Dreams have fascinated humans for, well, ever. Since societies formed and people began trying to make sense of their world, they’ve been recording their innermost thoughts—through art, music, story, and religion—and drawing meaning from them, whether symbolically or literally.
Today, if one turns to dreams to unpack their mind, the primary theories for explanation come from Carl Jung: The Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology (the base for your therapist’s questions). Jung was a student of Freud, but he went his own way and developed theories on why we act and think the way we do that were based less on sex. He had a couple main points.
One, that you have two minds—the conscious and the unconscious—that have different effects and agendas, and which work best when they’re in communication. The conscious you control; it’s affected by your waking life, your experiences, people, culture, the perceptions you get and you want to give off. The unconscious you can’t control; it’s literally a mind of it’s own, developed even before you’re born as part of the “collective unconscious”—like your psychic ancestor, determined by history, your cultural roots, what happens in the womb. So stuff your deepest mind reacts to might be a result of evolutionary mental imagery—crazy, right? But the thing is, you can’t understand that unless you know the clues.
Two, the clues. Or, archetypes, as Jung called them. He postured that dreams (and life) are governed by these unconscious elements that appear and express themselves in images or motifs—like a mother, or a dark figure. These have appeared throughout history; every religion has a set of images and people (the archetypes are usually people) meant to represent a force, and help explain what’s going on when they appear. They manifest in all art forms, too, suggesting that these elements exist in all of us; we’re trained, unconsciously, to recognize them, though we don’t always.
Understanding how these two minds work—together, separate, and in tandem—can unlock your life. But most of us don’t study Jungian psychology (I certainly don’t—thanks, Google), and aren’t aware of these unconscious forces tugging us like puppet strings. So, for my and your enlightenment, I turned to Dr. Maxson McDowell, a senior Jungian analyst, former president on the C.G. Jung Foundation in New York, and a specialist in dream interpretation.
The following has been condensed and edited from two conversations, on 1/25 and 1/27, in Dr. McDowell’s office in New York.
Tell me a little about how you work—why pair dream interpretation with therapy?
Dr. McDowell: Dreams offer guideposts that show how a person can expand their understanding of themselves. They have an uncanny ability to communicate exactly what a person next needs to know about themselves. They seem to be very creatively aimed to help a person take their next step in the development of their consciousness. Everyone has a chance to mature, but this is maturation in a sense of getting in touch with one’s inner world. Creating more of a conversation between one’s conscious waking self and the knowledge that somehow exists in the unconscious.
And what role do dreams take?
Dreams facilitate a dialogue [between the two] because they come from the unconscious, and are designed to communicate with the conscious. And if we talk about them and think about them and try to understand them, and meditate on them, then the conscious begins to listen to the unconscious.
Dreaming is a very introverted process. But a lot of people study sleep empirically, for data. There seems to be a divide between the process of sleep, and the way we think about dreams. Why do you think they’ve become so disparate?
It’s a cultural direction and prejudice that we can optimize things and make the machine run more efficiently if we treat it right. Treating a human being in logical, mechanical terms, like a computer that walks and talks. It’s a fantasy, and fundamentally mistaken because we are not mechanisms. We are really dynamic systems, biologically and psychically, who are constantly creating themselves. A refrigerator is a mechanism built according to a blueprint. The fantasy is that genes are the blueprint and human beings are the machine. We organize ourselves. We are a conversation. There are no genes to describe human mental health and experience. Our mental ability rises out of a series of conversations that begins before birth and become more vigorous after birth, conversations with the mother, and then the exterior world. A human being is really an elaborate system of conversations. We stop the conversations, we’re dead.
So, to best serve yourself would be finding out what makes those mechanisms tick properly.
Those conversations, yes.
The body does have certain mechanisms—it behaves on a cellular level, in certain ways. But those are not the only ways to move through life.
But not only that, the way you move, what you eat, how you eat, how you exercise, how you live your physicality, whether you do yoga or dance or stretching, you learn you have to have a real conversation with your body to figure out what you can or can’t do. Physical health is a conversation, too.
It is! An interesting anecdote: I started doing yoga probably 4 years ago to work through some personal and physical issues. And at the end, in shavasana, I started having this actual conversation between my body and my mind. “Hey, can you take care of me, I’m worn out, maybe lay off drinking. How are you up there?” And my mind would say, “Oh, I’m okay, that one thing has me really stressed so let’s move away from it for a bit.” It seems like such a childlike exercise, but it was really constructive in helping me to work to synthesize the two.
Going to a doctor for X-rays and pills, that’s not a conversation. But yoga, that is. So that’s the problem with focusing on the mechanics of sleep. It’s like figuring out what’s the best oil to put in the motor car—it’s missing the point.
When you have a million things going on, it might be hard to slow down and “listen to your unconscious” in a busy, bombarded, tech-saturated life—socially or otherwise—which is common today. How do you work with them to get in touch with that inner self and slow things down?
There’s something intrinsic about the ritual of coming into this room, and sitting down, and quietly talking about what comes to mind. People ask, “How do I get the most of this time? It’s expensive.” But there’s no agenda. We’ll sit here and the unconscious will bring up something that occurs to you. And we’ll explore it in an unexpected way, a way neither one of us could have anticipated. Something is going to emerge—whatever needs to. But you have to find out what that is.
Oftentimes a dream addresses exactly what we need to think about, or what’s going on with us. If we think about it, then we’ll probably unlock this very profound insight. You have to take time, because your immediate, conscious guess as to what the dream is saying is likely to be defensive, in the sense that it’s a reaction from the conscious mind explaining the images in a way it’s comfortable with, the ways it thinks it knows what’s going on.
The ways we’re trained to make sense of images.
Yes. Whereas the dream is always telling us something we don’t know. So by definition if we think we know the answer, we’re wrong. And if the dream surprises us, challenges us, then it’s doing it’s job. It’s giving us something new.
Are people frustrated by that rejection of what they assume is true?
It depends how open they are. Some people really don’t want to be disturbed by their unconscious. They might bring the dream in but they don’t want to know too much about it. They’ll be more defensive. Those who are open-minded will learn something new.
It’s interesting to me that somebody would come here but also be afraid or not want to pursue what they learn here.
People have defenses, we all do. It can be a difficult situation. Pushing doesn’t do any good. I have to sit back and be careful about what I say—too much is counterproductive. You try to say something slight that they could pursue if they wanted to, but if not…
What are some of the interesting things that might come out of being open?
Here’s an example. I had a dream a long time ago, when I was in analysis, and learned something there that was really interesting, and I wanted to write a book about it. So I get really excited and then I had a dream that I was in a tropical rainforest, and it was being exploited for its wood. The trees were being cut down, sold for lumber. And what the dream meant to me, when I thought about it, was that it was an issue of timing. A tropical rainforest has been there a long time, the trees grow very slowly. If you come in there and cut them all down, all is lost. You’re violating the natural rhythm, and trying to extort it for your immediate use. The implication was that it wasn’t the right time to write a book. I should be immersing myself in what I was learning and allow it to slowly grow in me. That was my ego trying to make use of those “trees.” So that was a message to slow down.
When do you find people come in to see you most for dreams analysis? Life junctures, or when they have problems…
Mostly people come in because they’re in pain. Something’s not working for them. And that’s scary, because this [dream interpretation] is hard work. Oftentimes what people are frustrated with—be it their career or relationship or a creative work—is an opportunity to learn something unexpected. So there’s a wisdom in exploring that pain in order to help them to discover something different.
Sort of the way a wound swells or gets red to protect itself, that frustration is around whatever you’re trying to get at down deep.
Exactly. It’s literally the body trying to communicate as best it can that something needs to be understood differently.
There’s a site on the Internet for everything—especially on how to interpret dreams. What do you think the validity of those are, versus coming to see someone?
Any way you pay attention to dreams is constructive. Dreams message us from a wise place. So the more attention and reverence you give them, the better. Whatever you do is better than ignoring them. Something that gives you interpretations of a symbol has usefulness—but you always have to think of the personal context, because meanings change drastically.
If someone doesn’t have the money to go see a dreams analyst, what are small constructive ways they could do this themselves? Other than, or in addition to, perhaps recording their dreams in a journal?
People have always studied dreams and thought about their meaning. Every culture comes up with different ways of being in touch. The important thing is to have an attitude of reverence to what’s inside, and the symbols. Symbols [in dreams] are akin to religious icons; they’re pregnant with meaning. If you paint it, or draw it, or write a description of it, and pin that up on the wall and look at it every day, that would be a very constructive way to unlock it. Because the symbol has come to you to speak to you and if you give it a chance by giving it form, it will have a chance to talk to you. That’s why in Hindu religion they have little shrines, so the figures can speak as you’re looking at them.
Do you think images have a stronger impact than a phrase?
Sometimes a phrase jumps out at you and is instantly powerful. But dreams tend to be in images, mostly. And images by their very nature, lend more and symbolically can bring in associated meanings. They’re subjective. Phrases trend to be exact. Though not always, as in poetry.
Do you find a connection between poetry and the image interpretation of dreams?
Yes. Interpreting dreams is a bit like interpreting poems. In the sense that they have to be partially subjective. It has to be—if you want to do a rigorous job of interpreting a dream—you have to follow sort of rigorous objective procedures, but also look at it subjectively, for you. You have to combine the two. It’s a bit like writing a poem: Putting your own ideas into the sonnet form or what have you.
I want to talk about the process of teaching yourself to remember dreams. I don’t dream often—I do have them, so the ones I do have, I remember, because they’re infrequent. So if you want to have them more, and remember them, what would you do?
Get yourself a nice notebook, put it beside your bed with a pen. As soon as you wake up, try to write down as many things as you can. Then maybe later, try to write more, if more emerge as you’re awake. If you make that gesture to the unconscious of buying the notebook and putting it beside the bed, it’s like a promise. So if you keep trying, writing, remembering, it will respond. That gets you started.
Then, try to describe it alter to give the dream more attention. Do whatever else you can—draw a picture. You don’t have to be an artist, it requires no ability. It’s just to get down some colors, shapes, to try to represent what it sent you. Then, meaning will start to come.
It’s interesting to think that the unconscious would listen to cues like that. That if you give it attention, it responds.
The more positive you energy and attitude towards the unconscious, the more it will communicate with you. If you’re very walled off, then the unconscious won’t even approach you, or will with violent images. If you’re open, you’ll get images that are more subtle. It’s not mystical.
People say memory is a muscle. Would you say the dreaming ability is like that, where you need to exercise it?
Well, dreaming just happens. You just may not have any memory of it. It’s like a prayer—that’s what prayers are, a call to the unconscious. So saying, “Please, I value dreams, I want to listen to you,” and then you write it down, think about it… it’s like trying to establish a relationship, so you have to be nice to the other side. Talk to it, invite it in. You’re trying to find a way through your defenses.
So, after all this talk, I wonder: If you do start to pair your conscious and unconscious mind, you’ve done the work and they’ve started to communicate, what does that really mean for you?
Good question. It has to do with the limitation of the consciousness.
McDowell explains that,we’re born with knowledge and we acquire it at a young age, but we don’t remember anything that came before the age of 2, and little before the age of 4.
But it’s still somehow recorded in your being. It forms us. You have experiences and feelings, attitudes and fear, joys, loves, hates, that are recorded somewhere in your brain but not in your consciousness. But they influence you, for the rest of your life. Getting access to those parts of your memory which aren’t normally accessible frees you up a lot, because if something very negative happened to you when you were 2 but you have no memory of it, then you have no way to reconsider your attitudes. Your attitudes might be people aren’t safe, I shouldn’t trust them, they’re going to hurt me, I’ll be terribly betrayed if I get close to somebody—all because of what happened then. So the rest of our life you behave as if that’s the deal, and you even set it up so that you do get betrayed and abandoned in relationships.
One used to feel that one’s psychology was one’s destiny, like a Greek tragedy. You had to live it out, even if you didn’t know you were living it. So if you can gain access to that and think about it—think, “okay, that happened now, but I’m aware of it, and maybe you can allow myself to feel the pain but I don’t have to keep living it. It doesn’t have to happen now. I can choose someone who won’t abandon me, I can have a completely different experience. Now, that new experience may make me very anxious because inside I don’t believe that it’s real or possible, but when I feel those feelings of anxiety, I’m in touch enough with where they come from so i can feel them but not be controlled by them.
It all comes down to conversation. When people talk about things, they understand things they didn’t know. That works.
So if memory affects how we move through the world, and dreams comes from memory, do dreams affect who we are as a person? At our core selves?
When people are being controlled by something that has a powerful effect on them but that they’re unconscious of, they get stuck. They just repeat themselves again. It might be avoiding relationships, or career success—they’re talented, but they can’t get a job. They get a graduate degree but then don’t turn in the final paper and don’t graduate, or they take jobs and get fired. Their life doesn’t continue to expand. It’s constrained and limited. They tend to get bored with life, because it just keeps happening the same way; they tend to be less successful because they can’t move beyond a certain point. Frustrated or unhappy, they may turn to certain cigarettes, alcohol, sex, etc to relieve the stress. So if you can unlock those blocks, a person can continue to grow.
And they feel frustrated with who they are as a person—like something is wrong with them.
Absolutely. They feel defeated, lonely, bad about themselves, they get sick. Organic illness comes from that. It’s like having your foot on the brake and accelerator at the same time—you don’t go anywhere but you wear out the engine.
Exploring whatever it is that makes you stuck allows you to be that person you weren’t aware you could be.
Right. And continue to change. The key really to an enjoyable life is to keep changing. It’s not about money or living in Bermuda. When you get out of bed in the morning, [life] is interesting, because you’re doing something new, a challenge, an experience to explore.
Are you of the belief that all change is positive even if the immediate experience is negative? As in, we may benefit from an experience or change no matter what because of what we learn from it?
Well, some lessons can be very painful and damaging. But if you can really process the experience and deepen it, it can help. That’s why we talk. Talk is magic. If a husband and wife can talk to each other, children can talk to their parents, if you can talk to your friends about serious stuff, not just the superficial, or a therapist even, about what’s going on, that means things can be fluid.
And you can start to heal.
Yes. That’s why the strong silent John Wayne image is so unhelpful. It looks good on a movie screen but it’s a terrible model.
What do you gain from this work?
Psychology is all about relationships—with the mother and father, abilities, career. But in addition to your experience with the outside world there is also an experience with an inside world. There are sources which generate characters and images, which appear to people of all different cultures and races. They were appearing to people 5000 years ago. And these have universal meaning.
These are the archetypes?
Yes, or rather the visual image that represents that ultimate source. For example: There’s a characteristic image in Western society of the knight’s quest. Romantic Arthurian legend of the knight, who rescues maidens and defeats robbers and comes back after his adventure to tell his story. That’s a very characteristic image. But in modern days people don’t ride horses, so they dream about riding a bicycle. If they do, they’re likely going off on a quest. The reason for a bicycle is because it’s a solitary vehicle steered just by you—as is a horse. If you go off on a bus or train, it’s a collective journey with other people—you’re going with the collective mind.
That quest represents a journey into the unconscious to discover something of importance which one can then bring back into consciousness, to enlighten.
And that can be anything? Relative to the person?
It often represents an encounter with archetypes. Any of them. It depends which is important to you.
To bring back an example, if your mother has died when you’re young and you don’t relate to people very well, and you meet a woman in a dream quest, you can use that to maybe bring yourself closer to people. Or an archetypal mother figure that has all nurturing possibilities in it, showing you need that. But the archetypal figure can have negative qualities, too, in a subtle way. So if you bring that experience back and use it in relationships—because we don’t just relate to an archetype, we relate to it in the form of a person. So when you fall in love with someone, there’s a chance they represent an archetype. If you can disentangle that, you can be enriched by that.
How do you trust those images, and know they’re going to be positive? Are they always positive?
They contain the potential for both positivity and negativity. It depends on how you relate. The more conscious you can be of the relationship and of the archetype, the more it can be constructive. If the archetype is operating within you, strongly but unconsciously, it is liable to be destructive. because it’s just doing it’s own thing, and you’re not exercising any judgements. or able to assume your conscious needs.
Like a pinball machine of feelings going around.
You can go any way. You can get involved with someone who is very bad for you because they evoke that archetype and are negatively attractive.
Perpetuating those negative feelings of fear?
Or any other experience. Girls, for example, go through a phase when they’re attracted to a dark figure: A drug-addicted rock musician, or a biker, some “bad” person. That’s the archetype. If you can learn something from it, it could be life-enhancing. But if you marry it, well, it could be trouble.
How do you teach yourself to pull out the positive of what you see and experience in your dreams?
There’s no rule of thumb. You want to understand what the person—it’s usually a person—represents. If you find someone magnetically attractive, it’s a good idea to think to yourself that you like them but there’s other stuff going on and you should do your damndest to try to understand that. To explore that relationship. I’m going to have all kinds of projections onto him or her, and they’re going to have all kinds of projections onto me. Because just as I am having my archetype experience with them, they’re having an archetype experience with me. So if the two of us can disentangle that and become aware of that, it can be a good thing.
You have to ask the question: Who does he archetype serve? If you want a rule of thumb, it’s that.
Thinking about if it serves a continuation of potentially negative behavior versus betterment, or potentially unhelpful desires versus real needs?
I wish it were so easy to know what’s positive and negative. Sometimes the negative is exactly what you need to grow. Rather I would say, what is it trying to teach me?
I ask how much of this comes from this ancient, collective unconscious, and how much is affected by everything around us—technology, for example. McDowell explains that the unconscious compensates for conscious decisions, which are narrow and affected by current prejudices, and miss a lot of deep stuff because it’s so preoccupied.
The conscious is something we and the culture are creating of our world. Just as 500 years ago, the Catholic Church created much of the conscious world—they told you what to think and read and everything. It’s a different mythology. Now, Steve Jobs is the Pope. The subconscious, which is in possession of the whole nine yards of wisdom, is always trying to compensate for whatever the conscious is missing. In the sense that consciousness now has been pushed over in one direction, towards technology, or whatever is current, the unconscious is pulling back to something more ancient.
Sort of a checks and balances situation
To try to alert the person to what’s missing. So, let’s say you meet a guy, he’s conventionally perfect, you want to marry him, and you dream that he’s a robber. Your dream is trying to tell you that there’s a dark side. Don’t be too one-sided. If you believe in technology then you might dream of plowing a field. There’s always a compensation. Like how fairytales were a compensation for Christianity. The originals were not Disney. They dealt with sexuality, evil, death, a lot of ugly shit. Whatever was suppressed or left out by the church.
So if you want to better serve your conscious, you want to make sure you’re paying attention to that check.
All religious systems they all function to bring the archetype forward. They all represent an attempt to reconcile the material world with the spiritual world.
Do you think that connection between the material and the spiritual is something we find important because of that inner dynamic? That we are constantly seeking to merge them?
Does it manifest in other ways than religion?
Beauty, art. Art gives you a window into the unconscious. Experiences of beauty, going out into the natural world. That’s why we have such strong feelings, usually, about trying to preserve the natural world. It’s a natural part of ourselves. Love—falling in love is a very irrational thing that tries to compensate for the rational daily life.
Not only is it irrational, but it feels pure.
Until you get to the complications, hah! But yes, the feeling is pure.
For more on Carl Jung, dreams analysis, or to take a class or schedule a therapy session with Dr. McDowell, visit his website.
Dr. Maxson McDowell has been in private practice as a Jungian analyst in New York City for 27 years. He is a faculty member, board member, and past-President of the C. G. Jung Foundation in New York. He has been a tenured college professor in biology, done experimental research in molecular biology at the University of Otago, Duke University, M.I.T., and the Medical Research Council Laboratories in Cambridge, England.
Mickie Meinhardt is a multidisciplinary writer of fiction, non-fiction, and copy, and the editor in chief of this publication. She publishes a weekly longform cultural newsletter, The Interwebs Weekly, and is an MFA candidate at The New School. She lives in Brooklynin real life and @mickiemyheart on the Internet.