Last night I had a warm conversation with my mother, about her childhood and mine. It was an unexpected talk since my mother died about seven years ago. She appeared in a long dream that had a calm and intimate atmosphere.
Was it her? Was it a memory of her? Was it a part of me that is like my mother? Was it my mother complex? Was it altogether meaningless? What is going on in dreams?
I have been a psychotherapist for well over thirty years. I work in the style of depth psychology -- Freud, Jung, Hillman. They all take dreams seriously, but they hesitate to come up with definitive interpretations of a dream, especially Hillman. I am closest to him, and I, too, worry about easy and conclusive interpretations.
I treat a dream like a painting. Would I look at a painting, figure out its meaning, and then pack it away? Hardly. I might live with a painting all my life, and that's the way I deal with dreams. I look at them now and then but never reduce them to a meaning.
In my practice, a person comes to me with a problem. I listen to it and then ask for a dream. I don't interpret the dream. I let the dream remain in the background as we talk about the life situation. The dream intrudes now and then, and we get some insights into life from it. At the end of the session, we haven't interpreted the dream fully. We understand some things about it and see how it connects with life. We've been enlightened by it. The dream has interpreted us and made us think of life in terms of its images.
I want a dream to take us deeper, to see everything as a gauzy display of images. Dreams help me see through ordinary experiences to their underlying narratives and images and mysteries.
I'm at the point now in my work that I can't deal with a person's life problems unless I hear at least one dream. The dream reveals things that neither the person nor I can see without it. The dream is like an x-ray showing underlying patterns and characters.
I do have a few helpful guidelines. I look to see how the dreamer is resisting what is happening in the dream. The dreamer often fails to see what is going on and gets in the way. Telling the dream, the dreamer almost always takes the point of view of the dreamer in the dream. But other figures in the dream may be more aware, so I often side with them.
The dreamer tells me that he has dreamed of driving a car with a passenger next to him. At one point the passenger starts to poke the dreamer, causing him to drive off the road. The dreamer tells me that he must have something in him that is trying to make him lose control and fail to get where he needs to go. Perhaps, he thinks, he should grip the controls of his life and be in charge, for once. I think to myself, what if the passenger is more aware than the dreamer? Maybe the dreamer needs to get off the road he's taking. Maybe the passenger is saving him from serious trouble.
Often I follow Jung's technique of amplification. That means comparing a dream image to one you know from art, literature, religion or mythology. Students at a university where I once taught sometimes brought me this interesting dream: They find themselves carrying flowers and going to the university library. They press the "up" button of the elevator, enter it, and the elevator takes them down. I ask them: "Have you ever heard the Greek story of Persephone who was picking flowers when the Lord of the Underworld, Hades, seized her and took her down to Hell with him, giving her a home there? Maybe the dream has to do with a necessary movement into your depth."
Living with dreams in this way gives us a habitual deeper point of view. It makes us more insightful people, people who always look beneath the surfaces to see the mysterious narratives that are shaping our lives.