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.

Audio version of this post:


Dreams in Jazz

dreams in creative process  dreams in creative process

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”48″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I[/mks_dropcap] first became interested the role of dreaming in jazz when I read that Pat Metheny’s composition ‘Sueño con Mexico’ was written out of a dream. Since then I have been keeping an ear out for any overlapping of my favorite music with conscious attention paid to unconscious dynamics.

Two prominent American jazz players, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and pianist Brad Mahldau, both explicitly reference dreams as the creative impetus in their work.

Of his work on the album, and specifically the song ‘Star of Jupiter,’ Rosenwinkle shares:

“The ‘Star of Jupiter’ was given to me as a key to transcend the cycles of form, illusion and fear which exist on this earthly plane of existence. The dream was powerful and continued into real life.  It became a tangible force in the making of this album.

All the world around me dissolves and falls downwards into streaming lines of color and texture while a voice rings out, ‘Everything is True.’ Someone hands me the Star of Jupiter and we ascend to the celestial heavens, where a golden-winged lion guards an infinite number of thrones and the greatest peace pervades all.” (WOM Music– See Biography Tab)

In a review his latest release and the title track ‘Taming the Dragon’,  we learn of Brad Mehldau’s dream:

The use of sampled voices and stories (narrated by Mehldau himself in a delightfully dry tone) serve to enhance the mysterious atmosphere. The opening title track begins with Mehldau describing a ‘trippy dream’ in which he is driven around by a dude resembling a cross between Dennis Hopper and Joe Walsh. A road rage incident sparks a moment of amateur psychoanalysis as Mehldau considers the competing voices of anger and moderation ‘vying for your attention’. The music veers between awkward, skittering chatter and a full, freewheeling charge. (MusicOMH

Though a video of that track is not available, the track ‘Hungry Ghost’ provides a good example of the music from the project:

As an analyst who works with unconscious material directly in each session, I find listening to these works uplifting and inspiring. They provide an opportunity to  enjoy gifts forged in the crucible of the creative process and give a glimpse of a culminating part of process that seldom enters the consulting room.

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?