This essay explores a dream as a symbol of transformation and healing in the context of depth psychotherapy.
It was submitted in March 2021 as a reflection paper in a course toward my masters degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy, professional clinical counseling, and depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Dream as a Symbol of Transformation & Healing
March 31, 2021
They say we only use a fraction of our brain’s true potential. Now that’s when we’re awake. When we’re asleep, we can do almost anything. – Mr. Cobb, Inception (Nolan, 2010)
This line from the movie Inception was meant to mystify and entertain but it also speaks to the latent power of dreams. Jungian analyst Robert Johnson said in Inner Work that engaging with our internal world through dreams is a process of “renewal, growth, strength, and wisdom” (p. 9). This is especially the case in depth psychotherapy where working with unconscious material is emphasized for mental health as well as spiritual growth. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1916/1960) said in The Transcendent Function that the most approachable manifestation of the unconscious process is certainly dreams. Within a person’s dreams are symbols of their inner and outer world not consciously apparent in waking life. Making this unconscious material conscious through dreams is helpful in solving mundane challenges in external life, reducing excessive psychological suffering, and even provides markers for spiritual development. Jungian psychoanalyst James Hall (1984) said in The Use of Dreams and Dream Interpretations in Analysis that dreams are often “commentary on daily life” and have a mundane tone while others dreams may be “big dreams” that illustrate the “characterological structure of the personality” and; these have an impact on the individual’s life months, and even years, later (p. 136). I have found this to be the case in my personal experience of having recorded my dreams over the past six years. In pivotal times of development, I have experienced vividly numinous dreams that remain sharply vivid to this day. These dreams are a representation of my internal world that provide guidance to move toward wholeness. Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera (1981) described this phenomenon in Descent to the Goddess as individuation where one has “conscious realization of one’s unique psychological reality” (p. 96). Individuation is a process that happens over the course of one’s life and can be witnessed through dreams. Hall (1984) said, contemporary use of dream interpretation assumes that dreams use symbols and “metaphorical language” to communicate the process of individuation and provide assignments for further development to be addressed in waking life (p. 124). Dreams can be used as an integrative process for the individual to find wholeness. In this paper, I will analyze a dream I had through amplification of its symbols to present the dream’s portrayal of the structure of psyche, its commentary on my individuation process, and recommendations for future psychological development.
Years ago, I had a dream where I was on a boat that tipped over because of a volcanic vortex in the ocean (see Appendix). The dream was numinous, vivid, and otherworldly. At the time of this dream, I had been in therapy with a depth psychotherapist for about one year. Much of my process in therapy revolved around prioritizing my own needs and desires instead of putting the needs of others first, to my own detriment. The dream shortly preceded my decision to return to school as a middle age adult to work toward becoming a psychotherapist – an ambition I had sacrificed in early adulthood to support my partner’s career. I share this limited amount of background information because it is essential to consider the context of a person’s life when analyzing their dream (Hall, 1984). Jungian analyst Jorge de la O (2021) outlined the classical Jungian approach utilized by Marie-Louise von Franz to organize dreams in a basic structure of exposition or initial setting, development, and final phase or result. In this way, the dream can be viewed as if it were a fairytale with a setting, plot, and resolution or result of actions taken or not taken. My dream can be organized in the following basic structure: (1) exposition or initial setting: daytime, on a boat, in the ocean with the female owner of a yoga studio where I lead classes, and her husband; (2) development: a volcano vortex under the ocean tips over the boat, I am in the water, the husband guides me to the surface; (3) final phase or result: I am the city in mundane life and tired. At first glance, this dream seems to involve a problem, a fall that turns out to be fine, and then a return to the mundane world with lackluster.
If a client brought this dream to me, I would first ask about their own immediate associations to the symbols and figures in the dream. As discussed by Hall (1984), the first step of amplifying dreams is to find the client’s associations to the dream images. I associated passion with the volcano but had no major personal associations to that symbol. Regarding the woman, in waking life she was a respected leader in my community who I admired for her tenacity and success. She was a deeply feeling person but had a direct, no-nonsense personality, was crass at times, and very physically active with lots of energy. This was a contrast to my tendency in waking life to be gentle and indirect with a delicate physical temperament. I did not know her husband very well in waking life – only that he was kind, sensitive, and very successful. Viewing this dream as a representation of the structure of my psychology can bring deeper meaning to the dream. Hall (1984) said that a dream is a “self-representation” (p. 137). In the dream, as the observer I was the ego and represent my waking conscious attitude. Stein (1998) defined the ego as “one’s experience of oneself”. In the dream, I have ego (conscious) awareness that the volcano was about to cause the boat to tip. In contrast, the woman is a symbol of my shadow because she has traits that I do not consciously identify in myself in waking life. Stein (1998) defined the shadow as parts of the ego personality that are unconscious or suppressed. Interestingly, in this dream the shadow (woman) was not aware of the volcano or danger of tipping over. In Jungian terms, the husband in my dream was a representation of a psychological connection between conscious and unconscious because he acted as a guide or bridge from the ocean to the surface. This concept is known as the animus. Stein (1998) defined animus as a psychological component, within a person who identifies with a woman gender role, that is a counterbalance or compliment to their conscious identity and a connection to the image of the Self. In a woman, the animus tends to have a quality associated with male or masculine figures and logic. This dream shows that when I have a fall (boat tipping over), my animus as a logical function can assist to bring me to safety. After having this dream, I did not initially consider the boat or have any personal associations to it. Regarding personal associations to the ocean, I connected it with unconscious material because I had previous dreams of plunging into the ocean when I was working with an overwhelming amount of intense feelings or unconscious material in therapy. In the dream, I initially was afraid before the boat tipped. But afterward, I was struck by the numinous feeling of safety and care I felt as the husband guided me to the surface. With this, I associated a positive sign in going deeper into the unconscious (ocean) through therapy and that I would have the strength (animus figure) to do so. I was confused about the return to the mundane world. Upon further reflection, my sense was that the deeply internal process of therapy and intensive mediation practices I had been doing over the past year should be integrated into waking life.
Continuing to treat this dream as if a client had brough it to psychotherapy, once all the client’s personal associations had been explored, I would inquire into well-known associations in contemporary culture. Hall (1984) described this as the second step in dream amplification because popular cultural associations are “present in the psyches of both analyst and analysand” (p. 140). From this view, I associated the volcano in the dream with singer, songwriter, and pianist Tori Amos’ (1996) music album Boys for Pele because I had previously read that it was inspired by a tumultuous visit to Hawaii during a break-up, learning of the volcano goddess Pele, and her journey of self-discovery to find her fiery feminine power (Yackoboski, 1996). I had been a fan of Amos (1996) for her raw, passionate, eclectic, sensuous, and deeply touching music – this I associated with the symbol of a volcano. Her fiery expression symbolized aspects of the type of woman who I was endeavoring to become through my own personal individuation process. Another contemporary association I may make if a client brought this dream to me is the movie Titanic where a boat sank because of an unseen iceberg in the water (Cameron, 1997). In the movie, the boat capsized and the female protagonist was saved by the male protagonist who was killed through his sacrifice for her. This movie symbolized the preciousness of life and how mistakes can be made when there is excessive attention on luxury over safety and function. This association spoke to my focus in waking life on material comfort and financial security, possibly at the cost of psychological development.
The last step in amplification of a dream is to investigate any images or figures in the dream that represent universal symbols repeating in humanity throughout time. Jung (1960/2010) called these archetypes and said they create structure in the unconscious and are “patterns of behaviour” that have “numinous effects which express themselves as affects” (p. 20). This is the final stage of dream amplification because is the farthest removed from the individual’s personal experience. In this final step of amplifying a dream, the archetypal images can be drawn from “folklore, religion, and mythology” (Hall, 1984, p. 141). First considering the overall setting of the dream, the ocean, The Book of Symbols (ARAS, 2010) said “just as the ocean can swallow whole our titanic ships . . . so our little vessels of human consciousness are liable to engulfment” (p.36). The archetype of the ocean seems to represent the entire potential of unconscious material and its overwhelming presence – numinous, beautiful, and potentially destructive if not navigated carefully. This spoke to my process at the time in therapy where big and often overwhelming feelings and unconscious patterns were being explored. Moving next to the boat, this container typically indicates a journey or a passage in stories. Notably, in my dream the boat was stopped in the middle of the ocean. The Book of Symbols (ARAS, 2010) considered ships as a symbol of “the great feminine, as mother or beloved” (p.450). The occurrence of the boat tipping over could be symbolic of “collisions with fate, unseen dangers” because the ship is also a transport in service of a transformational process (p. 452). What resonated with me was the boat as a symbol of the mother archetype and possibly connected to my personal image of mother, also called the mother complex. Perera (1981) defined complex as a combination of concepts or images with a high emotional tone and centered around an archetypal image. This correlation to mother archetype and mother complex speaks to my challenges in waking life of balancing connection with maternal energy in giving to others while also honoring my fiery passionate side (the volcano symbol). Finally, the volcano vortex was the most numinous archetypal image in my dream. As mentioned above, the goddess Pele is a popular Hawaiian goddess associated with volcanos. Jungian psychoanalyst Carolyn Bray (2016) said in Pele’s Search for Home, that Pele is a symbol of “transformation, rebirth, and becoming” (p. 15). In Hawaiian mythology, Pele took a journey to the big island of Hawaii and became a goddess after being killed by her sister, Namaka the goddess of the ocean. Her forms are the volcano, a young woman, or an old woman (Bray, 2016). When discussing this dream with my therapist and what dynamics or behavior the volcano may represent, at one point she said, “I think you are the volcano” (Author’s personal journal, February 2017). She was referring to the volcano as a symbol of an eternal part of me that Jungian analysts may call the Self. This idea of the volcano as a symbol of me, my Self, struck deeply. The power of that statement still rings through me today. Perera (1981) defined the Self as “the archetype of wholeness and the regulating center of the personality” (p. 96). It is often experienced as a powerful image greater than one’s individual ego self.
Overall, the most striking symbol amplified in this dream was the volcano which had associations with passion, fiery feminine energy, and a journey of transformation. The dream communicated that I was consciously aware of this explosive energy triggering a submersion into my unconscious material. However, the dream seemed to indicate that I have the logic and strength to bring myself to the surface with assistance from my inner soul guide, the animus. Jungian analyst Jorge de la O (2021) said that dreams may represent a response to a waking situation, describe a conflict between conscious and unconscious, represent a pending change in conscious attitude, or represent an archetypal process. Following amplification, it seems my dream could fit into all these categories. I feel this dream represented a pending change in conscious attitude where my conscious ego (myself in the dream) was submerged in the water (unconscious material). This change occurred in the months following the dream where I experienced an intensely deep depression and then a spontaneous transformation where I deciding to reorient my life path toward becoming a psychotherapist. This was a major development in my individuation process because I consciously chose to move toward the vocation of psychotherapy that was in alignment with my authentic values. Jung (1961/1989) said development is not a straight path; one continually circles around the Self. This dream continues to be a guiding image, leading me along the continual process of transformation and healing.
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