Working with Childhood Dreams

Dreams locales
Dreamscape at White Cedar Swamp Trail, Cape Cod

A few years ago another of Jung’s many seminars was published in book form: Children’s Dream: Notes from a Seminar given in 1936-1940. The seminar focuses specifically on the emergence of childhood dream material in adult psychoanalytic process, not the working with children at the time they have the dream.

The repeated childhood dream of my youth has had a continuing impact on my process, and I was drawn to explore it here as last week, while hiking the White Cedar Swamp trail on Cape Cod, I again found myself entering into a feeling toned dreamscape that was so recognizable to me from that dream so long ago.  In fact, I can recall similar experiences in each of the last three decades, all related to that early dream.

In my experience it is quite common for adults and adolescents to have one dream that stands out from childhood, often a dream that was repeated many times.  Jung explains:

Childhood dreams still remembered by adults are not just any dreams, but have been preserved by memory because they completely contain human life in either longer or shorter periods.  When we have a cursory glance at such a dream, at first we do not understand why it has been remembered.  If we are able to trace it back, however, we can in most cases find clues as to why it has gained such importance.  If things have made a deep impression on us in childhood, we may assume that something highly important lies within what impressed us as such, or that a very important event happened in the neighborhood of what we kept in our memory, something which is meaningful for the whole later course of life. (Jung, Children’s Dreams, pg.136)

As I’ve worked with this childhood dream over the years, I’ve come to recognize how it was responding to the trauma of significant illness, how it contained yet simultaneously discharged the terror I was experiencing.  As Jung points out, I’ve come to see in this narrative a pattern of my entire life course, and in returning to it over and over again, it serves at a touchstone of my being.

Michael Whan clarifies the interesting dynamics at play when we work with our dreams in this way:

As remembering, in the context of the Seminar, comes from the time of adulthood, from where childhood dreams are recalled, Jung cautions us about the difficulties of interpretation: ‘This poses a difficulty as, in the case of remembered dreams, we can no longer ask the children themselves, but have to resort to other means in order to enrich the dream material and to understand the dream.’ His concern with the problem of memory nevertheless underpins all conscious work with dreams. For all dreams to which we bring our hermeneutic labours are remembered dreams. Wakeful consciousness, the daytime ego, must necessarily work with the memory of a dream; what, say, I recall as a dream from last night. Thus dream interpretation has to reckon with the difficulty of memory, that is to say, of time, timing, and human temporality. Implicit in Jung’s caution are at least two modes of temporality: oneiric time and that of biography. For Jung, these modes of time belong to different psychic ‘levels’. The dreams of early childhood ‘are dreamed out of the depth of the personality.’ The interpretation of remembered childhood (and all) dreams attempts to speak across the gulf, the difficulty, between these different temporal experiences: oneiric and biographical. The interpretation of dreams requires us to cultivate sensitivity to the connections and differences between these temporalities, between dream and interpretation.” Michael Whan

Can you locate any dreams that speak to you across this gulf, from the far recesses of childhood?

…if it looks you in the eye and you look back


So my first thought when I looked up from my pitchfork full of hay was, “I asked him to help me a few minutes ago, what is he doing?”  The second thought: “Man, that’s gonna itch.”  Then finally I broke free from the inner critic and saw what was before me with open eyes.

A boy at play, lost in his imagination, perhaps pursuing an Imperial tie fighter in a Star Wars battle.  More likely he was riding the back of a mythical creature.  The first words to came out of his mouth once the spell was broken were “you know, a basilisk can turn you to stone like the Medusa if it looks you in the eye and you look back.”  I could have asked, but I’ve come to respect the sanctity of the imaginal realm that he can so freely engage.

There’s certain positions and postures that seem a prerequisite to have a thought like that.  Kids know them all.  Kids know summer.

Are those rules or constraints?

Ben's Paper Sculpture

“Getting” gravity as a rule in our world is pretty useful for self preservation, especially when hiking near cliffs.  But as a parent, I keep reminding myself not to fall into the “that’s not how it’s done” trap.  A case in point:

Today my son created a three-dimensional sculpture with nothing but white copy paper and a stapler.  As I walked into the room I was really impressed with the result.  He proceeded to explain the challenge he had getting it to stand up by itself.  While listening to him I flashed back on a moment a week ago.

I returned home from my travels with a kaleidoscope kit.  When he came in to see me in the morning he was quite taken with the gift and before I roused myself for the day he had proceeded to assemble the kit in a rather unique fashion.  One of the mirrors was taped to the outside of the tube, and the visual functionality was reduced as a result.  He was very thrilled with his result and I caught myself before jumping into any criticism.

Looking at the sculpture today I intuitively recognized that criticism of the kaleidoscope would have prevented today’s exploration.  It’s so important to keep the critical voice out of the child’s world of play.  The imagination needs latitude, not attitude.

(don’t forget to check out the Archetypal Garage)