Dreaming your way to reality

A meditation on Jungian Psychology and the interpretation of dreams

by Shoba Narayan

Deccan Herald. March 14, 2021

Covid has been a time to take stock, introspect and wake up. In this essay, Shoba Narayan writes about returning to her old interest in Jungian psychology and what she learned from it.

Even though therapy, both in-person and online has become acceptable and indeed, gained ground during the pandemic, most people think of it as navel gazing. “Where you lie on a couch and talk endlessly about your childhood,” said my friend, Sridhar dismissively.

That may be true of Freud.  Jungian psychology, the one that I am writing about here, is a lot more holistic, more suited to the Eastern mindset. 

Healing in Jungian psychology hinges on the concept of individuation, the lifelong process of becoming who you truly are.  And how do you do this? By recognising that a large part of our choices, behaviors and triggers have to do with the unconscious.  As psychoanalyst and teacher, James Hollis says, the so-called rational ego-mind that we use to make decisions is like a cork bobbing on the submerged depths of the ocean that is the unconscious.  For Jung, connecting the conscious “ego” to the unconscious was the most important task of psychology.  

The unconscious controls us in ways we do not know.  Think back to the patterns of your life.  Why do my spouse and I fight over the same thing again and again? Why am I attracted to the same dysfunctional people? Why does my boss “trigger” my emotions so much? A lot of it has to do with what Jung calls “adaptations” or responses that we make in childhood.  Each of us creates patterns of behavior in response to childhood stimuli.  If you grew up with an angry abusive father, you learned early on to be non-confrontational. 

The problem is that these old patterns that saved us as children are not useful to us as adults.  If you learned to be non-confrontational and let disagreements fester, it might make you ineffective in your job. Part of Jungian therapy involves figuring out such unconscious patterns of behavior and releasing the hold that they have on you.

A year ago, when Covid began, I decided to make friends with my unconscious.  I wanted to learn Jungian psychology from a practical point of view.  I wanted to figure out my fears and goals.  I wanted to shed self-sabotaging patterns: bingeing on chocolate at night when I wanted to lose weight.  I wanted to understand my emotional triggers: why I got sad or mad in a way that was disproportionate to the situation. I wanted to make myself whole.

The unconscious speaks to all of us.  It wants to.  Our ancestors and ancients knew how to pay attention to such “gut feelings.” Caught up in our smartphones, we have lost that ability.  If you want to start paying attention, there are four ways.  First, record your dreams and learn to interpret them.  Second, pay attention to your triggers, when you feel your emotion rising.  As Hollis says, triggers come from old memories of buttons being pushed.  They are like a ball of energy that rises up and explodes.  Third, watch out for old mental scripts that are left over from childhood.  “I am so clumsy,” you might say.  Are you really? You may have been as a child and your mother may have called you this, but now you are an adult with good coordination.  The imposter syndrome is based on an old script when you were perhaps put down in high school, or by your parents.  You may have come a long way from being that person but the unconscious may still be stuck in that script.  Fourth, acknowledge that each of us has what Jung called the “shadow,” the parts of us that we suppress.

I began listening to many Jungian podcasts.  The “Jungianthology Podcast” connects myth, history, art, and even the soul to psychology.  After a few months, I wanted more.  I wanted to actual learn how to interpret my dreams. I knew my triggers but I wanted to learn how to get them off my back. I felt the “shadow” emotions of envy, rage, fear and contempt but I needed to work them out of (or as Jung would say, into) my psyche. 

How to do this without going to the Jung Institute in Zurich? As it turns out, there are many online platforms which conduct classes for prices that were comparable to what you would pay for one session of therapy in Bangalore (about Rs. 2000). I discovered classes ranging in price from $15 to $200 online where I could learn more about dream work and the unconscious.

After looking through several, I settled on two online platforms which fit my learning goals.  The Jung platform (https://jungplatform.com) offers a plethora of online classes on Jungian psychology, dreams and healing.  While there are live webinars, most of them are pre-recorded video and notes. There are many free webinars such as a conversation between Jung Platform founder, Machiel Klerk and London-based author and editor Sonu Shamdasani whose foundation has translated several of Carl Jung seminal works into English.  There are several audio and video lectures costing $15 on dreams, shadow-work, lucid dreaming and how to cultivate creativity.  The most expensive course on African healing methods costs $267. 

My favourite course was one called “Dream Incubation,” which costs $87.  In it, Klerk teaches you how to ask questions from dreams and receive answers.  There is a whole technique to this: how to frame the question, how to make a ritual out of asking the question, how to work with the answer that the dream gives you.  Klerk also lists some questions that you can ask dreams: What will my soulmate be like? What project should I work on next? What foods should I take that will help me stay healthy? Why do I feel pain in my shoulder? The four-class course teaches you to interpret answers that the dream gives.  

There are many world-reknowned Jungian analysts and teachers on the Jung Platform including the teacher who captured my interest: James Hollis.  I took his online class on how to work with the shadow– the parts of yourself that you dislike and suppress. For me, as with many women, it happens to be assertiveness and expressing what you want.  For men, and boys, it may be the inability to show or deal with strong emotions– crying, sadness, fear, etc.  Hollis talks about identifying these “shadow” parts of us that we were forced to leave behind to adjust to family and society. Remember the feeling of looking at your old college photograph and wondering, “Where did that girl (boy) go?” That is the shadow, the parts we have suppressed.  He explains about how shadow is not just “bad” but also the good stuff– the playful, creative and spontaneous.  Working with the shadow involves realizing what you have left behind and embracing these parts.  

Steven Aisenstat, founding president of the Pacifica Institute of Depth Psychology, which is where you need to go if you want a degree in the field runs a course called, “Dream Tending,” where he teaches you four ways to figure out what your dreams mean: association, amplification, animation, and working with the body. 

Robert Bosnak, who travels the world holding “dream sanctuaries” teaches several courses on alchemy, an ancient art form which is intensely transformational.  Alchemy originated in the East and was used to transform metals to gold.  Bosnak uses its tenets to effect a transformation of the human spirit.  He is an intuitive and gifted teacher but you have to be at a certain level of openness in order to benefit from the wisdom of his course, “Invite Creative Genius into your life.”

There are other courses lucid dreaming (where you know that you are dreaming), and working with your body and finding where it stores the aches and pains (with Tina Stromsted).  I found that some courses were not for me, but the Jung Platform allows you to cancel within a week for a full refund.

The other online platform I used was from the Jung Society of Washington (https://www.jungmasterclass.com), which used a platform called Teachable.  Unlike the Jung Platform where you can learn from teachers from all over the world, this one has two teachers: James Hollis and Susan Tiberghien.  Each course costs costs $97 or $197.  The advantage is that you will get a printed transcript of each lecture that can be downloaded and used for revision.  The courses themselves are more encompassing rather than specialist.  For example, Tiberghien teaches a course called “Journaling for the Soul,” where she talks about how introspection and journaling are linked together and can be used for change.  Hollis talks about midlife transformation. Say you are 40 or 50 years old.  Thanks to Covid, you’ve just been laid off from your job.  Now you face the rest of your life and wonder, “What should I do? How now to make meaning of my life?” Well, you might want to take the two courses that James Hollis teaches called “Creating a Life,” and “Living an Examined Life.”

For me, the hardest part was not taking the courses.  That was a pleasure.  The difficulty is implementing what you learn.  For example, both the platforms above have excellent courses on how to interpret your dreams and learn from them.  But the point is that dreams speak through the language of symbols, puns and images, while we are used to the linearity of words.  

The other aspect is what Jung calls the “collective unconscious,” which refers to symbols that a culture has.  In Hinduism, for example, the elephant is both a mammal and a symbol that represents Lord Ganesha.  In these courses, I learned that dream images have a symbolism that is deep and intuitive.  Water represents the womb, doors can represent a life change– walking into a new space.  By listening to the lectures and attending to your thoughts and dreams, you will slowly get in touch with your unconscious and how it is trying to help you.  We call this intuition.  

Every teacher on the Jung Platform mentioned that the unconscious wanted to speak to our soul and spirits, except that most of us were either too busy to listen or brushed aside its gentle nudges.  By learning the language of our dreams, our shadow and our unconscious, we can try to incorporate all aspects of our selves into ourself.  And that is the goal of a good life.

This is not easy work.  I have spent the last year doing it and I am nowhere near understanding.  But it is rewarding work in that it allows me to see all my splinter personalities, my petty jealousies and inconsistencies with curiosity and without judgment.  The hope is that I can work with them and make them part of me.  Make myself whole.  That, I believe, will be what I will do for the rest of my life.


How to interpret your dream.

Say you want to get into “depth psychology,” which is what Jungian psychology is called.  You decide that you want to figure yourself out, warts and all.  You could go into “analysis” or therapy with a registered Jungian psychoanalyst.  India has several and you can find them online by typing “depth psychologists near me” or “Jungian psychotherapy.”  

But if you want to do it on your own, here are some suggestions based on experts I interviewed.

Robert Bosnak has pioneered the method of “embodied imagination,” in which you try to return to the dream and experience its sensations.  Say you had this dream: you and your sister are sitting in a forest under a tree, and you see an elephant walking towards you.  Bosnak suggests that you imagine yourself in this dream and see what sensations come up.  Are you afraid of the elephant or not? He also suggests that you interact with the “characters” in the dream.  Why is your sister in the dream? What is her message? What is the elephant telling you? In this way, you feel your way through the dream in search of answers.

Ken James, a psychoanalyst in Chicago, suggests that you write down your dreams and then return to them after a while.  Then imagine that you are reading a novel or screenplay and try to interpret the dreams from an outsider perspective. 

Machiel Klerk suggests that dream incubation involves “staying” with the dream and being patient about what it is trying to tell you.  He believes that the unconscious is not out to lie to you.  Rather, it wants to help you.  Listening to your dream with an open mind is in your best interest.

I turned to Mumbai psychoanalyst, Ashish Pant, to help me with my dreams.  His view was to approach the dream from “all sides,” as it were.

Ultimately, once you start paying attention to your dreams, the answers will appear.

Dream Groups

If you want to get into “dream incubation” as Robert Bosnak calls it, you need to record and share your dreams. A good way to do this is to form a dream group, where interested folks can come together on a weekly basis for an hour where you will take turns sharing and interpreting each others’ dreams. Such groups exist in the US and no doubt, they exist in India but I haven’t been able to find them.  I am interested in starting such a group but this involves people with the same level of interest as me plus an expert facilitator who usually is a depth psychologist.  If any of you know someone who does this and holds dream groups, please write to “[email protected]” (TK)

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