We all exist in a constant cycle of death and rebirth. In many ways I feel like the me of ten, even five years ago has died and been replaced by someone smaller, more frail and frightened. But that’s not true – each of our deaths is an expansion, another constellation in our internal cosmology, and every star is a beacon that guides us, like mariners on a night sea.
Our growth – and therefore, death – rests on our willingness to listen to others: friends, family, teachers, lovers, artists and so on; but also to our other selves. One of the places that we can hear them is in our dreams. Dreams communicate in a language that we find perplexing. It is old, older than the advent of any conscious language, and it is expressed in symbols: feeling charged images that gleam like gemstones in the catacombs of the unconscious.
Among the apparent chaos of the dreamscape are certain of these images that are more powerful than the others, which stand out by the strength and longevity of the emotional responses they draw out from us. These images are powered by the archetypes: ancient psychic structures that dwell in the deepest part of the human psyche, the collective unconscious. They can only become visible by clothing themselves in our memories, feelings and thoughts. Charged with a potent, numinous energy, we can still feel the ripples from them across the surface of our waking minds. These ripples are all that are left for us to examine: whatever caused them is already sinking back down to the underworld.
Despite the evocative names given to them – Trickster, Shadow, Anima and Animus – there can be no true ‘guidebook’ to the archetypes. They are infinite in their variations and unique in their appearance to each individual. To try to dominate the unconscious with conscious knowledge is to scrabble around at the cave mouth where the light still reaches, picking over the same rocks and stones and never daring to step beyond the dark corona where the real treasure lies.
‘The signposts have fallen, unblazed trails lie before us. Do not be greedy to gobble up the fruits of foreign fields. Do you not know that you yourselves are the fertile acre which bears everything that avails you?’
C.G. Jung, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition, ed. Sonu Shamdasani
A little while ago, I had a dream.
I was sitting in a classroom. A bearded gentleman in his sixties was teaching us. There was a whiteboard with complicated figures and diagrams, rows of bored looking children, and the teacher spoke in a sort of soporific, low hum that had settled over the classroom like a humid summer’s evening. My eyes shifted in and out of focus, then settled on the window, through which I could see distant fields and trees of tantalising greenness. I watched a boy running through the grasses, away from the school, and just as I was wishing to be out there with him, the teacher was in front of me. Sharp, bearded and compact, he cut quite a different figure to the man who seconds ago had been lulling the class to sleep with his lectures. He looked rather like Sigmund Freud. He addressed me personally, and the rest of the room faded to silence. He spoke in a deep, resonant voice, and he said:
‘Good teaching is like sprinkling ice water on the brain’
You might be wondering why I spent the better part of this post talking about the ‘language of symbols’ that dreams speak in, only to present you with an example to the contrary. Dream figures can and do address us in common speech, but it is the symbolic context in which they do so which is of paramount importance.
Last year, I started seeing an analyst. One consequence of entering analysis was my starting to keep a dream diary. I noted my dreams down diligently whenever they came, be that the middle of the night, the early morning, or (now and again) the middle of the day. And I thought about them. I started reading Jungian psychology, poring over descriptions of those evocative archetypes and stories of transformation.
My dreams were more numerous and vivid than they had ever been before, and Jung’s assertion that ‘Constant observation pays the unconscious a tribute that more or less guarantees its co-operation’ (C.G. Jung, Aion) seemed to be ringing true. My intentions were good, but I was thinking too much – trying to dominate my unconscious with the new knowledge I was proudly accruing. I took the archetypes like a costume rack to my dreams, conjuring Great Mothers here, Tricksters there, Shadows in the corners. I could sense meaning in my unconscious, but I couldn’t reach it.
‘Between the window’s outside and inside
a fragment of the world is suspended.
As I reach to touch it
the beautiful thing gallops away’
Shuntaro Tanikawa, 62 Sonnets and Definitions, trans. William I. Elliott & Kawamura Kazuo
Looking back at the dream of the old man and the classroom now, I can see something of what it was trying to say. You have to give your unconscious equal rights – it needs a seat at the table, not to be rested on top of it like a slab of meat. I was dissecting my dreams, not listening to them. So when that wise old man said to me that ‘good teaching is like sprinkling ice water on the brain’ he was stooping to my level to give me an important lesson in co-operation and humility. I was arming myself with other people’s knowledge, when what I should’ve been doing was letting it trickle down into my psyche like a tributary to a great river. Understanding comes about through dialogue, not conquest.
Dreams are not puzzles to be solved; they wilt in the open air. Learning to navigate and respect our inner worlds is a lifelong process. Our development as individuals relies on our willingness to acknowledge the fact that while green things flourish in the sunlight, they grow on a great bed of darkness.