Guidance on the Journey

For the past couple of months I have written about “companions” on the journey – books – that I and others have found valuable. Although we can find guidance in books, additional guidance specific to each one of us comes from our dreams.

Dreams are part of the organism’s self-regulation. (I don’t like to split mind and body, because together they constitute the organism that each of us is, and they work together to keep us on our individual path.) Most simply stated, self-regulation means that you or I have a built-in capacity that informs us of the adjustments we need to make in order to function optimally. One of those sources of information comes in the form of our dreams. So this month I’m going to illustrate this with several examples of dreams that offered the dreamers information they could use to keep themselves self-regulated and “on the journey.”

There’s an old Jewish saying that a dream not understood is a letter not read. By showing us what our waking selves cannot see, the dream completes and corrects our conscious view and understanding. Dreams can reveal many things: how we have become unbalanced in our way of life; where we are stuck; the challenge we have to face and master to get our life going again; our calling or purpose in life; our relationship to our Higher Power; and much more. Even years after experiencing some dreams, we sense their importance, whether or not we have rationally understood their messages.

In the initial dream of a 46 year-old woman I worked with several years ago we see the psyche’s comment on the stagnant state of her life and her lack of satisfaction: “I am driving to California. Along the way I will have to ski, which I don’t like. But you [I, her therapist] are with me  and have a map, so I feel reassured that I will get there.

Although apparently simple and realistic, this dream told the dreamer (and me) that she needed to get her life moving again. She had always fantasized going to California to live near a favorite cousin. Life in California, she believed, would be much better than in Wisconsin. My presence in her dream allayed her fears because I had a map, implying that I knew how to get there. However, she didn’t know what the skiing might mean.

The journey motif that informs this woman’s dream always implies change from a condition of lesser value to one of greater value. We know that, for her, moving to California meant the prospect of a better life. When we look to folklore, literature, mythology, and world religions, we discover many accounts of important journeys. For example, the Okies migrating from the Oklahoma dust bowl in the 1930’s to California, the land of promise; the hero’s descent into Hades in Greek mythology; the pilgrimage to a holy place such as Mecca or Jerusalem. When we look to our Judeo-Christian tradition, two examples of journeys come immediately to mind: Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and the Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem. In each of these examples, people were seeking something new, something valuable. As the great allegory of life, people undertake the journey, leaving behind the known and progressing into the unknown future. The journey motif is inextricably linked with meaning, purpose, the quest, and the goal.

These examples amplify the seemingly mundane journey to California presented in the dream, and this sort of analogy between dream themes and motifs, and cultural, historical, and religious images is one of the ways we grasp the meaning that a dream is attempting to convey.

A man in his 30’s tried to be fair with everyone; he prided himself on understanding rather than judging others; he gladly gave people second and third chances. But he felt that he couldn’t get ahead in life, that others were succeeding and he was losing out. “

‘I dreamt I was on a train traveling through the prairie in Kansas or Colorado. The train looked like something from the late 19th Century. I was frightened when I heard footsteps running along the roof of the train car. After I shut the doors at each end of the carriage, I feel great relief and say to myself,, “The bandits can’t get me now!” At that very moment, one of the bandits jumps down on my back from the top of the toilet door.’ The dreamer awoke in terror.

Here again the journey motif suggests the journey through life. The setting – the Old West with its good guys and bad guys – depicts a kind of split in the dreamer’s view of himself: be the good guy, don’t let the bad guys get you. But as the dream reveals, the dreamer can’t wall himself off from the outlaws, the bandits who aggressively take whatever they want. The important message for this man was that he had to deal with his aggression, that is, his own drive to go after what he desired and needed. The bandit image exaggerated his aggressive potential, thereby counterbalancing the dreamer’s exaggerated sense of being peaceful and gentle. In other words, his conscious attitude was as extreme in one direction (“gentle”) as the bandit image was in the opposite direction (“aggressive”).

The image of bandits is based on the age-old experience of self and (unknown, strange, dangerous, hostile, or evil) other. History, mythology, folklore, and religious traditions – as well as people’s dreams – are replete with examples of this archetypal pattern. In the encounter with the other we come face to face with a potential in ourselves that feels like it negates what we are. This other is that part of ourselves that we don’t see (but that other people sometimes see very clearly). It is well worth our while to get to know this “other” in us because in the vision of him – or her – the dream shows us what we need to work on to grow and thereby become fuller human beings.

My first Jungian mentor, Max Zeller, tells the dream of a woman in her late 30’s who was facing a spiritual crisis. “I am at the corner of Main and Church Streets. An underground river has washed away all the earth under the street and it caves in. I try to grab onto a street signpost, but it falls over. There’s nothing left but a little mound of raw earth, and I cling to it so that the underground river will not sweep me away.”*

Here we see a subterranean force of nature undermining the street, that is, the conventional path we follow to get to our chosen destination. More: the two streets – Main and Church – are the streets in the dreamer’s home town where her parents lived, and where her family’s church was. The street sign is useless to the dreamer. She can’t hold onto that conventional means of orienting herself. In other words, the world she grew up in is caving in. For her this is a spiritual crisis. The dream shows that the only way she can save herself is to go back to basics: raw earth itself. She will have to discover for herself an individual, authentic way of living in the world.

This dream offers several archetypal images: the cross roads; the river; the mound of raw earth. To be at a crossroads is to have to choose which way to go. Often there is no turning back after we make our choice. The river has traditionally imaged the stream of life, the flow of vital energy that carries us. Finally, the mound of raw earth reminds us of creation stories in which the primal waters are separated and a bit of dry land appears. In other words, the dreamer’s old world is about to disappear, and a new world is in the birthing.

The last dream I have to share is one of mine. A few years ago I planned a week-end in Door County. I was looking forward to it because I had been single-mindedly working on a project for several weeks. On a Friday night my friend and I drove to our favorite hide-away near Bailey’s Harbor. Saturday morning I awoke feeling guilty and scared. In my dream, “My woman friend is angry with me.” Knowing her to be emotionally honest, I told her my dream, and asked if she was indeed upset with me. She said she wasn’t. Having done my outer reality check, my next step was to check my inner reality. Who in me looked like my woman friend?

Every man has an “inner woman” who often appears in dreams and waking fantasies. Sometimes the inner woman looks like a man’s “outer woman;” but often a man will meet many women in dreams who have never appeared in their waking world. This was my inner woman who was angry at me. But why? How could I find out? And what could I do about it?

One of the ways of working with inner dream figures is to engage them in a conversation, just as if they were flesh-and-blood people. These inner people reveal aspects of our psyche that are different from our conscious personalities. Often they will tell us surprising things. When conversing with an inner figure, we are actually talking with parts of psyche that do have real power, and we should be aware that this sort of dialogue is serious business. In our dialogue, my “inner woman” told me I had been working too hard. I had pushed myself mercilessly, she said, and I was really hurting my body as well as neglecting other interests that were consequently suffering. It was high time, she continued, for me to correct the imbalance. I had to admit she was right. I had indeed been putting off nurturing several interests and not fulfilling various needs I was aware of because I wanted to complete the project I was engaged in. The dream scared me, made me feel guilty, and vividly alerted me to my one-sided, unbalanced way of life of the last several weeks. I paid attention. I had a great weekend in Door County, and adjusted my work schedule when I got back home.

As our examples show, dreams speak a language of images. One level of meaning is personal: what the image means to the dreamer. Many images and situations also carry a “typical human” – archetypal – significance (e.g., the journey, the river, the hostile other) such as we find in myth and fairy tale, as well as literature, art, and religious traditions. Together the personal and the “typically human” help us understand the dream meaning. And by conversing with the figures in our dream, we can “dream the dream onward,” discovering deeper messages for our well-being. Then our challenge is to apply our understanding of the dream message in our life.

As I wrote above, dreams often show us vividly what we do not see with our waking eyes. This makes it more difficult for us to decipher the meaning of our dreams. Moreover, a typical temptation when thinking about one’s own dream is to get caught in literalism, which frequently makes no sense at all. Working with a skilled dream interpreter will, over time, help us begin to see beyond the literalism of the dream to develop a symbolic attitude.

All of us have at least the rudiments of a symbolic attitude. When we use a metaphor or an image to convey a meaning, we often do not mean our listener to take it literally. If you say, for example, “I’m at a cross-roads,” you probably mean something other than uncertainty about turning right, left, or going straight ahead—in your car!

Dream situations and images, as we see in the examples above, make use of visual images as symbols: the image means more than it concretely and literally is. Developing a symbolic attitude begins to unlock the guidance our dreams offer us.

Don’t “diss”—or dismiss—your dreams. They are the best source of guidance for your journey.

June, 2016  Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL. He has been in practice for more than thirty years. To schedule an appointment, contact him at 608.217.5184. Learn more at