Dreams, Art, and the Unconscious: A Jungian Perspective

Dreams, Art, and the Unconscious: A Jungian Perspective

I wrote the following for the Jung Society of Utah blog.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

– C.G. Jung

Carl Jung saw both dreams and art (including paintings and poetry) as expressions of the unconscious. Of dreams he wrote, “The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to that primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was conscious ego and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach.”

In art, as in dreaming, the unconscious is often activated. In Jung’s essay, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry,” he wrote of certain creative works in which “we are dealing with an event originating in the unconscious nature; with something that achieves its aim without the assistance of human consciousness, and often defies it by willfully insisting on its own form and effect.” Similar to dreams, this type of art contains “something supra-personal that transcends our understanding to the same degree that the author’s consciousness was in abeyance during the process of creation.”1

A dream or a creative work may serve as “a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious.”2 How then can we use dreams and art to make the unconscious conscious?

Personal and collective unconscious

Jung was known for working with the dreams of his patients, but “he also encouraged his patients to paint and interpreted the paintings in certain of his articles.”2 Jung himself made a practice of drawing mandalas, believing them to be archetypal forms representing the Self. He also created the images in The Red Book.

An image from The Red Book.

Finding psychological value in creativity, Jung “placed emphasis on both process and product.”2 He believed that creating art helped mediate between the patient and their problem, allowing the person distance from their psychic condition.2 Dreams and dream work can often provide a similar perspective, serving a compensatory function that helps integrate unconscious contents.

This mediation between the conscious and unconscious often occurs at the level of the personal unconscious, where both dream work and art work can assist individuals in working through their complexes. At this subjective level, one’s interpretation of a dream or creative work is often filtered through these “core patterns of emotions, memories, perceptions, and wishes organized around a common theme.” Becoming aware of and addressing these patterns within the personal unconscious through interacting with a dream or creative work can lead one to greater wholeness.

“What is essential in a work of art is that it should rise far above the realm of personal life and speak to the spirit and heart of the poet as man to the spirit and heart of mankind.” – C.G. Jung

However, working with dreams and art can reach a deeper level of the psyche. Jung “saw dreams as having the structure of a story or play.” He noted “many parallels between dreams and myths, and said they sometimes used the same symbols to express their themes.” This archetypal content that Jung noticed in dreams is often expressed in creative works as well. He wrote, “The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”1 In accessing this archetypal content, whether through dream work or creative work, one may be able to align with a source of transpersonal understanding that exists outside of ego-consciousness.

A vast sea of meaning

The great Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Poetry is like the boat and its meaning is like the sea.” What Rumi seems to allude to is the idea that a creative work is a world unto itself, and hints at the notion of multiple levels of meaning. The same could be said of dreams.

The actual narrative structure of the dream or text of the poem is the boat, afloat on a vast sea of possible meanings. Such meanings could include one’s personal interpretation of the dream or creative work, a friend’s interpretation of it, and an objective, archetypal interpretation. Each level of meaning is present, available for discovery based on how one interacts with the world of the dream or the creative work. This one reason why there is value in discussing dreams and art with other people—multiple perspectives on the same textual content can shed light on the different levels of meaning, providing a larger, more colorful view of the world that exists within the dream or creative work.

“Poetry is like the boat and its meaning is like the sea.” – Rumi

Working with one’s own personal unconscious or the collective unconscious through interacting with dreams and art provides an opportunity for growth and learning by “making the unconscious conscious.” All levels of meaning, whether personal or archetypal are valuable and have a place within that vast ocean, which is as wide and deep as one’s curiosity and imagination allows.

Works cited

  1. On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry. C.G. Jung.
  2. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter, Fred Plaut.

 

Capturing the Wind: Aligning with the Archetypal Through Dreams

It was a pleasure to interview Dr. Michael Conforti of the Assisi Institute about his approach to dreamwork for the Jung Platform blog.

 

How can we best understand what our dreams are communicating to us?

According to Dr. Michael Conforti, dream images have an existence autonomous of how we think or feel about them. However, most of modern dreamwork has become very subjective. “People confuse the reaction that the dreamer is having with the message of the dream,” he said. “Psyche is telling a story in a certain way. Let’s get beyond what we think and feel.”

Michael Conforti
Jung Platform is pleased to present a free webinar and a four week course on dreams and dreamwork with Michael Conforti.

To illustrate, he provided the hypothetical example of two therapy clients who dreamed of sailboats. The first client associated sailboats with a romantic vacation in the Greek islands. The second associated sailboats with the loss of multiple family members in a boating accident.“The first interpretation is about passion and sexuality,” Conforti said, explaining that a therapist who is working with this dream might ask the client where they need more eros in their life. In working with the second client, the therapist might ask what is happening in their life related to tragedy.

However, “a sailboat is something unto itself,” Conforti said. “It travels by virtue of the sails, which capture the wind. The wind is the numinous. All that gets lost when you cover it up by the tragedy or the love and the passion. The powerful message of the dream gets lost under those conditions. Subjectivity is often diametrically opposed to the objective and archetypal.”

sailboat
A sailboat is an archetypal image with an existence autonomous of how one thinks or feels about it.

“Jung really built on the shoulders of giants before him—the spiritual teachers, the mystics, the sages and the dreamers from the beginning of time—and they knew there was something sacred about the dream,” Conforti said. “They knew the dream was coming from someplace that was beyond what we think about in ordinary consciousness, that supersedes it. They took the images and said, ‘This image is powerful. The dream is trying to awaken us to something we don’t know about.’”

Jung and the early Jungians studied the symbols and images that are often seen in dreams, myths, and fairytales, and found within them “themes of humanity and journeys through life,” Conforti said. “All these stories talk about the portals we cross in different stages of life. These are archetypal situations that have been with humanity from the beginning and are not to be muted by individual bias. But when we take an image and we say, ‘Well, what does it mean to you?’ the absolute autonomy of the image is lost.”

fairy tale
Dreams often contain the same images and symbols seen in myths and fairy tales.

From the subjective to the archetypal

“The response evoked by a dream is often more about our own complexes than about the dream image itself,” Conforti said.“Ninety percent of what we typically do is filtering a dream through a complex and we miss the beautiful meaning of it.” So when working with dream images, Conforti starts with the subjective level, assessing the dreamer’s reaction to the dream.“You have to work through the emotion,” he said. “You’ve dealt with the complex but not the dream.”

However, once the emotions and complexes surrounding the dream have been addressed, it may allow the dreamer access to something deeper that is helping to direct their individuation. “The beauty of this work is to help people see their complexes and then to align with the archetypal,” Conforti said. “When one is able to push aside their own rendering or feeling for a moment and approach the dream, it is the beginning of ushering in their spirituality; of being affected by something bigger than them. But it is a difficult journey from the subjective to the universal.”

Marie-Louise von Franz
“Dreams are like letters from God. Isn’t it time you opened your mail?” – Marie-Louise von Franz

Going back to the image of the sailboat, Conforti spoke of how the wind moves it across the water. “The wind since Biblical times is the Spirit, which moves us through life. When you work with the wind, you have to learn how to capture the wind, to move with the shifting winds, and how to steer, but the wind is guiding you,” he said.“The sailboat is a vessel to cross the collective unconscious. But when you put it into the sausage grinder of ‘what this means to me,’ you lose all of that.”

So in understanding and aligning with the archetypal meaning of dream images, we align with the natural order of life. In doing so, we begin to capture and work with the wind, allowing the Self to guide us toward our destiny.

 

Dr. Michael Conforti will present a four week course on these ideas beginning January 26th. Get your 10% discount by signing up before Jan 8th Enroll here.

Jung Platform is also pleased to present a free webinar on dreams with Michael Conforti on January 12th. Free sign up here.