What I am, more accurately, is "psychologistic" (if everyone must wear his or her ism).  That is, I look as the phenomena of human perception, emotion, and cognition as psychological without any supposition that human thought or feeling must indicate an objective viewpoint.  I'm just not that fascinated by the paranormal, the spiritual, and the mystical.  Those things don't have objective and tangible meaning in my life.  I know of these things only subjectively.  Therefore, all I know is that my mind is capable of imagining and valuating them.  In other words, that metaphorically they are significant and valuable, but the significance and value are subjective matters, which I am inclined to approach psychologically, as phenomena in themselves that need not be indicative of any underlying truth or materiality.

The reason that spiritualism and parapsychologism in Jungian thought and culture are dangerous and worth analyzing is that they demonstrate that, for many Jungians, the psychological is not enough.  This is akin to rocks and minerals not being enough to satisfy a geologist or space and interstellar phenomena not being enough to satisfy an astronomer or marine life not being enough to satisfy a marine biologist.  It is inherently problematic, and it suggests that the real interest of many Jungian psychologists is not so much the psyche, but evidence that there is something parapsychological or supernatural behind psychic phenomena.  This means that, in some ways, psychological phenomena are being devalued and potentially misunderstood.  And where psychology is being devalued by Jungian psychologists, it is no wonder that the field has not evolved but rather continues to disintegrate as a psychology and deviate increasingly from influential interactions with other fields of psychology.

My position is that the goal of Jungian psychology should not be the determination that there is something spiritual or metaphysical behind the psyche.  This threatens to undermine the most important and useful tool of the psychologist, which is psychologization.  By psychologization, I mean the capacity to look at psychic phenomena relatively non-reductively, enabling them to be complex and to be treated as valuable in themselves.  What seems to evade the minds of so many Jungians, especially as they complain of Freud and psychoanalytic reductionism or materialistic/scientific reductionism, is that spiritualism is also a form of excessive reductionism.  And the thing that spiritualism is most likely to excessively reduce is the psyche.  Psyche is reduced into something that stands for or acts as a veil covering the spiritual world.

To a naturalist or typical scientist, of course this appears ridiculous, but even within some of the realms of thought that Jungians are (or at least should be) especially knowledgeable about, there is a great effort made NOT to reduce psyche to spirit.  I am speaking here of alchemy.  Medieval European alchemy (re)emerged at a time when spirituality was as accepted as materiality is today, and alchemy does not make an overt attempt to contradict or criticize the spiritualistic Christian worldview.  That would have been blasphemous . . . and alchemists often had plenty of trouble with both (Church-driven) law and tarred reputations already.

But more importantly, there is no indication in alchemical texts that either God or the Church was viewed as negative or incorrect.  What alchemical Hermetic philosophy addressed was the separation of spirit and matter that characterized the accepted worldview of their era.  In more modern terms, alchemy (or alchemical philosophy) addressed a cultural complex that had so overemphasized spirit that matter had become devalued or submerged in shadow.  The effect of this was enmity between the "rational mind" and the demonic body that led to a great deal of atrocious, psychotic, and even psychopathic behavior and ideation.

It is often underemphasized in Jungian writing that by "spirit", medieval thinkers and alchemists did not mean what "spirit" means today . . . where it has very supernatural and metaphysical connotations that cannot accord with the predominate scientific worldview of naturalism that is largely accepted throughout the modernized, "first" world today.  For the medieval alchemist, Spirit (which I will use the capital-S for from now on) included not only aspects of this supernatural or divine spirit, but also included, and was even epitomized by, what we would now call consciousness or the ego.  To simplify greatly, the idea then was that the extraordinary capacity of humans to think rationally and intentionally was due to the little bit of God or Holy Spirit that was granted them by the Creator.

Jung's identification of alchemy as a philosophical precursor to his psychology was enormously astute . . . and this astuteness is all the more remarkable when we come to realize that some of his psychological interpretations of alchemy were seriously flawed.  That is not the topic of this essay, though, so I must leave that statement alone for the moment.  I agree with Jung that medieval alchemy and modern psychology (especially that relating to the phenomenon of individuation) have a great deal in common . . . even as I find it regrettable that the Jungian habitual use of alchemy only multiplies the foggy esotericism that plagues Jungian credibility.

Again, simplifying severely, the psychological program of medieval alchemy (in one of its metaphorical expressions), involved a complex alchemical work with three aspects of the human personality: Spirit, Body, and Soul.  Alchemy begins with the assumption that Spirit is most known or given, and that it is masculine.  After all, the patriarchal Christian characterization of the rational, divine Spirit (as creative consciousness) was that it was specifically masculine.  Alchemy seems to have recognized that this assumption itself was problematic, and that there was a kind of disease of the masculine, patriarchal Spirit.  Essentially, it was too "dry" . . . and perhaps also too volatile or airy, lacking the kind of fixed usefulness, morality, and pragmatism that was necessary to make it both grounded and adequately sympathetic.

In the alchemical equation Jung and other Jungians have made so much of (which was the subject of a text by the Paracelsian alchemist Gerhard Dorn Jung was most enamored with) the first alchemical process is the differentiation of Spirit from Matter or Body that enabled the union of Spirit and Soul.  Soul was a kind of go-between with one foot in the universe of Body and the other in the universe of Spirit.  It was substantially compatible with Spirit, but Soul's sympathies lay with Body.  Soul, for the alchemists, meant very much the same thing as anima (as personification of the unconscious) meant for Jung.  Soul was feminized psyche . . . an Other to egoic Spirit, but not something as strange, problematic, and foreign as Body.  Still, in order for Spirit to unite with Soul, Spirit had to make some radical transformations and sacrifices.  It had to develop both sympathy and love for something utterly sympathetic to Body.  Soul thus acts as a kind of transitional object that allows Spirit to realign its thoughts and feelings, or what I would call its valuation.

After this was complete, the next step of the process involved the union of the Spirt-Soul with Body.  The thrust of this process, psychologically speaking, is that the somewhat inflated and Spirit-identified ego submits to a process of reorganizing its attitudes toward both Soul (what I would call autonomous psyche, which operates by the complex, dynamic principles of Nature) and the Body (or what we could call "instinct" or the animalistic/mechanistic principle of organization of the psyche that is characterized by a sense of autonomous life force or libido . . . which is not so much a simple drive as a complex principle of order).

This attitude adjustment is an increase of valuation for what has been most devalued.  Namely, Body or Matter . . . which was thought to be the stuff of the Devil used to tempt, undermine, and defile the otherwise lofty and holy rational human mind/Spirit.  I would describe the alchemical program as primarily directed at the valuation of Matter . . . which, in the human animal, was associated with instinct and all the autonomous thoughts, feelings, and actions it was blamed for.

The alchemical program came very close to asserting that true or "divine/essential/Philosophical" Spirit was actually a property of Matter/Body, and that "ego" had usurped it by becoming inflated and overvaluing its own specialness and worth, its own power and divine entitlement.  Ego had come to think of itself as the pinnacle of God's work.  And alchemy was divesting it of this usurped inflation at the expense of Nature/Matter/Body.  Through the lure of the Soul, the ego-Spirit was devalued or dissolved, its sense of supremacy and inflation was washed away, and it was purified of its poisonous (inflating) ideology.  Once purified, it could be re-infused into an also re-valuated Nature/Matter, which had previously been envisioned as simplistic, corrupted, empty, and vulgar.  This re-infusion of purified (which I would suggest means relieved of its association with human rationality and consciousness or having had its claim by human ego revoked) Spirit into Matter was imagined as a kind of worshipfulness, a sacred-making devotional valuation (that was sometimes, as in the Rosarium Philosophorum, symbolized as the coronation of Mary).

What Jungians have typically failed to take note of in this psychological program of medieval alchemy is that it is not concerned with spiritualizing psyche.  Absolutely the opposite is invoked.  Awareness of and desire for the psyche acts, in the alchemical (and I suggest, also in the individuation) process as a kind of "despiritualization" of the ego.  That is, alchemy insists that we sacrifice our tendency to imagine spirit and the spiritual in egoic terms, that we not make it and God over into our (egoic) image or even imagine it as "mind" in that familiar way we do.  Instead, through union with and love for the psyche (which personifies the autonomous mind and operates by natural laws of organization, the characterization of Spirit is to be accredited to Matter, Body, Earth, Nature.  In other words, Matter is what is truly complex, what is truly responsible for laws of organization and dynamism, what is capable of union, growth, transformation, form, etc.  Even what we think of as intelligence or mind emerges from the organizational principles of Matter.

No divine mentality or anthropomorphized touch is required to instill the human mind with spirit . . . and to imagine it as such is to effectively steal what is a property of Matter and claim it, inflatedly and erroneously, as an act of a mind, i.e., as an act of human-like thought.

This is of course not so blatantly spelled out in alchemy.  But this is what the symbolism of alchemy expresses (in more-modern, psychological translation).  The desperate reaching after spiritualistic reductionism in Jung and in Jungian thought, despite laying claim to (a very spiritualized and mystified) alchemy, fails to understand or abide by the core alchemical directive.  And the Jungian mistakes made with alchemy are the parallels of the mistakes made with psychology in general.

The Jungian program still calls for the "conquering of the anima" and the "assimilation of the unconscious" (Two Essays on Analytical Psychology) . . . the usurpation or colonization of the autonomous psyche as Other.  Thus colonized, the psyche is stripped of its naturalism and close connection to nature and matter, and made over into something spiritual, divine, transcendent.  Jungians imagine this colonization of the psyche is a form or worship and sanctification, because this colonization is accompanied by the "generous" act of bestowing great value on the psyche.

But what Jungians have failed again and again to realize is that they have not actually valuated the psyche (adequately).  They have had to spiritualize the psyche in order to be able to assign it value.  And it is like assigning a kind of archaic and quaint nobility to the conquered "savage" in order be able to recognize some of the “savage’s” worth and capability.  There is, in fact, some of that particular kind of colonial romanticism imbedded in Jungian neoprimitivism.

The problem with spiritualism is that it is always prone to imagine the spiritual more in terms of egoic consciousness and human identity and subjectivity, and it is not willing or able to view spirit as truly Other, truly autonomous.  The anthropic hubris of such spiritualism is never recognized by spiritualists as potentially negative or disrespectful or devaluing to "spirit".  It is fundamentally assumed, allowing all praise of and faith in "spirit" to proceed in their self-gratifying ways while protected by the totemic cloak of righteousness.  After all, the spiritualist is not directly worshiping his or her own ego.  That would be taboo.  Instead, egoism is made into a God and pasted over the more subtle movements of nature and the material, which provide the sense of Otherness.  But our spiritualism does not really seek to discover the Other and valuate it.  That would require violating the taboo of recognizing our self-deification, which stands between the subjective human mind and the autonomous psyche.

I ultimately find the psychological attitude to be more respectful and valuating of the Otherness one encounters during confrontations with and investigations of the deep psyche.  The psychological attitude is, essentially, "more spiritual" in the sense that it manages to attain a more self-sacrificing, less inflated devotional stance toward the Other.  The psychological attitude, as I have described it here, is the next step beyond the spiritualistic attitude in the very same spiritual journey . . . which is one of the reasons it is not easy to come by, and one of the reasons Jungians have in certain senses regressed since Jung, who stood on the threshold of imagining and embodying the psychological attitude.

Wolfgang Giegerich has had similar criticisms for Jung . . . suggesting that Jung was not psychological enough.  I'm not sure Giegerich's intuitive insight is effectively elaborated or made sense of by his theories, though, especially since Giegerich is staunchly opposed to the connection of psyche with matter.  Giegerich's philosophy of soul may just be another form of anthropic egoism and subjectifcation of the psyche, despite his remarkable aptitude for dowsing out complexes in the Jungian tribe and identity.

As the conclusion of this essay on dreams and parapsychology in Jungian thought, our excavation leaves us with an even larger problem than we ever could have imagined.  It is not only that Jungians tend to devalue the complexity and worth of matter and the natural by insisting on a spiritualistic worldview instead of a psychological one.  What's worse is that even vaunted and cherished Jungian spiritualism ends up failing in the spiritual quest it necessitates.  In other words, Jungian spiritualism is problematic to analytical psychology, both because it is spiritualistic where psychologistic thinking is needed and because its formulation of spirituality is stunted and perhaps broken.

Imagined in this way, it makes the prospect of Jungianism ever becoming a true psychology look exceptionally bleak.


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What Are Shorts?

Although I never intended to treat this website like a traditional blog, I recently noticed that I have accumulated many long drafts of essays that I never seem to finish.  If I ever get back to them, I often feel like I would rather start over form scratch on the same subject than revise and complete the previous ones.  And that's a recipe for never finishing anything.

Since I have so many unpublished drafts and yet it seems these essays have a relatively short shelf life (at least from the author's perspective), I thought it would be a wise choice to try to make shorter entries that I would actually finish (or at least publish).  I've found that I much prefer a focused burst of energy on any one topic.  If I can't manage to finish a piece within two or three days (preferably one sitting), then it is usually never finished.

This Shorts section is meant to help treat this particular puer trait.  The idea is that I will publish to the Shorts section only what I can finish in one sitting.  My hope is that this will allow more of my thoughts to make their way into the light.  This site has always felt very sparse to me (compared to the Useless Science forum or even the IAJS discussion list I often participate in).  I'm not sure it gives a thorough enough introduction to my thinking . . . let alone anything like a comprehensive catalog of my work.

If successful (as a method of tricking the author into greater or more useful productivity), these shorts will function as entry points into my thought (which can be rather alien and even at times off-putting to many other Jungians) and also sign posts along the way to more substantial projects.

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“Big” Dreams

So-called "Big" dreams can be drenched in pretentious, often mystical valuation by many who see magical or spiritual profundity in dreams. But "Bigness" is no less relative (to the individual) than "smallness" is. "Big" dreams usually seem to be the narrative problem/resolution dreams probably indicative of REM state sleep. But not every narrative dream is "Big". What makes a dream "Big" is what the individual does with it, how important the dream is to the unique organization of memory that one is. The length and complexity of "Big" dreams, therefore, need not accord with the proportion suggested by their label. Even a brief scene, sometimes even a single snapshot image or feeling, is enough to determine "Bigness".

"Big" dreams, especially among those of Jungian persuasion, also often describe pivotal movements of individuation or other identity revising events. Still, one individual's "Big" may not even register for someone else. There are no hard and fast rules for dream "Bigness". Sometimes a dreamer might consider a dream "Big" (even if that term is not actually used) even if it merely depicts an image or event s/he feels (correctly or not) is confirming an already held "true belief". Others might reserve "Bigness" for those dreams that change one's view or awaken one to something previously unrecognized or devalued.

Ultimately, dream "Bigness" is something I don't feel is especially useful or meaningful. Sometimes it is the most unassuming dreams that end up having the most profound and long-lasting significance to a dreamer. Equally, dreams of great portentousness and numinosity can prove little more than flashes in the pan. But most Jungians probably associate "Bigness" with encounters with the numinous. There is a bit of a weakness for numinosity and the "purity" of archetypal images among Jungians. Yet, I have never noticed that the most "Jungian" or purely archetypal dreams have proved the most personally meaningful.

This should not be that surprising, because the valuation of memory complexes tends to be relative to the role these complexes play in the construction of Self. So if one dreams of gods and goddesses, such a dream is less likely to be as directly significant to identity. I've come to feel it is extremely important to be able to ground dreams in the "real" . . . and some Jungian approaches to dream analysis are inherently inflated. Still, there is a great deal of consciousness of this temptation toward grandiosity among contemporary Jungian analysts (the growing influence of psychoanalysis on Jungian thought my be behind this). Sometimes, even often, the opposite problem is true. That is, dreams that have any aggrandizing or grandiose characters, events, or symbols are assumed by some analysts to indicate a dangerous grandiosity is afoot in the dreamer. So the real danger is moving form one pole to the other and failing to find a balance.

In my experience, dreams do not aggrandize or tempt the ego (at least when understood properly). If one is stricken with a dangerous inflation, one's dreams are likely to not necessarily compensate, but note this problem in critical ways. At the same time, in my own struggles with inflation, I never felt my dreams criticized me about it . . . even when, while awake, it was a constant issue of concern and shame for me. But I was also inclined to the kind of inflation that emerges as a compensation for feelings of worthlessness, almost as if I was "trying" to be inflated in order to stave off these feelings. The result of which was that I just acquired something else to be ashamed of myself for (i.e., inflation). By contrast, when I have observed the phenomenon of inflation in others (and hanging around Jungians affords one innumerable such opportunities), I came away with a feeling that they were substantially less aware of and concerned with their own inflation. They usually saw it as a righteousness, an example of their particular "holy" attitude and insight into things. Also (and this is especially true of Jungians, again), these demonstrations of righteousness usually involved scapegoating sermons where "bad" people were identified by their inability to attain or appreciate such righteousness . . . and of course it was these "bad" people that such Jungians felt to be the epitome of inflation. Inflation is quite the bogeyman in Jungian culture.

With me, the issue of inflation clung to an inner struggle I found myself caught up in, where I felt driven to assert and even "profess" something, yet also felt that I lacked the "entitlement" or credentials to profess or to make claim to a "truth". I worried that I would not be taken seriously. This manifested with a feeling or greater desire to defy my negative or unqualified self-image and assert that "truth" I had insufficient entitlement to. As the anxiety built up, I finally found myself in a situation where I had to essentially force myself to say something "as if true" while simultaneously feeling terribly ashamed at myself both for such grandstanding and for being weak and incapable of restraining myself. Eventually, I figured out that this whole complex had to do with a disease of enshadowed identity or a "negative self-image". Stricken with that disease, I felt no entitlement to my, perhaps not unequivocally "true", but certainly valid, insights. I did not trust the value of my inner experience. Yet, at the same time, I "knew" somehow that it was valid and important . . . and perhaps somewhat rare. Coming to trust and respect the value of my experience and accept my right to have opinions, sometimes even insightful ones, led to a huge decrease in the anxiety I felt surrounding my identity as an "outside" or "stranger". As that anxiety decreased, I felt much less inclined to "blurt out" insights in more grandiose ways.

To this day, I recognize this dynamic emerging when I am in a situation where my "strangeness" is a factor. I've become more relaxed and graceful in general, but I've also recognized that some degree of this identity anxiety is inevitable whenever one is treated as or slips into the role of being perceived as a stranger. Strangers are simply not entitled to have truly acceptable identity. They are quasi-invisible. The fact that this situation evokes some anxiety in me is not the product of an "inflation", but an indication that I am remaining aware of the potential danger of ignoring the dynamics of the stranger/familiar relationship. Unacknowledged, one (identified as a stranger) could be tempted to believe his or her "strangeness" made his or her opinion or insight more profound and mystically "true".

I digress on this issue of inflation in relation to "Big" dreams, because that is always a facet connected to such dreams. That is, the feeling of "Bigness" a dream has may lead the dreamer to exaggerate or feel his or her own worth or profundity is increased along with the portent of the dream. The dream worker must navigate through the work on "Big" dreams with special vigilance, caution, and devotion. One lesson that often takes some grappling to comprehend has to do with the role of the hero in the individuation process.

While individuation events are engaged, one's dreams are quite likely to depict one (or the dream ego) as some kind of hero or person of special importance or aptitude. That can be misconstrued by the dreamer as an indication that s/he is a special chosen one, champion, or prophet. In his book, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Jung described this inflated figure as the "mana-personality" and proposed that it arose as a result of the ego "assimilating the unconscious" or conquering the anima and therefore absorbing her mystical power or "mana". It is an area of great depth and specialization in Jung's thinking, but also one where he swerves into shaky (and not merely experimental) territory.

Jung's construction of the unconscious and the archetypes is one that pits them against consciousness. He felt that some kind of battle had to be fought with the dangerous, otherly unconscious that ended with the ego either succumbing to it (and becoming psychotic) or chiseling out its own little niche and right to be or to sit at the table of the gods. By contrast, I have never found such work with the autonomous psyche to be so combative. I always recognized that the battle was with my own selfhood and my desires to have a validated identity. The "unconscious" Other was never behind this conflict, never tempted or misled me.

I eventually came to identify another archetype, the Demon, which is not actually part of the autonomous psychic system but functions as a societal, superegoic introject that lays claim to the individual personality, a claim that is in conflict with the organizing principle of the Self system. The Demon is the psychic personage or mechanism that "tempts" the ego to identify with the archetypal hero in a way that uses a heroic costume to fortify and defend one's vulnerability against any penetration. As a result, the individual may form an inflation in which some kind of heroic transcendence, enlightenment, righteousness, or holiness is used to defend the ego against the effect of or relationship with the Other. "Perfection" (or the imitation of perfection) is used to shelter one from accepting her or his shadow. That is the more standard way in which inflation operates.

As one works through a series of "Big" dreams accompanying an individuation event, inflation is likely to be a companion and a problem. The inflating Demon is always ready, even at the brink of being vanquished, to capitalize on the strange sense of "newness" and transcendence that accompanies and valuates the individuant’s journey. Even if the ego is not actually “assimilating the unconscious” or “conquering the anima,” I agree with Jung that there is no significant success in the individuation journey without running up against inflation. It is always a moral struggle to figure out the worth of what one learns or seems to learn during an individuation event. During the heat of the work, the valuation that accompanies these new attitudes and understandings is enormous. The problem of individuation is to figure out, after the conflagration has subsided, what exactly it all means and what is its ultimate use and value.

This is the substantially harder Work of individuation. What does one do with all of that tremendous revelation and inspiration? It becomes obvious (to anyone not caught up in the inflation of being touched by the Self) that the usefulness and worth of the individuation event is not universal. It is personal and, regrettably, nontransferable. The ethical struggle with this problem can make a spiritualist into a psychologist.

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“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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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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What Is a Dream?

There are many notions of what a dream is (traditional, New Age, Jungian, etc.) that portray the dream as a mystical message from God or the Self to the ego or that consider dreams to be direct communications to consciousness from some Other autonomous personality or intelligence.  I find it entirely understandable why people have so often thought this to be true.  It is based in subjective phenomenology.  I.e., it seems to be that way much of the time.  But I reject this kind of theory on a scientific or objective level.

I do not think dreams are communications with consciousness.  I do not think they are "meant" for consciousness at all.  There is no moral imperative to listen to our dreams, and if one doesn't want to do dream work, they are likely to function just as well as one who does.  Dreams are not "sacred".  They are not messages from God that we must prove our faith and divine worth by listening to.  A more scientific study of dreams (despite other limitations) makes this quite clear.

Many people simply don't remember their dreams, and although it is possible to teach oneself better dream recall by creating a standard routine, it is fairly obvious when looking at the data objectively that humans are not meant to consciously remember their dreams.  Dreams, therefore, cannot be communications from the Self or God or whathaveyou.  Why then does it often seem to some people that dreams are filled with such profound wisdom?

I have come to think of dreams as we recall them after waking as cross-sections of elaborate cognitive events.  We might see a few spots where something emerges above the surface of a large body of water.  We might see them in a certain order . . . first a blip over there, then a couple seconds later, another something pokes out over here, etc.  But we see the dream in this way because we can't see "under water".  If we could, I suspect we would see the dream as like a massive moving complex of things that only occasionally breaks the surface.  Those aspects of the dream that poke briefly above the surface may be observed by us, because that is the level of conscious, it is the level on which consciousness can understand and language the complex dynamic organizational movements of memory.

The evidence fore this comes primarily from dream associations.  As mentioned above, detailed dream association allows us to get a glimpse into the cognitive complexity underlying the dream.  And not only the cognitive complexity is revealed in the study of associations, but also some of the rules and mechanics of dynamic memory organization and consolidation.

We believe (as it appears to be so obvious) that a dream is what we remember after waking up.  Perhaps we realize that there are some details we forgot and now only vaguely remember that "something else happened" . . . but this portrait of "what happened", if it could be perfectly reconstructed as we viewed it while asleep, that would be the dream.  This, I propose, is radically incorrect and appears obvious to us merely because of our conscious cognitive bias that is designed to recognize and value only the kind of languaged, higher-order constructs that information can be reduced and condensed into for use by conscious thought.

The recalled story of the dream is merely a thin slice of dream like a sample on a slide viewed under the "magnification bias" of a microscope.  When this dream slide is subjected to associations, it regains some of its three dimensionality, as well as some of its dynamism.  The associations are the bulk of the dream, the recalled dream story is merely a flash portrait.  But even as the associations give the dream both robustness and some cognitive embodiment, they do not overtly and clearly tell us what the dream's function is.

Therefore, to determine this function, a good deal of speculation is required . . . necessitating a fairly large margin of error.  My speculation is that dreams (perhaps not all dreams, but at least the ones that resound with narrative structure) are glimpses into an autonomous cognitive process of dynamic memory organization, consolidation, association, and valuation.  In other words, an elaborate weaving together of new information with old memory organization.  But I also get the feeling that the memory organization events dreams peek into are something like experiments or propositions.  The cognitive process of memory organization is always ongoing.  Memory consolidation is not like a jigsaw puzzle that has one correct solution.  New information gathered into the mind does not have a specific "right" place to fit into.  Memory is a hugely complex dynamic system where many parts are dynamically affecting other parts that are affecting other parts . . . an enormous fluctuating conglomerate of moving inter-associations.  New information introduced into this system will also be affecting the already dynamic associative processes.

There will probably be numerous places the new information could fit, numerous older memory complexes it would more easily associate with.  But that can change over time as attempts at organization or association among memories ebb and flow.  What is especially important to point out is that dynamic memory isn't only receiving new information from outside (the so-called "day-residue" each new day brings with it).  Dynamic memory is also always creating new ideas and experimental organizations.  A new thought or experiential arrangement of memory quanta might lead to the privileging of an elaborate and highly charged new memory complex.  This phenomenon might be especially easy to imagine with artists who conjure up and invent new artistic ideas, but I suspect it happens all the time in all kinds of people, not merely the "creative".

It is therefore fairly possible that the kind of organizational dynamic we glimpse as dreams is going on in exactly the same way while we are awake and our consciousness is focused elsewhere.  I suspect this is at least somewhat true, but I also find it viable that dreams are, at least some of the time, especially successful at inventing novel and particularly efficient memory organizations.  It could be that the removal of the barrage of information we receive while awake allows for memory organization while asleep to be extra efficient.

If that is the case, I still think that sometimes the organizational experiments conducted by dreams work better than others.  And there are particular indications that this is so.  One of these, I suspect, is the possibility that those dreams we are more likely to remember or remember large portions of are the dreams that are most coherent or that express a memory organization that is especially efficient, and since more easily languagable, is more likely to be reinforced by consciousness.  I have personally noticed this phenomenon quite a bit, because I am a person (despite my high valuation of dreams) that often struggles to recall his dreams.  I always remember that I dreamed something, but the chaotic complexity, length, and inconsistency in my dreams (all of which I vaguely remember) often seems to be too much for me to hold in my consciousness once I awake.  Those dreams I do remember are almost always the ones in which at least some episodes are especially coherent and work like conventional story narratives.  Also, those dreams that use motifs of things I have come to understand and valuate more through dream work are likely to be better remembered.

Another phenomenological factor that suggests dreaming is a process of memory consolidation and organization is the common narrative structure of many (of course, not all) dreams that move from a problem or conflict of sorts to some form of resolution or revelation by the end.  That resolution may not be a "solution to a problem" as we would view it in waking life, but it may be a solution to a specific problem of memory consolidation.  It is this common phenomenon of resolution by dream end that invites us to project wisdom or teaching or "truth-telling" capacities onto our dreams.  These self-organizing solutions in memory organization may very well parallel waking solutions to problems of conflict or self-conflict that require a new attitude to synthesize.  Jung's theory of a transcendent function accords very closely with this natural dynamic of memory consolidation through dreams.

Where dream work can effectively grasp one of these organizational solutions invented in dreams and language and valuate it so it has special conscious significance, it has championed and reinforced a clever dream invention and helped memory organize more efficiently.  This is the conscious facilitation of a natural, autonomously organizational process.  Imagine if, by concentration of conscious thought on a physical wound or disease, we could help that wound heal more efficiently and quickly or more thoroughly.  Some people probably do think this is possible (i.e., "visualization"), and I really don't know.  But I do feel that effective dream work is quite capable of aiding the natural memory organizing process.

Another phenomenon supporting this theory of dreams I have recognized in my own dream work (where it has abundantly demonstrated itself) is the tendency of dreams to build onto and incorporate other dreams that have been functionally facilitated via dream work.  Sometimes this tendency of a dream to allude to an older dream can happen when an older dream is especially memorable or striking even if not exposed to dream work.  But the effect is the same . . . the most memorable dreams are likely to be reused in other organization contexts.  But I have noted that successful dream work greatly increases this dream recycling and allusion phenomenon.  I recently had a dream that was so allusive to previous dreams (successfully worked on) it almost seemed like an overture of my dream work.  I have even noticed this phenomenon with my poetry.  I have had numerous dreams that incorporate and re-contextualize aspects or lines of my poetry.  In doing this, the dream is taking something which is an especially highly charged memory complex and tying it to other related feelings and thoughts.  Subjectively, these events are filled with numinous "meaning making", but when viewed objectively, they also display some of the rules and dynamics of the complex system of memory organization.

There is a principle behind this organization.  The principle seems to favor efficiency and highly charged inter-association of memory complexes.  It moves toward fluidity and tends to break down stuck attitudes that don't accord.  Where those stuck attitudes define an individual's identity, the principle of organization (that I consider to be the objective substance of the Self) may seem to oppose or compensate it (as in Jung's theory).  Where one has, through dream work and other self-reflection, succeeded in facilitating this complex systemic process of organization, one is likely to see dreams that acknowledge this and connect it to feelings and memories of successful cooperation and/or creation.  I've had multiple dreams in which I helped repair some machine my father had built or treated some injury he had incurred (my father represents a particularly familiar aspect of the Self system in many of my dreams).


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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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I am profoundly grateful to my wife, Christina, for her divine tolerance and love, to my father Gary for my ability to think, to my mother Randi for my vocation, to Ron, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a mentor, to Don (for telling me that I was a writer), to my Companion (old friend, I am always your Lovely Assistant), to Firebird, the fool-lover, great conflagrated listener (I am the shadow of your light), and finally, to Marley the Dog (for so much inspiration, you who lick all the plates where the soul food was served).

Versions of “Revolt among the Cabbage Heads” and “Polka for the Recently Exhumed” previously appeared in The Iowa Review.


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A Volunteer from the Audience

“There is no invention to it, there is no trick, there is no fake; you simply lie down in a coffin and breathe quietly.”
Harry Houdini

For my next trick . . .
a volunteer from the audience
to be sawn in half or disappeared in a cabinet.
Pick your poison.
Please remove the largest slice of currency from your wallet.
Please submit your most priceless effigy to my recursive folding.
Please regard your garmenture as a casualty of prestidigitation.
Upon your reemergence: the customary gorilla suit . . .
Pick a card.
Lovely Assistant, please hold the effulgence from my pocket.
Please pull harder on my effulgence, my effulgence is long
and coheres to my dichotomies.

And now, a well-oiled universe . . .

This was a precursor to our conjunction.
Ah, but it appears I have already gone tacit.
No matter.

I will expire through the corridor of your ovation.
You may remove your gorilla suit backstage after the show.
Yes, it smells of the ancient sweat of my last Lovely Assistant.
No, it is not made from real gorilla.

Stop asking stupid questions and kiss me.
Don’t you know why I picked you?
When I was very young, you taped a sign to my back:
“Kick Me”.
And then you kicked me,
supposedly because the sign told you to do so.
It was that solution to your loneliness I found so winsome.

From that moment I knew I would need a theater for my act
and an act for my theater.
I had it all planned . . . that I would disappear you
and reappear you.
Really, it was you who created me,
and I have been waiting here for you,
extracting my very everything from this top hat.
A bunch of rabbits, some tickertape, the pomegranate.

Did you enjoy my cabinet of changes?
We’ve come a long way, we two.
Things are always changing into other things
on the Orpheum circuit,
but we have no secret names remaining,
just those words we’ve always used,
my germinisms, your view halloos.

The legerdemain of your tongue moored
atop the journey staff
in a gunnysack of language.
Small words: wealth enough for a traveling life.
Toll money and victuals.
So, what could I say to shake the wind?
That I held the tiny stem of a fine white rose
between my forefinger and thumb
like a demitasse
and your petals opened?

Here in the halfdark
your hands are desert wasps
mating street urchin knuckles with choir boy fingernails,
availing our bodies’ androgynies
like a knitter casting on stitches.

I like the way we’ve been shuffled together:
the enantiodromia . . .
You play your tarot like poker,
all bluffs and tells,
veterinary misdirections:
tender against the lion’s teeth
like a harper of the uvula,
then the Rupture
and the Tower roaring off its crown.
The ecstasy of falling . . .
your scarlet shoes in the sky
heel-clenched and castanetting,
a last loud fuck for Babylon
as the brimstone burns.

At the ceremony of the broken wand
each of our deaths
is a hanging ballet,
chrysalides head down
in the water cell, shivering.
We pull our Useless Science up around us like a blanket,
breath quietly
from each others lips.

For the final act . . .
all those things we have been to each other,
discreet materia and connotation,
suits and signs and signifiers,
a dim sum spread out across the table
waiting for the hunger the road discards
as it wanders.

But on your command,
the sky leaps down
like a little white dog
caught licking the plates,
and you
appear me.

You are the magician,
after all.

[See Note On This Poem]


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The Family Business

for CM

“A young man in the dark am I
But a wild old man in the light
That can make a cat laugh, or
Can touch by mother wit
Things hid in their marrow bones . . .”
W.B. Yeats, “The Wild Old Wicked Man”

We have an old man who lives upstairs.

It’s my fault, really, I said he could stay.

One day he arrived at our doorstep, it was the middle of February, and he was dressed as an inebriated Santa Claus.

He said he’d come looking for the perfect dusk-licked breasts
that could be rude to shadows like petulant Cassandras,
but suddenly burst into the flight of doves
startled out of a ruptured storm gutter,
that cooed cherubically when you cupped them in your hands,
for big beautiful nipples that stared into his eyes
like the brown cow irises of sunflowers, irresistibly textured,
as though the fingertips could impregnate with the slightest touch,
for the thick pubis like a moment of wooly black godthought
before the orbing out of heaven and earth,
and for thighs that were like miles and miles of a lost highway
stretching around to the dark side of the moon
where they waited to be ridden for the hushed secrets
of their long cloistered lushness.

He wanted a navel like an eggcup, lightly downed
and perched over a little slope of stomach, and hips,
vast hips like the bearing cliffs smoothed and shaped
by that fat-fingered breadmaker, the devastating sea,
hips that could hoist up the plateau of a wilderness
into a freshly risen Eden.

He said he had followed a star.
He pointed up and across the street to where a yellowed street light flickered.

I liked the way he ogled my wife, as though he could have done great harm if he weren’t so old, so destroyed.

His words were luxuriant oils, ointments of indulgence.
And we, whose habit it was to cherish, but never use, exquisite things,
must have longed to feel our decorous little humilities grow smarmy.

I invited him in for dinner, and he never left.

My wife was less enthusiastic, but I told her: I am a poet and must do such things.

Since, she has grown used to the old man, almost. When she goes into his room to remind him to take his medicines, and he pretends he’s dead, but that his bedcovers have fallen aside to expose his withered genitals, she is no longer shocked.

She enjoys reading his latest suicide note, and does so aloud at his bedside, shifting her weight from foot to foot as if standing near an ancient radio’s buzz as her favorite program comes on.

She tells me, “They are like two old prunes stuck together in their sugars and one horrible little strip of discarded bacon left in the pan, unworthy of breakfast.”

I worry that this may be my fate someday, as well, but I don’t tell her. I have not decided whether she looks upon the old man’s genitals with empowerment or disgust.

Our son, who is four, doesn’t understand—is the old man an uncle? A grandfather? Sometimes the old man makes him explode into giggles, other times, ball in terror. Our refrigerator is plastered with crayon simulacra depicting the old man’s daily exploits in utterly Homeric fashion.

The other day, I caught the old man dragging my boy up a hillside with a large hammer and a railroad spike.

“What is going on here?!” I panted as I caught up to them.

“We must nail his foot to the hillside. Come, grab his other arm.”

“You will do no such thing, old man!” I said.

“It is to honor our father, Lame Vulcan!” he replied, quite astonished at my objection.

“He who has been toiling so long,
sweat-stroked and sooted in the shithouse of heaven!
Forging and plotting, pounding in the heat, crafting
little tongue-petalled flowers out of colored tissue papers,
all the while feeling the mad weather in His shins!

“He has been cuckolded again, and His anger breaks
the wings of moths over an anvil!”

“No it doesn’t,” I said curtly, grabbing my boy.

“But his limp, his limp!” whined the old man.

After ten minutes of arguing, we finally compromised. We all affected a ceremonial limp on our way back to the house.

My wife looked up from her gardening at three ages of limping men heaving their disagreeable legs along like sledgehammers through the bleached solemnity of the street,
each with his own special countenance of miseries,
feeling his heart banging
like a toy cannon firing diamonds
at a charging brigade of uniformed chimpanzees
pedaling artificial currencies . . .
feeling: newly born.

During the holidays, the old man talks only of the devil like he was a fallen comrade, evokes his name at the beginning of meals in a lewd forgery of grace, digressing and digressing as the mashed potatoes turn into snowballs.

“. . . and the time that you explained to Eve that the penis
was like a kind of fruit
from which you must suck the seeds
to fully enjoy its sweetness,
and she was willing,
for she so liked the sweetnesses of fruits . . .”

Then he’d grind a lump of coal in a parmesan cheese grater and sprinkle it over his cold food, and then he’d begin to chew, painfully, like a sagged Holstein.

My wife’s parents dislike the old man. They say nothing, but I can tell they think he’s a kind of infidel. This alone is probably a good reason to keep him.

The old man will sit in his room into the wee hours, just him and the dog, to whom he tells mournful stories of lost love, and they lean into each other weeping copiously and howling like wolves over their pageant of salt.

The dog licks the old man’s tears from his cheeks and nose, each lick like lighting a candle for the dead, and the old man laces his fingers into the dog’s fur and kneads her loose gray skin. I walk by the open doorway with a midnight bourbon, and I too want to be among the weeping and furry, but I don’t go in.

Last month, there was an evening he didn’t come down for dinner, and as we ate by ourselves, he leapt from his bedroom window and fell to the ground like a pocked chunk of moon right outside our dining room. We looked at each other in silence for a second, then the old man gathered himself up into a moose of contusions and oozed in through the front door.

He was wearing a now crushed and disheveled pair of wings fashioned out of coat hangers and bed sheets.

“No thank you, I’m not hungry,” he mumbled leprously as he limped past us and back up the stairs, although we had not asked.

After dinner, I went up to his room with a plate of food, and he told me he was busy circumnavigating his bed, and that he planned to write a novel about it. He has put on a fake Russian accent.

“I vill be za first person vith a fake Russian accent to circumnavigate his bed and write a novel about it,” he explains with a kind of stoic, cold war heroism.

The old man has a nasty habit of calling on us. He takes his wind-up alarm clock and throws it, concussing and clattering, down the stairs where it finally comes to a rest, buzzing obnoxiously.

I bring the clock, silenced, back to his room, stomping up the stairs, and peer into his eyes like a saber-toothed tiger ready to take dictation. He is working on his will again.

“I am leaving you the Family Business,” he says.

We’ve heard this before and doubt very much that there is such a thing. We’ve become accustomed to nodding along with his proposal with suspicious affection. I nod once again.

“Yes,” I say, “the Family Business.”

“It is important to me,” he goes on, “that you do the honorable thing, run the business well and pass it on to your own children when you have grown too old, and they have grown old enough.”

We have, politely, asked the old man what sort of business the Family Business is, but he has been reluctant to tell us out of the fear that we will try to persuade him to alter his will.

But, this time, he is ready to tell me. He has even put on Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony as mood music and erected some makeshift spotlighting out of table lamps and scarves.

“It is the Business of Making,” he dramatizes.

“Ah,” I say, “so . . . now I can become the Count of Monte Cristo.”

“You are always thinking of revenge,” says the old man with an expression half smile, half frown that negates itself, “but that will pass.”

I leave the old man to his Dvorak and go back downstairs to tell my wife. “But you already make things that come to nothing,” she tells me.

“Well, I’m afraid we won’t be able to sell the Family Business and retire early to Florida, as we’d planned,” I say and then realize I am still carrying the old man’s clock in my hand like a loser at the game of Hot Potato.

Last night, my wife rolled over in bed with the moonlight sitting on the floor behind her, impassively. “I think we should get divorced,” she said.

I was frozen. I tucked the blankets around my shoulders like a poultice.

“We should get divorced, and then, then I will marry the old man, and then you can live in the upstairs bedroom growing mad and hairy. While the old man sleeps in this bed, I will creep upstairs to find you playing dead, your cock lolling out from beneath your covers. There will be a suicide note on the nightstand, and I will pick it up and read it out loud like a grammar school teacher in horn-rimmed glasses with three buttons worth of cleavage:

Oh, let it be known that I died, a weary old man
in need of just one outrageous night of fucking,
just one moist night of love inside the fist-tight cunt
of a younger woman, so that I could keep drawing breath.
And so, like Shelly’s Ozymandias, I say—
Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair.”

I blinked, and the heat started to come back. That night, my wife and I were happy we’d met the old man who came looking for the perfect dusk-licked breasts.

My fingers played upon her body like the fingers of a man who can play Chopsticks on a piano, or maybe the melody half of In the Mood, but nothing else . . . doesn’t read music. But it is a good song, and I play it with enthusiasm, and she was willing, so I played on and on, verse after verse.

We were both as ravenous as Grail Knights at a feast, just come back empty-handed again, famished, dirty, and raw, brandishing new wounds like scanty, slutted fox pelts.

We heard the dog howling her rendition of Old Man River into the numb plasters of the house, and the house reeled and creaked its heft about, dancing like a sequoia in the earth’s lap to appease the obstreperous wind.

Our son slept in his tiny bed, gigantic, like a dragon sleeping on the strange gold of its dreams, and the old man sank into his freshly-circumnavigated bed like a baby sinking deeply into a plushly-furred Russian hat, picked up a pen to launch the fast ships of his novel into its rosy-fingered dawn, and wrote:

In za beginning . . .

[see note on poem]


Filed under: Poetry, Psyche Comments Off