Three Perspectives on Dream Symbols January 27, 2012
After my last post about the dragon dream, Rob asked if we dream out of both the personal and the collective (archetypal, therefore shared by everyone) unconscious, and if dreams about one’s personal unconscious sometimes use archetypal imagery. Yes. Many dreams seem to be purely personal, a few are purely archetypal, and most, like my dragon dream, are a combination of both. In fact, every dream symbol and theme actually has three possible levels of meaning: personal, cultural, and archetypal, so I always look for associations at all three levels. I’ll demonstrate with the symbol of a house.
Personal Meaning of House: My dragon dream took place in the house in which my husband grew up. When Fred and I were dating I was invited often for meals, and after our marriage it was the setting for numerous family gatherings and fun celebrations. I have many warm associations with this house, all involving Fred and his funny, quirky family. Although my mother visited there a few times, I do not associate this house with her. I find this a curious aspect of the dream. The kitchen in Fred’s house was the core of family activity and most of our gatherings were centered around meals cooked by Fred’s beloved grandmother or stepmother (with whom he had a conflict-filled relationship). My mother never entertained and she cooked only the simplest of meals out of necessity, never passion or even interest, so her presence in this kitchen is an odd detail. The room in the far left corner of the house, streetside, was the bedroom shared by Fred’s brothers George and Tony. I adore them both and imagine them dreaming many beautiful dreams in there. In realilty, of course, the room had no garage door, although there were high windows. The actual garage was on the other end of the house, on the right side next to the kitchen. This was the garage I was heading for at the end of the dream.
Cultural Meaning of House: Houses everywhere represent protection from the elements, family, warmth, and comfort: nurturing qualities all. Kitchens are traditionally the purviews of grandmothers, mothers and other women who prepare food for their families. They are also rooms in which flour, milk, water, yeast, sugar and salt are mixed and baked in ovens, a magical process which transforms them into nourishing bread. Kitchens also have fresh water available for cooking and cleaning up.
Archetypal Meaning of House: Houses represent the psyche and everything that goes on in our minds. Archetypes are mental pictures of physical instincts. The needs of all five instincts (nurturance, activity, reflection, sex, and creativity) can be met in houses. This dream features three instincts. Nurturance is represented by the house, my mother, and the kitchen. The kitchen contains two especially vital symbols: a womb-like oven which transforms basic elements into the bread of life, and a source of water, the cleansing, life-giving element associated with humanity’s maternal Source, the Great Mother (she’s also associated with dragons). Activity is shown in the dragon’s banging on the roof and walls, and in my dream ego’s walking, then running away. Reflection is symbolized by the windows which provide an outlook into the unconscious, the dragon with its fiercely knowing, staring eye, and the keys representing access to secret knowledge and wisdom.
Do you see the wealth of multi-leveled meanings I can glean from these symbols? All but the dragon are parts of everyone’s personal life, yet most also appear in the myths and fairy tales of every culture. I’m still working on the dream. It could take a long time to understand, if ever. For now I’m just letting it cook.
Seeing With A Different Perspective January 24, 2012
Joseph Campbell said, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” How many of us realize that the plots of the books and movies we love—even the most fantastic, dreamlike ones about imaginary times, places, people, and creatures (for example, The Wizard of Oz)—are commentaries on the inner life of every human being who ever existed? How often do we remember that a weird dream is not just a meaningless phenomenon but a personal message about the realities of our unconscious selves?
Looking for the psychological meanings of public myths and private dreams is a powerful way to train your intuition, heal yourself, and increase your wisdom. Sometimes you won’t like what you see: Who likes the Wicked Witch of the West? Yet, if you can imagine this story from a different perspective—as did the writers of the Broadway play Wicked who told it from her perspective—you’ll see how even the most terrifying villains can have benevolent intentions and teach valuable lessons. I’ll illustrate with a recent dream.
Dream #4346: A Dragon Wants to Enter The House
I’m in a house. My mother’s in the kitchen. A dragon is outside flapping its wings against the roof and banging against the walls of a room in the far left corner. I walk down the hall and stand in the doorway. The opposite wall looks like a garage door with windows in the top half. The dragon is hanging down from the roof, its gigantic head framed in the windows. One huge eye stares at me. Its open mouth is lined with pointy teeth.
As I turn away in fear it bangs on the window. I hear a crash. He must have broken through. I call out to my mother, “Run! We’ve got to get out of here!” This feels like Fred’s old house so I know the door to the garage is ahead and hope we can escape in my car. Then I realize I don’t have the keys. I ask my mother where they are and hear her voice saying they’re in the family room. Oh no! I’ll have to go back toward the dragon to find my keys.
I awoke with my heart pounding. Do you see how archetypal the symbols are? House? Kitchen? Mother? Dragon? Windows? Doors? Eye? Teeth? Keys? About the only things missing are a hero, some woods, a sword and a horse! This is a drama about the unfolding of my private myth. So far I understand that a powerful unconscious emotion (the dragon) is desperate for my ego’s attention. Although I’m gaining perspective on it (I glimpse it through windows separating me from the unconscious) I still fear it. It has something to do with the nurturing (kitchen) I received or didn’t receive from my mother, and also with my husband (I’m in the house where he grew up). Finally, the keys to this mystery relate to family (the keys are in the family room). For the next several days I’ll carry this dream with me, feeling its feelings, talking to its images, looking to developments in my waking life for new insights.
Why am I telling you this dream? You can’t possibly understand the complexities of my inner life, and even if I did, I wouldn’t share them all here. But I want you to see my trust in the benevolence of dreams, and I’d like to help you work with yours. So with the understanding that your responses say more about your inner life than mine, I welcome your projections. Perhaps I’ll share some of mine next time if I think they could be helpful.
Ruling the Inner Chamber January 20, 2012
Dreamwork has been my most rewarding and consistent spiritual practice for 22 years. You might not think of dreams as having anything to do with spirituality but they absolutely do. Carl Jung demonstrated this with exquisite beauty in his recently published The Red Book in which he recorded some of his most meaningful waking and sleeping dreams. Everything he did for the rest of his brilliant and productive life was based on the findings he recorded in that book, which represents three years of committed inner work. Ultimately, his conclusion about the value of this work was that to become who we truly are is our spiritual task and the privilege of a lifetime.
Jung is not the first person to understand this, although he was one of the first Western medical professionals to study it for himself and write about it in a way that could be comprehended and accepted by the Western scientific mind. Indeed, many Asian traditions have taught this concept for thousands of years. Consider this quote by the Hindu professor Ravi Ravindra:
“The struggle to know who I am, in truth and in spirit, is the spiritual quest. The movement in myself from the mask to the face, from the personality to the person, from the performing actor to the ruler of the inner chamber, is the spiritual journey. To live, work, and suffer on this shore in faithfulness to the whispers from the other shore is spiritual life. To keep the flame of spiritual yearning alive is to be radically open to the present and to refuse to settle for comforting religious dogma, philosophic certainties, and social sanctions.”
Contrary to popular belief, authentic spirituality is not just a function of how many souls we save or how well we know scriptures or how hard we pray or how many rules we keep or what we believe or how often we attend our place of worship or how much money we donate to the poor. Likewise, spiritual maturity is not limited to a particular religion or set of beliefs. Rather, it is a function of our willingness to further the unfolding of our capacity for full living, endless loving, and authentic being.
We’re supposed to discover our true selves and connect with the sacred Mystery within. We’re supposed to learn how to accept and love ourselves because that’s how we learn to accept and love others. Every religion has spawned mature spirit persons whose mystical experiences and intuitions taught them that God indwells the soul. This means that our spiritual growth is not just a function of searching for God outside ourselves but also of honoring the “kingdom” within. (I could just as well have said “queendom” but it wouldn’t resonate as deeply as this more familiar term for sovereignty. I wish there were a gender-neutral word for the inner chamber that is not one-sidedly masculine, but honors both the masculine and feminine drives of every psyche. Any ideas?)
The search for self-knowledge is a path to spiritual maturity and dreams are invaluable tools on that path because they show us unsuspected aspects of our unconscious selves. These insights heal us and our relationships and bring spiritual meaning to our lives. Why? Because knowing that we are known and loved by something with far more power than our puny ego, something sacred that lives within us and only wants the best for us, increases our sense of self-worth and helps us live with more forgiveness, integrity and compassion. If learning from our dreams how to rule our inner chamber is not a spiritual practice I don’t know what is!
What did you dream last night?
The Space Odyssey of Projection: Part III January 17, 2012
When relationships are problematic our ego finds it hard to believe that its lack of self-knowledge is part of the cause, but it is! Always! This is true whether the qualities we project onto others are negative, as in the examples from my last post, or positive. For instance, the people we admire or fall in love with have certain characteristics we unconsciously associate with our ideal selves. Those of us conditioned not to think too well of ourselves (lest we grow proud) often disown our positive qualities and ideals. In doing so, we lose conscious access to them and only regain it when we befriend others who look like our ideal. In reality, only parts of them are, but in the early throes of infatuation we never notice the parts which are not. If we stay together long enough, however, they will become apparent and we will grow disenchanted.
If the relationship is to prosper we must withdraw our projections. In practice this means (1) acknowledging that the qualities we dislike in them are also parts of us, and (2) developing the positive qualities we’ve disowned in ourselves and assigned to them. Here’s why this works:
1: Withdrawing projections reduces separations and hostilities. Insofar as we believe our negative projections are true of others, they are acts of judgment which separate us. Then completely innocent remarks are grounds for suspicion and misunderstanding and justification for blame. Insofar as we believe our positive projections are true of others, they are one-sided contracts which we have written for them. Then if they break the contract we resent them for changing, misleading us, or forcing us to develop qualities we want them to carry. “S/He betrayed me!” we think. S/He was supposed to be the (choose one) logical one, wise one, practical one, romantic one, provider, nurturer, bill-payer, social director, problem-solver, creative thinker, muse, perfect lover, etc., but s/he’s changed!”
2: Withdrawing projections strengthens and heals relationships. Seeing that the value we thought was in the other is really in ourselves generates empathy and compassion. As our hearts soften we relate to others with more warmth, trust, openness, caring and honesty.
3. Withdrawing projections creates understanding and wisdom. It is not constructive to assume that our perspectives or values are common to everyone. It is constructive to recognize that they are true for us. When we neither over-value nor under-value our truths or those of others, we are on the road to wisdom.
4: Withdrawing projections re-energizes and empowers the body, mind, and spirit. Projection is a way of giving our libido, or psychological energy, to others. When we realize that the libido we invest in others is a projection, they lose their overpowering significance and the energy we invested in them returns to us. Knowing that the influence originates within us releases vitality, activates hidden potential and produces a oneness of being. This brings a childlike state of bliss and a treasure of accumulated libido which can constantly stream forth like the energy of a child.
This is the psycho-spiritual meaning of the last image from the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which Dr. David Bowman is transformed into a fetus floating in space and gazing at the Earth from within a transparent orb of light. He has evolved through the hero’s journey and been reborn as an enlightened spirit warrior with a cosmic point of view. No longer projecting his inner truths onto others, no longer ruled by instinct or ego, he no longer wants to control society but only to benefit it. In my projection, this is the best possible outcome of every soul’s odyssey through inner space.
The Space Odyssey of Projection: Part II January 13, 2012
Here’s one example of how I’ve experienced projection. After years of dreamwork I learned that I have a harsh inner critic who loves to lambast me with negative self-talk. I call him my Spiritual Bully. He says things to me like, “That was a stupid remark! How thoughtless can you be?” Or “You think you’re so smart but nobody else sees things the way you do.” Or, “Did you hear that mean thought you just had? What a hypocrite you are, Miss Compassionate Person!” He gained his power over me by feeding off the self-doubt of my inner wounded child who believes she is basically unlovable and unworthy. How she got that way is another story.
So several years ago I was working on a project with some unusually spiritual, accomplished and intelligent women. Over time I noticed that one whom I particularly admired had a tendency to say things to me that felt like mean, personal put-downs, especially about my thinking, writing, and teaching on psychological and spiritual matters: subjects I considered my areas of expertise. Her comments hurt me very much and it became increasingly difficult to contain my anger.
Feeling this angry at a casual acquaintance was a new experience for me. I knew from my Jungian studies that my strong response to her meant there must be a part of me that was like a part of her, but I couldn’t imagine what it was. One day when we were alone I finally told her how angry I was about a comment she had made in response to an observation of mine. She was flabbergasted! She had no idea she had said something hurtful and asked me if I would let her know the next time it happened!
That’s when I finally got it that she was as well-meaning as I was and we both had a somewhat intellectually proud and spiritually critical shadow of which neither was aware. Ouch! Others saw these tendencies in her too—no doubt they likewise saw them in me—but no one I knew seemed to have the problem with her that I did. Why was I so sensitive? Because her comments confirmed my Spiritual Bully’s criticisms of me. Since I couldn’t see him in myself I couldn’t get angry at him for causing me so much pain, but I sure could get angry at her! As you can well imagine, it was tough accepting the truth about this particular inner space alien!
Another example. The family of a man I once knew told me he was very controlling. One day he attended a workshop I led on the shadow. After an exercise in which attendees were to list 5 people they had problems with and why, he said the people on his list were very controlling. “This can’t be right,” he said somewhat defensively and indignantly. “I’m not the least bit controlling and everyone knows these people are, so how could they represent a part of me?” See?
So how can we discover our projections? By noticing our emotions. Anything that evokes a strong emotional response in us is related to one of our unconscious issues or complexes as Jung called them, and we project parts of these onto others! We love who we love or hate who we hate because in them we see qualities we suspect might belong to us as well. The stronger the emotion, the more unconscious the projection. We don’t want to believe in projection because we don’t want to see the shadows lurking in our inner space. But there are several very good reasons why we should learn to recognize them. I’ll share some next time.
The Space Odyssey of Projection: Part I January 10, 2012
After my post “Animal Healers” in which I said that we project our unconscious emotions onto animals, a reader wrote, “I am a bit confused about the concept of “projection” within the context of Jungian Psychology. I hear Jungians use it a lot, and I get the concept in general, but only in a vague sense. For example, I understand that we “project” our own subconscious concepts of perfection on our beloved, but I’m unsure what that means. Are Jungians saying that the world we see is simply a hologram of what our subconscious minds expect to and want to see? How do we differentiate between what is existentially in the world from a projection?”
This is a great question and I won’t be able to explain it adequately in just one post, so I’ll continue next time. Projection is one of the most difficult psychological realities of all to understand because we do it at an entirely unconscious level. Your ego believes it is the center of your psyche and that everything pretty much revolves around it. Moreover, it believes it knows exactly what you are doing, and why, at any given moment. To convince your ego that it is mistaken is akin to Copernicus and Galileo trying to convince our forebears of only a few centuries ago that contrary to the evidence of their eyes, the sun does not revolve around the Earth and there is an unimaginably vast universe beyond the bowl of the sky with contents and influences yet to be discovered.
It is no coincidence that during the second half of the 20th century people throughout the world became fascinated with science fiction novels, television shows and films like War of the Worlds, Star Trek, Star Wars, E.T. and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Freudian and Jungian psychology were entering collective awareness in a big way during that era, and a major discovery was the reality of the unconscious self. With our growing awareness of an unknown inner universe came a parallel interest in the outer one.
The idea that we might contain potentially dangerous unknown contents made us extremely uncomfortable. Since these unconscious phenomena were still inaccessible to our egos, we dealt with our anxiety by imagining and exploring ideas about aliens and space ships and planetary wars going on somewhere outside ourselves and the known world. “As above, so below,” as the ancient saying goes. To put it another way, “As without, so within.” Whether or not space aliens are physical realities remains to be seen; but there is no doubt they symbolize psychological realities.
This is an example of projection. Jung said (Volume 6, paragraphs 783 and 784 of the Collective Works) that a projection is a transferral of our own unconscious contents onto another person or object. It is an automatic process that happens to everyone and is not under our ego’s conscious control. When we project our negative unconscious contents onto others we make them responsible for our discomfort, flaws, or problems. This helps us get rid of painful, incompatible contents. We do the same with positive contents of which our egos are still unaware. Then we make those onto whom we have projected them responsible for our happiness or salvation. Thus do we demonize others in whom we see our negative contents and create God-images out of entities, real or imagined, onto whom we project our positive contents. This, of course, is how wars, love affairs, and religions are formed.
Next time I’ll give some examples of what projection looks like in everyday life. Meanwhile you might want to ask yourself who you demonize, who you love, and why.