Perchance to Dream

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

As Hamlet wrestles with suicidal ideation, he offers a profound insight into the role dreams play in life, if not as he ponders, in death.  We find in Hamlet a picture of the withdrawing type, struggling with tendencies to avoid and retreat into reveries which, given the gifted quality of his mind, tend to draw the audience/reader right along with him.  For Hamlet, the rub comes with his keen awareness that dreams seem uniquely designed to prevent us from escaping the problems that plague us, especially with their capacity to stir our emotions.

The Compensatory Function of Dreams

Carl Jung has defined this as the compensatory function of the dream ((Jung also teaches that dreams can also be prospective, speaking about future possibilities, though this tends to be less common than the compensatory function)),  a natural self-regulatory aspect of unconscious processes that balance out the often one-sided position of the conscious ego. As those engaged in a psychoanalytic process can attest, a dream series can be relentless in the attempt to make a point, continually adjusting the imagery around a core issue in an attempt to bring about an adjustment in the conscious attitude.  In this way, the unconscious demonstrates a patient determination to work through the communication challenges inherent in the dream work. Jung notes:

“It is characteristic that a dream never expresses itself in a logically abstract way, but always in the language of a parable or simile. This peculiarity is also is also a characteristic feature of primitive languages….Just as the body bears traces of its phylogenetic development, so also does the human mind. Hence there is nothing surprising about the possibility that the figurative language of dreams is a survival from an archaic mode of thought.” Carl Jung, CW VIII, par. 474

The difficulty discerning the relevance of the dream tends to feed our defenses against the unconscious.  The prevailing collective attitude toward dreams is dismissiveness.  “It’s nothing but a dream,” or “What a crazy dream,” both reveal a defense that allows the dreamer to discredit what the unconscious position is presenting.  But we do so at our own peril.  To dismiss the natural compensatory function of the dream would be analogous of refusing to sweat when overheated.  [inlinetweet prefix=”Perchance to Dream:” tweeter=”” suffix=”via @_richardreeve”]As the alchemists taught, the gold is to be found in the dung heap.[/inlinetweet]

A huge shift occurs in process when the compensatory function of the unconscious begins to be trusted.  Then integration of unconscious contents starts to expand the horizons of the conscious position.  The dreams often reflect this by presenting experiences that are new, novel and unlike anything the dreamer has experienced in dreams before.  It is also often accompanied by an increase in energy (libido).

The integration brings forth a new relationship to reality, forged through the dialogue between the unconscious and the conscious ego.  The dream becomes the transactional currency for a collaborative dialogue between these poles in the personality , just as each psychoanalytical session creates the same dynamic between the analyst and the client.  Circling back to Hamlet, we’ve ended up in a place where the “rub” has been reframed as the “gift,” a dynamic developmental attainment which Jung called the establishment of the transcendent function.

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Author: Richard Reeve

I'm the Senior Director of Development at Panthera, a global conservation organization committed to stemming the population decline of cats in the wild. I enjoy rural living with my wife Judith and our two children in the Catskill Mountains of New York.