“If we think back on any dream that has been important to us, as time passes and the more we reflect on it, the more we discover in it, and the more varied the directions that lead out of it . . . . The depth of even the simplest image is truly fathomless. The unending, embracing depth is one way that dreams show their love.”
There are as many different approaches to the dream as there are dreamers. Rather than discuss what dreams are, then, perhaps we’d be better off to take a look at what dreams do.
What do dreams do? They make images. For the Greeks, the word “soul” was an image. But even the word “image” makes us think of a “picture” or something we can see with our eyes. As it’s being used here, the word “image,” however, refers to “the ideas that shape and form life,” and to the act of making something we experience. What is made, however, is not substantial. So we can only speak of images as they “seem” or “as they appear to be,” in other words, in terms of metaphor, or “as if.” Therefore, as James Hillman reminds us, when dream images are visible, they are perceived by what is invisible in us:
We perceive images with the imagination, or, better said, we imagine them rather than perceive them, and we cannot perceive with sense perception the depths that are not extended in the sense world…. Because the dream speaks in images, or even is images…because dreaming is imaging, our instrument for undistorted listening can only be the imagination. Dreams call from the imagination to the imagination and can only be answered by the imagination. (Dream and the Underworld, 55)
Dream images are felt—we “feel” our way into them with our felt-‐sense, our intuition. Sometimes dream images are also asking to be heard into, as with puns and metaphors, while at other times we hear them as a kind of disembodied voice. Still other dream images are inviting us to taste them. Even more rarely, dream images are smelled into. But every one of these images has a corresponding aspect that is not seen, not heard, not tasted, not smelled, nor felt. In other words, we know that there’s more than meets the eye, the ear, the nose, the mouth, or the heart. There’s a mysterious other aspect that we somehow understand is there, though we cannot quite perceive it.
Dreams images call to us. Sometimes their call is heard as a kind of sweet longing. Other times it is experienced as a rude awakening—a kind of kicking, screaming, scratching, or biting. Dream images ask to be imagined. Instead, however, over and over again we try to mine the contents of the dream for waking-‐world meaning.
And it is in this mining for meaning that we go wrong. Folks all too frequently approach their dreams like going to a fortune-‐teller, or a newspaper horoscope, looking for information about what they should do in a given situation. But dreams don’t tell us what to do—they tell us where we are. They place us.
Dreams don’t come to us at night to impart hidden meaning, they come looking for relationship, and those relationships, when nurtured and tended to, like all relationships, have special meaning. So any meaning that can be wrought from the dreamtime, therefore, has more to do with the relationships that are waiting to happen between the dreamer and the dream images themselves, and for what’s uniquely possible between the dream and the dreamer. Dream work therefore is the bridge into soul. James Hillman continues:
As these imaginal figures bring a sense of internal fate, so they bring an awareness of internal necessity and its limitations. We feel responsible to them and for them. A mutual caring envelopes the relationship, or, as the situation was put in antiquity, the daimones are also guardian spirits. Our images are our keepers, as we are theirs. (A Blue Fire, 56)
Freud says that, “there is only one useful task that can be ascribed to a dream, and that is as the guardian of sleep.” Everything about the dream is so foreign to Freud’s waking life that he talks about dreams in terms of psychopathology: narcissism, hallucination, psychosis, hysterical symptoms, and obsessional ideas. It’s important to remember, however, that Freud was concerned with unraveling what the dream-‐ work has woven. His book on dreams is not called The Nature of Dreams, or The Study of Dreams, but The Interpretation of Dreams. So he was concerned with “translating” dreams into the language of waking life in order to rescue or “reclaim” the dream from its underworld madness.
Unfortunately, Freud’s way of reclaiming the dream for ego’s purposes has become the main thrust in the therapeutic use of dreams ever since. Freudians therefore generally tend towards the work of reclaiming the stuff of dreams and translating this into the language of waking life. This is precisely the work of therapy, so they claim, that dream work will enable the ego to achieve a progressive conquest of the id.
For Jungians, on the other hand, it is the nature of the dream itself that wants this work. “Becoming conscious,” they suggest, is itself an archetypal process buried in the dream’s own wish. A Jungian analysis follows the “individuation process” by taking the dream into the waking ego only for the sake of the psyche as a whole. Jungians therefore tend to read dreams for information regarding the individuation process, for their symbolic and not literal content.
But in both systems, Freud’s dream work and the Jungian dream of individuation, “the dream requires translation into waking language.” DreamTending, on the other hand, approaches the dream quite differently. As Steve Aizenstat puts it, most dream therapists have been trained to ask: “what does this mean?”
This question tends to freeze the dream within pre-‐conceived developmental schema, or within one of a multitude of intricately contrived psychological explanatory systems—however imaginative or erudite they might be. How different is this from tending a dream, where the primary question is, “what is happening here?”
The simple question, “what is happening here?” locates the dreamwork in the immediacy of the present experience of the dream, looking to the image bodies themselves to reveal their purposefulness, their stories. The dreamer looks neither back to whence s/he came, nor forward to some dire or luminous future consequence, but rather down and around, noting what is just so at that particular moment in time and that particular place. To tend a dream is to recognize that in the telling of a dream the dream is already in the room—existing right now as an alive imaginal process.
James Hillman agrees, but, after his style, he puts it rather more bluntly:
I have come to believe that the entire procedure of dream interpretation aiming at more consciousness about living is radically wrong. And I mean “wrong” in all its fullness: harmful, twisted, deceptive, inadequate, mistaken, and exegetically insulting to the material, the dream. When we wrong the dream, we wrong the soul, and if the soul has the intimate connection with death that tradition has always supposed, then mistaken dream interpretation deceives our dying. (Dream and the Underworld, 2)
“Mistaken dream interpretation deceives our dying,” whatever does he mean by that? Well, interpretation is most usually an attempt to understand, to pin down, to ascribe a particular meaning to something, usually for ego’s purpose, or to strengthen ego’s grasp on things, so that ego may have dominion. You may recall, however, that, for the ancient Greeks, Sleep and Death are twin brothers. So when Hillman talks about mistaken dream interpretation, what he is suggesting, following the Greek tradition of working with dreams, is that dreams are trying to kill us. Not literally, of course, but in the language of dreams—that is, imaginally, metaphorically. Dreams are trying to move us into relationship with soul. In order to do this, however, long held ego ideas generally have to die or be killed off. Not the ego itself, of course, which is of vital importance—without it we wouldn’t get anything done—but an ego stance has to be gotten rid of. We simply mustsurrender. And actually, we’re dying to surrender. For soul does indeed have an intimate connection with death and with the so-‐called dead. Perhaps what we need, therefore, is to practice our dying a little each night as we sleep, with the dead, and with their help, letting go of our long-‐held ego ideas and our waking-‐world prejudices, so that the images of dreams might begin to love us forward into who we are really, for the sake of what the images want with us in the first place. If we can understand the image as an activity of the soul, regardless of its content, we can begin to develop capacities for becoming increasingly aware of soul life in an ongoing way.
We opened our discussion here with a quote from James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld. Let us end with another from him, my favorite:
We sense that dreams mean well for us, back us up and urge us on, understand us more deeply than we understand ourselves, expand our sensuousness and spirit, continually make up new things to give us—and this feeling of being loved by the images permeates the analytical relationship. Let us call it imaginal love, a love based wholly on relationship with images and through images, a love showing in the imaginative response of the partners to the imagination in the dreams. Is this Platonic love? It is like the love of an old man, the usual personal content of love voided by coming death, yet still intense, playful, and tenderly, carefully close. (196-‐7)