[NB] Dreams and Visions, C. G. Jung

Jung gets a bad rap sometimes for over-psychologizing religious experience. While the accusation is true enough, it obscures important dimensions of his work. While popular understandings of Jung were skewed by the way they became popular around Joseph Campbell’s use of his work to explain and interpret world mythology, the core of Jung’s method remained active, hands-on. To get at that, I want to look at Jung with different eyes, scrub off some of the accretions that came to define and distort his work.

That starts with getting back to the centrality of dream and vision for Jung. That is where his necessary break with Freud resides and what constitutes the substance of his lengthy spiritual hermitage. The elision of that spiritual hermitage is especially problematic. This is the time period when his dreams and visions were so intense that he felt no other good option but to meet them on their own terms and cooperate with them.

That was a synchronicity-rich period for Jung and arguably forms the basis for his later (over)formulations of the concept. What startled Jung about so much of his work was the manner in which it constantly manifested in or intersected with his waking life. When he began to work with a teaching spirit with the wings of a kingfisher? He found a dead kingfisher bird, though he had never seen one in his region before. When the dead became a key feature of his work? Well, the dead pretty much marched in and through his house for a spell.

Besides these appealing stories, what else do we get by focusing on this period? For me, the most important aspect of the period is how dream work takes precedence over dream interpretation. When Jung is in the midst of his visionary period, he is trying to explain the material, no doubt, in interpretive terms, but that interpretive effort is secondary to a complex engagement with the material through art, ritual, prayer, and even architecture.

Jung’s experience of undertaking that work forms the basis for his later, more theoretical, and therapeutic tool of active imagination. I want to bracket that later formulation and set it to the side. I don’t want to deny its therapeutic applications (it is one of the more vibrant aspects of Jungian and post-Jungian psychology), but they do seem to conceal a wider spiritual application. When Jung engages his dream and visionary material, he isn’t just amplifying them. He isn’t even just dialoging them, giving them an equal claim on truth as his own ego. No, he is actually submitting to a lengthy process of translating his own understanding into the world in which they seem to exist.

This ties the work to a family of American Indian practices centering around dreams and the working with a dream. While it has become trite to speak of ‘vision quests’ (in scare quotes, with an eyeroll), I want to keep in mind that Jung identified his conversations with Zuni Indians as central to the reorientation of his psychological work. Jung could see in Zuni understandings of dream something that matched his own experience and which forced him to shift his assumptions outside his own European background.

I want to be careful here. Conversations are just that. Jung’s work isn’t ‘American Indian’ even though that encounter may have been an absolutely essential component of his intellectual and spiritual development. It may open up potential lines of inquiry comparing and navigating between various sorts of American Indian and ‘Jungian’ conceptions, but it doesn’t presuppose much more than that.

I am talking about all of this to highlight an important dimension of my sort of spiritual work, the sort that criss-crosses dreams and visions frequently. While we can talk about dream incubation and dream interpretation as a broadly Old World technique, it does seem like the American influence rests on a different set of principles. I don’t have a good way to talk about it yet, but I’m working on it.

The dream manifests a form of understanding that directs our attention toward a subtle aspect of our reality defined by an alien form of causality. The work that follows out of the dream entails preserving and extending those connections according to the logic of that subtle order, an order of which the dream is just one expression. The broad and diverse entheogenic tools of the Americas seem to have supported this, providing a way to negotiate that parallel aspect of our own world, but they don’t seem to be exactly necessary.

(Please, do not mistake the assertion that they aren’t precisely necessary with a fidgety moralism that says you shouldn’t use them.)

8 thoughts on “[NB] Dreams and Visions, C. G. Jung

  1. I agree with your premiss here. The dream is just one expression. However, I do wonder why the need to emphasize this element, and only this element? The dream state is an altered state of consciousness as is the state of consciousness one enters via “The broad and diverse entheogenic tools of the Americas” as you correctly point out.

    Jung was a pioneer, but has been pigeon-holed, in my honest opinion. As you also suggest, Joseph Campbell’s work with mythology did seem to overshadow and even somewhat swallow up Jung’s work to a certain degree, so I don’t believe the depth of Jung’s work has received the credit it is due.

    Jung found his Philosopher’s Stone, but not many realize that. His Emerald needs to be completely dug out, dusted off, and looked at anew… given equal weight and measure.

    1. Io

      The key advantage of the dream is that it is a point of access that most of us (not all) have direct access to and in working to meet it on its own terms we can work to meet that other dimension of experience. There does seem to be something distinctive about this dimension, that it doesn’t hang together in quite the same way as other aspects revealed through other forms of occult/magical work…at least, that’s been my experience so far. Working hypothesis, if you will.

      I don’t want to be too rosy about Jung, because to a great extent he is responsible for the way in which he was received. He concealed a good deal of his own direct spiritual experience to put forth his psychological models. But Jung’s Red Book? Whew, wow, that really blew me away and helped me to see where Jung was coming from, appreciate what he was trying to smuggle into a therapeutic modality.

      1. I appreciate everything you say here; I find dreams to be an exceptional access point for a variety of reasons I won’t take time to analyze at the moment, but I agree with your hypothesis. Dreams work on a number of different levels, as well. That has also been my experience.

        I have my own hypothesis regarding Jung. He initially approached dreams from the psychological level because he was a psychiatrist. His biographical details aren’t at the front of my brain at the moment, so please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on that. But it seems to me he would be naturally inclined to approach his early work in that manner. He also coined the word, Synchronicity; developed a whole theory on the concept. He was very “eclectic”, if you will, and many seem to take issue with individuals like Jung in some way or another.

        I wouldn’t know how he was with others, or why he may have been received the way he was other than his eclectic esoteric leanings and what is written on Wikipedia as far as a bio because I don’t have any in-depth, reliable, biographical information on the man, and I sure never met him, so… all I can go on is what he wrote about his experiences and the fact his documented stuff seems to match my own thus far.

        He was genuine at the core, and many often overlook essence. Essence can often behave like those two-way mirrors. Essence can also behave like the Two Wolves of the Cherokee Legend (or so I’ve heard it being from the Cherokee) emulating duality:

        “Which wolf wins?”, asks the grandson.

        “The one I feed”, answers his grandfather.

        But feed with what? That is the key, isn’t it? Jung knew this as well. He had to have known. You’ve seen his “Red Book”.

      2. Io

        I try not to talk down Jung too much; Jung was at the center of my youthful education in spirit work and he is still a prominent guy on the margins for me. So, yeah, I mostly agree with you. Jung was trying mighty hard to do some difficult work and while I think it can be done better, it had to be done first, and Jung did that.

        (It is worth noting that one of the opportunities that Jung turned away during his spiritual tutelage was the opportunity to learn what he and the spirits thought of as ‘magic.’ Which suggests to me a missed education in the nature of the sympathies between spirit and matter, which seems pretty visible in a lot of Jungian-inflected work.)

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