The posts and replies here on the meaning or meaninglessness of dreams have shown frustration, bewilderment, and strong opinions.
Dreams can be very frustrating and fiendishly difficult to understand, even for a Jungian analyst trained for years to interpret them. But I think that what sometimes happens is that we expect dreams to speak our language at our tempo. It's like going to Azerbaijan and deciding that the people there make no sense because they don't speak English.
These frustrations arise out of a combination of romanticism and 21st century urgency, a mindset that leads not only to sleep deprivation but also to soul deprivation. We expect the body and mind to work on our terms and on our schedule, rather than on their more natural and perhaps imperfect terms. But my clinical experience over the last 20 years has been that if I take my time and try to understand the dreams in their own language, they reward on a deep level.
For me it's a practical issue. I've gotten some sense of what works and what doesn't work in therapy, and I try to use what's most effective. I can't always tell right away what's going to work for one person and not for another, but given time and good will we can usually figure it out. Dreams are often one of those things that seem to work. Jung himself was not doctrinaire: his approach was that therapy is whatever works.
I also understand that it isn't always possible to slow down to look carefully at dreams. For many people there is a rhythm of turning inward and turning outward, not unlike sleep: a rhythm of introversion and extroversion -- the heroic trip into the underworld and return to the community. I'm only suggesting that when dreams draw our attention, we consider that they might yield more meaning with more reflection.
Because there is often such difference between the attitude of the dream and our conscious standpoint it's often helpful to have an analyst or dream group to arrive at a more objective interpretation. But if you don't have that support and are interested in understanding your dreams on your own, here are a few tools:
Ask what attitude the dream may be compensating. Jung felt that dreams often reveal the aspects of our lives that we are not paying enough attention to, and that they portray what has been left out of consciousness. Paying attention to our dreams offers the possibility of connecting with parts of ourselves that we have neglected or never integrated.
This may require a correction in how you think of yourself: if your dream shows you wielding a hidden gun, consider that perhaps you've got more aggression than you thought and it could use some conscious integration.
There's a natural tendency for humans to grow toward wholeness, to include as many different aspects of their personality as possible, and to have those parts live in relative harmony. One image that describes this is the mandala, a figure which includes circular and square elements, often with divisions of four, balancing the opposites of left and right, and up and down. Like the mandala, our own personalities ideally grow out from a center and keep growing richer as we mature. Paying attention to our dreams provides material that enlarges and fills out our character in a balanced way. Not growing in a balanced way can lead to depression, anxiety and poor relationships.
Consider the characters in your dream as aspects of yourself that need to be recognized, integrated or let go. There may be parts of you that are trying to break in, other parts that look like they need to die off, parts that are seductive or judgmental, and other parts that seem to represent your better thinking.
Jung referred to some of these parts as shadow (the part of you that you want to hide from others and even from yourself), the dying king (an old ruling attitude that no longer serves you), anima or animus (the part of your personality that is different from your conscious gender identity), and the wise old man. These are just common examples: your own psychology may call for integration of other aspects of your personality.
Try to understand the dreams in their own language. Dreams often speak a language of images created by the old or reptilian brain. Sometimes they translate these symbols into our own contemporary dialect, but often we need to try to understand the symbols that the unconscious uses from its perspective.
While it's very important to consider your own associations when trying to understand a dream symbol, it's also often helpful to consider what the more historical and objective essence of that symbol is. Your own experience of a snake might be of something frightening you saw in a zoo, but because it sheds its skin, it can also symbolize rebirth. You could call this the archetypal language: a language of images that best express those things too rich and complex to express with words.
Consider whether your dream places you in a mythological drama, a universal pattern which could inform your psychological growth. If you dream that you go into a house and confront a terrorist who has stolen something precious, you might want to consider your associations to terrorists, but also whether you need to take on the role of the hero and slay a psychological dragon in your life. Ask whether the drama in your dream reminds you of a myth, a fairy tale or even a film that develops a universal theme.
Look at your dreams in a series. If you can record your dreams over a period of weeks or months, you may begin to notice particular characters and themes recurring in slightly different ways. This helps to understand the language the dreams are speaking.
It would be easy to get caught up in theories and research on dreams. But what it really comes down to is being open to and engaging with what the dreams give us, rather than expecting them to conform to our 21st century mindset. As with sleep, giving dreams respect and attention in our lives offers a chance for rejuvenation. It's the attitude that heals.
Gary Trosclair, LCSW, DMA, is a certified Jungian analyst practicing privately in Manhattan and Westchester County, New York. He works with individuals and couples on a wide variety of issues including depression, anxiety, and relationships. He serves on the faculty of the C.G. Jung Institute of New York, where he has also served as Director of Training. He has presented at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and the Jung Foundation of New York.