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Carl Gustav Jung on Dreams ☼

C. G. Jung on Dreams "Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then perhaps we shall learn the truth," said the Nobel prize winner August Kekulé: He saw the chemical structure of benzene in a dream.

On this page is gist of the Swiss Dr Carl Gustav Jung's teachings on dreams and dream interpretations. The references in brackets are to Dreams by C. G. Jung, translated by R. F. C. Hull, or from the Collected Works (CW) of Jung. Book data are at the bottom of the page..

1. Significant dream themes develop and culminate, and in some cases solutions are strongly suggested

A: Interpreting dreams can and should be practiced without much dogmatic certainty

Disturbances are due to lack of harmony between conscious and unconscious (p. 74).

As regards the maturation of personality, therefore, the analytical approach is of a higher order than suggestion, which is a species of magic that works in the dark and makes no ethical demands upon the personality. Methods of treatment based on suggestion are deceptive makeshifts; they are incompatible with the principles of analytical therapy and should be avoided if at all possible (p. 95).

The dream begins with a STATEMENT OF PLACE . . . (p. 80).

Next comes a statement about the PROTAGONISTS . . . Statements of time are rarer. I call this phase of the dream the EXPOSITION. It indicates the scene of action, the people involved, and often the initial situation of the dreamer. . . . (p. 80).

In the second phase comes the DEVELOPMENT of the plot . . . The situation is somehow becoming complicated and a definite tension develops because one does not know what will happen (p. 80-81).

The third phase brings the CULMINATION or peripeteia. Here something decisive happens or something changes completely (p. 81).

The fourth and last phase is the lysis, the SOLUTION or RESULT produced by the dream-work. (There are certain dreams in which the fourth phase is lacking, and this can present a special problem, not to be discussed here) (p. 81).

For dream contents to be assimilated, it is of overriding importance that no real values of the conscious personality should be damaged, much less destroyed, otherwise there is no one left to do the assimilating (p. 103-4).

Here we come upon something of the utmost importance for the applicability of dream-analysis: the dream describes the inner situation of the dreamer, but the conscious mind denies its truth and reality, or admits it only grudgingly (p. 90).

Every dream is an organ of information and control, and . . . dreams are our most effective aid in building up the personality (p. 101).

Nobody doubts the importance of conscious experience; why then should we doubt the significance of unconscious happenings? (p. 99).

If the practitioner operates too much with fixed symbols, there is a danger of his falling into mere routine and pernicious dogmatism, and thus failing his patient (p. 105).

The charge has recently been laid at my door that my teaching about the assimilation of the unconscious would undermine civilization and deliver up our highest values to sheer primitivity. Such an opinion can only be based on the totally erroneous supposition that the unconscious is a monster . . . The unconscious is not a demoniacal monster, but a natural entity . . . It only becomes dangerous when our conscious attitude to it is hopelessly wrong. To the degree that we repress it, its danger increases (p. 100).

It is imperative that we should not pare down the meaning of the dream to fit some narrow doctrine (p. 96).

Initial dreams are often amazingly lucid and clear-cut. But as the work of analysis progresses, the dreams tend to lose their clarity . . . As a rule, dreams get more and more opaque and blurred soon after the beginning of the treatment, and this makes the interpretation increasingly difficult. A further difficulty is that a point may soon be reached where . . . the doctor no longer understands the situation as a whole (p. 93).

We are dealing with something like a text that is unintelligible not because it has a facade-a text has no facade-but simply because we cannot read it. We do not have to get behind such a text, but must first learn to read it.

The best way to do this . . . is to establish the context (p. 97-98).

[Sound dream interpretation] requires the patient to face his problems and that taxes his powers of conscious judgment and decision. It is nothing less than a direct challenge to his ethical sense, a call to arms that must be answered by the whole personality (p. 94-95).

These symbols are relatively fixed, but in no single case can we have the a priori certainty that in practice the symbol must be interpreted in that way (p. 105).

I make it an heuristic rule, in interpreting a dream, to ask myself: What conscious attitude does it compensate? By so doing, I relate the dream as closely as possible to the conscious situation; indeed, I would even assert that without knowledge of the conscious situation the dream can never be interpreted with any degree of certainty (p. 102).

The manifestations of the subjective psyche, or consciousness, can be predicted to only the smallest degree (p. 117).

With "unconscious" manifestations there is . . . only the loosest connections with conscious contents (p. 117).

"Recently I dreamt I was coming home at night. Everything is as quiet as death. The door into the living-room is half open, and I see my mother hanging from the chandelier, swinging to and fro in the cold wind that blows in through the open windows. Another time I dreamt that a terrible noise broke out in the house at night. I get up and discover that a frightened horse is tearing through the rooms. At last it finds the door into the hall, and jumps through the hall window from the fourth floor into the street below. I was terrified when I saw it lying there, all mangled."]

The gruesome character of the dreams is alone sufficient to make one pause . . . the two main symbols, "mother" and "horse" . . . both do the same thing - they commit suicide. . . . The underlying, primary psychic reality is so inconceivably complex that it can be grasped only at the farthest reach of intuition.

"Horse" is an equivalent of "mother" with a slight shift of meaning. . . . the horse [stands] for the merely animal life of the body. . . . , its interpretation will be: The animal life is destroying itself. . . . Both dreams point to a grave organic disease with a fatal outcome. This prognosis was soon confirmed (p. 107-9).

[Many] begin by associating in accordance with a theory, that is, they try to understand and interpret, and they nearly always get stuck. . . . they want to get behind the dream at once in the false belief that the dream is a mere facade concealing the true meaning. But the so-called facade of most houses is by no means a fake or a deceptive distortion; on the contrary, it follows the plan of the building . . . The "manifest" dream-picture is the dream itself and contains the whole meaning of the dream (p. 97).

The "big" or "meaningful" dreams come from this deeper level. They reveal their significance-quite apart from the subjective impression they make-by their plastic form, which often has a poetic force and beauty. Such dreams occur mostly during the critical phases of life, in early youth, puberty, at the onset of middle age (age 36 to 40), and within sight of death . . (p. 77).

Archetypal products are no longer concerned with personal experiences (p. 77).

"I am a celibate like the Pope, but I would like to have many wives like the Moslem." I kept silent about these conjectures (p. 10).

Persecution mania comes from a relationship poisoned by mistrust (p. 123).

B: One should realize that dreams often have many meanings and can contain significant hints.

[Certain] reflections are unavoidable if one wants to understand the meaning of "big" dreams. They employ numerous mythological motifs that characterize the life of the hero, of that greater man who is semi-divine by nature. Here we find the dangerous adventures and ordeals such as occur in initiations. We meet dragons, helpful animals, and demons; also the Wise old Man, the animal-man, the wishing tree, the hidden treasure, the well, the cave, the walled garden, the transformative processes and substances of alchemy, and so forth-all things which in no way touch the banalities of everyday. . . . they have to do with the realization of a part of the personality which . . . is still in the process of becoming (p. 79).

It frequently happens at the very beginning of the treatment that a dream will reveal to the doctor, in broad perspective, the whole program of the unconscious. But for practical reasons it may be quite impossible to make clear to the patient the deeper meaning of the dream. In this respect, too, we are limited by practical considerations (p. 106).

Understanding is clearly a very subjective process. It can be extremely one-sided, in that the doctor understands but not the patient. In such a case the doctor conceives it to be his duty to convince the patient, and if the latter will not allow himself to be convinced, the doctor accuses him of resistance. . . . it makes very little difference whether the doctor understands or not, but it makes all the difference whether the patient understands. Understanding should therefore be understanding in the sense of an agreement which is the fruit of joint reflection (p. 94).

All other hypotheses, however, about the function and the structure of dreams are merely rules of thumb and must be subjected to constant modification. In dream-analysis we must never forget, even for a moment, that we move on treacherous ground where nothing is certain but uncertainty (p. 96).

Horses in folklore sometimes see visions, hear voices, and speak . . (p. 107).

Among the many puzzles of medical psychology there is one problem-child, the dream. It would be an interesting, as well as difficult, task to examine the dream exclusively in its medical aspects, that is, with regard to the diagnosis and prognosis of pathological conditions. The dream does in fact concern itself with both health and sickness, and since, by virtue of its source in the unconscious, it draws upon a wealth of subliminal perceptions, it can sometimes produce things that are very well worth knowing. This has often proved helpful to me (p. 67-68).

Dream-interpretation requires, among other things, specialized knowledge. . . . I am quite ready to believe that an intelligent layman with some psychological knowledge and experience of life could, with practice, diagnose dream-compensation correctly (p. 76).

By the sea shore. . . . The sea is the symbol of the collective unconscious [too] (p. 122).

Even if we know the conscious situation we know nothing of the attitude of the unconscious (p. 74).

I . . . urge my patients to keep a careful record of their dreams and of the interpretations given. I also show them how to work out their dreams . . . they can bring the dream and its context with them in writing to the consultation. At a later stage I get them to work out the interpretation as well. In this way the patient learns how to deal correctly with his unconscious (p. 98).

[Carl Gustav] Carus (1789-1869) formulated the concept of the unconscious [in the 1800s] (p. 87).

If . . . someone dreams of a table, we are still far from knowing what the "table" of the dreamer signifies, although the word "table" sounds unambiguous enough. For the thing we do not know is that this "table" is the very one at which his father sat when he refused the dreamer all further financial help and threw him out of the house as a good-for-nothing. The polished surface of this table stares at him as a symbol of his lamentable worthlessness in his daytime consciousness as well as in his dreams at night. This is what our dreamer understands by "table." Therefore we need the dreamer's help in order to limit the multiple meanings of words to those that are essential and convincing. That the "table" stands as a mortifying landmark in the dreamer's life may be doubted by anyone who was not present. But the dreamer does not doubt it, nor do I. . . . If, therefore, we establish that the "table" in the dream means just that fatal table, with all that this implies, then, although we have not explained the dream, we have at least interpreted one important motif of it; that is, we have recognized the subjective context in which the word "table" is embedded.

We arrived at this conclusion by a methodical questioning of the dreamer's own associations. The further procedures to which Freud subjects the dream-contents I have had to reject, for they are too much influenced by the preconceived opinion that dreams are the fulfillment of "repressed wishes." (p. 70-71).

There are three possibilities. If the conscious attitude to the life situation is in large degree one-sided, then the dream takes the opposite side. If the conscious has a position fairly near the "middle," the dream is satisfied with variations. If the conscious attitude is "correct" [adequate], then the dream coincides with and emphasizes this tendency, though without forfeiting its peculiar autonomy (p. 74).

The prospective function [of the dream], on the other hand, is an anticipation in the unconscious of future conscious achievements, some thing like a preliminary exercise or sketch, or a plan roughed out in advance. Its symbolic content sometimes outlines the solution of a conflict (p. 41).

If dreams produce . . . essential compensations, why are they not understandable? (p. 80).

In the particular psychological situation of the dreamer the allusion to the raising up of the dead man acquires a pretty significance as the curing of her husband's impotence (p. 20).

I therefore proceed in the same way as I would in deciphering a difficult text. This method does not always produce an immediately understandable result; often the only thing that emerges, at first, is a hint that looks significant (p. 72).

It is Freud's great achievement to have put dream-interpretation on the right track. Above all, he recognized that no interpretation can be undertaken without the dreamer. The words composing a dream-narrative have not just one meaning, but many meanings (p. 70).

It is not for psychology, as a science, to demand a hypostatization of the God-image. But, the facts being what they are, it does have to reckon with the existence of a God-image. In the same way it reckons with instinct but does not deem itself competent to say what "instinct" really is (p. 64).

It may seem strange that I should attribute an as it were indefinite content to these relatively fixed symbols. Yet if their content were not indefinite, they would not be symbols at all, but signs or symptoms. We all know how the Freudian school operates with hard-and-fast sexual "symbols"-which in this case I would call "signs"-and endows them with an apparently definitive content, namely sexuality. Unfortunately Freud's idea of sexuality is incredibly elastic and so vague that it can be made to include almost anything (p. 104).

Later in the analysis he had the following dream: He received a bill from the analyst charging him interest of 1 franc on a sum of 325 francs for delay in payment from the 3rd to the 28th September.

This reproach of meanness and avariciousness leveled at the analyst covered, as analysis proved, a strong unconscious envy (p. 15).

The "tail-eater" [Uroboros] as the prima materia of the alchemical process, with the red-and-white rose, the flos sapientum (p. 127).

It seldom happens that anyone who has taken the trouble to work over his dreams with qualified assistance for a longer period of time remains without enrichment and a broadening of his mental horizon (p. 75).

The doctor should not be too ready to accuse the dreams of confusion or the patient of deliberate resistance, he would do better to take these findings as a sign of his own growing inability to understand (p. 93).

The dream is a natural occurrence, and . . . nature shows no inclination to offer her fruits gratis or according to human expectations (p. 80).

The purposive nature of the dream-content is not immediately discernible from outside without further investigation (p. 39).

We manage to establish almost the whole context of the dream-image. When we have done this for all the images in the dream we are ready for the venture of interpretation.

Every interpretation is a hypothesis, an attempt to read an unknown text (p. 98).

The avowed aim of dream-analysis is not only to exercise our wits, but to uncover and realize those hitherto unconscious contents which are considered to be of importance in the elucidation or treatment of a neurosis (p. 87-88).

We say that the dream has a false front only because we fail to see into it (p. 97).

With the ordinary projection of traits of character or momentary attitudes . . . it frequently happens that the object offers a hook to the projection (p. 59).

2. Good interpretations seem to be more readily accepted

C: In Jungian mind analysis, some dreams are studied. The ritualistic and odd therapy - shun it!

Dreams contain something more than practical helps for the doctor, dream-analysis deserves very special attention. Sometimes, indeed, it is a matter of life and death (p. 98).

Through the assimilation of unconscious contents, the momentary life of consciousness can once more be brought into harmony with the law of nature from which it all too easily departs, and the patient can be led back to the natural law of his own being (p. 109).

The correct dream interpretation can strike home (cf. p. 103).

As is the way of all dreams, my little dream example gives us rather more than we expected (p. 91).

The patient has falsified the situation. It suits his fancy to come to me in the guise of a philosopher and psychologist . . . But the dream reminds him of it . . . and forces him to tell the truth. . . . His recollection of the fortune-teller shows us very clearly just how he had imagined my activities . . .

The dream rectifies the situation. It contributes the material that was lacking and thereby improves the patient's attitude. That is [a] reason we need dream-analysis in our therapy (p. 36).

Every process that goes too far immediately and inevitably calls forth compensations, and without these there would be neither a normal metabolism nor a normal psyche (p. 101).

I leave theory aside as much as possible when analyzing dreams-not entirely, of course, for we always need some theory to make things intelligible. It is on the basis of theory, for instance, that I expect dreams to have a meaning. I cannot prove in every case that this is so, for there are dreams which the doctor and the patient simply do not understand (p. 96).

The patient, that is to say, does not need to have a truth inculcated into him-if we do that, we only reach his head; he needs far more to grow up to this truth, and in that way we reach his heart, and the appeal goes deeper and works more powerfully (p. 94).

Why must the dream manufacture such an improbable story (p. 103).

Very much more could be said about the aims of dream-analysis, but since dream-analysis is instrumental to analytical treatment in general, this could only be done if I were to embark on the whole question of therapy (p. 65).

We all know how the Freudian school operates with hard-and-fast sexual "symbols" . . . Primitive people, who, like the ancients, make the freest use of phallic symbols, would never dream of confusing the phallus, as a ritualistic symbol, with the penis (p. 104, 105).

D: The uroboros snake could need to be mastered too, and some dreams are essentially visions

The uroboros is an ancient symbol - that is understood as "snake" or "serpent" - that is an ancient Near Eastern and Aegean and Greek emblem of wisdom, a symbol of unity of things. The symbolic snake of wisdom which circularly eats its own tail, is traced back to Egyptian mythology. (CW Vol. 14 para. 423).

"The symbol of the uroboros, the snake that eats its own tail' (Ib. para 244). In the age-old image of the uroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into . . . the One, who proceeds from the [outré] joining opposites, (from CW Vol. 14 para. 513).

"What nature leaves imperfect is perfected by the art," says an alchemical dictum (p. 80).

In the case of a neurosis . . . the unconscious is quite capable of bringing about all kinds of unwelcome disturbances "by mistake," often with serious consequences, or of provoking neurotic symptoms (p. 74).

In spite of his sincere efforts to remember, it was at first impossible for him to recall what this was. Here we have a very common instance of forgetfulness caused by inhibition (p. 10).

As far back as 1907 I pointed out the compensatory relation between consciousness and the split-off complexes and also emphasized their purposive character (p. 38).

Many . . . resemble the doctor in their insuperable desire to understand and interpret . . . especially when they have been primed by ill-digested reading . . . (p. 96-97).

The doctor should regard every such dream as something new, as a source of information about conditions whose nature is unknown to him, concerning which he has as much to learn as the patient. It goes without saying that he should give up all his theoretical assumptions and should in every single case be ready to construct a totally new theory of dreams. There are still boundless opportunities (p. 95).

There are, it is true, dreams which manifestly represent wishes or fears, but what about all the other things? Dreams may contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, anticipations, irrational experiences, even telepathic visions, and heaven knows what besides. One thing we ought never to forget: almost half our life is passed in a more or less unconscious state. The dream is specifically the utterance of the unconscious (p. 95).

The combination of ideas in dreams is essentially fantastic; they are linked together in a sequence which is as a rule quite foreign to our "reality thinking," and in striking contrast to the logical sequence of ideas which we consider to be a special characteristic of conscious mental processes . . . the dream and its context is something that we do not understand. . . . But that would not prevent dreams from having an inherent meaning of their own (p. 24).

The dream uses collective figures because it has to express an eternal human problem that repeats itself (p. 78).

Since the meaning of most dreams is not in accord with the tendencies of the conscious mind but shows peculiar deviations, we must assume that the unconscious, the matrix of dreams, has an independent function. This is what I call the autonomy of the unconscious. The dream not only fails to obey our will but very often stands in flagrant opposition to our conscious intentions (p. 73).

The Freudian school presents the unconscious in a thoroughly negative light, much as it regards primitive man as little better than a monster. Its nursery-tales about the terrible old man of the tribe and its teachings about the "infantile-perverse-criminal" unconscious have led people to make a dangerous ogre out of something perfectly natural. As if all that is good, reasonable, worth while, and beautiful had taken up its abode in the conscious mind! (p. 100).

This division into four [dream] phases can be applied without much difficulty to the majority of dreams met with in practice-an indication that dreams generally have a "dramatic" structure (p. 81).

Dreams are the very fabric of the analytical process, whether it is called psychoanalysis in Freud's system or analytical psychology in Jung's, and the writings of both of the great pioneers are thronged with accounts and analyses of dreams and expositions of dream theory (p. v).

We should have a less confused idea of the processes mediated to the conscious mind by dreams and a clearer recognition of what the symbols point to (p. 109).

1. One task before us is harmony and another is self-help through dreams. Strife is a part of life too, and dreams tend to offer suggestions on solving that sort of stuff - maybe not full well

E: In a changing world, the unconscious too stands in need of sound educative measures.

Free association will bring out all my complexes, but hardly ever the meaning of a dream (p. 98).

In the treatment of neurosis, the task before us is to reestablish an approximate harmony between conscious and unconscious (p. 75).

Our mentality is distinguished by the shameless naiveté with which we judge our enemy, and in the judgment we pronounce upon him we unwittingly reveal our own defects: we simply accuse our enemy of our own unadmitted faults. We see everything in the other, we criticize and condemn the other, we even want to improve and educate the other (p. 56).

For prognosis, . . . certain dreams are important (p. 68).

F: A slight knowledge is a beginning, moderation in life comes in handy; dreams seem to suggest that frequently. ✪ 

If one believes that the unconscious always knows best, one can easily be betrayed into leaving the dreams to take the necessary decisions, and is then disappointed when the dreams be come more and more trivial and meaningless. Experience has shown me that a slight knowledge of dream psychology is apt to lead to an overrating of the unconscious which impairs the power of conscious decision. The unconscious functions satisfactorily only when the conscious mind fulfils its tasks to the very limit (p. 82).


Dream themes develop and culminate, and in some cases solutions are strongly suggested.


Carl Gustav Jung Dream interpretations, essential Jung, C.G. Jung dreams, Dream interpretations, jung quotations, dreams, dreaming, Literature  

Hall, James, A. 1983. Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jung, Carl Gustav. 1973. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Volume 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Bollingen / Princeton University Press. (CW)

Jung, Carl Gustav. 1974. Dreams. Translated by by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, NJ: Bollingen / Princeton University Press.

Sharp, Daryl. 1991. Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms and Concepts. Toronto: Inner City Books. [◦Online]

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Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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