The Art of Dream Interpretation

Jung was known to wipe his brow of sweat after arriving at a correct dream interpretation, the process being that taxing.

The first challenge is to move beyond the mind game of figuring it out, and to employ all aspects or functions of consciousness: feeling, sensation, intuition as well as thinking. So, while our associations to the dream imagery are important, it’s also crucial to “re-enter” the dreamscape and explore the bodily sensations, and emotional reactions that were experienced.

The dramatic structure of the dream, which often gets revealed in the emotional crescendo, is also important to consider. And these various aspects need to be evaluated in light of what has been happening (or as is often the case, not happening) in the dreamers life.

A correct dream interpretation often “clicks,” like a key unlocking a door, and the dreamer suddenly recognizes the fullness of the message being conveyed by psyche.

Start from not knowing…

Whenever a dream crosses my path, I’ve been taught to adopt an attitude that says “I have absolutely no idea what that dream means or is trying to say…but let’s play with it for awhile.”

Even a seemingly obvious dream often has a wrinkle to it that can easily get overlooked if we are prone to jump to conclusions. Approaching the dream with a playful attitude (and here I mean with that absolute seriousness that children bring to play along with the wonder that creates the ability to discover the unexpected) gets us past the tendency to simply think about the dream. We must accept the invitation to re-enter the dreamscape.

The ability to go back into the dream, to bring the experience back as we do with all vivid memories, is essential to really coming to terms with the message the dream is conveying. As difficult as the dream might be to understand, it is useful to consider that the dream is “the best possible expression of still unconscious facts.” (Samuels, A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, pg. 49.)


An important aspect of dream interpretation is the recognition of the compensatory aspect of the unconscious. If consciousness (or the cramp of consciousness) is too far in one direction, the dream images will act like ballast on a ship. Jung spent a great deal of effort distinguishing this from simple complimentary action, which if we think of the color wheel, would show red as the compliment of green.

Compensatory images can often show something that we sense as a problem, but magnify it too such a degree so that it is no longer easy to dismiss.


Another facet that needs to get touched on is the difference between responding to the dream with a stream of consciousness resulting in a series of associations that run off from the specific images of the dream, and the process of what Jung called amplification, whereby associations are explored, but related back to the dream in a looping gesture. We might think of amplification as unfolding the petals of a flower.

The important thing is not to lose the specific details of the dream, especially the odd ones, which do not seem to make sense. Often these details are the skeleton key that open the unexpected disclosures the dream presents.

Keep things open

It’s useful to proceed with a “given what I know now” or a “based on the work I’ve put into this dream” type attitude when formulating a dream interpretation. Often dreams clarify themselves much later, sometimes even decades later.

It’s good never to place too much on one dream, but to consider the dream series. The dialogue between consciousness and the unconscious that begins to develop over time, which Jung called the transcendent function, leads to the recognition that if our interpretation is way off the mark, a following dream will often point out the misstep.

So, an open minded attitude of wonder, that guards against dismissiveness, and that does not take shortcuts by tossing out the bothersome odd details that do not fit the working hypothesis, can all lead to some unexpected (and I do not use this word lightly) revelations.

“A dream never says ‘You ought’ or ‘This is the truth.’ It presents an image in much the same way as nature allows a plant to grow, and we must draw our own conclusions….To grasp its meaning, we must allow it to shape us….Then we understand the nature of the experience.” Jolande Jacobi, Complex/Archetype/Symbol, pg. 196.

…that’s why running to a dream dictionary seldom leads us to grasping the tail of the snake.

 “Jung repeatedly cautioned against the danger of over-rating the unconscious and warned that such a tendency impairs the power of conscious decision. In this regard, an exceptionally beautiful or numinous dream may have an unhealthy seductive attraction until one looks more closely at it. The dream and the dreamer are inextricably linked and the unconscious functions satisfactorily only when the attitude of the conscious ego is one of exploration and readiness for collaboration.” (from Samuels, A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, pg 49)

While it is important to stress the collective attitude of dismissiveness towards dreams, it is also important and appropriate to use caution with regards to over valuation.  It’s always a balance that delivers the right understanding.