Dream Interpretation

Well, we have finally arrived at the central issue of Jungian dream interpretation.

This topic is quite complicated but with the ideas you have from the first 4 chapters you should be able to make some headway through the fascinating area of dreams. I like to say to my analytical patients that you need to interpret at least 30 or so of your own dreams before you feel confident in the process. Like everything else in life, there is a learning curve. So, stick with it. At this stage, focus on your own dream interpretation and leave the dreams of friends aside until you feel competent in this process.

There are a few things I need you to bear in mind as we work through this area together.

The first is that the dreamer owns the dream. This means, a general approach to take is, that whatever the interpretation is, unless the dreamer feels that the interpretation is accurate, the interpretation is wrong.

The second issue is that dreams are vibrant, vital aspects of the psyche so need to be treated with great respect and care. Never, ever, overinterpret a dream. Always work through the dream to the point that there is still some life and juice left in it. Thrashing a dream to death is a common mistake we all make when we start. I like having dreams that occasionally I cannot understand. They usually make sense later on in the week, or month.

The third issue that we need to be aware of is not to take the message that the dream offers as literal. I can recall that so often people will face a big decision and say that they will wait until a dream comes up and tells them what to do. Dreams don’t tell you what to do, they give you a comment on the conscious attitude you hold. At the end of the day, it is the relationship between your dream material and the ego that really counts. Some folks may say that their dreams do tell them what to do. My answer to that is well why isn’t your dreams telling you the exact numbers to pick in the lottery each week?

So, those three points again are:

  1. The interpretation has to fit the dreamer;
  2. Don’t thrash the dream;
  3. The dream offers a comment, not a prescription.

Our work on dream interpretation will cover the next few chapters as we have a great deal of material to cover. In this chapter we need to deal with the issue of sleep; and why we should interpret dreams at all.


We spend about 1/3 or our life asleep, yet it is an area of our existence we know very little about. It is during sleep that we dream, so let’s focus on certain of the core essentials to this wonderful encounter with Morpheus who is the god of dreams in Greek mythology and the son of the god of Sleep, Hypnos. Not to be confused with Morpheus in the movie Matrix. Although, if you think about the role that Morpheus has in that movie, his name is appropriate.

Back to the topic of sleep:

There are two physiological states of sleep that we all go through each night.

These are:

  • Non-rapid eye movement (NREM)
  • Rapid eye movement (REM)

The term REM is an acronym for the phrase Rapid Eye Movement because when we are in REM, our eyes move rapidly while we are asleep. If ever you have watched someone having an intense dream you can often notice that their eye are flickering back and forth under their eyelids. So NREM is a physiological state of sleep in which there is no REM.

NREM is the start of our sleep cycle, and the phase of NREM usually lasts for the first 90 minutes of sleep. What is very important to know about this state of sleep is that our overall physiological functions are reduced. This means that our heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure are reduced. This is also the time when we can have small, episodic muscle movement such as small twitches in the body.

Deeper stage NREM, that is stages 3 and 4 have us so reduced in responses that if we are awoken during these stages that we often appear quite disoriented, and we may take quite a while to come to full consciousness. If we are awakened by night terrors, a specific kind of dream activity and sleep disturbance, we take quite a while to focus. We may not be quite sure if we are awake or not and often the scary parts of the dream still seem to be very real. You have all experienced a night terror at some stage and it is quite different to a nightmare. When we awake from a nightmare we know we are in our beds and it was just a bad dream. But, in a night terror, that takes a while to clear.

We need NREM to allow the body to do its repair functions.

REM phase sleep on the other hand is quite different to NREM

In REM, another set of physiological behaviours occur that mark it as quite different from NREM

Our heart rate, respiration and blood pressure are all elevated, in fact in some people, these functions are higher than if they were awake.

Another peculiar behaviour occurs in REM, that is our thermoregulation is altered. Thermoregulation refers to the body’s automatic capacity to raise or lower its core temperature based on the environmental temperature. We all know that if we go outside in winter without enough warm clothing that we start to shiver. If it is the height of summer, we often start to sweat.

In REM something different occurs and that is that we start to use a thermoregulation function called poikilothermic regulation, which means that our body temperature varies with the environmental temperature. As the bedroom gets cooler, so does the body and vice versa. So we stop shivering or sweating. Do you remember those nights where you suddenly woke up from a dream and you were freezing cold and started shivering, or you were so hot and started sweating, well part of that is because you were in REM and the body was engaged in poikilothermic temperature regulation.

A very important behaviour occurs in REM and that is that our skeletal muscles are paralysed. This means that the muscles we use to walk or lift things, like the muscles in the legs or the arms, no longer function. Why is that do you think?

The simple answer is that during REM sleep we are often moving in our dreams, say running from a pack of wolves, or trying to catch someone. If our skeletal muscles were still active we would thrash about in bed and injure ourselves and our partner.

We also know that when we are very young, we spend about half of our sleeping life in REM, i.e. active dreaming. As we get older, this amount of REM diminished so that by adulthood we spend about 25% of our sleep in REM. This proportion also diminishes as we get in into our senior years.

Now, there is a definite cycle between NREM and REM during our sleep. We start with NREM. In stage 1, we are in a transitional state, and are easily awaked. In stage 2 we feel a greater sense of relaxation and are in light sleep. In stages 3 and 4 we are in deep sleep and this is the time that the body engages in restorative functions. Now, we can also dream in NREM, but these dreams are less powerful than their REM cousin. The first REM phase follows NREM4. So we have to go through NREM to finally get to the good stuff in REM

The cycle of sleep goes from NREM1, to 2, to 3, to 4, then back up to NREM 3, then 2, then down through NREM, into REM. The critical issue is that if you are in REM and are awoken , you have to get back to REM by going through NREM phases first. Which means that if we are woken up or have a nightmare, when we go back to sleep we don’t actually go straight back into the dream.

We also know that if you prevent someone from having adequate REM sleep two very important consequences result. The first is that the person progressively becomes more and more agitated and less capable. So, their cognitive capacities are reduced. They will have impairment in their fine motor skills first so they find it hard to put a key into a lock or write something, then their gross motor skills are impaired so they act as though they are very clumsy. But the second issue is more dangerous and that is if you deprive someone of REM long enough (often two or three days) they begin to have disturbances in their reality testing and executive functioning. In severe situations, you will note that a REM-deprived person may actually have brief breakdowns in their reality testing so that they may hallucinate.

This is why a classic form of punishment or torture that all nations have practiced since early times is simply keeping the prisoner awake, in other words, severely REM-deprived.

Those of you that have worked very long shifts will know what REM-deprivation feels like. You feel as though you are walking in molasses, can’t make sense of basic issues, forget things, but most of all, are prepared to sleep at any cost.


So, all this talk about dreams. Well, so what? Why should we spend all this time dealing with our dream material?

The answers to the question ‘Why interpret dreams?’ are really important so I am going to spend some time dealing with these issues.

In brief :


  1. provide the most direct access to unconscious material;
  2. compensate/complement conscious attitudes
  3. tell the situation of the psyche ‘as it is
  4. are not distorted by ego defences hence provide accuracy
  5. provide access to subjective, inner experiences
  6. provide pure symbolic/imagic representations of the archetypes
  7. can provide specific information to the analyst
  8. diagnostic tools especially with neurosis
  9. facilitate healing
  10. are essential to the individuation process

Let’s examine these ideas in turn.

1. Dreams provide the most direct access to unconscious material.

One of the common products of the unconscious that we have access to, is the dream. It is a message from the unconscious, not from the ego. In this way, we can imagine that each and every night the unconscious communicates to us in the form of a dream.

2. Unconscious contents compensate/complement conscious attitudes.

We have learned about the process of compensation and enantiodromia, a specific aspect of compensation. The dream attempts you compensate for the conscious attitude we hold. It is as if we have a certain idea about ourselves or the situation we find ourselves in, and the unconscious says, OK, if that’s the position you are holding, let me comment on it. I’ll give you a short movie I made last night, you’ll call it a dream, but it is really a feedback movie from the unconscious.

3. Dreams tell the situation of the psyche ‘as it is”

A dream offers a commentary on the state of the psyche at that time. It gives us direct feedback about how we are doing psychically. Think of the dream as a short movie or snapshot of the state of the psyche the night before. There are some dreams which offer more than this, these are called prospective dreams. We’ll deal with prospective dreams in due course.

4. Dreams are not distorted by ego defences hence provide accuracy.

Freud’s approach to dreams, which we touched on in the last chapter about the difference between a symbol and a sign, relied on a dream image being treated as a sign. In addition, Freud felt that there is a psychodynamic process involved that distorts the message of the dream from its latent content to its manifest content. The psychodynamic involved is a series of defences he called the dream work. Jung disagreed and said that there is no reason for the psyche to distort the dream and disguise it. The dream is simply a message that we need some skill to understand, but it isn’t heavily encrypted to protect the ego. So, the Jungian model does not see that the dream is as distorted, so is remarkably accurate in its commentary.

5. Dreams provide access to subjective, inner experiences.

This seems quite obvious to us now – anything that comes from my personal unconscious will be unique to me, hence will contain my subjective experiences. Important here of course is that the dream also contains collective unconscious or archetypal material

6. Dreams provide pure symbolic/imagic representations of the archetypes.

The dream gives us access to archetypal images in their pure form. Later chapters will deal with another source of pure archetypal material and that is the fairy tale. What we need to recognise about our dream at this stage is that when we recall the symbols of the dream, that these symbols are archetypal images.

7. Certain dream material may present prospective imagery/massages from the Unconscious.

One form of dream that we may occasionally experience is the prospective dream in which a statement is made about a future conscious attitude. I’ll deal with this more when I discuss the types of dreams we may have.

8. Dreams can provide specific information to the analyst

Those of you in analysis or considering an analysis with a Jungian Analyst realise how critical dreams are to the analytic process. As the analyst and the patient work together on the analytic material, not only their egos are used. There is a vast storehouse of information about the patient and the analyst psyche’s that derives from dream material. Dreams that relate directly to the analytic encounter offer crucial information about the transference and countertransference in the sessions and thereby contribute to correcting the work

9. Dreams are central to the analytic process.

As mentioned above, dreams can correct the analytic situation. There may be a situation in which the analyst is incorrect in his assessment of a situation in the patient’s life, or is not dealing with the transference in the optimum manner. The patient dream will often be a direct statement about this. This fact is really quite incredible. Imagine being in analysis, and feeling that something is being missed in the analytic encounter, and that night your unconscious produces a dream that states exactly what the issue is. You than take it to the next analytic session, interpret the dream with the analyst, and have the situation corrected. In other words, your unconscious makes a direct comment on your analysis. Those of you that have experienced analysis will know that this correction does happen. It is truly fascinating!

10. Dreams are diagnostic tools especially with neurosis.

We are all of us neurotic to some degree. Dreams can give very good information about the neurotic way we live out our lives. The difficulty with severe neurotic conditions is that apart from being excruciatingly painful, are often quite resistant to change. It is through the dream that change is suggested and encouraged, because, and this brings me to my next point…..

11. Dreams facilitate healing

The way out of certain painful position that we are holding consciously can be healed or worked through by a dream or a series of dreams. Most of us have experienced this. We are stuck between two very difficult positions or decisions and feel incapable of deciding either way. Then a dream appears, with a powerful symbol contained in it that shows the way.

12. Dreams are essential to the individuation process.

Finally, dreams are central to the individuation process, which, briefly, is the progressive unfolding of the personality in such a way that you become an individual, authentic and secure in your way of being in the world. As dreams correct our ego stance and offer vital information from the rest of the psyche, we know that the dream is central to the whole individuation process.

An important question for us to consider is how the players and the objects happen in the dream. Many of my patients will say that they had a dream of a monkey for example, and then in the next breathe say, well, I was watching the Nature Channel and they had this programme on Rhesus monkeys, so that’s why I am dreaming about monkeys! Or they’ll have a dream in which their sister is present and then say the day before the dream their sister called from out of town to chat.

We know that the unconscious will use the ‘day’s residues’ or recent events to fill our dreams with.

Here’s how I explain it to people: Each night, at the start of sleep, our unconscious calls a meeting. This meeting is the same meeting that a movie producer would call. The producer looks at the cameraperson, the director, the consume-maker, the lighting technician, the casting director and the scriptwriter and says that there is an important issue to deal with in the dream and here it is. The producer then explains the situation and looks at the team assembled and says, well, we have to make a quick movie about this issue so that the person we work for (the dreamer) can get the message.

The casting director says – I have the perfect person for the male lead – we’ll use someone that the dreamer spoke with today at work, and that particular person has some interesting character flaws that we can incorporate into the scene. The costume-person says that we could dress the male lead in a power business suit because the dreamer had to wear one to make a presentation today – in fact lets use the same suit and tie. And on it goes – the unconscious chooses material specifically to fill up the dream. There is no accident – all players and costumes and events and dialogue in the dream is there for a reason.


We continue our work on dream interpretation. In this chapter I want to deal with the process of recalling dreams; the types of dreams we have; and dealing with nasty dreams.


Let’s turn to a practical issue and that is recalling dreams.

By now you should agree that we all dream, every night. Some of you may find that you can’t recall your dreams or have an idea about last night’s dream when you wake up but they slip away from consciousness within a few minutes of waking up. So, what can we do to enable us to recall our dreams?

The first idea I have about this is that you always keep a dream diary next to your bed. Also, make sure you have a pen or pencil to write with. Now, use the diary and the pen for nothing else other than dream writing, so don’t use it to make notes on a project or to write up a grocery list. See the diary and the pen as being very unique – they are there only for dreams. Every time you look at the pen and diary, you remind yourself that they are there to record your dreams. The sight of these objects acts as a small prompt to you each night as you go to sleep.

Those of you who have a partner in bed may realise that they don’t really enjoy you switching on the bedside light at 2 am in the morning, so buy yourself a small flashlight or even better, a simple headlamp. You should be able to buy a small headlamp from an outdoor or camping supply shop for around $10. Another useful lighting idea is to get a bookmark light – this is a bookmark looking flashlight that slides between the pages of your book and illuminates just one page at a time. For the very fancy you can always have a laptop next to your bed and type away. The typing can make a partner naturally quite upset as does the use of a dictation recorder such as your iPhone. Try to find something that is quiet. So when you do wake up and want to record a dream, you don’t disturb your partner.

The next thing to be aware of is that you need to remind the ego that it is going to be recalling a dream when you wake up and that this recall is going to be just the facts. So, before you shut your eyes in bed tonight, say to yourself “I am going to dream to night. When I wake from the dream, whether it be during the night or in the morning, I will recall my dream and be able to write it down.” It is almost as though you have to give the ego a little reminder that this is what is going to happen from now on.

When you do awake from a dream, put on your light and begin writing, just record the dream. Don’t edit it. Use whatever words you recall, as there is no need to tidy up your grammar or syntax. This is very important, especially if you come up with a word that you have never heard before, a neologism for example. Write it down because when you interpret the dream it will be critical that you use the original idea of the word and not let your spellchecking software (in your laptop or brain) alter it.

Very often we have strange words in dreams, some being combinations of words, often that don’t make initial sense. When you get round to interpreting these words you’ll see that the psyche is creating new words with a purpose. Also, if there are any numbers in dreams, try to write these down exactly as well. So if you dream of buying a glass of wine for $30.45, write this amount down as you will soon find that the number is tied into something quite specific.

Some of my patients keep a tape recorder next to their bed and simply press record and speak out their dreams. They then transcribe these recordings later on the next day.

I do have some clients who use their laptops to record their dreams. This takes a little more skill and there is always the possibility that something doesn’t work and trying to sort out a computer programme at 2am can be quite daunting. When I was in Zurich doing my analytical training I used my laptop for a short while, including one night when half asleep I typed out a very lengthy dream and found out the next morning that the laptop wasn’t on at the time when I did so. So I went back to my trusty dream diary and special pen. (Maybe I had even dreamed that I typed out the dream?……)

Another very important issue is that you must provide the context or the conscious attitude that the dream is responding to. Remember that the unconscious is giving a commentary, in the form of a dream, to respond to a conscious attitude.

Well, what is a conscious attitude? The simplest way to write this is to report what was going on for you for the past 2 days prior to the dream. What were you worried about? What decision did you have to make? Who were you thinking of or who did you have dinner with or phone, or have a chat session with.

Finally, always write the date of the dream. I write the date of the night that I went to sleep, so if today is the 15th of March and tonight I have a dream, even if it appeared in the early hours of tomorrow morning, I write down the date I went to sleep in.

Something else to pay attention to is that sleep is easily disrupted, so there are a number of important behaviours you need to manage before you go to sleep. This is about sleep hygiene.


Essentially, sleep hygiene is a little like dental hygiene – something you do regularly, in the same way, using the same implements, to maintain your teeth. Trying to develop good sleep hygiene can not only benefit your ability to recall your dreams, but more significantly, it is useful in dealing with insomnia. Insomnia is a major impactor of sleep cycles hence of your dreams. Often people with very disrupted sleep will say that they don’t recall their dreams, or that when they do awake from a dream they are resistant to sitting up and recording it in case they exacerbate their pre-existing insomnia.

Try to work through the following guidelines and see if your insomnia lessens, and more importantly, your dream recall improves.


The first is that you should avoid any chemical stimulants during the afternoon. If you have any caffeinated drinks after 2 in the afternoon, you often have disturbed sleep.


The second thing is to avoid strenuous exercise for two hours before bed, as well as avoiding a heavy meal too close to bedtime.


The third is to be very careful about what you watch on TV or read before you go to sleep. Reading a horror story or watching CSI Miami just before you go to sleep may affect your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep throughout the night. The same can be said for having an argument with someone. Anything that winds you up may interfere with your ability to sleep.


Try to get to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time each day. There is a very sound psychophysiological reason for this and simply put, we all have a natural sleep-wake cycle that we can set and alter quite easily. If I go to sleep an hour later than I normally do two nights running, I will move my sleep-wake cycle ahead by an hour so on the third night I will not find it easy to get to sleep at the usual time. The same goes for waking up. This is why when we stay up late on a Friday and a Saturday night, we often can’t get to sleep at our usual time on a Sunday night and feel really bagged most of Monday. Of all the things you can do in sleep hygiene, having a set sleep-wake cycle is one of the most central to decent sleep.


Not all dreams are equal. Most of our dreams are compensatory dreams meaning that the unconscious compensates for the conscious attitude with a dream. Some of these dreams may be complementary. This means that the dream complements the conscious attitude.

Other types of dreams are traumatic, childhood, recurrent and prospective.


A traumatic dream is the psyche’s attempt to rework a traumatic event that you have experienced. Those of you that have had some trauma in your lives, such as a car accident, or an assault, will often dream of the incident. Sometimes the dream is an exact recall of the incident, but other times it is an attempt to rework the incident. These dreams feel like those movies you rent on DVD that have alternate endings that you can watch. The psyche is just trying to make sense of something intense and the unconscious is working on the event while you sleep. Bear in mind that there is never a time that the psyche, at some level, is not working, while you are awake or asleep. So for those of you that are having to deal with trauma, remember that the psyche is working away at the trauma even when you are asleep.

This can of course be quite disruptive for you, especially when you feel that you are getting a grip on the trauma, so treat these dreams as the psyche’s attempt to heal. Pay attention to the details of the dreams as the psyche is trying to give you direct information on the unfinished working through of the trauma.


Another type of dream is the childhood dream. Most of us can recall a powerful dream that we had as a child, often one that repeats itself. I think that Freud made a superb observation, and one that Jung seems to agree with, that some childhood dreams are about wish fulfilments. The child has a powerful desire for something, say an object or an experience , and the psyche gives it to the child at night in the form of a dream. Children too have all the other types of dreams I am discussing here, so don’t regard all your kid’s dream as wish fulfilments.


The next type of dream is the recurrent dream. This is often a dream that has the same actions or outcomes or the same themes to it. We tend to get these dreams throughout our life. What the psyche is doing in these dreams is drawing your attention to something very important that needs to be worked through. A good example of a recurrent dream, and I’m sure many of you have experienced this type, is a dream that repeats itself exactly the very next night. My sense of these dreams is that the psyche gave us a comment the first night, we didn’t attend to it in the appropriate way, i.e. we didn’t interpret it and make a shift in our conscious attitude, so it simply said to the ego “ Well my friend, I sent you this movie to help you see what you need to change in your approach to life, you deliberately ignored it, so I’m going to make you watch it aaaaaaalllll over again, so that maybe you get it.” Imagine if you went to a movie theatre, watched the movie, but the very next night you went to the same movie theatre and watched the same movie. One assumes that by the end of the second viewing, you’ve got the message.


The last type of dream I want to deal with today is the prospective dream. Now this is a form of dream that is often misunderstood. In essence the prospective dream is giving information or commentary about a future conscious attitude, and sometimes even a future event. What the prospective dream is not, is a fortune-telling dream. Beware literal understandings of dreams. The prospective dream is a way that the psyche is able to make sense of the direction you’re heading in with the way you are living your life and gives you a commentary on where you’ll end up if you don’t make the appropriate corrections.


Wait, maybe I have skipped something here? What about really nasty dreams where I do some very bad things, like hurting other people or killing pets, or sleeping with my wife’s best friend? What about those kind of dreams?

Well, these are not a separate category of dreams at all. “Yes, but John”, you say “what is someone found out that I was dreaming of killing someone? Doesn’t it means that there is a real risk of me doing so?”

Well, not at all. You also more than likely have dreams in which you fly without the aid of an aeroplane – does this mean you should report to the nearest NASA office and say that you flew without any assistance and maybe you could get the next Shuttle off the ground to the International Space station for free? Or you may have dreams of a dragon – does this mean that they may actually exist. Or you dreamt of being able to swim with blue whales to the depth of 1000 feet and not have to breathe or get crushed by the awful pressure? Does this mean you are going to succeed in this form of swimming?

The answer to all of these questions is no. We dream of the most incredible things. We do things in dreams that we could never do in conscious life, or commit atrocious acts that we would never contemplate doing in our day. These are just the normal, healthy products of the unconscious. The message the unconscious tries to convey to you comes in the form of some amazing scenes. Imagine if we dreamt each night of a typed list of things we had to deal with and that was the dream. That would be so boring – no dragons, no flying, no incredible sex? The dream assembles its message in a wonderful, colourful, intense series of symbols.

We are not responsible for the nature of our dreams. But we are responsible for listening to them and interpreting them and making changes to our conscious attitude. So if you dream of doing something nasty, we know that the unconscious really grabs your attention and there is a stronger likelihood of you interpreting the dream that if you read a typed list of things to do in a dream.

John holds dream interpretation groups. These usually run from six to 8 weeks.

If you would like to form a dream group, please find a group of people you feel comfortable with, then call John to arrange venue and times.