A friend of mine and I were talking some time ago when the question of the meaning of dreams came up. I told him that I was trying to record my dreams each night and was sending them by e-mail to my psychotherapist, Brian Stevenson, who is that increasingly rare bird, a Jungian therapist who is also a psychiatrist. My friend was curious about this process, but sceptical about the possibility of finding anything truly meaningful in dreams. "If you want my opinion," he said frankly," I don't think dreams are anything more than random firings of neurones in the brain." I was about to point out that whether that neuronal activity was random or not, the dream itself could still be significant to the dreamer. But he beat me to the punch. "I did have this one interesting dream, though," he admitted. He then related a long, complex dream that conflated the identities of two of his former girlfriends, which seemed to reveal something about what he always experienced in his relationships with women. For that dream, at least, my friend was willing to concede that something significant did somehow arise out of dreaming which might have been expected to undermine his sweeping generalisation about the meaninglessness of dreams. But what of all the apparently random, nonsensical, half-remembered or completely forgotten stuff that churns away every night without the volition or even interest of the dreamer? Surely such stuff can be dismissed as mere neuronal activity, as empty of meaning as the growth of toenails.
But this is to confuse the phenomenal nature of dreams with the neurological basis for them. Dreaming is a natural, biological activity which is essential for the healthy functioning of the brain. To be deprived of it is a sure way to induce psychosis. But quite apart from helping the brain maintain equilibrium, dreaming has a more personal, psychological function that is unique to every dreamer. That is to say that though dreams perform vital functions for both the brain and the psyche, it would be a mistake to confuse those two functions, even though they are intimately related. Every night we dream out of biological necessity. More rarely, we have memorable dreams such as my friend had, which are striking for their personal significance. So does this mean that only memorable, personally significant dreams have psychological importance? Of course not. For dreams are laden with signifiers drawn from the waking experience of the dreamer which possess a potential for becoming meaningful even if they are ignored or forgotten. Dreams arise from an autonomous activity of the imagination as well as from a particular neuronal activity of the brain. They are richly endowed products of consciousness even if we ignore their potential for meaning. Our dreams speak, even if we don't bother to listen.
But calling dreams products of consciousness may be misleading, particularly if we assume that consciousness must be intentional and self aware. Of necessity, then, we need to regard dreams as products of a dynamic unconscious--that is to say of non-intentional and self unaware consciousness--to appreciate what they are and how they function in the mind of the dreamer. This is a point I am careful to emphasise to clients whenever we look at dreams. In this respect the common expression " I had a dream" would be better expressed as "a dream had me." For when we are in a dream we are spellbound and cannot be held responsible for how we react within it to a powerful force of the imagination that springs to life independent of the reason or morality of the dreamer. The point may seem obvious, yet it often happens that a dream will provoke shame or guilt in the dreamer as most therapists know from their client work. The comforting assurance that what was disturbing the dreamer was only a dream may overlook the deeper character of the disturbance. Most likely, it wasn't just the violent, terrifying or perverse nature of a dream that was so disturbing. It was also that the dream was in some way self generated and may seem to have revealed something shameful or painfully vulnerable about the character of the dreamer. And this would be half-right. Although dreams should never be grounds for self reproach, they may indeed reveal something hidden and even shameful about the life of the dreamer. So a wise therapist will always treat dreams with sensitivity and care.
"The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind," Freud wrote. I think that is true, but unlike Freud I am not convinced that the road must always lead to personal complexes. Nor do I subscribe to Freud's dictum that dreams are the disguised expressions of unfulfilled wishes. Dreams can express any number of things and possess at least the same emotional range--and perhaps even a far greater one--as waking consciousness. And when Freud claimed that a dream was most profound when it seemed the most crazy, I have to suspect that he was attempting to extend his licence for interpretation. But dreams are mysterious and have called for specialists in interpretation for as long as there have been human communities. Dreams have been, and in some cultures, still are regarded as messages from the dreamer's ancestors, gods or other spirits. Seen in this way, dreams would indicate psychic sensitivity rather than the neurotic disposition of the dreamer. There are even lucid dreamers who are able to exercise conscious control over their faculties of dreaming and direct their dreams at will. But dreams as the artefacts of a self in conflict fall into the province of psychotherapy, at least for contemporary culture.
"Bring me a dream," I sometimes suggest whenever things stall in therapy. It is more an invitation than a request, but it usually follows my hunch that a dream will offer a strong clue as to why things have become stuck. Yet I can't demand that a dream be presented for my inspection in order to confirm any hypothesis I might be entertaining. The memory of any dream is only a reflection of an actual dream experience which inevitably becomes modified by the way the memory is held. Keeping the memory of a dream in a light, but firm hold, as if a bird were being held gently captive in one's hands, is a way to assure that its meaning won't fly off into a forgetful sky or be squeezed lifeless in an interrogator's grip. But it must always be borne in mind by both parties that is it is the dreamer who holds the bird of a dream, not the therapist. In my work with Brian, my therapist, there was such an abundance of dream material to deal with that we had to be selective about what we would look at. But once we settled on a dream for examination I would begin to tune in on its feeling tone before turning my attention to the elements of its composition. There would be people and places--some I might know well, but others I might not know at all--as well as situations from which either a coherent or incoherent narrative might emerge. But objects could never be pinned down by their objective properties, as in waking consciousness. They would become transformed by the mysterious logic of the dream. "What does this remind me of?" I would often wonder to Brian about some aspect of a dream that eluded my understanding. He hardly ever ventured an answer, but would always encourage me to remain with the question. For only by staying with it, or rather by letting it occupy a space in mind without demanding that it accord with reason or expectation would the dream reveal its meaning. Even so, often the meaning would be ambiguous or multiple and would defeat any attempt to make a clear interpretation.
The meaning of a dream lives as we do, as much in anticipation of what meaning will later emerge from the dream as what we find in it at any given moment. It is by learning to abide in the uncertainty of a dream that we may learn to feel more comfortable with the uncertainty of waking life. We are apt to think that most of the uncertainty of waking consciousness hinges on events that lie beyond our control: what other people do, politics, the state of the economy, the weather. If only these things would conform to our understanding the world would be as it should. Only by looking inward can we see that our understanding of the world directly influences our experience of it. And only by looking at the desires that shape our outlook and underwrite our expectations can we see how the worlds we experience are constructed. They are made of dreams.