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The Way of the Dream by Marie-Louise von Franz
Dreams of a Lifetime
The seed of a mountain pine contains the whole future tree in a latent form; but each seed falls at a certain time onto a particular place, in which there are a number of special factors, such as the quality of the soil and the stones, the slope of the land, and its exposure to sun and wind. The latent totality of the pine in the seed reacts to these circumstances by avoiding the stones and inclining toward the sun, with the result that the tree’s growth is shaped. Thus an individual pine slowly comes into existence, constituting the fulfillment of its totality, its emergence into the realm of reality. Without the living tree, the image of the pine is only a possibility or an abstract idea . . . .
The realization of this uniqueness in the individual is the goal of the process of individuation. ~C. G. Jung in Man and His Symbols
DREAMS TELL us where our energy is and where it wants to go. Every dream is a helpful message, giving insight into the particular meaning of a particular situation in our lives. Night after night, these messages keep coming, more than one hundred thousand during the course of an average lifetime. If we study our dreams over a period of time, we begin to see meaningful connections between them. There seems to be an overall guiding force at work steering each of us toward our own unique destiny.
Dr. von Franz, in analyzing people’s dreams, have you observed an overall pattern in the dream life of an individual?
There is still a lot of research to be done, but I have noted my own dreams for forty years, and some of my analysands have taken down their dreams regularly over years. I also have about three thousand eight hundred dreams given to me by a patient who died. He was a very conscientious noter of dreams and wrote his dreams down for years and years.
Another of my analysands picked out themes from his dreams: the theme of fighting, the theme of the father, the theme of sports. He noted that these themes appeared and disappeared, only to reappear again. There is something periodical about it. When he followed a single theme, he could see the way it slowly changed. There was a gradual change.
People in analysis very often get discouraged and say, “I’m still dreaming about Father shouting at me. That’s a dream I’ve had since the beginning of my analysis. I haven’t developed at all. ” But I say, “Wait a minute, if we look at it very closely, if we follow up all the dreams you have had about your father, you will see there is a slight change. ” The change is very gradual. It is as if something in the depth of the person was cooking the theme and sending up messages from time to time. A negative father figure, for instance, becomes more and more amiable. Or there is a dangerous situation which occurs in early dreams, and in later dreams the same situation recurs, but there is a solution to it. It’s as if nature slowly broods on the problems, developing them slowly. In dream interpretation we observe this slow development. Our conscious attention can speed up that maturing process by cooperating with nature in working out problems. Analysis is nothing else than the concentration of our conscious attention upon that natural maturing process in order to speed it up. It’s like adding fire, so that the process will go faster.
Our conscious life appears to develop through definite stages: childhood, adolescence, and so on. Do dreams show a parallel development?
There is an essential difference between the dreams of very young people and those of aging people, and in the middle of life there is a transition stage. You can say that in general the dreams of very young people try to help them to adapt to life. There is a movement toward outward adaptation, to the fulfillment of the love life, personal ambition, and so on. Between thirty-five and forty, dreams shift to an adaptation toward the inner life, to finding the meaning of one’s own life. Nowadays, however, the inner life sometimes becomes urgent even for young people. We are so crushed by the mass-mindedness of our civilization due to the problem of overpopulation that many of us feel superfluous. We feel, “If I were removed to the cemetery nothing would be changed. There would be one less mouth to feed, and that would be really a blessing. Mankind would just continue to teem on this planet. ” The mass-mindedness governing our civilization crushes us and makes us feel superfluous and unimportant. In our professional lives we can always be replaced by twenty others who want the same post. And that has a very destructive effect on modern man. Either he compensates by becoming a megalomaniac who wants to be the top dog and at least achieve something, or he feels completely crushed and superfluous, so that a kind of sneaky depression creeps up in him. You find that depression nowadays in many young people. In some hidden way they feel deeply depressed and discouraged. They don’t believe in their own lives or in the meaning of their own existence.
Now, all dreams point out to the individual the unique meaning of his or her unique life. That is perhaps the most important feature of dream life. It is as if there are two thousand trees in a forest and they are all just trees, but when looked at closely and accurately, each has a unique personality. No two trees are alike. They are all personalities. Nature fulfills its pattern in unique, individuated beings. That’s why statistical thinking is so detrimental, so harmful. We can say that in a heap of stones the average weight is one kilo. But, if we look at the stones individually, there is not one stone which weighs one kilo. One stone weighs two kilos, one weighs a half kilo, and so on. We have to learn to see and respect the uniqueness of the real thing. Reality consists of an enormous number of unique beings, and dreams help us to find the unique pattern of our life. In modern psychological practice people complain over and over again, “My life has no meaning. ” They shrug their shoulders and say, “What for? What am I here for? What’s the use of it? I could just as well not exist. ” And here the dream is uniquely helpful in pointing out what the unconscious wants of that person, what it wants that person to become.
It’s often very surprising. When people come to me, I sometimes try to guess what their destiny or task is. I wonder what will become of them. Is this a creative problem? Will that girl who is so unhappy in love get her Jack or John? I never guess right. What comes out is a complete surprise. And after the event one says, “That is uniquely the solution for that person. That’s not a collective solution. ”
That is why publishing case material can sometimes be very discouraging. People think, “Ah, that’s the solution to my depressive problem,” or “That’s the solution to my unhappy marriage. ” But it isn’t. It is only the solution for that person in that particular case. Another case is different. All solutions are unique. That’s why it’s even dangerous to publish case material, because people identify and think it’s their solution. But it’s not their solution. It’s that other person’s solution. That’s what makes the work on dreams so exciting. It never repeats. You can never guess accurately. Nature always provides a creative answer.
Do you believe in predestination, Dr. von Franz? Do dreams show life is predetermined?
Naturally a lot of a human life has a preexisting pattern. You are horn as a man or a woman, as a white man or a Chinese woman, in this place and not in another place, in this family and not in another .
There is a given pattern, but there is also a certain leeway or freedom. Otherwise we could give up therapy and say that people have to fulfill the pattern of their lives, and that there’s nothing that can be done about it. But by reading the pattern, by making it conscious, by interpreting the dreams, we cannot escape our fate, but we can give it a more positive meaning. It makes a difference whether we say yes to our fate and fulfill it positively, or say no and are dragged by it against our will. So we can say that although there is a certain predestination, it’s not absolute. It’s not like the fatalistic idea of Allah, who decides everything so it just goes that way. We can change things, and that’s why therapy has a meaning. We can change things by understanding the pattern of our life, thereby avoiding certain negative consequences of it. We can give it a relatively more positive aspect.
You have said that dreams in the first half of life aid ego development and in the second half focus on a search for meaning. What then do dreams say when death is on the horizon, when a person is terminally ill?
Well, I have just started a study of the last dreams of people before they enter the coma. The dreams of dying people are not about death, but generally about a journey. They have to get ready for a journey, or they have to go through a dark tunnel and be reborn into another world, or they have to go through a disagreeable darkness or through a dark cloud to come out into another space, or they are going to finally meet their beloved partner. This meeting is the famous motif of death as a marriage, marriage with one’s own other inner half. Or, when someone is so strongly identified with their body that they are inclined to think that when the body is finished, everything is finished, then they have dreams which try to detach them from the body. I remember also the dream of an officer in the cavalry who dreamt, just before he died, that a soldier came to him and said, “Officer, look at what I have to show you. ” And he showed him the decaying corpse of his horse. Jung interpreted the dream: “The warm-blooded animal which you are is going to die. That’s what’s going to happen to it, but it’s not you.
It’s only the warm-blooded animal body which is going to decay, but not you yourself. ” Jung made this interpretation because the dreamer’s consciousness still existed in the dream. He was able to look at the corpse.
The dreams of dying people show a tremendous variety. Generally they contain the same archetypal motifs which comparative ethnology has discovered in its study of death rituals and the beliefs about life after death among the different human populations: that it is a rebirth, that it is a long, long journey into another country, that it is a transformation, that it is a partial destruction out of which something survives. There are many motifs.
At lunch today you told me the dream of a dying woman.
Yes, she was a very simple woman, and she told the nurse in the morning after breakfast, “Last night I had a strange dream. I dreamt that there was a candle on the windowsill. It was slowly burning down and it began to flicker. I panicked and I thought, ‘My God, now the great darkness is coming, the great darkness is coming. ‘ And then, suddenly, there was a change, and the candle was outside the window sill on the outer part of the window and was big and burning quietly again. ” Isn’t that a strange dream? Four hours after that dream she died.
The dream seems to tell her, “Yes, the candle of ,your life is flickering. It’s going out. But life will continue in another medium, in another sphere. Beyond the isolating threshold of the window, that very same life will be going on. “ She was very comforted by the dream without understanding it. And that is a typical dream of a dying person.
I remember another dream, which was published by a medical doctor. A man dreamt that he saw an abyss, and at the bottom of the abyss was a growing tree which was slowly losing its roots. Suddenly there was an earthquake, and the tree started falling, and the dreamer thought, “That’s the end.” Just at that moment, the tree began to hover in midair, and it continued to exist in midair without having roots in the earth. It just hung there in midair, as if the unconscious were saying, “Your tree of life is losing its contact with earthly reality, but it is not dying. The life process is going on in another medium. ”
That’s the gist of most dreams of the dying, and that’s why it is very worthwhile to continue analysis with dying people. Many psychological schools don’t bother about old or dying people, because they think they have no further need of adaptation to life. After all, sex problems don’t exist when you’re on your deathbed. But you can see that the voice of nature or the voice of instinct, which is the dream, helps the people to die in peace. It comforts them.
Many people to whom I told such dreams objected that it is wishful thinking, that dreams are wish fulfillments, but I don’t believe it. As you see from the dream of the decaying horse, nature does say quite unsentimentally that the end is coming. In that woman’s dream, the flickering candle does go out. But at the same time as the dream says that something is coming to an end, it also says that something is continuing in another medium. It’s very difficult to imagine how it’s going on, or what is going on. We can only take it as such.
Are there dreams that announce death, that say a person is actually going to die?
Well, I would say that until they are actually dead, you are never quite sure. A woman consulted me once who had cancer, metastases all over the body. She had shocking death dreams. She dreamt that her watch had stopped. She brought it to the watchmaker, and he said it couldn’t be repaired. She dreamt her favorite tree was felled in the garden. I didn’t even have to interpret the dreams for her. She said sadly, “That clearly tells the outcome of my illness. ” The doctors told her in the usual way, “You will get better. You will be all right. ” But she was sure she was dying, and that terrible shock made her pull up her socks and face her problems. She had a problem she hadn’t faced, and I can only say she’s still alive after fifteen years. She had death dreams to give her a death shock. She could have died, and she could have not died. Out of shock, she chose to live.
After that experience I would say that even if people have death dreams, it might only mean that they should face death. It doesn’t mean that death will actually happen but that they must come to a naked confrontation with the fact that their life might come to an end. That may give them either a salutary shock so that they continue to live, or it may mean, “Now it is finished. ” I would never dare to say what it means before the end has come.
But there is also sometimes a kind of uncanny smell around certain dreams where one has the feeling, “Umm . . . that forebodes death.” But that’s more of a parapsychological, mediumistic feeling one has about it. Scientifically, I couldn’t give any reasons why one dream means actual death, while another means only the problem of death. Sometimes I get a gruesome shiver when people tell me a death dream, as if my sympathetic nervous system is saying, “Watch out, this really means death.”
Does your work with dreams lead you to believe in life after death?
I wouldn’t say I believe in it. That is a bit too strong. I would say that it seems to me from the dreams that there is a life after death. I think that dreams do not cheat, and because they are not wish fulfillments, there must be an aspect of life or the psyche going on. The question I would not dare to answer unequivocally is, “Does life go on impersonally, or does individual identity continue?” The dreams give contradictory evidence about that.
For instance, if you take the dream of that tree, you can say, “Yes, the life process of that man is going on, but not his ego. He himself is no longer around. ” On the other hand, there are other dreams which point to the fact that even the conscious identity continues. So it remains, for me, an open question.
Dr. von Franz, you’ve demonstrated how dreams reveal the fate of humanity, how they work at regulating the human psyche and are the key which unlocks the mystery of living one’s own destiny. You’ve shown how they address even the most profound questions of life and death. But still one question puzzles me. If dreams are messages sent to inform our consciousness, why are they so obscure?
That has puzzled me too. I have often asked reproachfully, “Why does this damned unconscious talk such a Chinese difficult language? Why doesn’t it tell us clearly what’s the matter?” Now Jung’s answer was that it obviously can’t. It doesn’t speak the language of the rational mind. Dreams are the voice of our instinctive animal nature or ultimately the voice of cosmic matter in us. This is a very daring hypothesis, but I’ll venture to say that the collective unconscious and organic atomic matter are probably two aspects of the same thing. So the dreams are ultimately the voice of cosmic matter. Therefore, just as we cannot understand the behavior of atoms (look at the Chinese language modern physicists have to use to describe the behavior of an electron), so we have to use the same kind of language to describe the deeper layers of the dream world.
The dream takes us into the mysteries of nature strange to our rational mind. We can compare it to atomic physics, where the most complicated formulas are not sufficient to describe what is happening. I don’t know why nature has constructed our rational mind in a way that prevents us from understanding the whole of nature. We are born with a brain which seemingly can understand only certain aspects. Perhaps there will be later mutations on another planet where Nature will invent a brain which can understand these things. ~The Way of the Dream, Page 209-217