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Against Dream Interpretation
Dreams are not sudoku puzzles
You don’t want to interpret your dream; you want to kill it in self-defense.
This is a sane, natural urge. The unconscious is a roaring, disruptive beastie, and it has a tendency to fuck up your plans for what you think you want from life. Carl Jung phrased it well: “a creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free, he is captive and driven by his daimon.”
You can’t avoid becoming a creative person when you start working with inner images. Dreams are a bullet train into the inner dynamo, the creative spark that drives your every thought, feeling, and action. The safest thing to do, when you feel the dreams rush up towards you, is to shoot them in the chest and mount their heads on your wall. There is no better way to do this than Dream Interpretation™.
Google “How to Interpret Dreams” and you’ll find a lot of step-by-step lists, a lot of dream-trope cookbooks telling you the meaning of each ingredient. These are deliciously comforting, the same way learning about a venomous animal is comforting: it de-potentiates your inner threat assessor; it takes the energy that would otherwise be driving you to anxiety, and vents it harmlessly into busywork, into a feeling of control-via-knowledge.
This is basic exorcism stuff. You gain mastery over the demon by learning its names and signs.
In a lecture on inner imagery (including dreams, but also extending beyond them to impressions, fantasies, meditative scenery), James Hillman gives the example of a dream about a policeman chasing you. The common urge, he says, is to intellectualize the image when you wake; e.g. to spin clever thoughts about your “guilt-complex” pursuing you.
You’ve absorbed the unknown into the known… and nothing, absolutely nothing has happened, nothing. You’re really safe from that policeman, and you can go to sleep again. Your interpretation protects your sleep.
The underlying goal here is rarely to understand the dream, or take any real edification from it–though you can convince yourself that that’s what you’re doing. Underneath the delusion, you want safety. You don’t want that big bad policeman to keep chasing you. If he continues to be a policeman, you might learn something that your ego finds terribly unwelcome. If, on the other hand, he is transmuted into a couple syllables–/ɡɪlt ˈkɒm plɛks/–those toothless phonemes can’t hurt you.
This attitude is never purely about dreams. It extends outward to any topic that requires intuitive understanding, whether dreams or meditation or visions or the stories you tell yourself about who you are.
Caroline Myss noticed that people often attend her workshops on intuition out of an urge to defend themselves against intuition, rather than to learn to engage with it: “They want intuition to tell them what will happen tomorrow so that they can take the risk factor out of their decisions.” The ego wants certainty and safety, without unpredictable risk. Unfortunately, the Deep Self doesn’t work that way. The ego can react to this either by defending itself against the Deep Self, or by getting comfortable with some risk and uncertainty, so it can build a relationship with the Deep Self.
We can illustrate this point with an image that comes to me when I dwell on this dynamic:
A man (for me it’s a man, but match to your own experience) stands on a mound, in the middle of a field of wild black earth. The soil shifts and trembles, and from all directions, eldritch beasts and warriors and demigods claw their way up into the daylight.
The man on the mound is wearing pleated slacks, an oxford shirt, thick glasses, and a sweater vest. Probably a pocket protector in there somewhere too. He is the very image of bureaucratic middle management, and amid this horde of chthonic beasts rising up from the underworld, he is armed with a powerpoint clicker.
As the horde converges on him, he spins around, pointing the clicker at one beast, then the next, clicking again again again. Whatever soil-caked shape he points and clicks at, it turns into a protractor, a bumper sticker, a book, a bluetooth keyboard–some small and harmless workaday thing, lying pristine atop the rich black soil.
Maybe you’re thinking “Good! I don’t want muddy beasts to attack me! Turn them all into lawn chairs for all I care.” What you might be missing is that the beasts are you, just as much as the middle management powerpoint warrior is you. And this part of yourself, this safe and orderly ego, is trying to defang and neuter every other part of you that shows any vitality or get-up-and-go running counter to what he thinks you want.
There’s two ways this story can end.
In one of them, sweater-vest wins. He stands in the rich black soil of your vital, libidinous mind, and he turns everything that shows its face into dead batteries and ballpoint pens. The soil dries up, and the ego is left victoriously ruling over a desert of junk as he slowly dies of dehydration. You’re left in the outer world, chuckling dryly at the naifs who think life has meaning.
In the other outcome, you convince sweater-vest to put down his weapon (“weapon”), step down from his mound, and get his hands dirty. You may be shocked by how many of these mud-drenched deep-dwellers are friendly, wise, and generous, if you simply step into the earth and meet them where they are. And yes, you may still need to slay a few beasties here and there; but you’ll do this by striving, by matching your strength against theirs–not by flaccidly transmogrifying them into jargon phonemes you learned in freshman psych, and not by treating them like a sudoku puzzle you can solve with pen, paper, and distance.
If you’re ready for your dreams (and meditative images, and inner fantasies, and visions) to show you things you didn’t know, you have to let go of those flaccid defenses. You have to get down in the mud of the psyche.
I have a lot more to say on engaging with dreams in fecund ways, but from the title, you can see this blog is purely Against, so I’ll keep this one purely to shouts of “You’re doing it wrong!!” and save the doing-it-right for next time.
Fine, I’ll give you a hint: the next one will be named “Towards Dream Exploration.”
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