Thursday, September 21, 2023

Reflections on 36 Years of Participation in Lakota Sioux Sweat Lodge Ceremonies

Dennis Merritt’s article, “Reflections on 36 Years of Participation in Lakota Sioux Sweat Lodge Ceremonies,” is available for free until December 2, 2023, in the special edition of ecotherapy in the Ecopsychology Journal.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Amplification of Dream Images with Chinese Translation

Amplification is an important part of Jungian dreamwork where one elaborates or clarifies images by spontaneously generating ideas about the image or by looking for parallels in mythology, religions, symbolism, etc. This is the culminating lecture delivered by zoom to China where many examples are given plus suggestions for symbol dictionaries useful for the process.

An English version without the Chinese translation is available here:

Amplification of Dream Images--English Version

Amplification is an important part of Jungian dreamwork where one elaborates or clarifies images by spontaneously generation ideas about the image or by looking for parallels in mythology, religions, symbolism, etc. This is the culminating lecture given by zoom to a China where I give many examples plus suggestions for useful symbol dictionaries.

A version of this presentation with a Chinese translation is also available.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Tips on Dream Interpretation

Tips on Dream Interpretation

Dennis L. Merritt, Ph.D., Jungian Analyst/Ecopsychologist

I’ve been working with dreams for 40 years as a Jungian analyst, having finished my training at the Jung institute in Zurich in 1983. Dreamwork and using the I Ching in Jungian analysis has always been my forte (see “Use of the I Ching in the Analytic Setting” Jungian psychology is broad and deep enough to approach the immensity and beauty of the human psyche, and the via regia to the unconscious is dreamwork. Here are the concepts and techniques I find most useful.

 1.     Your dreams are like movies being made every night with the intention of expanding your consciousness. It’s like having a Hollywood-level script writer, casting director, director and producer making a film with access to your entire life experience stored in mind and body. All that you are unconscious of during the day due to the narrow focus of consciousness and things you would rather not know about yourself or admit about others can be turned into a story line for the film.

2.     The dream is a gestalt, like an organism, where everything is interconnected and qualifies everything else. Nothing appears randomly in a dream.

3.     To focus on the uniqueness of a dream, think of it as the only one you have ever had or will ever have. 

4.     It is helpful to keep a journal so you can fit the dream into the context of your daily life while being aware that some dreams are exploring the future and imagining storylines for the next phase of your life.

5.     Keeping a written record of your dreams enables you to more quickly establish major themes in your life, identify the significant actors you are living with in your psyche, and see how things are changing as you work intensely with dreams over a period of time.

6.     There is a feeling associated with every image and story line.

7.     Dreams give you an image of a feeling and emotional state. Feeling depressed or anxious is a very nebulous state, but dreams give you an image and story line about what it is that is making you depressed or anxious.

8.     Knowing about brain activity in the dreaming brain explains a lot about the nature of dreams. The frontal lobe, site of our executive functioning, gets less blood than when awake while the emotional parts get more blood. Amplifying the emotions with less ability to manage them creates the strong feeling tones in dreams and seems to exaggerate things. The dreaming brain hyper associates making things less linear and harder to track. The part of the brain connected with time differentiation gets less blood, so past and present get more easily blended.

9.     When first entering the unconscious via dreams, the motifs are often disturbing because the dreaming world is so different from our conscious state plus there is a lot of material we have been trying not to face. 

10.  One can think of dreamwork like relating to a person: it takes a while to get to know them and how they operate, but once that is established things go more smoothly.

11.  The relationship of consciousness to the unconscious is like daytime versus nighttime. During the day our ego as the center of consciousness shines so brightly we can see things clearly, but we know it blinds out the vast universe of stars we see at night. This is a metaphor for how vast the unconscious is and what a small universe we live in if we don’t access the unconscious.

12.  Big Dreams/numinous dreams/sacred dreams have a special sense about them and seem to come from another dimension. It may be only one element in the dream that is numinous, what a Native American might call a “spirit” or “medicine” animal. You want to bring this into your waking state so its mystique can continue to work on and mold your consciousness the why Catholics keep statures and images of the saints around. One can think of the Big Dream as a powerful magnet and you want it to affect your thoughts and feelings as if they were iron filings within the force field of the magnet. Here is a personal example of embodying a sacred dream image. It illustrates how dreams can help connect one to the land and establish a sense of place, with this particular example using concepts from the I Ching.

13.  It is important as an analyst to be able to spot numinous elements in a dream and know how to work with them. This comes from the analyst’s personal experience with their own dreams.

14.  Few outside the Jungian world focus on the importance and power of the symbol in the therapeutic setting. A symbol has elements that can be rationally described together with something irrational and ineffable, like tracks left by subatomic particles in a cloud chamber pointing to something powerful but not seen or the Tao pointing to the “dark enigma” as Lao Tzu described it.

15.  I, like most analysts who trained in Zurich, develop a symbolic and archetypal eye by practicing interpretating fairytales, fairytales being the purest form of the archetypes as Marie-Louise von Franz described them. The fairytale exam was one of the big three final exams where you were given a fairytale you had never seen and in 6 hours had to have a typed interpretation after using whatever symbol dictionary you wanted. The exam was graded by three fairytale experts.

16.  An ideal place to begin amplifying archetypical and symbolic material is the General Index to the Collected Works of C. G. Jung (volume 20 of the Collected Works). There are five symbol dictionaries I find to be most useful. A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant includes symbols from Asia and Africa as well as Europe and America. The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images is beautifully done and put together by Jungians. Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals by Jamie Sams and David Carson is a “must” for American analysts with its excellent Native American entries about 44 American birds and animals. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker provides an important feminist dimension to symbolism not covered as well in many symbol dictionaries. The classic for working European material is the Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery by Ad de Vries. This is the main dictionary our Zurich fairytale study group used as we practiced fairytale interpretation mostly on the Grimm’s fairytales collected and arranged by the Grimm brothers in Germany in the 1800s.

17.  It is hardest to work your own dreams because you are often in the dream and you can’t see yourself objectively, plus dreams are mostly about our complexes or hang-ups which by definition we are unconscious about. The dream ego is closest to your conscious state. Dreams give us a more or less objective look at ourselves because of the wholistic level they come from. 

18.  The other people in the dream besides you are, and are more than, representative of parts of yourself that you are envious of or don’t like—the things you project onto others. Better to think of yourself as a multifaceted being living in an ecology of the psyche.

19.  You can change the relationship with people in your dreams but you may not be able to change your relationship to that person in waking life such as the person who sexually abused you. This can be a very freeing concept. Even if the abuser died, it would still be living in your head until you came to terms with it. 

20.  As an analyst, I “imagine along” as the person reads or tells me their dream. If I can’t quite imagine it, I asked for clarification. I like to have a written copy so I can check the details that can be easy to forget or overlook.

21.  How does the dream feel in the dreamer’s body? Have the dreamer notice their bodily reactions. Where do they feel something and what is it like? Under what circumstances have they had that feeling before? Exaggerate that feeling and/or make a sound. The objective is to have an embodied experience of the dream.

22.  How does the dream feel in the analyst’s body? The analyst must “feel along” with the dream story and be prudent in reporting how it feels so as not to overwhelm the dream presenter.

23.  Think of every dream element as being a polarity and look for possible positive and negative aspects of each image or developing story line. 

24.  Let the dream image work on you in your waking state; focus on it so it penetrates your psyche. 

25.  “A picture is worth a thousand words” but Interpretation can help make the dream more understandable by putting the images and metaphors into psychological language and possibly a psychodynamic framework.  The result is like a docent at an art museum helping us enter the artwork and deepening and enriching our experience of artwork without destroying the power of the image and the feelings associated with it.

26.  Jung said some dreams are like poems: we don’t interpret them, we let them act on us as we try to stay in it’s force field like wanting to stay around a person that inspires us.

27.  Even after working with dreams all these years, about 1/3 of the time I have no idea what a dream is about when I first hear it. One must play with the dream in a mutual process with the dreamer and develop hypotheses/potential story lines and meanings of the dream images. The dreamer puts the dream on the table and the two of us have a mutual engagement with it. This takes a certain degree of trust between the two and making it clear to the dreamer than anything I say about it is my projection into the dream that may not at all be what it means to the dreamer.

28.  Imagination is key. Freud noticed people who like clouds are often good dream workers because they have a good imagination.

29.  The setting of the dream is very important. It is like the stage setting for a play: it contains the action presented in the play and is congruent with its storyline. 

30.  One begins by getting personal associations to the elements in a dream, like the particular house a dreamer lived in at a particular period in their life. Then the national cultural associations are considered, a white house for an American might be the White House where the president lives. At the deeper cultural level, one might need to consider the effect of Christianity on a person’s relationship to sexual issues and nature. All cultures have indigenous ancestors, and those cultures had a sacred relationship with animals and nature that still can be seen in dreams with “spirit animals” and animals that can talk to us. These concepts are illustrated in this video:

31.  It's helpful to think of a disco ball where every mirror on the surface of the ball is an individual association to the symbol or image the ball represents. A symbol dictionary may have three pages of associations about a snake, but only a few apply to the dream one is working. One selects the association or associations for each symbol that fits the emerging storyline of the dream. The thin red story line is like the string that holds together all the relevant associations, like a necklace of disco balls, to form a gestalt where every element is related to every other element in the story. I call this an ecological approach to the dream.

32.  I often repeat a one sentence story line as an interpretation begins to emerge using the metaphors in the dream. This exercise allows reworking and refinement as one proceeds with the dream resulting in the reduction of the dream to the simplest, most direct statement.

33.  Give the dream a title. This helps capture the essence of the dream.

34.  One of many particulars that could be mentioned about dreams is their memory of significant dates, like when someone died some years ago that we might have forgotten about. Also, if there is a baby in a dream, check back to see what happened 9 months earlier. 

35.  Some dreams reveal events outside of time and space, what Jung called synchronicity. We’ve all heard stories, or perhaps experienced something ourselves, where a person wakes after a dream at 2:17 AM and there is grandma standing at the foot of the bed. The next morning you find out grandma 1000 miles away died at 2:17 AM. These experiences have a powerful effect on the psyche, illustrating deeper levels of connection than our western science can explain.

36.  If one has seriously worked with one’s dreams and are tied in knots about what to do about a difficult issue, one can address a question to a Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching, what Jung called a book of archetypal situations. Via synchronicity one gets a meaningful answer and guidance like that from a Chinese sage. I describe how to use the book intelligently in my article “Use of the I Ching in the Analytic Setting” referenced earlier. When one has consistently experienced getting meaningful and relevant answers, one feels seen at the deepest levels by a transcendent “something”; senses the eternal/archetypal dimensions in one’s life at this moment, what the Greeks called naming the god or goddess active in the moment. 

37.  It is often possible when working deeply in analysis with a difficult issue to place the dreamer within a particular archetypal dynamic and storyline. Is the woman at the stage where Cinderella has planted the hazel twig on her mother’s grave and begun the process of deeply mourning the loss of her mother or has she gone to her first ball and met prince charming but can’t sustain that energy yet and has to flee?

38.  There are many useful adjuncts to dream work like sandplay therapy; the empty chair technique where one imagines a person or thing to be in an empty chair and interacting with it, changing seats on occasion; movement therapy where one lets the body move one in the presence of an observer; intensive journaling; drawing, painting and molding clay associated with dream images or themes; psychodrama where one gathers a cast from participants in the group and acts out a dream or fairytale; using meditations techniques and breathwork to remain contained enough to be able to engage difficult material and not be overwhelmed;  etc. Bodywork in conjunction with dreamwork is highly recommended. 

Basic Psychological Constructs to Support Dreamwork

1.     One can imagine being born as coming into the world like a golden ball with a unique character and potentials. As we go through life the ball gets distorted in various ways depending on the family of origin, trauma, culture and religion, politics and socio-economic status of one’s family, historical period, etc. An illustration for young people of the cultural influences on an American and Westerner from a Jungian ecopsychological perspective can be seen at this website referenced earlier: 

One’s psychological type may not blend well with one or both parents or for reasons known and unknown one may have problems with a parent. Relationships with a parent can change adversely when hitting puberty if a parent has sexually issues because of personal and/or religious issues around sex. Dreams address these issues as the individual psyche sort of “knows” what is supporting its development and what is not.

2.     It is helpful to imagine what psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called a “good enough” parent and family and a good enough “maturational environment”. The good enough parent wants their child “to be all they can be”, like a gardener knowing what soil type and pH, amount shade or sun, soil moisture, etc. is necessary for the plant to thrive.

3.     Problems with mothering can have a huge effect on how safe and stable the world feels. An ill or absent mother after birth due to something like post-partum depression might create a mother who may not be able to give the love and caressing and containing energy every baby needs. Or a parent may be very narcissistic and expect the children to mirror them rather than the necessary mirroring of the child as vividly presented in the fairytale “Snow White”.

4.     Every human has intimacy and autonomy needs. Humans are highly social creatures with primary intimacy needs and we need a strong sense of our own autonomy, personal agency, and boundaries. The paradox is, the more autonomous we are the more intimate we can be because we are not forcing people close to us, like a spouse, into a mold based on co-dependency or our projections onto them.

5.     For the first 290,000 of our 300,000 years of existence as a species we were clan or tribal people. It took a whole village to raise a child, nature was sacred, and ritual was a central part of existence. With the rise of agriculture after the last Ice Age ended over 10,000 years ago, large populations required more abstract levels of organization and specialization. We now have nuclear families with nuclear explosions, increasing isolation of the youth with screen time, materialistic cultures where advertising tells us we can buy happiness, and an emphasis on science and rationality. It is very difficult to find an occupation with a path with heart and meaning that provides an income by which one can live with some safety and comfort (Maslow level 1). Youth will be increasingly challenged as they age to meet basic needs while nature is collapsing around them due to climate change and the rapid rate of environmental degradation. Deep level anxieties about the environment are already making their way into the dream life of young people.


“So at the source of the dream there is a creative mystery which we cannot rationally explain. It’s the creativity of nature. It’s the same creativity which has created what man could never invent: the millions of species of animals and flowers and plants on the earth. The dreams are also like flowers or plants. They are something unique which we can only marvel at”. (Marie-Louise von Franz from Frazer Boa’s “The Way of the Dream, p. 71)

Dreams are a natural connection with nature within and Jung described them as “an unvarnished product of nature”, a “natural truth…fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.” (The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 10, par. 317)

One of my favorite books on dreamwork is Jungian Dream Interpretation—A Handbook of Theory and Practice by James A. Hall, 1983, Inner City Books, Toronto. It lays out the basic Jungian concepts like the shadow and the anima and animus and discusses common dream motifs. 

Dennis L. Merritt, Copyright September 9, 2023