My close friends and family know that I have been a dream analysis junkie for about the last 3 years. It started after reading Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams.” I came away from the book fairly discouraged from ever getting into dream analysis because of the sheer volume and complexity of the material. My impression from Freud was that one must be practically genius to properly interpret dreams.
This was a rookie mistake and I’ve learned that although Freud was a pioneer in the art he was far from comprehensive and his methods are by no means required to do dream work.
Studying Carl Jung bailed me out. The Jungian method of dream analysis is profoundly comprehensive, and though I’m far from mastering the art there are a few basic concepts that anyone can use to begin to understand their own dreams. I thought it would be fun to write about the very basic starting point of Jung’s method.
At bottom the Jungian method is based on the idea that dreams are compensatory, that is, they compensate for thoughts, perceptions, and emotions that one experiences but are either repressed or not strong enough to reach consciousness. Those thoughts, perceptions, and emotions that never made it to consciousness are stored in the unconscious and make their way into one’s dreams, appearing in the language of symbols.
Why do these elements come out to play in one’s dreams? Because if they didn’t the psyche would be denied vitally important corrections for its own health. Dreams are a way for the psyche to self-regulate.
It is easy to become unbalanced in life. Take the business person who spends an inordinate amount of time wearing a “business mask” and denying his or her playful or emotional self. The excessive concentration in one direction or on one facet of the psyche will often result in dreams that pull one’s attention towards the things one has been neglecting – forcing the dreamer to move closer to a psychic middle ground.
In Jung’s own words: “The unconscious content contrasts strikingly with the conscious material, particularly when the conscious attitude tends too exclusively in a direction that would threaten the vital needs of the individual. The more one-sided his conscious attitude is, and the further it deviates from the optimum, the greater becomes the possibility that vivid dreams with a strongly contrasting but purposive content will appear.”
This compensatory function can also work in two distinct ways: to push the psyche toward greater conscious achievements or to knock a person off his high horse, so to speak, and move the conscious to a lower position. The former is known as the “prospective function” and the latter the “reductive function.”
Jung described the prospective function as, “an anticipation in the unconscious of future conscious achievement” in which its “symbolic content sometimes outlines the solution of a conflict.”
People often mistaken these sorts of dreams as prophetic when in reality they are dreams in which the subliminal elements gathered during waking life (those neglected thoughts, perceptions and emotions) are fused together in combinations superior to what one’s consciousness is capable of. In other words, the psyche is able during sleep to use all of one’s experiences – both conscious and unconscious – in order to attempt a rough sketch of a future ‘conscious achievement.’
On the other side, the reductive function of a dream often occurs when a person attempts to climb well beyond his or her natural level. Jung applied this sort of dream to those who, “have not grown inwardly to the level of [their] outward eminence.”
This reductive function can often be destructive in nature. I can’t help thinking of childhood stars who achieve a mountain of success without achieving the inward maturity to handle it, and often wide up ruined later in life. Dreams of this sort are more or less a warning that one should back down from a false elevation and humble oneself. If the person resists the work of the psyche to self-regulate in this manner the result can be a full-blown psychosis (Jung used the example of king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel, a warning dream that the king was headed for destruction, which in fact did result in a real psychosis).
There you have it, the most basic of the basics of Jungian dream analysis.
I have hesitated for months to write anything on dreams for the simple reason that some readers might attempt to apply elements of dream analysis to themselves or others and be wildly misdirected due to lack of knowledge and experience. However, writing on this foundational element of Jungian dream analysis (the compensatory function) is, in my opinion, a safe starting place. It doesn’t lend itself to a false belief in one’s abilities to interpret dreams, but rather helps to settle certain misgivings that many people have about dreams.
I have encountered scores of people who treat their dreams with either total neglect or with undue fear (some even believing their dreams are the work of demonic activity, which I personally believe is possible, albeit very rare). Understanding that dreams are a work of one’s own psyche to self-regulate and boost wholeness of mind rescues dreams from both neglect and fears. The idea is that dreams are on your side, they’re not against you. They are working for your good, not your destruction. They are an opportunity for your psyche to use its full capacity to solve problems without your pesky and limited waking conscious getting in the way.
Thanks for reading.