You Can’t Outrun Your Dreams
On Jung, sleep habits, and the underworld
“You are aware that there is something big out down there,” my therapist told me as I was leaving her office. “But you seem to be scared of it.” We finished that session with a discussion about dreams. For several months, I have been running away from my dreams and we were trying to understand why.
My method for avoiding the dream state amounts to little more than unhealthy sleep practices. I listen to podcasts all night. As I fall asleep (usually to the blue glow of an iPad, also terrible), I pop corded headphones into my ears and throw on a podcast. I normally fall into a light sleep for several hours until I am woken by our three-year-old on his nightly pilgrimage from his bed to ours. After that rustling, I turn the podcast back on. I put on a sleep timer but it doesn’t serve much purpose. On bad nights, I end up extending it over and over again. Dreams do creep in despite these corrosive sleep habits but I don’t feel like I have entered the dream world in months.
This fear of the dream world is especially curious considering my recent fascination with Carl Jung. I have always considered Jung’s approach to psychology to be a bit scary. Perhaps this is because of the misconception of Jung’s work by many psychonauts and “shadow workers” or maybe it was Jung’s checkered past during World War II or his reliance on Christian imagery and motifs to articulate his psychology. His ideas have always loomed large but I never had the courage to wrestle with them until I had an eye-opening psilocybin journey last year.
The journey lifted a self-imposed barrier on Jung and I discovered my ravenous appetite for his thinking. Beneath the surface of daily life, Jung argued, lies a vast subconscious. In this murky part of the psyche, we all have a shadow where we store everything we don’t like about ourselves or the material that we are ashamed of. Jung wrote that “the shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part, inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors.”
Jung left a detailed record of his personal attempts to explore his shadow. In 1913, after his split with Freud, Jung began an introspective exploration of his psyche using a technique that he called active imagination. He would enter a state of wakeful dreaming in an attempt to dig deep down into his subconscious. He wrote about his experience in a set of volumes known as The Black Books, which detail his encounters with all manner of visionary elements, including an internal guru he called Philemon.
Building on the material from The Black Books, Jung worked on a more polished version of the material that evolved into one of his seminal works, The Red Book. Both volumes were left unpublished during Jung’s lifetime and became a source of great controversy. After decades of intrigue, The Red Book was finally published in 2009, and The Black Books were published in complete form in 2020. The complete story of these works is the subject of this fascinating New York Times profile from 2009.
What does this have to do with my dreaming problem? Jung wrote that “dreams are a little hidden door to the innermost and most secret recess of the soul.” He believed dreams were one way the psyche attempted to communicate important things to the individual, especially with regard to the process of individuation. The individuation process is fundamental to Jungian psychology and amounts to our process of becoming the best version of ourselves, which necessitates a confrontation with our shadows and all the unsavory aspects of our personalities.
Most people don’t have the stomach to deal with all the suppressed sludge just below the surface of our psyches. Dreams are portals into this material. Even though our ego struggles to function there, we can drift into the dream spaces and gather deep insights into our lives and psyche. Some ancient civilizations and a few Jungians believe that we descend into the underworld on these dream adventures. And here I am avoiding these profound spaces with the latest Tim Dillon podcast episode.
A week after my therapy session about dreams, I had a night of rich dreams that felt like an enormous release. Even the dumbest dream, the influential post-Jungian James Hillman observed, can astound us with its art, range of reference, and the selection of its details. I woke up around 5:30 am in a half lucid state full of giddy excitement. My soul crossed the void and returned with insight. Time will tell if my dream spell has lifted but for now, I am left with a sense of relief.
The danger of Jungian dream analysis is that the knowledge only takes us so far. A vivid dream contains insights that feel like they are of the highest order. All one needs to do with such knowledge is follow it, right? The crux is to consciously incorporate this knowledge into a larger process of individuation instead of just blindly following the directives. In other words, there is no free lunch in life, especially not in Jungian psychology.
This is the first part of a series on Jung and how his ideas are influencing my personal journey of individuation. The series will culminate with a long essay I have written for The New Fatherhood about parenting, psychedelics, and Jung. For now, the comment section is open and I would love to hear from you. See you next week.