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Archetypal insights: Jung’s dream world

In Insight and Experience by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Carl Jung pioneered the field of dream analysis while introducing an important spiritual dimension that had previously been missing from psychology. His techniques can provide valuable insights into our dreams and lives.


Among those who have devised frameworks for understanding the significance of dreams, perhaps the most influential is the celebrated Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. With a career spanning half of the 20th century, Jung was an important figure in the development of modern depth psychology and a pioneer in the field of dream analysis.

In his earlier years, Jung studied under Sigmund Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis, but over time the emergence of irreconcilable philosophical differences caused the two men to part company.

While Freud saw the unconscious as a repository of primitive and sexually orientated material, Jung’s work became focused towards spiritual dimensions that the more rationally oriented Freud could not accept. In Jung’s view, these mysterious elements are fundamental to the psyche are most vividly encountered in dreams.

Exploring the dream world

Psychology generally agrees with the notion that below the threshold of regular understanding, the unconscious is the engine that drives much of our behaviour. The psyche has been likened to an iceberg, about ninety per cent invisible in the unconscious realm, and the remaining ten per cent accessible to everyday awareness. Unconscious drives are recognised by advertisers through the sometimes sneaky way in which they tap into basic underlying drives that Freud described, such as aggression, fear and sex, in order to motivate purchases.

Dreams can be seen as postcards from the unconscious, which is obviously unable to communicate with the conscious self via everyday language. Instead, it resorts to sometimes baffling images and symbols, that if investigated can be of great personal value. Jung held the unconscious in great respect and awe, regarding it as a very wise part of the human psyche. In his view, all dreams are prompting us towards ‘individuation’, a process of spiritual growth and self-realisation.

Everybody has dreams, including those people who never remember their nightly journeys. If such a dream-deprived individual were to pay attention to even a vague dream fragment, a bond would be formed with their unconscious, which, like a speaker waiting for a sign of attention before starting to communicate, will often start to deliver far more clear and detailed messages.

Effective techniques for improving dream recall include keeping a dream diary and establishing a good sleep pattern. Where dreams are remembered in the wee hours of the morning, some people suggest writing in a bedside notebook their key elements, plus all remembered dialogue, odd-sounding words, and numbers. This material can be transcribed in more detail first thing in the morning.

Encountering archetypes

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Plato had hypothesised the existence of unchanging non-material forms that precede and shape the material world. Many centuries later, Plato’s ideas were adapted by Jung as ‘archetypes’, a name he gave to what he saw as important psychic energy centres of the inner planes.

While Freud was content to stick with the notion of a personal unconscious, Jung went a step further to propose an additional ‘collective unconscious’. This invisible mind-field shared by a society, a race, or all humankind, could be viewed as a reservoir, or distillation, of human experience. The collective unconscious has strong similarities with the worldview of indigenous peoples, who commonly believe that their ancestors are in some way living with them in the present.

Jung believed that archetypes structure the collective unconscious, and subtly shape the contents of the personal unconscious. Archetypes are most clearly seen in collectively held myths and fairy tales. Archetypal figures, including the Great Mother, Wise Old Man and Trickster, will be ‘clothed’ in the local costume of a culture but the basic archetypal forms continue to recur in dream accounts from diverse cultures. Many Jungians consider these archetypes to be as old as humankind.

The books of Tolkien, such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are considered remarkable for the large number of archetypal characters that make an appearance, suggesting that the author may have possessed remarkable psychological insights.

Archetypes of the collective unconscious

The great mother

The primary quality of this feminine personification is one of nourishing, but it also has a dark side and can be devouring. At a basic level, it is associated with nature, the body, the Earth, and containment. Symbols for the Great Mother include bodies of water, caves, dwellings, and vessels. Infants project this archetype onto their mother or first caregiver during the bonding process.

The great father

As the male counterpart to the Great Mother, in myth the Great Father is associated with light, spirit,form and structure. Father qualities include law, order, discipline, rationality and understanding. In an unbalanced form this archetype becomes too airy and risks alienation from nature and physical reality. It can easily be argued that our culture is excessively skewed in this direction.

The child

This archetype indicates an inner child, characterised by enthusiasm, innocence and imagination, and in need of love, comfort and reassurance. The Child represents our potential, our possibilities for growth. Variations include the Abandoned Child (orphans, or children who lose a parent early in life), and the Wounded Child (children who have been abused.)

Another important aspect is the Divine Child, which represents our potential for spiritual development. In our culture, the key Divine Child figure is the infant Jesus.

The wise old man

Also known as the Sage, this figure represents the collective wisdom of the unconscious. The closest equivalent in everyday life might be a judge, priest, doctor, or elder. He may warn of dangers, or bring protective gifts. Symbolised by the Hermit in the Tarot, it is common for this archetype to be from a different culture, nature or time from those he advises.

The trickster

This archetype provides the energy to break down existing structures. For example, between Christmas and New Year, during the mediaeval Feast of Fools, a figure known as the Lord of Misrule would preside over various forms of taboo-breaking licence and buffoonery held inside the local church. However, the Trickster can also be a destructive revolutionary, a saboteur or seducer. Examples of Tricksters from different cultures and beliefs include Loki (from Norse mythology) who killed the beloved hero Baldur, the Devil (Christian), and both the coyote and raven (in the Native American tradition.)

Sometimes this figure may be a subterfuge under which wisdom and spiritual truths are communicated, one example being the Sufi parables involving Nasrudin, a fictional mulla notorious for his bizarre antics.

The Jungian individual

In particular, Jung identified six important structures.

  • The persona is the public mask that we present to the outside world. In today’s complex society we are likely to have several of these. Generally speaking, we are more comfortable living in roles such as ‘mother’, ‘teacher’ or ‘scientist’, as this lubricates social interaction.
  • The ego is a term for the individual’s self-awareness centre, and link to the external world, the place where people spend most of their waking lives. It serves an important role in protecting a person from being overwhelmed by the unconscious, which could result in conditions such as psychosis or schizophrenia. At the same time, the ego may also obstruct avenues of inner communication. The process of dream and archetype exploration involves journeying to places that lie beyond the ego.
  • Despite its sinister-sounding name, the shadow is not necessarily evil. Instead, it symbolises our repressed energies, or the parts of our personalities that remain unlived or unexpressed; highly logical people are likely to possess an artistic shadow, and vice-versa. Our unlived potentials lie dormant in the shadow.
  • As humans, we tend to identify with our positive qualities while denying the shadow (which tends to be fairly primitive and uncultured), although awareness of one’s shadow side is highly beneficial. According to the late Jungian dream analyst Marie-Louise von Franz, the best way to gain insights into one’s own shadow is to list the qualities in other people that we dislike for no rational reason.
    At a mass level, societies often attempt to deny their collective shadow, perpetuating a shaky self-belief in their own virtue by projecting their undesirable qualities onto minorities. This may involve the creation of scapegoats, and since the arrival of mass media, murderers and paedophiles are frequently paraded as objects of contempt.
  • The female complement in the unconscious to the male conscious psyche is the anima. At a positive level, this figure represents gentleness, patience, and sensitivity. More negative qualities include moodiness and vanity. The hall-mark of the anima is self-pity. In the male-female relationship, a man sometimes idealises his partner by projecting anima qualities onto her, obscuring the reality of her true character.
  • Similarly, Jung considered a man appearing in a woman’s dreams to be the animus. Its positive qualities include courage, intellect and spirituality, while the negative animus qualities are generally aggression and brutality.
  • The central archetype is the Self.It contains the ‘master plan’ for our psychological development throughout our lives, and provides the energy for the psyche to move towards healing and wholeness.
    The Self is often symbolised by a circle (particularly one divided into four quadrants), the square, or the mandala, an ancient symbol of balance and harmony.

When dealing with archetypes, particularly the anima/animus and the shadow, a major life challenge is to become a more rounded person by coming to understand them, and forming a healthy inner dialogue. Through such an integration, we enable dreams to provide a compensating and self-regulating mechanism, bringing to the fore elements that are repressed or downplayed in ordinary waking life.

Analysis and interpretation

Dreams tend to point to our blind spots, and consequently it can be difficult to perceive their true message without sanitising or censoring them. For this reason, there may be advantages in having dreams interpreted professionally, or soliciting feedback from friends or family members who may be able to provide fresh insights.

If you decide to work on a dream privately, start by jettisoning dream dictionaries that contain potted meanings. As each individual has a different history, and a unique set of circumstances in their life, one-size-fits-all interpretations discourage genuine personal  insights. Adopting a creative, lateral thinking, holistic frame of mind will help a great deal too.

In his book Inner Work, Jungian analyst Robert Johnson outlines a four-stage analysis process that can be valuable to thorough dream investigators:

  1. For each dream element, make associations, looking at the possible personal, cultural and mythical meanings. (Jung himself used the term ‘amplification’ to refer to the activity of viewing a dream image from the perspectives of mythology, folklore and comparative religion.) After compiling a list of all potential associations, run through them in sequence. If one of them ‘clicks’, or arouses stronger feelings than the rest, you have probably tapped into the energy of the unconscious and the association is probably correct.The colour green, for example, offers a wide range of meanings, including nature, growth, environmentalism, Ireland, the Green Man in mediaeval iconography, the heart chakra, envy, inexperience, and a signal to cross the road.
  2. Connect dream associations to your inner dynamics, by grounding them at a personal level. According to Jungian psychology, dream elements are usually indicative of the inner world rather than external situations, although this is not always the case.This step involves taking the association that feels right, and conducting a self-examination to see how it is likely to tie in to one’s life, identifying specific examples. Frequently these associations are pointing to hidden aspects of ourselves that we fail to consciously acknowledge.

    An example might involve associating the colour blue with depression. When carrying out a self-examination, the dreamer acknowledges that she has been slightly depressed, something that she has been too busy in her work to acknowledge.

  3. Interpret the dream by attempting to fit together the disparate jigsaw pieces into a coherent whole. Search for interpretations that carry a greater energy intensity. Johnson urges dreamers to avoid analyses that boost their ego, or shift responsibility onto another person. Try to focus on the single most important insight that the dream is trying to convey; where a solution is indicated, it is often found in the last line of a written dream account.
  4. Lastly, try to ground the dream through a personal ritual. This might involve applying certain changes that the dream is urging, or carrying out a symbolic act. As a culture, we spend a lot of time in our heads, and a ritual is a way to ground the process in our bodies and emotions.In one example, a woman had a dream in which flowers bloomed by her side while meditating in a monastic cloister. In real life, she purchased flowers that resembled those in the dream, and carried out a ceremony in which she travelled to the ocean and cast them onto the waves. This was her way of giving back this image to the feminine sea of the unconscious.

    Rituals speak directly to the unconscious and can be instrumental in effecting deep changes. The best results seem to be experienced following private, small-scale ritual acts.

Working with one’s dreams is one of the most valuable activities that anyone can undertake. By making contact with deeper portions of personal, and perhaps collective experience, we can venture beyond the modern sea of mass banality in search of treasures. The results can be deeply healing.

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