The Language of Dreams

‘As nobody knows what he could do, he might be bold enough to ask himself whether by any chance his unconscious might know something helpful’ (CG Jung, CW18)

I have heard many people say that in this coronavirus crisis, there will be opportunities to change the world for the better. Illness, bankruptcy and chaos could indeed be the prima materia out of which we transform ourselves and find a new image of the future. But no deep transformation happens easily or smoothly.

Over the last few months, some clients have had dreams of fire, earthquakes and apocalyptic disasters. Covid-19 is a threat to our body, our psyche as well as our economy and our political system. Ego consciousness is left powerless, mourning the loss of what normally structures our mind and our way of life. We cannot underestimate the pain that this causes. For many of us, unconsciously if not consciously, it feels as if the ground has collapsed under our feet.

We spend much energy simply adjusting to and surviving the surrounding chaos – the losses, the fears, the pain. But sadly, there isn’t any guarantee that we will learn anything from it. Many of us could, at least at the surface level, simply go back to where we were before. There may be an opportunity to change ourselves and the world, but for this deep transformation to happen, we need to consciously engage with the significance of what we live and evolve a symbolic narrative about what it means for ourselves, personally, if not for all of us, collectively.

The covid-19 crisis is so far-reaching and it is so global that our ego consciousness cannot possibly grasp it

The covid-19 crisis is so far-reaching (it touches all aspects of our lives) and it is so global (it touches all corners of the world), that our ego consciousness cannot possibly grasp it. Ego is torn between the need to have some control, create some structure and gain clarity, and the humiliating reality that it is overwhelmed. In this confusing state, the access to images from the unconscious is more precious than ever. We may not be able to formulate very coherent thoughts and feelings about what covid-19 means for us, but we can at least consciously stay in contact with the images and narratives produced by our unconscious.

In this confusing state, the access to images from the unconscious is more precious than ever

Aside from nightmares, many people have reported ‘strange dreams’ in the last few weeks, unusual dreams with strong, archetypal imagery. These dreams are personal dreams, formed within our individual psyche, but they also have collective value. They capture the depths and complexity of the world we live in, beyond the realm of our personal unconscious and much beyond the realm of our conscious understanding. These dreams call for our attention. Their vivid, numinous images are designed to shock our rational mind and to leave a strong impression. Most importantly, these dreams offer us a symbolic, imaginal vocabulary to speak about the unspeakable, to formulate a symbolic narrative about an experience that we don’t begin to understand.

According to Jung, dreams play a vital role in connecting us with Nature. He saw the Unconscious as a natural force which is alive in our psyche and compensates for the “dehumanized” world we live in. Sixty years ago, he wrote: “Through scientific understanding, [man] is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had a symbolic meaning for him” (CW18, par. 585). During this pandemic, we are pointedly reminded that man has not conquered the forces of nature and that instead, we have no choice but to be involved in it. Within a few months, a submicroscopic agent has spread to more than 200 countries, it has infected more than a million people and killed tens of thousands. As the virus spreads, our psyche is vividly exposed to forces of nature that are unleashed both without and within us. Whilst our ego consciousness is humbled, the Unconscious bursts out with power and urgency in dreams and fantasies. The coronavirus crisis often feels like a bad dream and it triggers powerful, ‘strange dreams’ in our unconscious psyche.

The coronavirus crisis often feels like a bad dream and it triggers powerful, ‘strange dreams’ in our unconscious psyche

These dreams, like most dreams, are far from easy to make sense of. Their images can be shocking, grotesque, disgusting, horrifying; they are often bewildering and associated with strong emotions. They, sometimes quite literally, speak another language which Jung called “the language of nature” (CW18, par. 586). But engaging with the symbols in our dreams, however bizarre they seem, is a way of staying connected with nature and showing respect to our own nature. It can greatly help our consciousness find orientation in the midst of chaos. Will this change the world? I leave it to Carl Jung to answer this question:

As any change must begin somewhere, it is the single individual who will undergo it and carry it through. The change must begin with one individual; it might be any one of us. Nobody can afford to look around and to wait for somebody else to do what he is loath to do himself. As nobody knows what he could do, he might be bold enough to ask himself whether by any chance his unconscious might know something helpful, when there is no satisfactory conscious answer anywhere in sight. (CW18, par. 599)

Jung C. G. The Collected Works, Vol. 18