Dreaming the Myth Onward: Jungian Neo-Paganism
Carl Jung's ideas have been influencing the development of Neo-Paganism from its inception in the 1960s and 1970s. But what if Jung's ideas have been misunderstood by many Pagans: literalized on the one hand and oversimplified on the other? What fresh insights can a Jungian Neo-Paganism contribute to Pagan discourse and practice today? And might Jungianism serve as a bridge between the earth-centered and deity-centered Pagan communities?
"Jacob's Ladder" by William Blake
In my last post, I discussed dreamwork as a form of Jungian Pagan spiritual practice. In this post, I want to offer some practical advice for turning dreaming into a spiritual practice. The following comes from Anthony Stevens' Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming and Robert Johnson's Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Inner Growth.
1. Remembering Your Dreams
First, know that everyone dreams. Second, know that dream amnesia is the general rule. Third, if you don't remember your dreams, kritnow that you can.
Set a definite intention to remember your dreams. Get into the habit of thinking about your dreams as you fall asleep and first thing when you wake up in the morning. Repeat to yourself every night, "I will dream tonight and I will remember my dream in the morning."
When you wake up, don't move. Just lie still with your eyes shut and try to recollect your dream. If you cannot, then think about the last thing you were thinking. Then try to remember the thing before that. And so on, until you remember your dream. As you remember part of your dream, other parts will come back to you.
2. Recording Your Dreams
Choose a special notebook, but nothing so special or expensive that you have reservations about writing seemingly meaningless thoughts in it. If you want, keep two sets of dream journals, one for the work in progress and another for a more polished version. (Jung did this with his Black Books and Red Book.) Keep the journal with a pen next to your bed, so you do not have to move much to recover it after waking. Keep a book light or lighted pen near your bed as well, so you don't have to get up to turn on the light. Using a handheld voice recorder is an option too.
Write down what you remember, no matter how fragmentary. Record as many details as possible. In addition to the characters and the action, remember to describe the place. Make note of any objects. Note numbers, colors, and patterns. Also make note of the emotions, the mood, or the general atmosphere of the dream.
It may be helpful to give your dreams names or titles, to help your recall of them later.
3. Association and Amplification
This is a stage before interpretation. After you have recorded the dream in as much detail as possible, go back to what you have written and see what other associations the dream images spontaneously evoke. The process of association is itself a way of connecting with the unconscious. (Jung's earliest studies were not on dreams, but on word associations.) The unconscious is a web of meanings that are related allegorically or poetically rather than logically. Record all associations; don't discriminate. But do take note of which associations feel more meaningful. Meaningful associations are those that "click" or that are charged with emotional "energy" (positive or negative). After each association, return to the image from the dream. Do not build associations upon associations in an chain.
The meaning of the dream can also be "amplified" by relating it to symbols from art, literature, or ancient myth. Many Pagans, who are already familiar with ancient mythology, will be very comfortable with amplification. Myths are the collective "dreams" of humankind. Amplification, then, is like association, but on a collective level. Amplification is intended to expand the symbolic context of the dream. It can act as confirmation of associations you have already made, or it can lead you to new associations. But you should remember that it is your dream, and encyclopedias of mythology should not be treated as dictionaries for understanding your dreams. Rather, you should take note of those associations from myth and art that feel most meaningful to you, those that "click" or are charged with emotional energy.
Jung wrote in Man and His Symbols:
"[I]t is plain foolishness to believe in ready-made systematic guides to dream interpretation, as if one could simply buy a reference book and look up a particular symbol. No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it [...] It is true that there are dreams and single symbols (I should prefer to call them "motifs") that are typical and often occur. Among such motifs are falling, flying, [...] But I must stress again that these are motifs that must be considered in the context of the dream itself, not as self-explanatory ciphers."
First of all, know that there is no right or correct interpretation. Interpretation of a dream should be more like having a conversation with someone, rather than dissecting something. Interpretations should arise naturally from the dialogue with the dream image, not from imposing a meaning onto the image from without. Be humble before the dream images. Listen to them. Ask yourself, "What are you trying to teach me with this image?" Try saying those words aloud. Be patient. The answer may grow over time, rather than appearing like a flash. Learn to tolerate, even cultivate, the ambiguous nature of the symbols. Write down your developing interpretation as you go.
Second, beware of interpretations which are flattering to your ego, shift responsibility away from yourself, or which do not demand any change from you. Sharing the dream with a therapist or trusted friend who is willing to offer a critical voice may help you avoid this trap. Chose the interpretation that reveals something that you did not know before. It's good to assume that your dream intends to challenge you.
Third, the elements in the dream may represent people or things in your life, but more often they represent aspects of yourself or inner life-principles. Even if a person in your dream corresponds to someone in your waking life, consider the possibility that the dream person also represents an aspect of your own psyche. Indeed, Jung wrote that "[o]ne should never forget that one dreams in the first place, and almost to the exclusion of all else, of oneself." (CW 10, P 321). For example, a dream in which my father speaks to me might be a dream about my actual father, but more likely it is about the judgmental part of myself, if my father was judgmental for example. It may be helpful to give a title or a personal name to the figure in your dream.
Every dream image needs to be connected with a part of your inner self. Ask yourself, "What part of me is that?" An image may correspond to an inner personality (complex), an inner "place", or an inner event, like a feeling or a mood. Jung believed that animals in our dreams often represented the most primal or instinctual parts of ourselves. Try to be as specific as possible when connecting dream images to parts of yourself. It's not enough to identify dream images with Jungian archetypes, like the Anima or Great Mother. Ask yourself what that archetype is doing in your day life.
Finally, choose the interpretation which has the most meaning or significance for your self-understanding and for your life. Jung believed that most dreams, in one way or another, are about our inner journey toward wholeness. They represent either the effort of the psyche to integrate some part of our unconscious with our consciousness, or else the resistance of the consciousness to this integration.
The process does not end with interpretation or insight. The interpretation of the dream must be translated into waking life, incarnated or concretized. This can be done practically, as in a change of behavior or in how you interact with other people. But it can also be done symbolically. For example, a dream may be expressed artistically, by illustrating or painting the dream, or working its symbols into clay or other media. It can also be done through ritual. Whatever you do, it is best if you do something physical with your body, so you can feel the dream in your muscles and your bones.
Ritual can be used to integrate your dream into your waking life. I have written about ritual previously here. Translation of a dream into ritual form requires using your imagination to create your own custom-made ritual. Anthony Stevens writes:
"If dreams are symbolic dramas unconsciously created, then rituals are symbolic acts consciously performed. A ritual turns something inner and psychic [psychological] into something outer and substantive, enhancing its impact on consciousness."
Rituals do not need to be big elaborate affairs. Ritual is any symbolic act which is performed with a heightened consciousness, often accompanied by a sense of reverence. Simple rituals are best in most cases. If you can't think of anything, then light a candle.
You can also use active imagination to enhance your dreamwork. I have written about active imagination previously here. Active imagination is like lucid dreaming (dreaming in which you are aware you are dreaming), but in the case of active imagination you are awake. Unlike guided meditation, you let the images arise and transform on their own. But unlike simple fantasy, you consciously engage the images, even dialogue with them, as if they have an autonomous existence. Active imagination can be used to enhance dreamwork by summoning up the image of a person or other thing from a recent dream to dialogue with.
Unless you are working toward being a Jungian analyst or are yourself in analysis, you probably will not have the time to go through this entire process every day for every dream. As a practical matter, we have to be selective about our dreams. Certain dreams are more meaningful than others. These dreams feel qualitatively different than other dreams. Jung called these "big dreams". "Big dreams" are accompanied by a feeling of "numinosity", a term which means an experience of a deep emotional resonance usually accompanied by a sense of "otherness". Thus, "big dreams" feel like messages from somewhere outside of us. One might say that we do not dream "big dreams"; they dream us.
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